A Ku Indeed!

Xiao and the Body

Posted in Analects, Chinese Philosophy by Chris on July 18, 2008

Shirong Luo gave an interesting talk last night on the concept of xiao (filial piety) and how it related to care and respect. I found it to be an interesting talk and I jotted down a number of questions on my pad about it. In this post I’ll highlight one of them (at some point I might try to outline another in a separate post). It concerns self and identity and extending the notion of the physical body as a gift from one’s parents to understanding one’s social body as a gift as well (from one’s cultural lineage).

It is well known that in the Confucian tradition (at least?) the physical body of a child is seen as a gift from one’s parents. As a result, one is expected to treat the body with deep respect as a sign of gratitude for the gift one’s parents have given you. So, when you die, it is important that your physical body be intact (no severed limbs, no tattoos I suppose, and no nose rings) so that you can “give it back” in one piece (literally). (There is an analect on this somewhere, but I can’t recall the number).

I wonder if this way of talking about “the body” can be extended to a sense of one’s “social” identity.

First, start with the notion of the body-self; for some thinkers, continuity of self has a bodily condition (as necessary condition, say). Thus, if your parents give “you” your body, then there may be a sense in which they have given you “you”. Alterations to that body may be seen as alterations of self, and thus as a result the gift one was given is made impure. Perhaps, to use an odd example, it would be like someone giving you a shirt, and you return it and get a different one, or you get a car as a gift and you have it repainted a different color. On some level, it says that the gift was not good enough “as is” and thus is an insult to the giver. We all know how touchy those holiday gift-giving situations are! Of course, in the case of the body, people don’t seek to lose a limb, but the way Luo spoke made it seem as if losing one still, in the end, would be seen as carelessness, and so as a result a lack of respect to one’s parents. A case of bad stewardship, say.

Can this way of talking be extended to the “social” self? To make my point, I should preface it to note that Luo’s talk got me thinking in terms of Heidegger. To use a bit of his way of speaking, just as much as I am “thrown” into a body not of my choice (I simply find myself in one), I am also “thrown” into a social environment, one within which my sense of who I am in a non-bodily sense necessarily emerges. Without a social environment that pre-dates me, or a community in which intelligible human relations can be understood, the grounds of the very intelligibility required for me to be a self in a significant meaningful sense would not exist.

In many ways, this environment is made up of a web of rituals (li) that together constitute the language that lies at the basis of my social self. Much of this is relational. I am thrown into being a son, into the very Li which constitute the language of that way of meaningfully interacting with specific others. I am thrown into being a New Yorker, and an American, and a resident of the 20th and 21st centuries (all of which have the same structure in terms of Li). Of course I can resist these relationships, but this doesn’t stop them from forming the groundwork from which I can meaningfully interact with the world. To think in terms of Nietzsche, slaves may resist the nobles, but the form of their resistance is made intelligible against the backdrop of the social environment created by the nobles themselves.

Seen in this way, the language of Li is a gift given to me from my ancestors without which “I” could not exist in a meaningful sense. I need “them” to be a father, or a son, or a student, or whatever. As a result, I wonder whether we can extend the body discussion here — to suggest that one’s social “body” is also a temple, just as much as one’s physical body is a temple. It is a gift, so one is obliged to respect it and care for it, and perhaps to “give it back” intact when one is done (perhaps this is to “pass it on” to others).

If we continue the metaphor, however, we are left with the issue of alteration of Li. How should we view it? On these grounds, it looks as if an alteration of Li might be akin to getting a tattoo on one’s body. Unfortunately, this post is getting a bit long, and I need to rush off to the morning seminar. So I’ll just leave it open with some questions.

First, I am committed to the view that Li must be changeable. However, this metaphor, to me, suggests that to remain “me” a kind of continuity with my past social “body” must be maintained. My intuition here is that continuity of self will require a kind of negotiation (if you will) with one’s ancestors. In a way, one will have to “get their approval” to make the change. In a way, like asking your parents if it would be acceptable to put that tattoo on your arm. Perhaps some tattoos are not acceptable, whereas other might be.

To move in this direction, we’d need a way of talking about the social body that allows us to suggest that for it to continue, and to be nourished (indeed, for it to be cared for and respected) will require these eventual amendments. In this light, I am partial to Hall and Ames’ treatment of Yi as a way of understanding this concept (I realize others are not similarly partial to them), but I’d be interested in hearing any thoughts anyone else might have. Or even criticisms of the basic setup for the analogy and metaphor.

Any thoughts?


