胡适/Hu Shi, a Pragmatist philosopher and advocate of Liberalism during the tumultuous and traumatic period of the New Culture Movement (1910s-1920s), a time of painful national transition and when so many different social ideologies were fomenting and crashing against each another in China.
ideally made it easier for the ordinary person to read. The significance of this for Chinese culture was great—as John Fairbank put it, “the tyranny of the classics had been broken”.
Hu Shi was also probably at the time, the foremost Chinese scholar, thinker and writer, who was supremely educated and steeped in both Chinese and Western knowledge and philosophies, in both their classical and modern traditions.
By some accounts, Hu Shi became the leading and most influential intellectual during the watershed May Fourth Movement, with his well-respected stature and non-partisan standing allowing leaders of the many wide and diverse range of ideological movements, to accept and nominate him as overall representative to convey their petitions/demands to the governing authorities.
16 March 1919, when Hu Shi’s eldest son was born, he wrote a poem entitled “My Son”. In this poem, Hu Shi was advocating the idea of “Against Piety”.
I really do not want a son,
Yet a son has arrived on his own.
The banner of “No Descendants Doctrine”*,
Henceforth can never be proclaimed again!
Just as flowers blossoming on a tree,
So the flowers fall and fortuitously bear fruit.
That fruit is then you,
That tree is thus me.
The tree originally had no wish to beget offspring,
And I certainly have no favours to give you.
But since you have arrived,
I cannot not nourish you teach you,
That is my duty and responsibility to humanitarianism,
And not about granting to you grace and favours.
In the future when you have grown up,
Do not forget how I teach/admonish my son:
I want you to be an upright principled man,
Not to be my filial son.
–Hu Shi, 16 March 1919
[*Hu Shi mocking his own earlier expressed radical idea of ‘not having descendants’, for which he was severely criticized and almost pariah-ed.]
Naturally, there are those who read Hu Shi’s poem on a more superficial level and took issue with his seeming ‘attack’ or at least disregard, for one of the most ancient and all-encompassing institution in Chinese life and society:
孝 or Filial Piety.
A colleague of Hu Shi wrote a rather thoughtful and balanced letter to him after reading the poem. The main gist of this gentleman’s concerns was that he thought Hu Shi might have misrepresented the concept and ideal of 孝/Piety in the modern (ie. in 1919) Chinese context, and was throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
He especially took issue with the last two lines, interpreting them as being mutually exclusive:
I want you to be an upright principled man，
Not to be my filial son.
But of course a thinker and writer of the depth of Hu Shi, pens words and lines which reaches beyond the apparent for the deeper meanings. Hu Shi published his colleague’s letter as well as his response, which included an elucidation of his intentions for the poem. His gentle reply to his colleague, primarily explains that he was really aiming for an even higher ideal and quality than the crass, diluted, superficial and showy 孝/filial piety, ostensibly practiced by the unenlightened.
Hu Shi’s response, generous and gentle in spirit and tone, expansive and witty in references and allusions, is very delightful reading. He recalled other forms of Piety from Judeo-Christian traditions, and even quoted lines from the immense playwright, Ibsen and used Ibsen’s characters and structure from the play Ghosts/Gengangere , to illustrate his point of Piety misconstrued and misused:
Pastor Manders: Can you call it cowardice that you simply did your duty? Have you forgotten that a child should love and honour his father and mother?
Mrs. Alving: Don’t let us talk in such general terms. Suppose we say: “Ought Oswald to love and honour Mr. Alving?”
Manders: You are a mother—isn’t there a voice in your heart that forbids you to shatter your son’s ideals?
Mrs. Alving: And what about the truth?
Manders: What about his ideals?
Mrs. Alving: Oh—ideals, ideals! If only I were not such a coward as I am!
Manders: Do not spurn ideals, Mrs. Alving—they have a way of avenging themselves cruelly. Take Oswald’s own case, now. He hasn’t many ideals, more’s the pity. But this much I have seen, that his father is something of an ideal to him.
–Henrik Ibsen, Ghosts
[Hu Shi only quoted the first two lines from the play above, but I included the following lines for their pertinent context.]
And see the following for the plot summary of the play Ghosts, for the even more pertinent context of the struggle of Piety against Ideals and Honour:
Helen Alving is about to dedicate an orphanage she has built in the memory of her dead husband, Captain Alving. She reveals to her spiritual advisor, Pastor Manders, that she has hidden the evils of her marriage, and has built the orphanage to deplete her husband’s wealth so that their son, Oswald, might not inherit anything from him. Pastor Manders had previously advised her to return to her husband despite his philandering, and she followed his advice in the belief that her love for her husband would eventually reform him. However her husband’s philandering continued until his death, and Mrs. Alving was unable to leave him prior for fear of being shunned by the community. During the action of the play she discovers that her son Oswald (whom she had sent away so that he would not be corrupted by his father) is suffering from inherited syphilis, and (worse) has fallen in love with Regina Engstrand, Mrs. Alving’s maid, who is revealed to be an illegitimate daughter of Captain Alving, and thereby Oswald’s own half-sister.
The play concludes with Mrs. Alving having to decide whether or not to euthanize her son Oswald in accordance with his wishes. Her choice is left unknown.
And here you can find the letter from Hu Shi’s colleague, along with his response:
I am highlighting below, the parts of Hu Shi’s response which reverberates most with myself, and the translation:
My reply to Mr. Weng’s letter
The day before I had a discussion with the Venerable Taixu (Ultimate Emptiness) and learnt much. Thereafter I received from your kind self this most sincere and earnest letter, and appreciate it very much so.
The phrase “Parents do not bestow upon their children special favours or grace”, has been around for a long time, since the time of Wang Chong and Kong Rong. In the past, its been said that I advocate this view, but I really cannot admit/claim that. It was only till this year when I myself had a son, that I began thinking about this.
I feel that this child did not himself ever affirmed that he wanted to be born in my household, we as parents never did obtain his consent, before very muddling-ly giving life unto him. Besides we also never did intend to give life unto him. Since we did not originally have the intentions, how can we claim credit? How can we think that we have granted him favour and grace?
Since he originally had no intention for seeking life, as for our birthing of him, we can have only apologies and contrition for him, and certainly not think that we have granted him any special grace. We muddling-ly added a person unto society, whether this person shall in the future have a life of bitterness joy strife prosperity, whether this person shall contribute or be a menace to society, we should shoulder some responsibility.
To put it a little harshly, by begetting a son, we have planted a seed of possible misfortune for him, and at the same time planted a seed of possible misfortune for society. He may indulge in bad habits/depravity, be a short-lived tramp; he may sink even lower, and become a toady of a warlord [context: this was early 20th-century China after the fall of the Qing dynasty. Warlords abounded]. So we “teach him nourish him”, only as a means of lessening our own sins, only as a form of our repentance for the seed of misfortune we have planted. Can this be said to be bestowing grace?
What I have said, is from the perspective of the parents, and from what I personally feel for my son, that is why my title is “My Son”. My intention is to let this son of mine know that all I have for him are apologies, never to claim credit, never to bestow upon with grace. As for how my son shall treat me in the future, that is his matter. I shall never expect him to repay my favours, for I have already declared I have no favours to give unto him.
And what do I really mean to say with this post?
I guess these thoughts on Piety have been simmering in my mind for a while now, and were stirred up with my reading of Coetzee’s Summertime and his own struggle with caring for his aged father when he was in his prime and priming towards his mature-creative-productive years, my empty [PiP] post on Piety, and not in the least, the just-passed period of the New Year jaded festivities and wearying obligations to immediate and extended family…
More in the coming post.