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The text of The Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars has stood for generations as the prime folk document on what filial piety is all about. The collection is not by any means part of the Confucian canon, and indeed tends to attract little but scorn from Chinese intellectuals. But until the Communist regime campaigned to suppress the text as part of its campaign against tradition, there was probably not a bookstore in China that did not have copies available, and in the course of the 1980s and 1990s new editions came flowing back into Chinese bookstores, and it is nearly universally available once again. The tales are known individually to most Chinese, and the collection has spawned many imitators containing other stories, usually overlapping with these.
The author of the Twenty-Four Exemplars was Guō Jūjìng 郭居敬, a Yuán 元 dynasty (1260-1368) man who lived in Dàtián Xiàn 大田縣, north of Déhuà 德化, in Fújiàn province 福建省. He was apparently much known for his filial piety, and took the occasion of the death of his father to publish the tales we read here, recounting the feats of filial children nearly all male towards their parents mostly aged mothers from the age of the primordial Emperor Shùn 舜帝 down to his own era.
The present translation was made by me in 1973, and first appeared in the 1986 volume cited below. I have made minor editorial changes from time to time in the subsequent years. I am grateful to Mrs. Shiu-kuen Fan Tsung for her criticism of the original translation and for her assistance in interpreting some passages which I found obscure. The responsibility for remaining errors is, of course, my own.
The numbering of the tales used here is traditional, but is not observed in all editions. Similarly, the brief summary titles (each four characters in Chinese) are quite traditional.
This on-line edition is aimed at students in my classes on Chinese culture, but for the benefit of those among them who are also taking Chinese (or who already known Chinese and prefer to read or compare the original), this edition contains the translation followed by the original text in three forms: traditional characters, transliteration, and simplified characters. The transliteration follows the annotations on a relatively careful Taiwan children's version published with phonetic side script on the characters, although I am responsible for the word division.
I have published three articles on filial piety, the first (1986) concentrates on this collection of tales, including an examination of many later imitations that included different ones (a total of 131 all told). The second (1998) expands upon the analysis of filial piety itself that I began in the analysis of the Exemplars article. Both articles derive from a 1986 conference on the Psychodynamics of the Confucian family, held in Korea under the auspices and gracious hostmanship of the International Cultural Society of Korea. The third article (2004) links filial piety with conceptions of hell. The references are:
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