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date: 28 February 2021

Confucianism, Moral Education, and Childhood Development

Abstract and Keywords

This article discusses Confucian views on childhood moral development, focusing especially on accounts of moral cultivation in the classical and Han periods. Beginning very early, Confucians exhibited an understanding of the unique influence that parent–child relationships have on children’s moral development during the earliest stages of development, which led them to argue for the importance of moral cultivation and moral education not only during infancy and childhood, but even during the prenatal period. Through an examination of texts, including the Analects, Mengzi, Discourse on the States, Record of Ritual, Collected Biographies of Women and Protecting and Tutoring, as well as secondary literature on this topic, this article focuses on how we should understand Confucian accounts of the roles of parents, the family, ritual, and filial piety in the moral development of children.

Keywords: Confucianism, childhood, moral cultivation, moral education, parent–child relationships, parents, family, children, ritual, filial piety

The virtue of filial piety and the centrality of family relationships in the Confucian tradition have been the subject of much scholarly discussion, but there has been little attention devoted to Confucian views of childhood development. This article examines Confucian views on the moral development of children, beginning with the Analects and the Mengzi not only because they are the two most influential texts in the Confucian tradition but also in order to help correct the mistaken impression that these texts are silent about early moral development. I go on to discuss a number of other Confucian views on childhood moral development, with a special focus on how Confucian thinkers understood the roles of parents and caregivers, the rites, and filial piety in the moral development of young children. A central focus of Confucian philosophy throughout history is moral cultivation, and an interest in the specific practices that help us to cultivate virtues, as well as the role of human relationships in that process, unite Confucians across different periods and places. In relation to these central questions in Confucian ethics and as a natural extension of them, a number of thinkers took an interest in when and how the process of moral development begins. Given the exceptionally large number of texts and commentaries that are a part of Confucianism’s long history, it would be impossible to survey all or even most Confucians who discussed these topics in a single article, so I will focus primarily on the most influential texts from the classical and Han periods and those that offer some of the most novel insights on this topic. Throughout this article, I aim to highlight and argue for the importance of studying Confucian views on childhood moral cultivation.

Although there are a rich variety of Confucian texts, two classical texts stand out for their exceptional influence on virtually every thinker in Confucian history: the Analects and the Mengzi. Partly as a result of this influence, these two texts have been the subject of considerable scholarship, and they serve as a natural place to begin in examining the present topic. As Joel Kupperman points out, the Confucian Analects says little that explicitly concerns childhood moral development. This is not surprising, however, for as Kupperman notes, “teachers and writers, including philosophers, often do not say what does not need to be said: what it can be assumed that virtually everyone in the audience already knows” (Kupperman, 1999, p. 37). Early Chinese thinkers, he argues, did regard the early upbringing of children as ethically important, but it may not have been problematic in classical China, as it was in Aristotle’s Greece, and as a result there was not a pressing need to address it. This view is supported at least in part by the fact that Kongzi (Confucius) was indeed addressing issues that he viewed as problems in his society, including a lack of filial piety—seen, for example, in his statement that “Nowadays [filial piety] is taken to mean just seeing that one’s parents get enough to eat. But we do that much for dogs or horses as well” (Analects 2.7). Kupperman also points out that Kongzi’s students “were no longer small children when they arrived, and it would be natural for him to have much more to say about the stage of their ethical development in which he had a major role than about much earlier stages.” Early Chinese texts were indeed oriented toward particular audiences, and the topics they address strongly reflect this fact, seen, for instance, in the fact that Xunzi spent much of his time addressing topics related to governing because his audience was primarily composed of the lords of states, their ministers, and people aspiring to become ministers. Kupperman further suggests that Kongzi may have regarded childhood upbringing and early moral education as the province of the family and thus “best left to the judgment of parents” (Kupperman, 1999, p. 37).

