Elwood 5566

Fulfilling a Promise to my Mother – The Lessons of ‘Filial Loyalty’ (孝 – 효도)

Posted in Comparative, customs, Five Second Hanja (Theme) by 노강호 on March 22, 2012

filial loyalty 효도 – 효

Because the characters for ‘filial loyalty’ comprise of only a few strokes, well, seven, it is among the first hundred or so you learn when studying hanja. However, your introduction to it is probably via the two, simpler, three stroke characters for ‘son’ /’child’ (子), or girl’/’woman’/’daughter (女). When combined, the two characters, comprising either ‘filial son’ (孝子) or ‘filial daughter’ (孝女), appear fairly early in the hanja learning process partly because they are simple characters, and also because ‘filial loyalty (piety, duty) are central Confucian values. It will be seen that in the character for ‘filial loyalty’ (孝 – 효도-효), the character for ‘child’ appears in the bottom right and in this case is the ‘radical’ by which characters are grouped in dictionaries. The character can be interpreted as the child carrying their father or mother on their back.

Hanja is the name for the Chinese characters still used in South Korea and they are regularly seen in everything from newspapers to restaurant menus. They are especially popular in inscriptions and the use of hanja plays a role not too dissimilar from that of Latin, in the West. ‘Do your best,’ ‘to kill two birds with one stone,’ ‘like father’ like son,’ and ‘distinct as black and white,’ are just a few examples of the many available. In particular, 4 character hanja, such as  ‘one stone, two birds,’ often deriving from an ancient book, known as the ‘One Thousand Characters’ (천자문), are particularly common. Around 1800 characters appear in the school curriculum, 900 in middle school and 900 in high school. However, not all Koreans, even well-educated ones, have a good knowledge of them.

‘village of the filial loyal children and wives’

In a high school in which I taught for a year, I became well acquainted with the characters for ‘filial sons’ because it was engraved on a huge boulder just inside the school entrance. And, on my walk into town, it appeared on a set of murals painted on a wall. The character is also memorable because of its confusion with that for ‘old, venerable’ (老 – 늙은 -노).

‘filial loyalty – duty – piety’

Despite its frequent appearance, I really only had a vague understanding of the concept. Okay, I understand the idea of duty to your parents, in a loose, western way, being respectful, thoughtful, etc, but let’s face it, in the West we’ve become fairly adept at ignoring the needs of our parents, especially as they get older. ‘Caring’ for your parents, and respect towards older people, and this does not necessarily mean only those of advanced years, has a far greater significance in Korea and the Confucian informed East in general. The Confucian notion of ‘filial loyalty,’ among other things, includes taking care of one’s parents, bringing a good name to them, supporting them, not being rebellious, showing love and respect, courtesy, upholding fraternity between brothers etc, and performing sacrifices after their death. Though traditions are gradually changing, Koreans often live in extended families. I have one friend who lives in a large five-room apartment with his wife, three children, sister, sister’s husband and two children, and his mother and father. Recently, they moved house and prior to this were able to decide whether they wanted to continue living together; they chose to continue cohabitation. Another friend, who is in his late thirties, lives with his invalided father who to say the least is cantankerous and unfriendly. He continually berates his son for not being married despite the fact that he is probably the cause of this.

ancestral graves on the mountainside

Additionally, Korean ‘filial loyalty’ goes beyond the grave and honoring one’s ancestors, back to at least five generations, is an integral part of the Korean yearly cycle. Recently, my sister traced our family tree back 5 generations and I visited a number of cemeteries in rural Britain. Standing on the edge of my great-great-great grandfather’s grave didn’t really move me and I’d felt more emotion next to the graves of those I felt I knew better, such as Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Bruce Lee and Benjamin Britten, and with whom there was no genetic bond.  It was as a dreary, drizzly, winter afternoon that somehow suited the visit; all the graves, even those of not much more than fifty years old, were flaking, unkempt and covered in lichen. I seemed more aware of the gulf of time that separated us than any awe that we were related.  In the absence of any rituals of remembrance our ancestors and our family histories are forgotten once out of living memory and then have to be rescued and resuscitated by genealogical research. And it isn’t just distance that breaks the bonds between us; one of my relatives lives only a few miles from his great, great grandmother’s grave and not only does he not no where it is located in the cemetery, but has no interest in knowing so.

