History Lessons

The Doctrine of the Mean

General Li Shuangjiang

Confucius would have understood what General Li Shuangjiang was trying to say when the singer of patriotic songs recently told netizens: “I didn’t beat my son. I couldn’t bring myself to. On advice, sometimes we would scare him. But I didn’t beat him. My own tears were the ones that would fall first,” as Chinanews.com reported.

General Li, 72, was blaming himself for the behaviour of his wayward boy, 15 year-old Li Tianyi, who was sentenced last week to a year in a correctional facility for beating up a Beijing couple in a road rage incident in early September.

“I didn’t raise him well,” the general admitted to Beijing News shortly after the incident.

Confucius opined on corporal punishment in both the “Classic of Rites” (Liji) and “Filial Piety” (Xiaojing). Alarmingly, he taught that a father had the right to beat his child “until he bled” – though not to death, the philospher kindly relented.

Old habits die hard. More than 70% of Chinese parents have admitted in surveys to beating their children, an attitude expressed in the saying: “buda bu chengqi,” 不打不成器, “If you don’t beat, (the child) won’t become anything useful.”

The saying parallels the remark from 19th century Britain: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

In “Filial Piety”, the story runs that Confucius’s disciple, Zengzi, was harvesting melons in the family plot one day when he accidentally cut the root of a melon plant with his hoe.

Irate, Zengzi’s father picked up a heavy stick and hit him so hard that Zengzi lost consciousness. When he came to, he told his father: “I have offended your lordship. You beat me so strongly I am afraid you may have hurt yourself.”

Confucius thought Zengzi’s father had gone too far, but he still criticised Zengzi for not running away, saying his submission to excessive violence had lowered his father’s status – a serious sin.

So, not exactly a clarion call for child protection. But the story does suggest that in this, as in all things, Confucius advocated a “Doctrine of the Mean” – not too much, and not too little.


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