Awakening The Heart Of Kindness: Filial Piety In China

Posted by Xiaojuan Shu on May 22, 2017
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About six months ago, I landed in Shanghai on my way to live with my parents for five months in Yancheng, four hours northwest of Shanghai. I arrived with a strong intention--letting go of my old perceptions about China, where I was born and raised and had lived until after college, seeing everything with new eyes, integrating different parts of myself that have lived on either side of the Pacific, and giving sincere thanks to my family, especially my parents, who made my human life possible. Also, for the first time, I began to consciously look for kindness wherever I went. In Shanghai, as I walked in narrow alleys, crossed busy streets, or interacted with breakfast vendors, I wanted to see beyond the masks of indifference, distrust, or even rudeness; I wanted to connect with the human hearts beneath those masks that might be lonely, wounded, and longing to connect. It had been a long inner journey that brought me to that mental place.

An Inner Journey from Despair to Hope
Many years ago there was a news story that went viral in China: An old man was injured in a hit-and-run accident, but nobody helped until a young man got him to the hospital. When the sons of the old man came, they accused the young man for having hit their father and he should pay for the hospital bill. Their argument was: If you didn’t hit our father, how could you be so kind to get him to the hospital? When the young man asked the old man to tell the truth, the old man, under the pressure of his sons, in tears, “agreed” that the young man was the one who hit him. Similar stories about how “good Samaritans” got themselves in trouble for helping a stranger continued to appear in Chinese news.

About a year ago, a deep sense of hopelessness struck me again after watching a video comparing two accidents. One was a dog hit by a car on a highway. Soon, another dog walked to the middle of the busy highway to pull the wounded dog off the road. The second accident showed a little Chinese girl was hit by a van in the middle of a not-so-busy street with shops and street vendors on both sides. The van stopped for a second, then hurriedly drove off from the body of that little girl. Many cars and people passed by that girl; some stopped to look, but nobody helped. One driver ran over the girl’s leg without seemingly noticing it. Finally, a woman came to the scene to move the girl off the street and began to call out for help. Then the girl’s mother came….

The next morning, I woke up with such disgust for my “compatriots” across the Pacific. Then I turned on my phone and saw a message from my gege: older brother, who forwarded me an essay on how Chinese parents selflessly care for their children and yet their too-busy-working adult children fail to visit them and tend to their needs.

It reminded me of a true story I read before: A poor peasant scrambled and saved money to get his son through college. When the son got a job, he changed his phone number without telling his father. The father couldn't reach his son and became worried. Every week, he walked over 20 kilometers into town to call his son’s old number. It never occurred to him that he had been abandoned by his son. He became so worried about his son that he turned to the media for help to find his missing son. When he found his son, his son was furious because his father made him lose his face. The heartbroken old man returned to his threadbare home alone.

I was moved to tears by the message in the essay my brother sent that we children ought to give back to our parents. Tears uplifted me: Filial piety, a virtue of respect for one's parents, elders, and ancestors, could be the entry point to revive kindness in China! As the ancient Chinese Philosopher Mencius said, “Extend the respect of elderly in one's family to that of others; extend the love of young ones in one's family to that of others.” Filial respect is deeply rooted in Chinese society dating back millennia. Yet, in recent decades, the cases of children neglecting their aging parents or mistreating their parents as mere free nannies increased to a worrisome degree. In 2013, China enacted a law called “Protection of the Rights and Interests of Elderly People,” stating that children should visit their parents “often” (if they don’t live together) and tend to their emotional and spiritual needs.

But my decision to spend more time with my parents in China was not out of filial obligation, but a longing in my heart to be physically closer to my parents and to give thanks to them on a day-to-day basis for what they have done for me. In other words, I wanted to cultivate kindness within myself at the root level. While cultivating kindness within, I began to see kindness in many others in China. Instead of being cynical about the ugly Chinese, I began to look at modern China with fresh eyes.

