Issue 117_December 2016-January 2017_Philosophy now (a magazine of ideas)_Interview_Tu Wei-ming

Issue 117: December 2016 / January 2017

Tu Weiming

Tu Weiming is a philosophy professor at Harvard University and Chair of the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University. He is an ethicist and is one of the leading lights of New Confucianism. David Volodzko asked him about the relevance of Confucius today.

In her 1982 book Child Abuse and Neglect: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, the anthropologist Jill Korbin wrote that in classical China “children, according to the ethic of ‘filial piety,’ were considered the sole property of their parents. As such, they could be dealt with in whatever manner their parents chose, with little or no interference from outsiders. Severe beatings, infanticide, child slavery, the selling of young girls as prostitutes, child betrothal, and foot-binding were not uncommon.” Is it true that Confucian ideas of filial piety say children are the property of their parents? Doesn’t the Classic of Filial Piety teach that the basis of filial piety is love?

Korbin’s view is distorted, and I would say erroneous, for a number of reasons. In the Classic of Filial Piety, Confucius makes filial piety the root of all virtue, starting with the piety of the Emperor towards his parents and the good consequences of that for all his decisions. A disciple asks the Master (Confucius) whether simple obedience to a father can be called filial piety. Confucius reacts strongly (“What words are these?”) and replies that the Emperor who had ministers willing to argue with him would not lose his state and “the father who had a son that would remonstrate with him would not sink into the gulf of unrighteous deeds. Therefore when a case of unrighteous conduct is concerned, a son must by no means keep from remonstrating with his father, nor a minister from remonstrating with his ruler.” So the son’s responsibility is to help the father to become more fatherly. The father disciplines the son, of course, but the son is obligated to see to it that the father acts according to the fatherly principle.

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