Bryan Van Norden points out that Kongzi is not the only early Confucian thinker who seems to overlook the importance of childhood development. He writes that Mengzi, too, fails to discuss the education of children at any length, noting that “there is a paucity of discussion of childhood education and conditioning in the Mengzi (Mencius). Childhood experience is stressed as a crucial factor in character formation by both Plato and Aristotle, as well as by modern developmental psychologists of various persuasions” (Van Norden 2007, p. 229). Van Norden acknowledges that David Wong (1989) has pointed out that some Confucian texts “suggest the importance of childhood nurturing in the family for ethical development. However, Mengzi himself does not seem to stress the importance of childhood itself as a unique, irreplaceable opportunity for ensuring the growth and continued existence of our sprouts” (Van Norden 2007, p. 229). Both Kupperman and Van Norden are correct to point out that childhood moral development is not a central concern of these texts, but as we shall see, there is evidence to suggest that they believed the early moral cultivation of children was important.

Early Moral Development in the Analects and the Mengzi

If one is interested in child development and the way in which moral education is understood within a given cultural, philosophical, or religious tradition, the roles of parents and caregivers are an excellent place to begin. Indeed, the role that parent–child relationships play in shaping our character is something that interested Confucians from the earliest times, and I have argued that a variety of classical and Han texts present and argue for the view that this process begins during the earliest stages of infancy and that parents play a unique role in shaping the character of their children (Cline, 2015). It is not that these texts disregard the importance of other family members, friends, and teachers; to the contrary, they explicitly recognize the fact that many people have important roles to play in children’s lives. But they nevertheless recognize that parents are unlike others in the depth and extent of their influence and in their different areas of influence.

The Analects

In Analects 7.29 we read the following story:

The people of Hu Village were difficult to talk to [about the Way]. Therefore, when a young boy from the village came for an interview with the Master, the disciples hesitated to let him in. The Master said, “In allowing him to enter, my concern was with what brought him here, not with what he did after he left. What was so wrong about that? If a person purifies himself to enter, I accept his purification—but I don’t expect guarantees about what he will do once he leaves.”1

In this passage, Kongzi talks with an uncapped youth, noting that the boy has learned and followed correctly the proper purification rituals, which shows that he has undergone at least a notable degree of moral education. Capping traditionally occurred at age nineteen, so it is safe to assume that the boy is a teenager or younger.2 Some commentators understand this passage as an indication of Kongzi’s optimism about the possibility for change. If this interpretation is correct, then his optimism is expressed in relation to a child’s sincerity and perhaps also the child’s unique potential compared with the adults in his village: perhaps Kongzi agrees to talk with the boy because he thinks a young person is more malleable and open to instruction than the other people in this village. Given his young age, it is plausible that Kongzi would be impressed with the boy’s appreciation for the rites, which indicates his potential. Analects 9.23 suggests that such potential is important to attend to: “Respect those younger than yourself (後生可畏). How do you know that the coming generation may not prove as good as our present one? But if a person lives to forty or fifty and hasn’t been heard of, then he’s no longer worthy of respect.” Here Kongzi affirms the potential of the young and suggests that at a certain point change is unlikely and we can reliably judge a person’s character. This, of course, implies that earlier in life, change is more likely.

In Analects 19.12, we find another passage that relates to childhood moral development. Kongzi’s student Ziyou says, “Among the disciples of Zixia, the younger ones are competent at sprinkling (sa 洒) and sweeping, receiving and responding to guests, advancing and retiring. But these are minor affairs. Question them on the fundamentals, and they have no answer. How can that be?”3 Upon hearing this, Zixia says, “Ah—Ziyou is mistaken. In the Way of the cultivated person, what is to be taught first, what can be put aside until later? It’s like the case of plants or trees, which require different types of handling. But the Way of the cultivated person—how can it be handled correctly? And who understands it from beginning to end?—only the sage can do that!” Edward Slingerland stresses the importance of the metaphors that are used in this passage, noting that Ziyou criticizes Zixia

for making his younger disciples practice minor ritual tasks instead of teaching them about the “important” issues, but what he fails to understand is that only someone who starts at the beginning of the Way of the junzi can truly walk to its end. This means that the teacher must distinguish between the “grass” (the younger students at the beginning of the path) and the “trees” (the more mature students capable of advanced work), and target his instruction accordingly—forcing students to learn things of which they are not yet capable lead only to exhaustion.

