A Confucian View On Parenting And Power
After a parent dies, Kongzi (Confucius) said you’re supposed to wear sackcloth and live silently in a hut for years. This made as little sense in 500 BC as it does now, and so his disciple Zizhang asked. What does this mean?
Kongzi was completely serious, saying “Yes, go live in a hut. Everybody lived in huts.”You were supposed to wear rough hemp, sleep in the yard, and abstain from sex or eating nice food for exactly two years and one month (into the third year). When I read this I was as confused as Zizhang. Why? And why three years?
The whole act seems pointless, but this simple ritual actually contains the most important Confucian insights on human and political development. It contains ideas that science is just figuring out today. Through ritual sacrifice the ancients were trying to teach us something. Parenting makes people, and people make politics and thus the hand that rocks the cradle really does rule the world.
The sacrifice Kongzi is describing here is actually parental leave in reverse. Because your parents take leave when you’re born, you ritually ‘repay’ them when they die. Even the amounts are correct, especially for mothers.
But why doesn’t Kongzi just talk about parental leave directly? Well, Kongzi doesn’t talk about anything directly. As the Master said, “I will not open the door for a mind that is not already striving to understand, nor will I provide words to a tongue that is not already struggling to speak.” Kongzi teaches, he doesn’t tell. He always gets his students (including us) to figure stuff out, sparking insight in our own brains. One thing he’s always telling students is ritual, ritual, ritual. Ritual is spiritual homework. By doing ritual acts, we reflect and learn the lessons ourselves.
That is the point of ritual sacrifice here. Someone mourning for their parents for a symbolic three years would surely reflect on their infancy, and how much their own parents did. A society where everyone did this would surely reflect on the value…