A Vegan Restaurant
During the entire first month in China, I spent most of my time with my parents indoors. Deep down, I was still afraid that the prevalent consumeristic culture outside would engulf me again. Then one day, my gege said, let’s go to the nearby vegan restaurant for dinner.

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Oh, what a treasure of that special restaurant--忆品青莲 (The Qing Lotus)! It instantly changed my experience in China. The moment I walked in, something heavy in my heart was lifted. We were greeted warmly as we walked in before being led to the room we had reserved upstairs. The name of our room was “上善若水“ (Supreme good is like water). The next room’s name was “厚德载物“ (High virtues enables one to take high position with important responsibilities). Outside the room, a wide bookshelf stood against the wall, filled with classic books on Chinese traditional values. In front of the bookshelf was a long desk for guests to practice calligraphy with water on special paper.

The waitresses dressed in simplified traditional clothing spoke softly with smiles and sincerity. While taking our order, they reminded us that we had ordered enough and we could always order more dishes later if needed. I noticed the signs under the glass table top, “光盘” (Finishing the plates clean--no waste of food) and “吃素是福” (Eating Vegan diet is a blessing).
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After dinner, we walked downstairs, passing the common eating area, to the entrance. Close to the stairs stood another bookshelf filled with books and DVDs on filial piety, kindness, and healthy vegan diet. The books and DVDs were free for people to take. A white display board next to the bookshelf addressed customers:

Dear Dining Families, we welcome your kind visit! The Qing Lotus uses “Respect Nature (Heaven) and love humanity” as the general guideline for our vegan culture and business operation, and observes healthy living, protecting Earth, valuing life, loving humanity, and serving the public good as our principals. While spreading vegan culture, we provide a platform for good Chinese traditional values to be shared and spread, and strive to plant seeds of integrity and kindness for “harmony of body and heart, harmony within families, and harmony in society,” and thus fulfill a happy human life.

It also indicated that respecting the elderly is a treasured traditional value of China. The elderly over age 80 can enjoy free meals at the restaurant; the elderly over age 70 can receive a 20% discount. At the bottom of the display board, it said: Vegan diet benefits human health, it’s kindness to our families/loved ones; vegan diet leaves low-carbon footprint, it’s kindness to the Earth; vegan diet values all lives, it’s kindness to animals.

Though my father was one month away from turning 70, they gave us the discount without requesting his ID. Our delicious meal for six only cost about $35.

The restaurant manager told me that the original owner of this restaurant was a business owner who had health issues years ago and was told by his doctor to change to vegan diet. Originally, he opened this restaurant for himself to have a place to eat with his friends and business partners. However, vegan diet somehow led him to a path of service, to restore family values, and to the Buddha’s teachings. The manager said, the surplus profit from running The Qing Lotus vegan restaurant would be donated to the local Yu Hua Zhai (雨花斋), a free chain vegan restaurant in China which was originated in 2011 by an elderly Buddhist monk who wanted to reduce suffering of animals. (Note: Currently, over 600 Yu Hua Zhai chain restaurants in China have offered 100,000 plus free vegan meals to mostly the elderly population.)

Traditional Chinese Culture Community Forum
From that day on, I became a frequent visitor of that vegan restaurant. I shared with the sisters there my hope to help my mother to take care of my father who has had Parkinson’s Disease for over a decade. One sister told me about Traditional Chinese Culture Community Forum (The Forum) that would happen in a month in a neighboring city. The Forum would teach you more about how to be a filial daughter, the sister said.

On the Forum’s website, it says the Forum is all volunteers run and the invited teachers are from all walks of life around the country who have stories and teachings to share. Nobody gets paid. The teachings cover many aspects in life besides filial piety, such as strong advocacy for vegan diet. With lingering doubt, I applied to volunteer for the Forum.