(Slingerland, 2003, p. 225)

Slingerland argues that Bao Xian’s commentary offers further insight into this passage: “Zixia’s point is that those who are taught the Way too early will inevitably be the first to grow tired, and therefore he starts his disciples off with minor tasks, and only later instructs them in great matters” (Slingerland, 2003, p. 225). Here we see an emphasis on age-appropriate moral cultivation as well as activities that may appear insignificant but in fact have a great impact on the development of the moral character of children and youth. It also confirms the view expressed in Analects 1.2:

A person who is filial to his parents and respectful of his elder brother is rarely the kind of person who is inclined to go against his superiors, and there has never been a case of one who is disinclined to go against his superiors stirring up rebellion. The cultivated person applies himself to the root. “Once the root is established, the Way will flourish.” Filial piety and brotherly respect—are these not the roots of humaneness?4

Although the text does not specify when we begin to cultivate filial piety and brotherly respect, the developmental metaphors expressed in the claim that the roots need to be established in order for the Way to grow and flourish are significant—much like the metaphors seen in 19.12. The development of roots is part of the earliest stage of a plant’s growth, and as roots continue to grow, they also enable the rest of the plant to grow and flourish. These metaphors suggest that the development of filial piety and brotherly respect begins during the earliest stages of one’s moral education. Given how early our relationships with our parents and elder siblings begin, it is not unreasonable to assume that these virtues are initially cultivated during childhood. One grows up to follow the Way only if the proper “roots” are established, “starting at the beginning and working through to the end.” The beginning stages, as 1.2 tells us, include the cultivation of filial piety and respect for elders, as well as the mastery of tasks like sprinkling and sweeping the floors or receiving and responding to guests, as 19.12 states. Whereas 1.2 specifies the virtues one must cultivate early in life in order to follow the Way, 19.12 describes some of the activities that contributed to the development of these and other virtues.

Analects 18.7 recounts Kongzi’s disciple Zilu’s encounter with a scholar-recluse who appears to reject certain aspects of traditional society and culture by living in reclusion and avoiding an official position. Yet he still presents his two sons to Zilu in the proper manner when he invites Zilu into his home. Zilu later notes the contrast between these behaviors: “You understand that the etiquette between elder and younger cannot be set aside. How, then, can the right relations between ruler and subject be set aside?” Zilu questions the scholar-recluse’s appreciation for observing proper relations between elders and juniors in light of his disregard for an official position. This passage highlights the importance of relations between elders and juniors and in particular the proper introduction of one’s children to guests in Kongzi’s time, and it also tells us that the customs regarding the proper upbringing of children were observed even by some who intentionally rejected other traditional practices. This shows the extent to which child-rearing practices were widely acknowledged and valued, even in the midst of other disagreements about society. Zilu has difficulty making sense of how one could accept certain standards for the relationships between children and their elders while rejecting the standards for one’s relationship to the ruler, which helps to show that the customs regarding the proper upbringing of children were important to Kongzi’s followers.

There is very little in the Analects specifically concerning parents’ roles in the moral cultivation of children and youth, but in Analects 16.13 Chen Gang (Ziqin) asks Kongzi’s son, Boyu, whether he has received any special instructions from his father:

No, replied Boyu. But once, when my father was standing by himself and I hurried across the courtyard, he said, Have you studied the Odes? Not yet, I replied. He said, If you don’t study the Odes, you won’t know how to speak properly! So after that I studied the Odes. Another day, when he was standing by himself and I hurried across the courtyard, he said, Have you studied the rites? Not yet, I replied. He said, If you don’t study the rites, you won’t have any basis to stand on. So after that I studied the rites. He gave me these two pieces of instruction. Afterward Chen Gang, delighted, said, I asked for one question and learned three things. I learned about the Odes, I learned about the rites, and I learned that the cultivated person maintains a certain distance in relations with his son.