the cemetery where my great, great, great-grandfather is buried

We British mark the graves of our loved ones with a stone plinth the engraving of which will just about remain legible and decent during living memory and during that period the grave may be tended and flowers or tokens dedicated to it. Then, when there is no living person to remember the grave’s owner, the weeds spring up and the lichen takes its hold.  One rarely sees a name on a Korean grave yet on the mountain sides, on gentle slopes facing the east (to conform to the principles of Feng Shui, 風水地理 – 풍수지리), you will find countless ancestral graves but far from being abandoned, they are usually tended and cared for. The ancestors of most British people seem so deader than in Korea where ‘filial loyalty’ prescribes ‘remembrance’ of their having been and in doing so connects both individuals and families with history, location and community.

an example of ‘filial loyalty’

Recently, one of my friends explained to me how his father, suffering from terminal liver cancer, wanted to die. I was apologetic but he laughed and told me he wasn’t distraught or sad, indeed he was somewhat happy for his father. I didn’t quite understand and asked for clarification; how can you be a ‘little happy’ your dad is about to die? And so, he explained how he’d been waiting for his father to die for fifteen years, not because he wanted him to die or was angry at his father’s addiction to soju, but because his father was tired of life – especially life without alcohol. Indeed, his father had been ‘welcoming’ his own death for years. Content in the knowledge he’d been a good parent, husband, grandfather, as well as a good son; had brought three children into the world, made sure they’d been educated, guided them in their moral development, supported his family and honoured his ancestors, he had nothing else to live for. But what was also touching was the way my friend put the happiness of his father, before his own. Yes, his father had flaws, some might argue major ones, but he’d done all that was required of him in terms of ‘filial duty’ and if his father was ready to depart and eager for his own demise, then he shouldn’t let his own sadness over shadow his father’s potential happiness. I by no means think this a common way to view the death of a parent in Korea not do a I particularly agree with it but it is interesting because for some, ‘filial loyalty,’ filial duty’ is a clearly a moral yard stick by which to judge earthly performance.

honouring a father on New Year’s Day (lunar)

My mother died over fifteen years ago. Like all our mothers, she was a wonderful person and a fantastic parent and I often said to her that after her death, which at the time never seemed a reality and was always years in the future, my sister and I would open a bottle of wine beside her grave, have a couple of drinks and reminisce as a way of celebrating the life we’d shared together. I even said I’d pour some drink onto her grave – she loved a glass of wine!  How Korean! Yet this was before I’d even visited the country and before I knew anything about ‘filial loyalty.’  Somehow, it simply seems not just the logical thing to do but the most natural response to the death of a loved one.  However, sitting graveside in a British cemetery, with a bottle of alcohol, could be construed as almost sacrilegious, it’s not the done thing and I’ve generally been dissuaded by convention. So, I’ve promised myself that on my next visit to the UK, I’m going to spend sometime with my mum and dad, not with a heavy heart and  flowers that so quickly wilt and add even more poignancy to a grave, but with a bottle of  homemade makgeolli and a smile.

Creative Commons License

©Bathhouse Ballads –  努江虎 – 노강호 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Further References

One Thousand Characters (천자문 – Bathhouse Ballads, July 2010)

To Kill Two Birds with One Stone – Five Second Hanja (Bathhouse Ballads, June 2011)

What Character is That? (Book review – Bathhouse Ballads, May 2010)

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One Response

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  1. jenkin said, on March 24, 2012 at 6:23 am

    beautifully written and moving personal story!
    I hope many people can share this story.
    So I suggest you to send this to Korea Times.

    It seems you have some kind of karma with Korea. Now I would like to say that you would come back to Korea again and again since a gravity of karma will always pull you to Korea, which is like your life is predestined to spend your life in Korea. If you allow me to say like an Oriental philosopher, I would say if you follow your predestined karma, your life would flourish in the land of predestined karma.


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