Happy Father's Day

There are lots of Western holidays that don’t translate well to China. Christmas shows up a bit, especially since all the ornaments are made in Asia, but Easter, Halloween, Canada Day etc. don’t mean much. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day do translate however, and Mother’s Day has at least some popularity in Taiwan and Hong Kong and I think in China too. Father’s day is a harder sell, because the relationship between Chinese fathers and children is supposed to be fairly distant. Confucius’s relationship with his son Po-yu is the locus classicus

Analects 16.13

Ch’an K’ang asked Po-yu, saying, “Have you heard any lessons from your father different from what we have all heard?”

Po-yu replied, “No. He was standing alone once, when I passed below the hall with hasty steps, and said to me, ‘Have you learned the Odes?’ On my replying ‘Not yet,’ he added, If you do not learn the Odes, you will not be fit to converse with.’ I retired and studied the Odes.
“Another day, he was in the same way standing alone, when I passed by below the hall with hasty steps, and said to me, ‘Have you learned the rules of Propriety?’ On my replying ‘Not yet,’ he added, ‘If you do not learn the rules of Propriety, your character cannot be established.’ I then retired, and learned the rules of Propriety. “I have heard only these two things from him.”
Ch’ang K’ang retired, and, quite delighted, said, “I asked one thing, and I have got three things. I have heard about the Odes. I have heard about the rules of Propriety. I have also heard that the superior man maintains a distant reserve towards his son.” translation here

That a father should have a distant relationship with his son became a standard belief.
Mencius 4a18 expands on this a bit

Kung-sun Ch’âu said, ‘Why is it that the superior man does not himself teach his son?’
Mencius replied, ‘The circumstances of the case forbid its being done. The teacher must inculcate what is correct. When he inculcates what is correct, and his lessons are not practiced, he follows them up with being angry. When he follows them up with being angry, then, contrary to what should be, he is offended with his son. At the same time, the pupil says, ‘My master inculcates on me what is correct, and he himself does not proceed in a correct path.” The result of this is, that father and son are offended with each other. When father and son come to be offended with each other, the case is evil. ‘The ancients exchanged sons, and one taught the son of another. ‘Between father and son, there should be no reproving admonitions to what is good. Such reproofs lead to alienation, and than alienation there is nothing more inauspicious.’translation here

In other words, the teacher/student relationship and the father/son relationship are sufficiently different that they can’t be reconciled. A student can hate being criticized by a teacher (in fact they probably should), a student can see and even point out the hypocricies of a teacher’s behavior. None of these are appropriate with a father. There is supposed to be affection between fathers and sons, but fathers are never supposed to display it.

In the Family Instructions of the Yen clan the dangers are spelled out (all these from the Teng translation pp. 4-5)

Relations between parents and children should be dignified without familiarity; in the love between blood-relations there should be no rudeness. If there is rudeness, affection and fidelity cannot unite; if there is familiarity, carelessness and disrespect will grow. After sons receive official appointment, they and their father should occupy different apartments.

If this is not the case bad things will happen. A father may fail to discipline his son.

In the time of Liang Yuan-ti (r.552-54) there was a gifted and talented youth; his father loved him so much that his training was neglected. A single well-chosen word the father would praise for a whole year wherever he went; each evil act he would conceal and gloss over, hoping for self-reform. When old enough to marry and serve the state he became daily more rude and arrogant. It is said that Chou T’i disemboweled him for his ill-considered speech and consecrated a drum with his blood.

Also, there are things that a father should not discuss with his son.

Someone asked “Why was Ch’en K’ang fond of hearing that men of virtue kept their sons at a distance?” “That was” I replied. “due to the fact that men of virtue did not personally teach their sons.” The satirical couplets in the Book of Songs, the warnings against jealousy and suspicion in the Book of Decorum, the cases of rebellion and disorder in the Book of History, the ironic comments on depraved deeds in the Spring and Autumn Annals, the symbols of procreation in the Book of Changes, all these should not be mentioned between fathers and sons, and so were not personally taught.

Although the nature of the Chinese family changed a lot between the time of Yen Chih-t’ui (531-591 CE) and the present, but even in modern China a father is supposed to be pretty distant and disciplinarian. Mao had a famously rocky relationship with his father, in part I think because he was not willing to accept his father’s constant upbraiding. As Michael Sheng points out most of the stories of oppression that Mao told were fairly standard Chinese father stuff.


  1. ‘Although the nature of the Chinese family changed a lot between the time of Yen Chih-t’ui (531-591 CE) and the present, but even in modern China a father is supposed to be pretty distant and disciplinarian.’

    This is a very inaccurate, racial stereotypical view from somebody who has no understanding of human society. The writings quoted referred to the literary class (a minority of the then population) and not the Chinese people.

    As a son and a father myself, I can see no justification for such a view of Chinese societies past and present. Was/ Is the Chinese father any more distant and disciplinarian with his offspring than any fathers of other contemporary races? I believe the answer is no, and if anything an ‘average’ Chinese father is probably more close to his offspring than his counterpart in other races. Take current UK society. Close to a third of children are now born to single mothers. That is to say, the father is not simply distant, he is absent!!! I believe this proportion is exceeded by several sections of contemporary US society. As yet this has not happened in Chinese societies in any country. Most fathers, in any society, are now perceived to be distant with regards to their children’s upbringing, because of the long hours they have to put in to make a living.

    What of historic comparisons between the Chinese father and other contemporary cultures? For example take the historic Jewish father compared to the Chinese father. Abraham was prepared to kill his offspring as a sacrifice. That is to say he was prepared to commit infanticide. What sort of father was he? Did the story simply point at Abraham or was it the culture of the entire Jewish population of the time? Was this just a one-off story or were all contemporary Jewish fathers of the like mind? Does a modern Jewish father share the same thought? What of the Roman father or the ancient Greek father, or a Viking father? What of an African father, ancient and present?

    The assumption of Mao’s relationship with his father as quoted, is simply naive. What of the relationship between Bill Clinton and his father or stepfather? What of the relationship between Britain’s Prince Charles and his father? These people are not Chinese, so why were their relationships distant?

    Does having rocky relationships between father and son have anything to do with being Chinese? NO!!!

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