The “Standards for Being a Good Student and Child” (Di Zi Gui, 弟子規) is a traditional Chinese textbook for children that teaches morals and proper etiquette. It was written by Li Yuxiu in the Qing Dynasty, during the reign of Emperor Kang Xi (1661 – 1722). In this series, we present some ancient Chinese stories that exemplify the valuable lessons from the Di Zi Gui. The first chapter of the Di Zi Gui introduces the Chinese concept of xiao (孝), or filial duty to one’s parents.
According to traditional Chinese culture, filial piety — respect for parents and ancestors — is one of the basic human virtues. Unsurprisingly, the Di Zi Gui begins with instructions to its students on how to act as a filial child:
If my parents love me
Being filial is no difficulty
If they disdain me
My filial piety is truly noble
Min Ziqian’s filial piety touches his contemptuous stepmother
The trope of the wicked stepmother is not exclusive to European fairy tales. In China’s Spring and Autumn Period (770 – 476 B.C.), there lived a man named Min Ziqian in the eastern part of the country. As a child, Ziqian suffered the loss of his mother, and his father remarried.
Ziqian treated his stepmother with the same respect as his birth mother. However, the elder Min’s new wife did not return the favor, treating her own sons much better than Ziqian.
One winter, the stepmother prepared jackets for the three children. But while the clothes she made for her own sons were filled with warm down, she packed Ziqian’s jacket with thin materials made from reed. The coat appeared thick, but could hardly maintain heat.
The weather grew colder and harsher. One time, the elder Min asked Ziqian to drive his carriage. Ziqian was so cold that he could hardly hold the reins. Upset, his father scolded him. But Ziqian remained silent.
Ziqian’s father soon noticed that his son was pale and shivering. His anger turned to shock when he tore off Ziqian’s jacket and examined it, finding it almost useless in the weather.
Upon returning home, Ziqian’s enraged father demanded a divorce from his cruel wife. But hearing this, Ziqian tearfully pleaded with his father to let her stay.
“With Mother in the family, only one child suffers coldness. Should she be gone, all three of your sons would freeze.”
The stepmother finally saw the error of her ways, and from then on extended her love to all of the elder Min’s sons.
It may seem unfair or stupid to bear undeserved hardship in silence. However, Ziqian took the well-being of his entire family into consideration, and believed in his stepmother’s capacity for goodness. As a result, his story was recorded and became an example of filial piety in trying circumstances.
Avoiding vain pursuits: the upbringing of a successful general
The Di Zi Gui stresses that morality must be developed as a matter of habit and principle. Even small acts should be avoided if they are not right.
Though the matter be small
Do not handle it arbitrarily
Handling it arbitrarily
Harms your moral integrity
Though the thing be small
Do not keep it to yourself
Keeping it to yourself
Brings sadness to your parents
Ancient Chinese, from peasants to the upper class, emphasized the importance of frugality and diligent behavior. Excess was looked down upon and usually a sign of a society or family in decline. Many statesmen and military officers who made a name for themselves were able to resist decadence, often in their formative years and under the strict guidance of their parents.
Qi Jiguang (1528 – 1588) was a general who served in the Ming Dynasty, playing a decisive role in defeating the hordes of pirates that plagued the Chinese coastline.
Qi was born into a family of military officers. He was the only son in his household and his father, Qi Jingtong, prized him greatly. The elder Qi personally taught Jiguang reading and martial arts. Yet he also paid strict attention to his son’s moral character and habits.
When Jiguang was 13, he received a pair of fine silk shoes as a gift from his maternal grandfather. Delighted, he strutted to and fro in his courtyard, feeling very pleased about himself.
However, when his father saw this, he called Jiguang to his study and scolded him.
“Once you have good shoes, you will naturally dream about wearing good clothes. Once you have good clothes, you will naturally dream about eating good food. At such a young age, you have developed the habit of enjoying good food and good clothing. You will have insatiable greed in the future.”
“When you grow up, you will pursue delicious food and beautiful clothes,” Jiguang’s father continued. “If you were to be a military officer, you would even embezzle soldiers’ salaries. If you continue to be like this, it will be impossible for you to succeed in the undertaking of your elders.”
Qi Jingtong was aware of where Jiguang had gotten the shoes from. Still, he had his son remove the shoes, and cut them to pieces.
Jiguang decides on a plain renovation
Experiences like the above would temper Jiguang’s character as he grew older. However, sometimes his father’s judgement was still necessary.
Once, Qi Jingtong contracted several artisans to renovate their property. More than a dozen rooms were in poor shape and needed to be made presentable for visitors from the imperial court. The elder Qi decided to have four doors with finely carved floral patterns installed in the main hall, and entrusted Jiguang to oversee the work.
But once Qi Jingtong left, the artisans began to try talking Jiguang into adding more carved doors. They reasoned with him in private, “Your elders are generals. For such a noble and wealthy family, all doors throughout the house should be carved, flowery doors, which would be twelve such doors in total. Only this grade of setting will match the social status of your family.”
Finding this explanation sound, Jiguang went to his father, who swiftly rejected the idea. “If you pursue and indulge yourself in vanity, you won’t be able to achieve great things when you grow up,” he warned.
Over the course of his upbringing, Qi Jingtong stressed to his son that the ultimate purpose of all his academic study and martial arts training were to serve the nation and its people. Personal fame, rank, and wealth were strictly secondary.
Due to his father’s coaching, Qi Jiguang applied himself diligently to this mission. The skill and competence he developed allowed him to achieve a high rank in the imperial military and keep the invading pirates at bay for many years.
Read the next installment here.