Contemporary readers often focus on the last line of this passage and read it in light of our own contemporary values and practices, which suggests that Kongzi was a distant father, but as the Song commentator Sima Guang writes, “To ‘keep at a distance’ refers not to being cold or alienating, but rather to being timely in the way one allows one’s son to approach, and always receiving him with ritual propriety. The point is simply that father and son do not consort with one another day and night in an indecently familiar manner.”5 Other passages in the Analects that refer to “distancing” support Sima Guang’s reading. In 6.22, Fan Chi asks about wisdom, and Kongzi says, “Work to lead the people toward what is right. Respect the ghosts and spirits but keep them at a distance—this can be called wisdom.” Just as some contemporary interpreters read 16.13 as a description of a cold and alienating relationship between father and son, some scholars have suggested that in 6.22, Kongzi distances himself from traditional religious beliefs and practices.6 However, such a reading conflicts with passages in the Analects that describe Kongzi’s observance of traditional sacrificial practices (e.g., 10.8), and they also fail to explain why “keeping the spirits at a distance” should be given more interpretive weight than “respecting the spirits.” Slingerland points out that “‘Respecting the ghosts and spirits while keeping them at a distance’ is understood by most [commentators] as fulfilling one’s sacrificial duties sincerely and in accordance with ritual (3.12), without trying to flatter the spirits or curry favor with them (2.24)” (Slingerland, 2003, p. 60). As Michael Puett argues, in 6.22 Kongzi is “not claiming that spirits do not exist. Indeed, he explicitly called on people to be reverent toward them” (Puett, 2002, p. 97).7

As these scholars and commentators argue, there are good reasons to think that “distancing” (yuan 遠) in both 6.22 and 16.13 refers to maintaining appropriate filial distance according to the dictates of ritual. Fathers maintain distance from their sons by remembering their roles as teachers, guides, and disciplinarians. On such a view, the power differential between parents and children is important, and good parents do not try to create the illusion that it does not exist by behaving as their child’s friend. Likewise, children acknowledge this distance by being respectful and following their parents’ guidance. Similarly, one keeps spirits at a distance when one behaves in a respectful manner toward them and does not attempt to curry favor in order to further one’s own selfish ends. The patterns of conduct that include keeping an appropriate distance as an expression of respect are codified in the rites and include ancestral spirits as well as one’s parents and other elders. Indeed, the relationship between parents and children was in some ways akin to a religious relationship in ancient China: filial piety was a part of ritual propriety in sacrificing to ancestral spirits, and one had filial obligations to the dead and the living alike. So there are good reasons to doubt that this passage valorizes fathers who are cold and alienating, and to see it instead as a description of appropriate filial distance.

The Mengzi (Mencius)

Like the Analects, the Mengzi has more to say about childhood development than most scholars realize, even though it does not offer a systematic view on the matter. To begin, the first of the “five relationships” mentioned in Mengzi 3A4.8 is that of parent and child, and Mengzi claims that “the relation of father and children is one of love (親).”8 When Mengzi refers to “children” or “sons” (子), we do not have any reason to think this is an exclusive reference to adult parent–child relationships. To the contrary, as we shall see, Mengzi says explicitly that infants naturally respond to their parents with love. Additionally, this passage describes the character of proper parent–child relationships, and in commenting on the fact that this relation should be characterized by love, Mengzi exhibits an awareness that children are critically shaped by the kind of relationship they have with their parents. In this passage, Mengzi also offers instruction on the character of the most fundamental human relationships by describing their defining features. Here we see that Mengzi does not view moral cultivation as simply consisting of learning the rites or mastering one’s filial duties; moral cultivation occurs partly as a result of the feelings that parents and children have for one another. A child’s character is shaped not only by the things her parents teach her but also by the relationship that develops in the course of their daily interactions, including especially the love and affection between them. This view is consistent with Mengzi’s account of human nature, as well as his account of the important role that family and community relationships play in the process of moral cultivation.

