Sunday, September 20, 2009

Three years mourning for parents

The Chinese would know or have heard about the three years of mourning for parents. Many would say it is traditional. Those who know a bit more from their Chinese studies will say it is based on the Classics. And they are right.

However, most may not know the real reason for the three years of mourning.

The Book of Rites (Li Ki) elaborated about the required periods of mourning with three years being the longest. The Book of Filial Piety (Hsiao Ching) contained what the Master said about the three years mourning being the fulfillment of duty by the bereaved children (Chapter 18).

The Book of Rites says:

Thus it is that in the mourning of three years the highest forms that vary and adorn the ways of men are displayed. Yes, this is what is called the richest exhibition (of human feelings).
[Book 35. 13 Legge]

Perhaps the simplest and easiest clarification can be obtained from the Analects of Confucius. Just like what people of old would want to know – the above paragraph in the Li Ki was to explain why – one of his students questioned Confucius about it:

Tsai Wo asked about the three years’ mourning for parents, saying that one year was long enough.

‘If the superior man,’ said he, ‘abstains for three years from the observances of propriety, those observances will be quite lost. If for three years he abstains from music, music will be ruined.’

‘Within a year the old grain is exhausted, and the new grain has sprung up, and, in procuring fire by friction, we go through all the changes of wood for that purpose. After a complete year, the mourning may stop.’

The Master said, ‘If you were, after a year, to eat good rice, and wear embroidered clothes, would you feel at ease?’ ‘I should,’ replied Wo.

The Master said, ‘If you can feel at ease, do it. But a superior man, during the whole period of mourning, does not enjoy pleasant food which he may eat, nor derive pleasure from music which he may hear. He also does not feel at ease, if he is comfortably lodged. Therefore he does not do what you propose. But now you feel at ease and may do it.’

Tsai Wo then went out, and the Master said,

‘This shows Yu’s want of virtue (* Bu Ren). It is not till a child is three years old that it is allowed to leave the arms of its parents. And the three years’ mourning is universally observed throughout the empire. Did Yu enjoy the three years’ love of his parents?

[Analects 17. 21 Legge]

Now you come to know the real reason behind the three years’ mourning.

You can see that to be a Confucian is difficult; to be filial is even more difficult being duty bound.

The most difficult is perhaps being a Junzi or the right person for Tao.


baroness radon said...

I just discovered your most interesting blog, and was particularly struck with this post, because just two days prior I had written one of my own, about concluding the mourning after three years of my father's death.

I thought had heard these explanations somewhere and was a little concerned that maybe I imagined them, but this was a delightful confirmation of my understanding of the three-year mourning tradition.

I look forward to spending some time with the rest of your writings.

Anonymous said...


I too have come to the whispering "ends of mourning". It will soon be three years, and I am just now beginning to enjoy the music I hear, and have my heart open to the small wonders and joys of life. The Western society does not give us this permission, to allow a true mourning period. All I can say is I'm glad I listened to my needs and allowed myself the time that was needed.

Thank you for posting this on your blog. It's clear Confucius knew through experience, and/or many observations, the time needed to bring ourselves back to life again. It's much like dying and experiencing a rebirth. There's something wondrous and magical in that.