In the late 19th century, the period I focus on in my dissertation, one way of responding to the many crises that China was undergoing involved trying to morally realign society in such a way as to prevent such crises from ever happening again. This was on one level cosmic: heaven will no longer send flood and famine to trouble the virtuous peasantry; and on another level social: a community that prioritizes social cohesion, respect for authority, and gradual change is unlikely to rise up in rebellion.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone agreed on what moral direction the empire should take. Many different voices clamored for attention, all trying to instill their version of moral standards into a population which also had much more interesting, exciting media to consume and was increasingly better able to access it with literacy rates tending higher and printed matter becoming even easier to obtain.

From a 15th cent illustrated Chinese primer.

From an illustrated Chinese primer.

Among these conservative reformers, there was a lot of talk of banning stuff – including plays, novels, songs, and poems – that were thought to do things like inculcate disrespect for authority in young men or stir up immoral passions in impressionable young women, for example. Again, these bans were for more reasons than just preventing the transmission of questionable values to China’s impressionable youth. Bans on plays, for example, might prevent mixed gender audiences from forming outside the control of sober civil or parental authority. Bans on novels would prevent students from being distracted from their immersion in the classics.

But some conservative reformers, among them Yu Zhi, called for bans on popular literature even as they also produced it. On one hand, this is because they saw an opportunity to inculcate proper moral values in the entertainment vacuum left should the bans and book burnings be successful (in practice they really weren’t). On the other hand, it is also because they acknowledged that popular literature was more attractive than classical literature. In order to contend against its powerful attraction, they would have to provide people with alternatives that were just as attractive but had more acceptable values.

If young women swooned and invited men to jump over their garden walls for secret assignations after watching The Story of the Western Wing, then could that power be harnessed for good instead of ill? What if instead of locking those girls in a room with Lienü zhuan and hoping they absorbed good old-fashioned 1st century BCE values from reading it, they were allowed to watch a play about a virtuous widow who loved her mother-in-law, was never cross, and supported her poor family through traditional handicrafts until her filial son gained success in the civil service exam?

Like this young woman, pictured in Yu Zhi's 學堂日記圖說.

Like this young woman, pictured in Yu Zhi’s 學堂日記圖說.

Moral conservatives, recognizing the failure of their pedagogical methods, were attempting to reach the uneducated at their level and through genres of media they would prefer to consume. This is the logic behind Yu Zhi’s composition of morality plays in the 1850s and 1860s, and seems also to be behind the composition of a handful of new baojuan at around the same time. These moves rest on two assumptions: 1) the uneducated are easily swayed by propaganda and 2) audiences were attracted to the entertainment medium, not the messages of tales that went contrary to strict Confucian values.

As skeptical as I may sound about this approach to inculcating the populace, a few of the resultant works were rousing successes (for a while at least), if the republication data is anything to go off of. I discuss those in my dissertation and won’t get into them here.

Instead, it is after this long preamble that I’d like to introduce Xiqi baojuan 希奇寶卷 (The Outlandish Precious Volume), which will not be making it into my dissertation. Click on this sentence to download a beautifully digitized edition from Waseda University Library and write an article about it yourself. I simply have no idea what to do with it.

Xiqi baojuan was composed in the same time period I discussed above and, in 1866, published by the same morality book print house that put out first editions of some popular baojuan (focusing on conservative Confucian values) that I discuss in my dissertation. It shouldn’t be all that much different from the rest of the stuff they put out, and to be sure roughly 50% of it is pretty boilerplate.

But taken as a whole, Xiqi baojuan is either a brilliant satire of Confucian dystopia that somehow made it past staid moral critics or a gruesome vision of the ideal family that an overly creative moralist thought could induce sudden enlightenment (Chan Buddhist style) about filial piety in audiences jaded by other lurid dramas.

If you don’t have a strong stomach, you may want to stop reading now.

Consider yourself warned.

Xiqi baojuan has an alternate title:
The Classic Story of Eating Dog Shit and Cursing Father and Mother (吃狗屎罵爺娘故典)

In short, two brothers quarrel over who should care for their ill and aged mother in her widowhood (note: it’s actually the older brother’s wife’s fault because she’s a selfish harpy, as most wives are in these tales). The well off older brother (a scholar and teacher) foists his mother and sisters on his impoverished younger brother (an illiterate farmer). In order to keep mother fed with the delicacies she is accustomed to, buy her medicine and funeral clothes, and marry off his sisters, the farmer sells off his fields, borrows money, and is left destitute, pushing a cart as a day laborer.

