Both Western and Chinese intellectuals have long derided filial piety tales as an absurd and grotesque variety of children's literature. Selfless Offspring offers a fresh perspective on the genre, revealing the rich historical worth of these stories by examining them in their original context: the tumultuous and politically fragmented early medieval era (A.D. 100-600). At a time when no Confucian virtue was more prized than filial piety, adults were moved and inspired by tales of filial children. Men eager to earn the regard of their peers avidly read them and even asked to be buried with them. Imperial princes authored collections to burnish their credentials, and elite families used them to justify their position in society. The emotional impact of even the most outlandish actions portrayed in the stories was profound, a measure of the directness with which they spoke to major concerns of the early medieval Chinese elite. In a period of weak central government and powerful local clans, the key to preserving a household's privileged status was maintaining a cohesive extended family. Here were essential stories of children willing to sacrifice everything for their parents, the unconditional obedience of sons, and families content to stay together for generations no matter what.
Selfless Offspring is the only in-depth study of filial piety tales in their original development; it is also one of the few works on early medieval Confucianism. It will be of substantial interest to scholars of Chinese social history, intellectual history, and literature.
Keith N. Knapp is associate professor of history at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina.