How are sharing pears, ice fishing, and…breastfeeding a mother-in-law related?

Short answer: Filial piety

Chinese Idiom Story: 孔融让梨Kong Rong Gave Away Bigger Pears
Kong Rong leaving the better pears for his elders. Source:

When I was a child, I often heard the phrase 孔融讓離 (Kong Rong Rang Li), “Kong Rong yields pears.” As the legend goes, when Kong Rong, a distant descendant of Confucius, was a mere four years old he would only pick out small pears to eat. When asked by his parents about this, he replied that he felt it was his duty to leave the larger, juicier fruits for his older brothers. This anecdote highlighted Kong Rong’s filial piety towards his elder siblings.

Filial piety plays a central role in Confucian role ethics and Chinese society more broadly. Perhaps the most famous text about filial piety is 二十四孝 (Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars) written by 郭居敬 (Guo Jujing). I had always believed the story about Kong Rong and his pears was a part of this collection – but in fact, it is not. However, this short collection is filled with numerous bizarre stories. These include:

  1. Yu Qianlou resigned from his magistrate after ten days and returned home to find his father sick. In order to prognosticate the course of his father’s illness, his doctor said “…one must taste the patient’s dung. If it is bitter, then there is hope.” Qianlou dutifully tasted his father’s feces – finding it sweet, he was very anxious. He kowtowed to the North Star of longevitiy, asking it to let him die in father’s place. Alas, his wish was not granted, and his father died anyways.
  2. Guo Ju was poor and was forced to have his mother share food with his 3-year-old son. Lamenting at his inability to feed his mom, he told his wife he would bury their son. His wife’s response is not recorded (perhaps she was either very filial or knew something about the son that Guo Ju didn’t). In any case, Guo Ju dutifully went out to the yard and began digging a pit. Luckily for his son, he quickly struck a cauldron of gold and was able to feed both his child and mother thereafter.
  3. Wang Xiang of the Jin dynasty had a mother that died early. Unfortunately, his stepmother only had two defining traits – her dislike for Wang Xiang and her love for fresh fish. Despite her animosity, one day when the river froze over, Wang Xiang decided to go fishing in the nearby river for his stepmother. Finding the river frozen over, he removed his clothes and melted the ice with his body heat. He was then able to catch some carp for his stepmother.
Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety: Yu Qianlou Tasting His Father's Stool  out of Grave Concern for His Health
Yu Qianlou. Perhaps he should have hired a different physician. Source: [3]

Many other stories in this collection are no less strange – there is Cui Nanshan who breastfed her mother-in-law, Wu Meng who let mosquitos bite him to prevent them from biting his parents, and Huang Tingjian who insisted on personally washing his mother’s bedpan. Perhaps it is no surprise that while this collection was the prime folk document on filial piety and widely known throughout China, it was not part of the Confucian canon and attracted scorn from Chinese intellectuals.

When the Chinese Communist Party took over the mainland, it sought to suppress the Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars as part of its campaign against “traditional thinking.” Under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s and 1990s, the CCP relaxed prohibitions against traditional thinking and these examples of filial piety made a comeback. In more recent years, the CCP has even sought to rescue the collection from irrelevance. An updated version in 2012 exhorted children to teach their parents how to surf the Internet, buy health insurance for retired parents, to take their parents on vacation. In 2013, the CCP even passed a law on filial piety – mandating children regularly visit their parents and avoid “neglecting the elderly” (which concomitantly lightens the burden on the state to provide for the elderly).

Despite the updates, representations of the stories in the Twenty-Four Exemplars can still be found in China and places with prominent Chinese diaspora. Earlier in 2021, a statue of Cui Nanshan breastfeeding her mother-in-law was taken from a park in Huzhou, Zhejiang province. In the Haw Par Villa in Singapore, a 24 Filial Exemplars diorama is found adjacent to the “10 Courts of Hell.”

Tour the Ten Courts of Buddhist Hell at Haw Par Villa in Singapore
A scene from Hell at Haw Par Villa. Perhaps this gentleman didn’t wrestle enough tigers for his parents. Source: Atlas Obscura (link below)

On a side note, for all Kong Rong’s filial piety, he still met a sticky end. After insulting Cao Cao (the infamous warlord from the Three Kingdoms period), Kong Rong and his entire extended family were murdered.



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