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Bizarre Tales of Filial Piety

Some ancient tales in which caring for parents was taken to strange extremes


Bizarre Tales of Filial Piety

Some ancient tales in which caring for parents was taken to strange extremes


It seems that Chinese people are always proud of the way they treat their parents, which is called xiaodao (孝道), or filial piety – meaning that you respect, serve and obey your parents. As part of the popular beliefs and ideology in ancient China, xiaodao exists in the blood of Chinese people. But when looking back, some famous legends promoting the spirit of xiao tend to get, well, kind of strange if not downright creepy.

Here are the Top 5 weirdest stories we picked out from The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars (《二十四孝》), a classic text in ancient China that teaches Confucianist ideals and filial piety. So without further ado, here’s our countdown.

5. Attracting Mosquitoes to Drink His Blood (恣蚊饱血)

Wu Meng, in the Jin Dynasty, lived in a poor family who couldn’t afford a mosquito net. To make sure the mosquitoes wouldn’t sting his parents, he sat by the bed naked after his parents went asleep, attracting the insects to drink his blood, in what was effectively a tamer form of blood sacrifice.

It seems like the final choice was still up to the mosquitoes, but one supposes Wu couldn’t be expected to think of alternatives, as he was only 8 years old at that time.

4. Lying Down on the Ice to Fetch Fish(卧冰求鲤)

Wang Xiang, in the Jin Dynasty, had a stepmother surnamed Zhu who always abused him. One day in winter, Zhu became sick and wanted to eat fresh fish. Wang Xiang went out but found the river had frozen over entirely. He then removed his coat and shirt and lay down on the ice, trying to thaw the ice to get the fish under it. Then the ice melted, two carp jumped out and became food for his stepmother. After that Zhu treated Wang as her own son.

Actually, those two fish saved Wang’s life. Before this story happened, his stepmother had even tried to poison him and Wang was so obedient that he preferred death than resistance. Wang Xiang’s half-brother Wang Lan—who was Zhu’s son—protected Wang Xiang by always tasting the food before Wang ate. So Wang survived…to fetch the fish.

Yeah, I’m not sure Zhu deserved the fish either.

3. Feeding Father with His Own Flesh (割股疗亲)

In the Song Dynasty, a young man named Ruan Yuzi tried many medicines to save his sick father but failed. He then remembered an old saying that medicine with human meat could cure all diseases. So he took a shower, cut off a piece of meat from his own leg and fed it to his father after cooking it. His father took that medicine in tears but still died. Later Ruan also died…from the wound.

DISCLAIMER: Double-blind scientific studies on the efficacy of human-meat as a medicinal treatment, unsurprisingly, have yet to be conducted. The negative effects of cutting chunks out of your own leg, however, are well documented.

2. Carving Wood to Worship Parents (刻木事亲)

Ding Lan, a man in the Eastern Dynasty, carved sculptures out of wood in memory of his deceased parents and treated them like real parents, discussing everything with them, reporting to them before going out and eating only after serving them. Funnily enough, his wife didn’t respect the sculptures that much and for some reason, decided to pierce their fingers.

When Ding found out how disturbed his wife was, he realized how silly he was being and got rid of the statues… Just kidding. He totally divorced his wife instead, which was really serious for women at that time.

We have no idea whether it is the most unthinkable story about filial piety, but is must be the most ridiculous reason for ending a marriage.

1. Burying Son to Support His Mother (埋儿奉母)

Guo Ju, from the Jin Dynasty, supported his mother by himself after his father died. When their financial situation was already becoming dire, his wife gave birth to a boy. Guo was afraid that raising a baby would affect his ability to care for his mother, so he came up with the idea of burying the infant alive, so there would be more food for his mother.

Fortunately, God was moved by his plight, and after digging a hole he found a jar of gold and was able to support both mother and son. And presumably his wife, but apparently that consideration is a few spots down on the list.

The tale does raise a few questions though—was killing the infant really Plan B after Plan A, which apparently was little more than “find gold in the back yard”? And what if Guo’s mother had decided never to have Guo in the first place, because she wanted to serve her parents?

Such stories have frequently appeared in ancient books, but they are just one aspect of a long history of filial piety and Confucianism in China. Truth be told, they twist the true spirit of xiao, so are best considered as wildly exaggerated fables.


Images courtesy of Baidu Baike. Master image from jiaodong.net