To reinforce this point, Mengzi 7A15 says, “Among babes in arms (孩提之童) there is none that does not know to love its parents. When they grow older (及其長也), there is none that does not know to respect its elder brother. Treating one’s parents as parents is benevolence. Respecting one’s elders is righteousness. There is nothing else to do but to extend these to the world.” Here Mengzi indicates that moral cultivation involves extending the natural responses of infants to their parents and, as they grow, the natural sense of respect they have for their older siblings. More important, Mengzi contends that these moral impulses constitute the core of mature moral sensibilities such as benevolence. This passage shows very clearly, then, the importance of early moral education for Mengzi, because mature moral sensibilities are not viewed as developing in a separate (and later) stage from our earliest moral impulses. To the contrary, the core of our mature moral sensibilities is first seen in the moral impulses we exhibit in relation to our parents and siblings.

Once again we see that on a Mengzian view, early childhood moral education is largely defined by the way we are shaped by our relationships with our parents and siblings. Mengzi connects this claim to his theory of human nature, telling us that these relationships grow out of our natural moral tendencies, which he describes using the metaphor of sprouts.9 Mengzi begins by discussing infants in this passage, and it is reasonable to infer from this discussion that he thinks the process of moral development begins in early childhood. He does not indicate that our natural moral tendencies or “sprouts” remain static for several years before the process of cultivation begins; indeed, such a view conflicts with his use of agricultural metaphors for the development of our incipient moral inclinations. As we saw earlier in relation to the Analects, metaphors tell us much about early Confucian views. Sprouts are dynamic and active, growing steadily from the start; after sprouts are planted, “they grow rapidly” (6A7). On this view, moral development begins during the earliest stages of life.

Mengzi goes on to discuss the moral education of the youth. In 6A7 Mengzi says, “In years of plenty, most young men (子弟) are gentle; in years of poverty, most young men are cruel. It is not that the potential that Heaven confers on them varies like this. They are like this because of that by which their hearts are sunk and drowned.” In this passage Mengzi describes the role that a young man’s environment plays in shaping his character and in either nurturing or drowning his natural moral inclinations. Mengzi explicitly refers to young men who are already either gentle or cruel due to the way that their environment has affected their natural moral tendencies; the process of moral development—specifically the cultivation or destruction of one’s natural moral tendencies—has already occurred. This helps to show that Mengzi is not discussing moral cultivation during adulthood here; among other things, he is stressing just how early in life the process of moral development begins and how quickly our natural moral tendencies can begin to flourish or be destroyed.

Throughout the text in a number of places, Mengzi offers more detailed suggestions regarding early stages of moral education. In 7A24, for instance, he emphasizes the importance of students completing lessons in the proper order, which resonates with the view in the Analects that students should master minor skills before proceeding to more challenging subjects. Mengzi also discusses the importance of having teachers other than one’s own parents. When asked why the cultivated person does not teach his son, Mengzi says,

In order to instruct, you must correct what someone else does. If the correction does not work, one must follow it up with reprimands. If one follows it up with reprimands, then it will hurt the feelings of the son, who will say, “My father instructs me by correcting me. But my father is not always correct himself.” Then the father and son will hurt the feelings of each other.

(Mengzi 4A18)

To avoid straining or damaging the relationship between fathers and sons, Mengzi emphasizes the importance of having teachers other than one’s father. Several other passages emphasize the critical role that a person’s moral surroundings and influences play in his or her development. In Mengzi 7A36 Mengzi remarks, “People’s surroundings affect their qi like nourishment affects their bodies. Great indeed is the influence of a person’s surroundings. Are we not all someone’s child?”10 Here Mengzi reminds us that our parents profoundly shape our character, and that they play the most critical role in defining our surroundings—which includes not just having our physical needs met but the moral education we receive.

