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Chinese Narrative Poem A Peacock Southeast Flew
A Peacock Southeast Flew is a classical Chinese narrative poem that refers to the end of the Han Dynasty (196-219 AD). The author of the poem is unknown, and it is the oldest example of the poetized legends or novels in Chinese literature. The poem tells about the fate of two loving people who were separated by their parents’ will. For a modern Westerner, understanding of the content will not be complete without consideration of Confucian ethics, which defined all aspects of life in China for a long time. According to Confucius, filial piety was a primary value that served the basis of the society. In such context, A Peacock Southeast Flew is a story of how merciless exploitation of filial piety led to the tragic death of a young couple. The current essay will analyze the ancient Chinese poem from the viewpoint of Confucian Analects.
The Concept of Filial Piety as a Supreme Virtue in Confucian China
A proper understanding of the poem requires some background of the Chinese society history. Chinese society in the times described in the poem was highly hierarchical and based on strict subordination. The matter of state found grounding and support in the teaching of Confucius, who spoke about the vital importance of order in everything. A woman was subordinated to her husband, and children – to their parents. A family, as a lowest-level cell of the society, represented a pattern of such subordination that repeated itself at a higher level of the region and the state in general. If hierarchical order established the structure of Chinese society, filial piety understood in the broadest manner was the basis that secured the integrity of the structure. According to Confucius, it was a cornerstone virtue. In The Analects 2:5, the Master explains the sense of filiality: “Never disobey” (Confucius, 2015).
Confucius said, “The upright men in my district are different. Fathers cover up for their sons and sons cover up for their fathers. Uprightness lies therein.”
While individualistic Western culture understands and respects filial piety, its extreme expression set forth by Confucius seems contradictory to any common sense. Meanwhile, A Peacock Southeast Flew shows filial piety and its misuse by the older generations.
The Plot of the Poem
The poem depicts several kinds of relations that are ruled by the concept of filiality. The first of them are husband-and-wife relations, second, mother-and-son relations, and third, brother-and-sister relations. Such pairs fit the pattern of hierarchical subordination, and the lowest and most deprived party is the youngest female.
The poem starts with a brief metaphorical introduction: “A peacock southeast flew, After five leagues it faltered” (Anonymous, 2012). The image of a peacock has a symbolic meaning. Male peacocks wear gorgeous feather attire, while female peacocks are gray and inconspicuous. The roles of men and women have similar expression in the Chinese culture, meaning that a woman has to subordinate to her husband. The husband can go to a public service, army, business, etc. The wife can only serve her husband, look after the housekeeping, and fulfill the wishes of the man. The introduction also predicts the tragic changes of the plot, the escape or exile, and final death.
A Peacock Southeast Flew is a touching story of Liu Lanchih, a young girl from a common family. She married Jiao Zhongqing, a government clerk, whose family had a higher status. Although the young people loved each other deeply and sincerely, Zhongqing’s mother was not satisfied with Lanchih. Evidently, she looked at her daughter-in-law as a rival standing between her and her son. Additionally, she planned another couple for her son. Zhongqing failed to protect his wife as the ultimate argument of his mother was deeply respected. When the husband departed to his office, the wife returned home to a great sorrow and shame of her family. Zhongqing promised to pick Lanchih from her parents’ house, and the young people swore to love each other. Under the pressure of her relatives, Lanchih accepted a marriage proposal from a rich young man of a good origin. After the wedding day was appointed, her husband came to see Lanchih. They swore loyalty to each other again and decided to commit suicide to be together after death. On the eve of her wedding, Lanchih drowned herself in a lake, Having heard the terrible news, Zhongqing hung himself in the garden. The tragedy made their parents repent their cruelty. The two families buried Lanchih and Zhongqing together (Anonymous, 2012).
Manifestation of Filial Piety in the Poem
Relationship between Mother-in-Law and Daughter-in-Law
A Peacock Southeast Flew reflects a deprived position of a daughter-in-law in the family of her husband. Lanchih was unfortunate with her mother-in-law. It was an austere and unkindly woman that saw a rival in her daughter-in-law who tried to diminish her influence on her son and an obstacle to her son’s more profitable marriage. Nevertheless, Lanchih did not dare contradict her mother-in-law and could not defend herself. The girl knew her value as she was educated, hard-working, and did all possible to please her husband’s mother. She was married at 17. By that time, she had learned to weave fine silk, make clothes, play the lute, and recite Odes and History. Moreover, she brought a rich dowry to her husband. She worked hard in marriage weaving at the loom. She could only complain about unfair treatment to her husband. However, when she had to leave, she showed only kindness, humbleness, and obedience to her mother-in-law. She spoke in humility, “Long ago when I was a child, I grew up in the countryside. I had no schooling from the start, On both counts would shame the man of a great house” (Anonymous, 2012). Even though her mother-in-law had caused her much pain by unfair treatment, she was bound to respect and obey. Moreover, she asked her sister-in-law to take care of her mother, to be nice, and help whenever she could (Anonymous, 2012). Such lines prove, apart from Lanchih’s good heart, the fact that nobody could overcome the requirements of subordination, even if the superior’s demands were unfair.