6 Responses

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  1. Bill Haines said, on July 18, 2008 at 8:08 am

    Very interesting, Chris!

    I wonder how early is the gift idea. In the Analects, maybe you’re thinking of Zengzi at 8.3 (on unwrapping his hands and feet), though he doesn’t mention parents there (cf. 6.6). If Confucius thought the body was importantly a gift from parents, then it’s a little odd that he doesn’t mention that in 17.21 (on Zaiwo’s ingratitude).

    I’m under the impression that early Confucianism hardly distinguishes oneself from one’s “physical body” – it’s not clear that there’s a concept of the body as distinct from the person. (Maybe that’s a problem for the idea that the “self” fundamentally involves, so to speak, more than one person.)

    The Xiaojing, from maybe 250-150 BCE, says: 父母生之,續莫大焉, which Legge translates, “The son derives his life from his parents, and no greater gift could possibly be transmitted.” A more literal translation might be “there is no greater inheritance/transmission.”

    (One might object: a transmission is a responsibility, but arguably the parents in making the transmission are compensating for having received life themselves. But Legge’s translation rightly continues: “His ruler and parent (in one), his father deals with him accordingly, and no generosity could be greater than this. Hence, he who does not love his parents, but loves other men, is called a rebel against virtue, and he who does not revere his parents, but reveres other men, is called a rebel against propriety.”)

    Do you find the idea prior to the Xiaojing?

  2. Bill Haines said, on July 18, 2008 at 8:15 am

    PS the clause Legge translates as “The son derives his life from his parents” is more literally “Father mother issue him” (or “make-to-be him” or “make-t0-live him”).

  3. Chris said, on July 22, 2008 at 4:22 am


    I was definitely thinking of 8.3 — that’s the one. True, the parents aren’t mentioned here, but I always assumed that this was the implied reference in the passage. Slingerland notes this point precisely in his commentary.

    I’m not sure I’d expect to see this in 17.21. The context there is our favorite uncommitted disciple deciding that three years is too much to mourn, so Zaiwo is “taking the lead” in the passage by setting the context there for what xiao (should) requires. Confucius not adding to the requirement doesn’t strike me as evidence that there aren’t further requirements, given that Zaiwo refuses to even have the right basic attitude towards his parents at this most basic level, so I take this as a “first things first” type passage. That and the fact that Confucius seems particularly frustrated with him at the time (to the point where he basically tells him to believe what he wants, which is unusual), so it seems out of place for a more full-bodied discussion of xiao.

    I’m certain that you are right on the person-hood question vis-a-vis the mind/body split, namely that there doesn’t appear to be one. I haven’t thought this through yet, so at this point I’m just thinking out loud using easier language (which exploit the givenness of a split). Perhaps one could think of the survival of the social body in terms of an intelligible bodily performance of rituals (in terms of meaningful behavior)? I’m guessing some reading along these lines could put the dualism issue to the side?

    I’m not sure texts earlier than Xiaojing yet — this idea is something I’d like to fit into the paper idea I’m playing around with (most recent thread), so I’m just as the beginning of doing the secondary digging through texts.

  4. Justsomeguy said, on August 20, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    I don’t see any contradiction here as long as the principle governing the change is rooted in natural progress. While my body is a gift from my parents, I look different now than I did 10 years ago, and I am barely recognizable as the same person 20 years ago. No doubt when I am older, I will look different than I do now!

    One’s duty to maintain their body is not a duty not to age and change, it is a duty not to make drastic changes that would fundamentally alter their body in an inauthentic way.

    One’s social body can be thought of in the same way. Confucius quite plainly doesn’t care what fabric the hat is made of, as long as the hat is still worn during the ritual. On the other hand, he very much cares where and when one bows. The hat’s material is immaterial to the essence of the ritual — indeed, focusing on the hat’s material could lead one to vanity. Right? How would Confucius have looked if he had sprung for the expensive (and formally correct) silk hat while everyone else was wearing a linen hat? That act would have detracted from the ritual as opposed to enhancing it.

  5. Chris said, on August 21, 2008 at 5:47 am


    I really like that way of putting it (regarding the relationship between duty and natural progression of aging). When I get around to this part, I’d like to use that idea in the paper, if you don’t mind. It works very well! At some point I’ll have to get your name, so I don’t acknowledge (in the paper) getting the idea from “JustSomeGuy”!

  6. Justsomeguy said, on August 21, 2008 at 9:12 am

    Glad you liked it. I’m John Kinzfogl. A pleasure to meet you.

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