胡适:《我的儿子》 Hu Shi: “My Son”

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.

Hu Shi is probably most famous for his contribution to Chinese language reform, in the promotion of vernacular Chinese/白话 in literature to replace Classical Chinese/文言文, in order to:

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”.

Wiki

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.

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1919年三月16日,胡适在长子胡祖望出生时,曾写了一首题为《我的儿子》的诗。他的这首诗,宣扬的是“非孝”思想。
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”.

《我的儿子》
我实在不要儿子,
儿子自己来了。
“无后主义’的招牌,
于今挂不起来了!
譬如树上开花,
花落偶然结果。
那果便是你,
那树便是我。
树本无心结子,
我也无恩于你。
但是你既来了,
我不能不养你教你,
那是我对人道的义务,
并不是待你的恩谊。
将来你长大时,
莫忘了我怎样教训儿子:
我要你做一个堂堂的人,
不要你做我的孝顺儿子。

–胡适, 1919年三月16日

“My Son”
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:
我要你做一个堂堂的人,
不要你做我的孝顺儿子。
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.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghosts_(play)#Plot

And here you can find the letter from Hu Shi’s colleague, along with his response:
http://www.douban.com/group/topic/3182092/

I am highlighting below, the parts of Hu Shi’s response which reverberates most with myself, and the translation:

我答汪先生的信

前天同太虚和尚谈论,我得益不少。别后又承先生给我这封很诚恳的信,感谢之至。

“父母于子无恩”的话,从王充、孔融以来,也很久了。从前有人说我曾提倡这话,我实在不能承认。直到今年我自己生了一个儿子,我才想到这个问题上去。我想这个孩子自己并不曾自由主张要生在我家,我们做父母的不曾得他的同意,就糊里糊涂的给了他一条生命。况且我们也并不曾有意送给他这条生命。我们既无意,如何能居功?如何能自以为有恩于他?他既无意求生,我们生了他,我们对他只有抱歉,更不能“市恩”了。我们糊里糊涂的替社会上添了一个人,这个人将来一生的苦乐祸福,这个人将来在社会上的功罪,我们应该负一部分的责任。说得偏激一点,我们生一个儿子,就好比替他种下了祸根,又替社会种下了祸根。他也许养成坏习惯,做一个短命浪子;他也许更堕落下去,做一个军阀派的走狗。所以我们“教他养他”,只是我们自己减轻罪过的法子,只是我们种下祸根之后自己补过弥缝的法子。这可以说是恩典吗?

我所说的,是从做父母的一方面设想的,是从我个人对于我自己的儿子设想的,所以我的题目是“我的儿子”。我的意思是要我这个儿子晓得我对他只有抱歉,决不居功,决不市恩。至于我的儿子将来怎样待我,那是他自己的事。我决不期望他报答我的恩,因为我已宣言无恩于他

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.

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