He and his wife begin to starve. His logic is that is better that the young to suffer than the aged. Confined to her bed, the mother never realizes the great suffering she is bringing on her son and daughter-in-law. Eventually, the daughter-in-law bears a son. Grandma is overcome with joy, but the new parents are at a loss for how to feed this extra mouth. After the mother’s milk supply dries up because she has barely enough to eat, she weepingly resolves that the infant, just at crawling age, will have to starve to death so that grandma can continue to live. Forced by their strict adherence to Confucian values to prioritize grandma’s comfort over the life of their child, the farmer and his wife are distressed but out of options.

The starving infant, unable to eat the weeds and chaff his parents live off of and prevented from enjoying the delicacies – cakes, fish, meat, white rice – the his grandmother gets all to herself, crawls out into the street and eats the first thing he sees – fresh dog dung. The neighbors point and laugh and his parents are ashamed of their poverty. The next day, the infant refuses to eat his parents’ gruel and again crawls out to the street in search of dog dung. (Which was apparently in as plentiful supply on urban streets in China then as it is now.) His parents decide that there’s nothing to be done but to go out daily and collect dung to feed him and the child thrives on this bizarre diet.

From Yu Zhi's 學堂日記圖說.  Actually, these are silver ingots, but you get the idea.

From Yu Zhi’s 學堂日記圖說. Actually, those are ingots, but you get the idea.

Fast forward and the child, now called “Dogboy (狗郎)” by everyone in the village, is old enough to realize that no one else eats dog crap. Resenting how his parents purchase delicacies for his grandmother and bring him shovels full of feces, he flies into a rage and pours out his grievances in a tantrum. “Other families feed their children food! You feed me poo!” The neighbors, hearing this, laugh to themselves all the more. His parents have nothing to counter his complaints because, indeed, they raised him on a diet of dog dung. And try as he might, nothing else smells like food to him, so he has to keep eating feces to live, even as he berates his parents daily for having put him in this state. Whatever friends they still had up to this point now stay away because of Dogboy’s unfilial anger. (The bodily stench he’s said to have didn’t deter them, but the anger is the last straw, apparently.)

Dogboy continues along like this for years, scolding his parents day and night while filling his stomach up with dog shit, until one day a wandering monk stops by. He asks why the farmer and his wife permit Dogboy’s protest instead of beating him into filial respect. They explain the fecal eating situation and the monk promises to help resolve it.

In a series of questions, he leads Dogboy to understand that he should be grateful to his parents, not angry with them, and that his anger is a great sin against the order of the universe. “After all,” the monk continues to emphasize, “didn’t your parents have to go and collect dog dung for you to eat every day? After they gave you life, didn’t they work to guarantee you didn’t die? Besides, your preference for eating crap comes from something you did in a previous life, not anything your parents did to you.”

Dogboy flings himself at his parents feet, weeping, and all is forgiven. His body odor suddenly disappears and he smells sweet instead. Grandma recovers from her paralysis and toddles out from her bedchamber to ask what all the commotion is. The farmer’s snooty older brother reconciles with his estranged sibling (his harpy wife having conveniently died in punishment for drowning two babies), offers him the estate, and takes Dogboy as his heir. Dogboy becomes a successful student, marries, and has a son and a daughter, and everyone in his family live happily ever after.

The lesson, summed up at the end, goes something like “If even someone whose parents raised him on poo realizes that he should respect them, then how much more should you respect your parents who raised you on real food?”

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 10.40.48 AM

Why have I been thinking about this story again now? @jmstwn’s recent article on Thinking Taiwan, “Curriculum Protests Challenge Chiang-Confucian Social Order,” explores two striking incidents of parent-child strife that captivated Taiwan in the past month of student protests over high school curriculum revision. His article touches on so many deep seated issues in Taiwanese society: democratization, transparency, social class, ageism (in this case against youth), uses of violence, suicide, deification of dictators, and how insidious power is about maintaining its hold over those it perceives as easily manipulable.

Both news stories involved children who refused to accept the version of history and social order that their parents and teachers were feeding them, and as a result, their family conflicts became national news stories. Dai Lin’s family as a result of his tragic suicide after being hounded by school administrators and his parents for his activism. Chou Tien-kuan’s family as a result of their mini-brawl in front of TV cameras as his parents tried to drag him away from the occupation.

I can’t help thinking about these generational conflicts in terms of Dogboy, his impoverished parents, and his coddled grandmother. It’s another Rorschach test.

Taiwanese students protesting curriculum changes are looking at their parents, teachers, and the politicians elected by those adults, and asking, “Why are your feeding us this crap? We won’t eat anymore of it.”

More power to them for being able to smell what stinks about the revisions and, more importantly, what stinks about the system that’s allowed revisions like that to go through.

Dogboy’s impoverished parents are trapped between loving their son, who they’ve failed, and obeying and respecting Grandma’s wishes. Grandma didn’t create Confucianism, but she did unknowingly benefit from it for all the years in which her caregivers starved. No one bothered to tell Grandma that catering to her every whim was ruining the lives of the two generations to come after her. And Dogboy ate dung and his neighbors laughed.