My five days at the event included three days of training beforehand and two days of volunteering at the actual Forum. During the Forum, volunteers wore the Chinese traditional clothing that was provided. On the morning of the last day of the Forum, a woman, maybe in her late 50s, came up to me and asked how she could sign up for the event in the afternoon when families had members of two generations in the audience would be invited to the stage to demonstrate filial piety. I told her to wait since it hadn't been officially announced. A few minutes later, she came again and asked when she could sign up. I said I would let her know the moment I knew when. But soon she came for the third time and told me her story in tears. She had been a very good daughter-in-law. She loved her mother-in-law and father-in-law and took very good care of them. But she resented her own mother all her life because she was given away to another family not too far from her own home when she was a young child. She never forgave her mother for giving her away. As an adult, whenever she saw her mother, she jabbed her with harsh language. Today, she wanted to reconcile with her mother with the witness of the attendees at the Forum.

When the emcee invited the families to come on stage, a dozen families stood up. There were mother-daughters, father-sons, and in-laws. The older members of each family were led to the chairs placed on the stage for the occasion and invited to sit down, the younger ones knelt down before their elders. The woman who talked to me earlier carried her disabled mother to the stage and put her down gently in a chair before she knelt down.

Under the instruction, the younger members of each family proceeded with traditional kowtow with heads touching the floor three times and then stood up before kneeling down again. It was repeated three times. The audience was quiet. Then the volunteers brought a dozen basins with hot water to the stage for each family. The younger family members untied the shoelaces of the older relatives, took off their socks, and washed their feet. Some older family members wiped their eyes; some young ones began to cry. At the end, the two generations from all families hugged and cried on the stage.

When the emcee interviewed the four-year-old girl who just washed her mother’s feet, the little girl couldn’t even speak clearly while sobbing, “I want to apologize to Mama. I talked back to her this morning.” Then the emcee asked the girl’s mother how she treated her mother. The mother said in tears that she hadn’t been a good daughter to her own mother either. A mother in her 60s, after hearing her daughter apologize to her, knelt down on the stage to apologize to her late mother who could no longer hear her.

As tears poured out of my eyes, I looked around, a well-dressed middle-aged man was drying his eyes. There was hardly a dry eye in the auditorium. It’s been so long since we had treated our elders with such respect!

Becoming a Filial Daughter
The night when I returned home from the Forum, I apologized in torrents of tears to my parents for being such an ungrateful and disrespectful daughter in the past. I apologized to my father for yelling at him when he rode his bike to my boarding high school and brought me the dishes my mother made, and to my mother for treating her with disrespect in so many instances. How entitled I had felt to be treated like a princess every time when I visited home from college! I considered Mother’s hands with calluses, cuts, and black fingernails not clean enough to prepare food for me. I asked her to wash her hands twice before she could bring me my favorite dishes from the kitchen to the big living-room table where I waited. How many meals Mother prepared, shoes she made by hand, new clothes my parents bought, and bike rides taking me to and from school did I take for granted? How disrespectful of me during my teenage years to feel ashamed of my mother for being a peasant! I repented in my story that I performed, but had never apologized to my parents in person. As I apologized, my parents cried. That was a moment that I could never forget.

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My parents washing feet together

Before bed, I prepared hot water for my parents to wash their feet. I knelt down to untie their shoelaces and take off their shoes and socks. As I was helping my father, Mother began to untie her shoes herself and said, “Oh, you are such a good daughter. You don’t need to do this.” When both of my parents’ feet were in the same water basin, I touched their feet and washed them for the first time. When I stood up, Mother splashed water in the basin with her feet and laughed like a child.

At the Forum, I also learned that there are four levels of filial piety: First, taking care of parents’ body (offer parents food, clothing and other necessities); second, taking care of parents’ heart (make them happy and not worried); third, helping realize parents’ dreams and purpose in life; fourth, opening parents’ minds and hearts for wisdom.

On one hand, I am very thankful that I learned what true filial respect means before it is too late; on the other hand, I realized that becoming a filial daughter is a lifelong journey that requires persistent patience, gratitude and love.

Challenges in Filial Piety
But what about the children from abusive families? How could they pay their filial respect to their parents while suffering from their parents’ abuse? I have been thinking about this a lot and talked to many friends for a clearer understanding. I remember a tragic story in the book The Good Women of China that horrified and saddened me. A young girl’s father began a “physically friendly” relationship with her since her first period. Her mother knew it but was incapable of protecting her. The only way she could get away from her father was to hurt herself really bad so she could stay in hospital. She continued to harm her body in the hospital so that she would not be sent home again. For that young girl, how could she be a filial daughter to that father? She did not have a chance to figure that out because she died at age 17 after many years of going in and out of hospital. The only thing she left behind was her diary with beautiful writings about her petting a fly in a matchbox, her keen friendship with another young woman in the hospital, and her love for writing. My heart ached for a long time and still aches for that girl. How would filial piety fit into her life condition? I don’t have an answer.

In the book, The Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars, there was a story about Emperor Shùn, one of the earliest emperors in China’s ancient history. As the legend goes: Emperor Shùn’s blind father, his stepmother and younger stepbrother tried to kill him. One time, they asked him to fix the roof of the grain barn. When he was up on the roof, they set fire below to burn him. He jumped off the roof and survived. Another time, they asked him to dig a well. As he was down there, they dumped dirt on him to bury him. He survived again, but continued to respect his parents and love his brother. His filial piety moved the Heavens: When he farmed in the mountains, the elephants ploughed for him and the birds weeded for him. The old emperor Yáo heard about his high virtue in filial piety, married him with his two daughters and later trusted him with his kingdom.

In Confucianism, the virtue of filial piety, or devotion of the child to his parents and ancestors, was the foundation for all other virtues. When extended to all human beings, it nurtured the highest virtue, humaneness. Yet, filial piety does not mean blindly following the parents’ wishes; it includes skillfully dissuading one’s parents from doing immoral deeds. But how does it empower an abused child to rise up to that level of confidence and conscience? Not everybody could survive Emperor Shùn’s condition and do what he did.

But I like what Thich Nhat Hanh said, “When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.” Instead of blaming and resenting our parents, we can learn to hold unconditional gratitude for their bringing us to this precious human life. This can help us build a foundation for a new beginning that would not only ground us to our roots, but also empower us to rise up from our ancestral wounds, and serve the world with our unique power that comes directly from rising up from the bestowed sufferings at our roots.

Free photo Happy Girl Cute Little Little Girl Kid Child - Max Pixel
Recently, I found that sending my silent prayers out to the world is a soothing and empowering practice. I would visualize a child, for example, hiding in a corner crying. The child could be in any place in the world at this moment. I close my eyes and visualize that child in as many details as I can and feel the child’s fear. I would transmit to the child my prayers:

“Rise up, rise up, little child. Find power in yourself and trust the universe will help you. Rise up, rise up, little child. You are the future and the world needs you to rise up. Do not pass on the sufferings you receive from your parents to your children. Rise up, rise up, little child. Find power in you and trust yourself. Break the chain of generational wounds and transform the pain in you into the power of forgiveness and love. Rise up, rise up, little child. You are the future of the world and the world needs you to rise up.”

From Filial Respect to Kindness to Strangers
For me, learning to be a filial daughter made it easier for me to have more compassion for others. If I cherish my own family, how can I not value other families? As at the Forum, the emcee and the teachers addressed the large audience as “dear families.” Family is family; we are all families. Now when I see others, I tend to see them as someone’s parents or children, knowing that they all come from a family somewhere.

How could I be upset with the young man who obliviously cut in front of me to the ticket window? He must have a mother who is worried about his well-being. How could I be upset with the taxi driver who overcharged me? She probably uses her limited income to support a child’s education. How could I judge someone who takes more than her share but gives little? I have relatives whom I love are like that and I know well some of the sufferings in which they are stuck.