Confucian Views of Moral Cultivation in Infancy and Childhood

As we have seen, although the Analects and the Mengzi—by far the two most influential texts in the Confucian tradition—express general views concerning parent–child relationships and their impact on our early moral development, these texts do not detail the moral education children should receive, when it should begin, or the reasons why children need to be instructed and cultivated in certain ways from the earliest possible stages of development. A number of other texts address these issues in various ways, including the late fourth-century BCE text, Discourse on the States (Guoyu 國語), and the Record of Ritual (Liji 禮記), a comprehensive account of the rites that were codified during the Warring States Period (403–221 BCE) and early Han Dynasty, compiled in the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). Additionally, two additional Han works, Collected Biographies of Women (Lienuzhuan 列女傳) and Protecting and Tutoring (Baofu 保俯), shed significant light on Confucian views of childhood moral cultivation, while the work of Zhu Xi reminds us that later Confucians took up this topic as well.

Infants, Pregnancy, and Moral Development

The Book of Rites is one of our most important resources regarding early Confucian rituals. Like other ritual texts such as the Book of Etiquette and Ritual (Yili 儀禮), it consists of ritual injunctions and anecdotes, and offers specific details concerning the performance of the rites. Early Confucian ritual texts are wide-ranging, including some of the experiences that were a part of life in ancient China and the specific practices that invested those experiences with meaning. Among the rituals that are detailed in the Book of Rites are those in Chapter Ten, Neize 內則 (“Inner Pattern” or “The Pattern of the Family”) pertaining to childbirth, infancy, and childhood, including the education and expectations of children as they grow. The text specifies various ages and their respective educational goals, and the practices that are described are often those of the rulers and their families, seen for instance in the following description the first caregiver of an infant son (the crown prince): “A special apartment was prepared in the palace for the child, and from all the concubines and other likely individuals there was sought one distinguished for her generosity of mind, her gentle kindness, her mild integrity, her respectful bearing, her carefulness and freedom from talkativeness, who should be appointed the boy’s teacher” (Liji 10, Legge, 1885, pp. 472–473).11 Especially given that teachers were highly esteemed, it is notable the boy’s first teacher was a woman, and that she was chosen for her moral virtues (as opposed to her experience, physical attributes, educational background, or intellectual abilities), which indicates a concern with the moral influence she would have on the child, and the moral education she would be responsible for. In addition and more important, the text specifies that the teacher should be chosen when the child is still a newborn, before the traditional shaving of the child’s hair at three months old and before the naming ceremony. This indicates a concern with the moral influence the teacher will have even during the first weeks of the child’s life, suggesting that moral development begins at birth.

Another Confucian text that expresses the view that moral cultivation occurs during infancy is the early Han dynasty text by the classical scholar, philosopher, and poet Jia Yi (200–168 BCE) entitled Protecting and Tutoring (Baofu 保俯), from Chapter 48 of the History of the Han. Jia Yi asks why the ancient rulers of the Three Dynasties had “the durability that comes from possessing the Way, whereas the Qin suffered the setback of suddenly losing it?” He writes, “The kings of ancient times, from the moment the crown prince was born, consistently raised him according to proper ritual forms” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2006, p. 11). He not only affirms the importance of the rites in childhood moral cultivation but offers the moral cultivation of the ruler’s heir, beginning in infancy, as the explanation for moral and political success. The text goes on to give specific biographies illustrating this process: “In ancient times, when King Cheng was young and in swaddling clothes [at the start of the Zhou dynasty]…. Protecting entailed guarding his person, tutoring entailed assisting him in virtue and righteousness, and teaching entailed guiding him in his educational training” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2006, p. 12). As a result of this early instruction, “Even when the crown prince was a small boy, he had some discrimination,” as his tutors and teachers “firmly made clear to him filial piety, benevolence, ritual propriety, and righteousness, and so guided him in his practice. They banished the depraved, and did not let him see evil actions. So in all cases they chose upright officials, those who cared for their parents and siblings, those of broad learning, and those with mastery of the techniques of the Way to defend and assist the crown prince.” These individuals lived with the prince and were his constant caregivers, and as a result, “from the moment the prince was born, he only saw correct affairs, only listened to correct words, and only traveled the correct ways. Those who were to the crown prince’s left and right, those behind and in front of him, each one was a correct person.” The text concludes, “since he was accustomed to living alongside correct people, he could not but be correct himself, much like those who are born and grow up in Qi cannot but speak the language of Qi” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2006, p. 12). This line is reminiscent of Mengzi 3B6:

