The Timeless Prenatal Advice in the Classic ‘Female Filial Piety’

Female filial piety is possibly one of the most recognized fundamental virtues that have been an important pillar in traditional Chinese culture for more than a thousand years. (Image: Virandek/ Pixabay,  CC0 1.0)
Female filial piety is possibly one of the most recognized fundamental virtues that have been an important pillar in traditional Chinese culture for more than a thousand years. (Image: Virandek/ Pixabay, CC0 1.0)

Female filial piety is possibly one of the most recognized fundamental virtues that have been an important pillar in traditional Chinese culture for more than a thousand years. During the Tang Dynasty, a woman named Madam Zheng liked to read historical stories about sages. Inspired by these stories, she compiled all the most moving into a book, entitled appropriately, Female Filial Piety, so that future generations could use them as role models and draw wisdom from their inner meanings.

Even though these classic texts are from a time in which people adhered to different principles and cultural norms than today, they still hold a deep inner meaning regarding morals, ethics, and other universal values that transcend any form of social arrangement and time.

In modern times, it is more common for women to work outside of the family and home than it was in the past. Many females strive to be successful in a career while still aspiring to be a good wife and a loving mother. The secret matrimony between a couple is still a rite people practice all over the world, even today. Therefore, the importance of guiding values, morals, and ethical concepts is not less than what it was more than a thousand years ago.

Within Female Filial Piety, there is a story about a woman who married into her husband’s family. She was asked to treat her father-in-law and respect him as if he were her own father. She was to love her mother-in-law like her own mother, being filial (respectful, loyal, compliant) to both her in-laws like she would be to her own parents; furthermore, she was also to love her sisters-in-law as if they were her own blood relatives. As a wife and the keeper of the home, she would ensure that there was harmony and happiness among the family members and relatives.

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Inspired by these stories, she compiled all the most moving and beautiful stories into one book, entitled appropriately ‘Female Filial Piety.’ (Image: Publicdomainpictures, CC0 1.0)

Prenatal education in ancient China

The collection of readings contained in Female Filial Piety covers a wide range of topics that also include how to provide prenatal education. The ancients believed that during pregnancy, although the fetus is still in the womb, it can feel the good and evil of the outside world through the mother’s words and actions.

Sharings of modern-day mothers show that as pregnancy progresses, many women speak to the babies growing in their wombs. Some mothers during pregnancy even sing lullabies or read stories. Others play classical music in an effort to boost brain development. Many also encourage their partners to speak with the baby too. According to an article on Fetal Psychology, as far back as 1998, a new wave of research suggested that the fetus can feel, dream, and even enjoy The Cat in the Hat, a PBS educational program based upon the book of the same name.

The ancients, more than a thousand years ago, already attached great importance to prenatal education. To ensure the fetus had a good prenatal education, they devised a set of guidelines for the becoming mothers of that time:

A pregnant woman cannot lie on her side while sleeping, should not sit on the edge of any chair or structure, should not stand on one leg or eat any food that does not taste right, should not eat foods that are not properly cut, and should not sit on mats that are not properly placed. Beyond that, her eyes should not look at unpleasant colors, her ears should not listen to unpleasant sounds, and her hands should not hold evil objects. It was also held that at night, the pregnant woman should read scriptures, while during the day, she should talk about rites and music. Through such prenatal education and bonding, the child would be born with good features, become talented, and be of good character.

(Image Credit: Publicdomainpictures, CC0 1.0)

The collection of readings contained in ‘Female Filial Piety’ covers a wide range of topics that also include how to provide prenatal education. (Image: Publicdomainpictures, CC0 1.0)

Madam Zheng’s legacy

After compiling Female Filial Piety, Madam Zheng wrote a commentary and presented it to the emperor. She briefly expressed to the emperor that the nature of Heaven and earth is in their differences, like the qualities of heavy and soft and that the way the husband and wife get along should align with virtues like righteousness, benevolence, intelligence, and trustworthiness.

Together with filial piety, which is all-encompassing, a couple that conducts itself according to these principles can move Heaven and earth, as well as gods and ghosts. This holds true even today and universally for any culture. The values we live by and the ethics we express via our conduct are a reflection of the quality of our heart’s nature and character.

The inner meaning of Female Filial Piety as presented in the compilation of classic texts by Madam Zheng is quite profound. Many people in ancient China regarded these classical texts as a guiding role model to educate their daughters, which is how they were passed down from generation to generation.

Research by Chua BC

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