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Organizer: Anne Behnke Kinney, University of Virginia
Chair: Karen L. Turner, Holy Cross College
Discussants: Robin D. S. Yates, McGill University; Karen L. Turner, Holy Cross College
This panel brings together three papers that examine poorly understood aspects of the parent-child relationship in premodern China. Keith Knapps paper challenges the idea of filial piety as a static concept and shows how the ideals connected with this virtue changed radically over time. Using Warring States, Han, and early medieval tales of filial sons as source material, Knapp explores the increasing absolutism of parental authority by examining the way in which these narratives portray a sons obedience to parental commands. In contrast, Kinneys paper reaches back to a slightly earlier timethe Spring and Autumn periodto examine the issues at stake, including those connected with gender, when a father precipitates the death of his own son. As early as 588 B.C., some states instituted laws that prohibited fathers from killing their sons. Kinney argues that in spite of such legal sanctions, patriarchs found ways to dodge the letter of the law and found support for their autocratic power of life and death over offspring in the ancient ideal of filial piety. In the final paper, Mark Lewis provides startling new insights into the early Chinese view of children as demonic, shedding new light on the way children were perceived as well as on early Chinese justifications for the considerable authority invested in parents.
Do or Die: Filial Piety and the Law
Anne Behnke Kinney, University of Virginia
Female infanticide has attracted much attention among Western sinologists. Less well known are the numerous cases in early Chinese history where fathers precipitate the deaths of their own sons. Though laws limiting a patriarchs right to kill a son appeared as early as 588 B.C., punitive fathers found a variety of ways to end the lives of offending offspring, primarily by commanding them to commit suicide. My paper will examine this form of patriarchal power and its eventual condemnation.
The Zuo zhuan, a text that records the history of the Spring and Autumn period (770476 B.C.), contains some of the earliest historical accounts of fathers who command their sons to die. I will discuss these accounts, focusing on: (1) the reasons behind such orders; (2) the manner in which the sons die; (3) the sons initial reception to the fathers command; (4) the narrative bias surrounding such accounts; (5) the legal sanctions on this practice; and finally (6) the gender ideology connected with the victimization of sons.
I will argue that: (1) although laws were eventually instated to limit a fathers right of life and death over his offspring, the ethic of filial piety allowed this practice to continue; and that ironically (2) it was precisely a sons valued position in the social hierarchy that made him most vulnerable to patriarchal cruelty.
Creeping Absolutism: Parental Authority as Seen in Tales of Filial Sons
Keith Nathaniel Knapp, The Citadel
The immense authority that the Chinese patriarch traditionally wielded within his family is well known. Nevertheless, did the head of the family always have such great power? By looking at Warring States, Han, and early medieval filial piety stories, my paper attempts to explain how the twin concepts of parental authority and filial piety evolved over these three periods of Chinese history.
Over time, stories of filial sons increasingly stressed the absolute nature of parental authority. Although all stories of dutiful children emphasize obedience to ones parents, an important variable is whether that obedience is conditional or unconditional. Warring States and Han filial piety narratives maintain that not all parental wishes can be fulfilled: sons have a duty to disobey or object to their parents unrighteous orders. Early medieval tales, on the other hand, glorify sons who always do their parents bidding, even if it puts their own lives in danger.
Warring States and Han filial piety stories therefore suggest that parental authority should be limited and that sons could justifiably disobey some of their parents orders. The early medieval stories emphasis on unconditional obedience, on the other hand, implies that, although the authority of parents was still comparatively weak, the compilers of the stories increasingly viewed absolute parental authority as socially desirable.
The Demon Child
Mark Edward Lewis, University of Cambridge
Although Chinese civilization is noted for treasuring male offspring, it also features traditions which treat the child as a demonic figure that potentially threatens its parents and adult society. This paper examines these traditions from their earliest recorded forms in the Zuo zhuan to versions found in twentieth-century ethnographic reports. It is divided into two parts: (1) accounts and practices which treat the child as a demon, and (2) accounts in which demonic figures are given the attributes of a child. The first section begins with an analysis of types of "abnormal" births found in Warring States and Han literature which indicate that a child will destroy its parents. It then discusses how this belief in the child as a potential threat was tied to early Chinese ideas about the spirit world, and how early imperial laws, philosophy, ritual texts, and hair styles all participated in the idea that the child was not yet fully human and hence potentially demonic. Finally it examines how some of these early beliefs developed in later traditions that regarded the child or the pregnant woman as a threatening, destructive figure. The second section discusses how and why early Chinese literature on demons frequently attributed a childish appearance or voice to spirit beings, many of which were described as man-eating or otherwise malevolent. The conclusion discusses what these traditions equating children and demons suggest about the nature of the family and ideas of education in China.