Relationship between Parents and Children
The relationship between Zhongqing and his mother is the case of extreme filial piety and extreme exploitation and misuse of the feeling. The mother shows an example of authoritarian and proprietary motherly attitude. The woman ruined her son’s life and he obeyed her utill his death. Although the mother sees that Zhongqing is happy with his wife, she does everything to destroy their happiness. The reason is not lack of love to her son but her desire of a better future for him. For that, he must send Lanchih back to her parents and marry a suitable girl from the neighborhood. That marriage of convenience would probably improve Jiao’s position as a state official and elevate the family. Zhongqing tries to talk her to senses kneeling, in an extremely humble manner, as a respectful son should do. When the mother insists on sending Lanchih away, Zhongqing threatens that he will not remarry. The mother’s last argument was represented by the following words “My son, have you no respect? How dare you speak in your wife's defense!” (Anonymous, 2012). Finally, Zhongqing goes away bowing to her mother twice in respect. Another time, when her son speaks about killing himself, she cries but does not waver.
In regard to the Confucius’ learning, Zhongqing is a righteous man. His respect and obedience to his mother were absolute, as he did not disobey his mother even to defend his wife, his love, and his life. However, the mother’s position, although she has the right to impose her will and demand respect, is not faultless. She failed to “cover her son” as The Analects teach. In China of the period described in the poem, parents decided upon their children’s marriage. Moreover, they often did not take into consideration the feelings of their children.
The relationship between Lanchih and her mother are much kinder. Although her mother meets the girl with reproaches, she is also sorry for her daughter. Despite the fact that the new marriage would remove the disgrace of the rejected wife and bring fortune to the family, she does not force her daughter to accept the proposal.
Relationship between Brothers and Sisters
Subordination in social and family hierarchy guarantees the lowest place for an unmarried woman. She has to obey to her parents and even to her brothers. In the case of Lanchih, her brother became furious when he had learned about her rejection of the rich men’s proposals. She could expect such situation. In the parting scene, she tells her husband that her father and brothers will not spare her feelings and thinks of her hopes. Finally, Lanchih yields to her brother’s bitter words, together with the parents’ pressure. She admits her powerless position in her own family: “I returned to my brother's gates. It's my place to follow my brother's wishes, Why would I do as I please?” (Anonymous, 2012).
Relationship between Husband and Wife
Although the relationship between husband and wife do not fall under the pattern of filial piety, they are also ruled by hierarchical subordination principle. Respect and subordination penetrated Chinese culture from the lowest to the highest level in the times described in the poem. Gender roles were prescribed by the social protocol. The importance of the man corresponded to his social status. It is interesting that the poem calls the female character by her name “Lanchih” or her status “new wife”. At the same time, her husband is mainly called “the government clerk” (Anonymous, 2012). A husband could reject a wife, if she failed to satisfy him for some reason. The hierarchical principle determined the behavior of men and women, as well. Lanchih compares herself with a pliant reel, while her husband should be like a firm rock (Anonymous, 2012). As children have to demonstrate filial piety, a dutiful wife had to demonstrate obedience and respect to the husband.
For a western reader, the events described in the poem A Peacock Southeast Flew are sad and touching. However, the motivation of the characters is obscure. The mother’s-in-law extreme baseness and proprietary attitude, Lanchih’s meekness, her husband’s helplessness, and callousness of the girl’s family can appear exaggerated to a westerner. Knowledge of the historical reality and understanding the philosophical and religious background of that time allows seeing the events from another standpoint. Patriarchal societies with structural hierarchy have always been severe to women. Confucian philosophy that determined life in China of the 2nd century attached religious meaning to hierarchy and subordination. Filial piety elevated to the highest virtue explains the motivation of the characters. Under such conditions, filial disobedience equaled to opposing the norms of the society. The mother-in-law exercised her rights to filial obedience due to her parental egoism, but also because she wanted to remind her son about his place in the hierarchy. Zhongqing lets her mother ruin his life not for his weak will but for his attitude to filial duty. The young people could not refuse from abiding by their parents’ will. In this respect, A Peacock Southeast Flew illustrates the supremacy of the hierarchical principle over private life.