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What it takes to be a model son

An unofficial “introduction” to the Twenty-four Filial Exemplars by Lu Xun 魯迅 (1881-1936):


我所收得的最先的畫圖本子,是一位長輩的贈品:《二十四孝圖》。這雖然不過薄薄的一本書,但是下圖上說,鬼少人多,又為我一人所獨有,使我高興极了。那里面的故事,似乎是誰都知道的;便是不識字的人,例如阿長,也只要一看圖畫便能夠滔滔地講出這一段的事跡。但是,我于高興之余,接著就是掃興,因為我請人講完了二十四個故事之后,才知道孝有如此之難,對于先前痴心妄想,想做孝子的計划,完全絕望了。

The first illustrated book I ever received was a gift from an elder: Illustrations of the Twenty-four Filial Exemplars. It was just a slim book, but I was thrilled to have it, for it had illustrations below the texts, with more humans than demons, and it belonged to me alone. It seemed that everyone knew these stories; even illiterate people like Achang,[1] at the sight of one of the images, were able to tell the corresponding story in all its vivid detail. However, in the wake of my happiness came great disappointment. After I had someone explain to me all the twenty-four stories, I realised filial piety was so demanding that my former ambition of becoming a model son proved completely hopeless.


* From Lu Xun, Zhaohua xishi 朝花夕拾 (in Lu Xun quanji 魯迅全集 vol. 2, Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 2005), 260-261.


Here is an example that appears particularly illustrative of Lu Xun’s point considering the nuisance that I am exposed to at the moment:

Album leaf by Jiang Pu 蔣溥 (1708-1761)

Image credit: National Palace Museum, Taipei


吳猛,不詳其里居,家貧不能具幃帳。猛年八歲即孝事其親,每夏夜蚊多攢膚,恣其飽血,不加驅遣,恐去而噬親也。猛之用心,雖曾閔何以加哉!

Wu Meng, whose hometown was unknown, came from a poor family that could not afford a mosquito net. He served his parents with filial piety even when he was eight years old. Mosquitoes often gathered on his skin on summer evenings; [he] let them have their fill of blood and never attempted to drive them away for fear that they might turn to feast on his parents. Such was his devotion: even Zeng and Min [2] would not be able to surpass it!


A close-up of our model boy, who apparently isn't bothered by the beasts at all


[1] A housemaid in Lu Xun’s family.

[2] Referring to Zeng Shen 曾參 (505-435 BCE) and Min Sun 閔損 (536-487 BCE), both of whom were among the most celebrated disciples of Confucius as well as figures in the Twenty-four Filial Exemplars. Zeng Shen was said to feel his mother’s pain when she bit her own fingers, not figuratively but telepathically. Min Sun was said to feel sympathy for his stepmother even though she abused him.


 

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