Performing Filial Piety in Northern Song China
Family, State, and Native Place
Educated men in Song-dynasty China (960–1279) traveled frequently in search of scholarly and bureaucratic success. These extensive periods of physical mobility took them away from their families, homes, and native places for long periods of time, preventing them from fulfilling their most sacred domestic duty: filial piety to their parents. In this deeply grounded work, Ellen Zhang locates the tension between worldly ambition and family duty at the heart of elite social and cultural life. Drawing on more than 2,000 funerary biographies and other official and private writing, Zhang argues that the predicament in which Song literati found themselves diminished neither the importance of filial piety nor the appeal of participating in examinations and government service. On the contrary, the Northern Song witnessed unprecedented literati activity and state involvement in the bolstering of ancient forms of filial performances and the promotion of new ones. The result was the triumph of a new filial ideal: luyang. By labeling highly coveted honors and privileges attainable solely through scholarly and official accomplishments as the most celebrated filial acts, the luyang rhetoric elevated office-holding men to be the most filial of sons. Consequently, the proper performance of filiality became essential to scholar-official identity and self-representation.
Zhang convincingly demonstrates that this reconfiguration of elite male filiality transformed filial piety into a status- and gender-based virtue, a change that had wide implications for elite family life and relationships in the Northern Song. The separation of elite men from their parents and homes also made the idea of “native place” increasingly fluid. This development in turn generated an interest in family preservation as filial performance. Individually initiated, kinship- and native place-based projects flourished and coalesced with the moral and cultural visions of leading scholar-intellectuals, providing the social and familial foundations for the ascendancy of Neo-Confucianism as well as new cultural norms that transformed Chinese society in the Song and beyond.
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