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Where do we learn what's right?

By Dr. Henry Wong Meng Yeong | Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 6:28AM

According to Confucian philosophy, filial duty and respect for elder siblings form the foundation from which good government and behaviour will ensue. 

Why are filial duty and fraternal respect placed in such high regard?

The answer is enshrined in the Three Character Classic 三字 . This is not one of the main Confucius classics but was compiled 1700 years after the death of the sage. It encapsulates Confucian philosophy in triplet characters for ease of memorization and formed every child’s first formal home instruction. With illiteracy common at that time, recitation of the Classic ensured its popularity and survival. During the Cultural Revolution it fell into disuse as it was opposed to Mao’s communist ideologies.

The Three Character Classic begins by stating that at birth a child’s nature is the same but it is the nurturing that makes the difference between one child and another. If nurturing is neglected, a child's nature deteriorates and will be corrupted. This truth underscores the value of teaching and nurturing, which form the basis of education or 教育.

From birth, the first relationships are with parents and older siblings, forming the first two cornerstones. From this parent-child, older sibling-younger child relationship, children learn to accept discipline, and values such as trust, propriety, respect, responsibility and the like. According to Confucius, this forms the foundation for three other relationships -- those between friends, a husband and wife, and between emperor (or authority) and subject.

The onus of instilling discipline and nurturing the child, according to the teachings of Confucius, clearly rests on the parents. From infancy, a child, likened to an empty vessel, has to be cultivated and taught values. This will determine if he or she turns out to be responsible and respectful or wayward and wanton.

Today, parents often willingly relinquish and relegate their duties of nurturing and inculcating values to outside agencies such as caregivers, schools, and religious institutions, and in much of Asia, to maids. Dependence on the Nanny State to provide schooling, healthcare, housing and a safety net has further separated people from filial duties.

In some instances, the Nanny State has become the Granny State, with governments taking responsibility for moral, health, and social decisions e.g. imposing a one child policy, curtailing powers of parents to discipline their own children, determining what their children should eat and in what quantities. The Granny State further absolves parents from their duties and decisions in the disciplining and molding of their children’s values and at the same time distancing children from their parent’s authority. In today’s Chinese society, for example, this has resulted in the erosion of filial piety.

An example of the generational problems created by interference of the Granny State is the enforcement of the one child policy. Instilling discipline and values in a single child home presents more challenges. There is a tendency to spoil the child, who is typically doted on by six adults (parents and two sets of grandparents). A result is that the little prince or princess will not appreciate filial devotion.

These problems are multiplied on a national level. As a result of the single child policy, in some societies, boys are favored and the gender imbalance creates further strains on marital relationships. Girls who are in short supply choose rich husbands, and financial status then determines their filial allegiance. Often the bride’s parents are wealthier than the groom’s, and the couple's offspring are made to carry the family name of the bride instead of the groom. These are just some of the cascading repercussions seen today because of imposition of a one child policy.

The abdication of responsibility is the first step toward the corruption of personal integrity. And we can see that the seeds sown yesterday result in the harvest we reap today.

The discussion continues……..