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Gratitude for My One Big Family
Now I am back to California, again one Pacific Ocean away from my family. But I feel tremendous gratitude and joy for having them as my family in this life! I stay in touch with my parents through video calls, texts, and voice messages. The other day, my parents and I did morning exercises together for 20 minutes; our laughter joined across the digital screens and the Pacific. In the past month, I wrote two long heartfelt letters to my sister-in-law, whom I used to strongly resent for the decade long disharmony between her and my mother. I could finally see her as a precious human being who is not perfect, just like everybody else. Both letters were well received. I think of more relatives whom I used to resent or intentionally ignore, including my Auntie Two’s husband who physically abused my beloved Auntie regularly, if not daily, until she died at age 40 twenty years ago. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to forgive him completely.

I begin to play in my head like a movie the images of all my teachers from First Grade (I didn’t go to Kindergarten) to college. Where are they now? Sadly, some of my favorite teachers have already passed away. Suddenly I have an urge to visit them and say “Thank you” to them, and also to my classmates and friends who took me home for a meal or overnight because my home was far from school.

I also remember the stranger who gave me a bicycle ride home when he saw me walking and crying alone in the dark. I was seven years old. Though Mother told me not to talk to strangers, I told him that I missed the bus home when he stopped to ask me. And the many kind strangers whom I met in China during my recent trip continue to warm my heart whenever I think of them. Those strangers are my families too. And to my further joy, in my heart, my ever-expanding families from both sides of the Pacific are merging into one big family.

As Confucius believed, if there is harmony within the individuals, there will be harmony in the family; if there is harmony in all families, there will be harmony in the nation; if there is harmony in all nations, there will be harmony in the world. I also hope that if there is harmony in the human world, there will be harmony in the entire natural world as we begin treating all animals, plants, rivers and mountains as one big family.

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Comments (10)

  • Pavi Mehta wrote ...

    So. Beautiful. Thank you Xiao. Your apology to your parents and their response -- so moving. And I LOVE that you did morning exercises with them from across the oceans and continents :) Can imagine the invisible tidal wave of ripples that have been set in motion by all that you are dissolving in the recesses of your heart. Big hugs to you.

  • Ariel Nessel wrote ...

    I'm going to call my parents today to tell them I'm love them!

  • Libby Traubman wrote ...

    What an honest and moving story, full of important insights about living Life at the highest. Learning how to love in every situation is greatly needed into today's interconnected, interrelated, and interdependent world, beginning with those closest to us. Thank you for this generous sharing of yourself and what works in every day Life. Your beautiful spirit shines through the words.

  • Wendy Berk wrote ...

    This is beautiful, Xiao. I love your story, and it opens up
    for me the idea that the practice of filial piety can extend to
    making the world a more compassionate place.

  • Preeta Bansal wrote ...

    Such raw beauty! Thank you. Thank you.

  • Nisha Srinivasan wrote ...

    A post that I will remember for a long long time. Thank you.

  • Suzanne wrote ...

    Thank-you Xiao, this is a situation all over the world, where modernization has broken the ties and respect to our elders and our ancestors. I so appreciate how your cultural perspective on filial piety, together with your own moving stories helps me to bring even more kindness into my actions.
    Gratitude,
    Suzanne

  • Dot Matrix wrote ...

    Oh Xiao I loved this story so much! I was crying when I read about you washing your parents' feet. I loved every part of this story. So beautiful! Before my father died, I rubbed his feet every time I visited. Our relationship was one of arguing but when he got sick, he began to talk to me about his past. So many beautiful stories. He loved that I rubbed his feet. My mom won't let me though. =) Sending hugs and love across the miles. Thank you so much for this story. ♥.

  • Gayathri Ramachandran wrote ...

    So much insight and beauty here -- gives me a lot of "material" to reflect on :) Thank you from my heart for sharing with such honesty...

  • Zilong Wang wrote ...

    Thank you, sister, thank you. I am tearing up reading these reflections. They give me hope :) I bow to your courage and compassion to heal the generational wounds and collective illness, starting from within yourself and your family. Grateful to be part of your one big family! :)