The Confucian model that @jmstwn refers to in his article has been faltering for a lot longer than three generations. In the late 19th century, social and political conservatives recognized this with varying degrees of fear, anger, and anxiety. They banned books, instituted systems that encouraged studying classics, and tried to repackage traditional morals in attractive forms like plays and oral storytelling scripts.

or their elementary school textbooks. (mine from the early 90s)

or their elementary school textbooks. (mine from the early 90s)

Even though the troubling story of Confucian respect for elders taken to the extreme resolves thanks to the intervention of moral authorities who bring peace and harmony back to Dogboy’s family and village, it is still built around a central image of parents raising their child on excrement. It’s hard not to suspect that the rottenness isn’t in Dogboy’s stinking body odor or his voice raised in anger or his karmic past, but is instead at the heart of the village itself and the framework upon which all their relationships function.

Are the current wave of protests in Taiwan, pitting children against parents all the more obviously than earlier protests, further signs of the breakdown of the traditional social fabric?


But how strong is that fabric in 2015, in all actuality? How long have we been looking at patches, like curriculum meant to inculcate a certain kind of identity in impressionable young audiences, or like a morality tale jazzed up with some toilet humor, and seen them as whole cloth? Patches pull old fabric along new seams. They can’t stop something ragged from fraying again eventually.

This can’t be resolved by a wandering monk, a virtuous school teacher, or any number of talking heads on national television pontificating about the lack of respect for one’s elders and betters.

Taiwanese student protests aren’t the cause of social unrest. They are, however, a sign of something new coming into being. A sign that the patches have failed to inculcate the hoped-for values of respect, placidity, and “Chineseness.” Now, even youths barely acknowledged as political entities, yet to be given a vote to cast, cry out for acknowledgement. They cry out for sustenance. They add their threads to a new fabric yet being woven.

Taiwan isn’t a Confucian utopia/dystopia. This tale can’t be capped off with a clever poem reminding youth of their proper place in the relational web into which they were born.

They refuse to take any more shit.

6 thoughts on “Outlandish fables and Taiwanese curriculum reform

  1. These kids are heroes. I don’t think I would have been able to do what they did when I was their age. Your assessments are right on the mark. Changes are afoot. Maybe it is not apparent right now but the effects will be felt for years to come. I love this blog. I hope you write more.

    • Thanks for all of your comments and for the compliment! I agree, they’re heroes and have already done more than I ever did at that age. I might have aspired to join them, but I was far too concerned about grades, exams, and getting into college to actually have done anything like it.

      I hope to keep writing more too. Writing about Taiwan is what most excites me, but when I’m not there it’s difficult to comment from afar.

  2. This is a brilliant post. Every time someone rhapsodizes about the virtues of Confucian harmony, I’m going to think of Dogboy. You will definitely want to write an academic article about this story at some point in your professional career, since it touches on such universal themes as justice, order, and even satire. I am reminded of what my father always says when Reaganites talk about trickle-down economics. He points out that Hoover advocated the same thing, but he used earthier language. Hoover told people that you feed the horses to eat the chickens. Hoover was almost literally telling poor people that it was right for them to expect to eat shit while rich people dined on good food.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting. It means a lot to me! When I sneak time away from dissertation research and writer, I’m an enthusiastic reader of your blog. Particularly enjoyed it during the Taipei mayoral election.

      Regarding Dogboy’s story, maybe I will dig into it more and get an article out of it someday. I’m halfway tempted to structure my dissertation’s conclusion around it, but maybe its satirical elements (they have to be, right? so many unanswered questions!) would detract from the straightlaced morality texts I deal with in the rest of my diss.

    announces a presentation at Rice [!] University this week:
    “Speaker: Yenna Wu
    Professor of Chinese
    University of California, Riverside
    Yenna Wu– Flesh For Healing: Exploring the Multifaceted Dimensions of Gegu Liaoqin Through a Chinese Case and a Korean Counterpart” “Gegu liaoqin literally means to cut a piece of flesh from one’s thigh in order to cure a seriously ailing parent or relative. Professor Yenna Wu will discuss the sociocultural dimensions of this practice, its controversy in the context of Confucian discourse on filial piety, and its connection with Buddhist discourse on bodily sacrifice. While focusing on the literary representations of a fourteenth-century Chinese girl’s filial self-mutilation, she will also explore the significance in a comparable case from early fifteenth-century Korea. Faculty host: Nanxiu Qian ”

    I recall your *previous* column on that example of Filial Piety & thought you might find someone else “on your wavelength” through my post.
    Keep up the good “Delving”!
    -Dr. David Upp

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