Do you wish for your king to become good? Let me explain how. Suppose there were a Chief Counselor of Chu who wished for his son to learn to speak the dialect of Qi. Would he direct people from Qi to teach him, or would he direct people from Chu to teach him? …. If one person from Qi teaches him, but a multitude of people from Chu distract him, even if he strives every day to understand the Qi dialect, he cannot succeed. But if you pick him up and plant him in the midst of a neighborhood in Qi, after a few years, even if he strives every day to understand the Chu dialect, he cannot succeed. Now, you say that your fellow minister Xue Juzhou is a good noble. Suppose you direct him to live in the king’s residence. If those in the king’s residence old and young, common and distinguished, are all like Xue Juzhou, with whom will the king do what is not good? If those in the king’s residence, old and young, common and distinguished, all oppose Xue Juzhou, with whom will the king do what is good?

In these passages the early Confucians draw an analogy between moral cultivation and language acquisition during childhood. Jia goes on to explain why early childhood represents such a unique opportunity for moral cultivation, writing, “the quality of the crown prince is determined by early instruction and the selection of the prince’s attendants. Now, if one begins the crown prince’s instruction before his mind is overflowing, then changes are easy to complete” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2006, p. 15).

In Representations of Childhood and Youth in Early China, Anne Kinney stresses the importance of what Han Confucians like Jia Yi were doing: “Chinese thinkers of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220) were the first to focus extensively on childhood in philosophical discussions, in history writing, and in educational theory” (Kinney, 2004, p. 9). Kinney argues that the work of Xunzi influenced Han thinkers who wrote about childhood, something that is especially apparent in discussions that go beyond the imperial household to include children in all households. This interest in the Han

was an outgrowth of the widespread acceptance of Xunzi’s (fl. 298–238 B.C.) theory that children came into the world with a host of potentialities that require development through instruction. Idealistic Confucians of the Former Han took the theory a step further, arguing that once education was made available to all, the population at large would be led into an era of peace and high civilization.

(Kinney, 2004, p. 10)12

Classical Confucian understandings of human nature and other topics such as the virtues deeply influenced subsequent accounts of moral cultivation, which were seen as the key to a flourishing society. Mark Csikszentmihalyi highlights the fact that the Confucian emphasis on moral education and cultivation grew over time: “Many Han writings on self-cultivation practice differed from their Warring States precursors in emphasizing education over speculation about the original content of human nature” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2006, p. 1). Although the category of human nature remained important, “for many writers the crux of the discussion shifted from nature to nurture, and specifically to the critical role of education and teaching in shaping moral behavior and training a good ruler” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2006, p. 1). As Csikszentmihalyi indicates, in the Han dynasty, the focus of at least many of the most influential philosophers shifted from theory to practice. This may suggest that they largely accepted certain theoretical assumptions and turned to the task of implementing them, rather than continuing to debate the theories that motivated their practices.

Kinney points out that Confucians became increasingly interested in early childhood development: “The search for the stage at which an individual began to establish habitually good or bad behavior naturally led thinkers further and further back into childhood as the appropriate starting point for moral education” (Kinney, 2004, p. 9). Such claims predate the Han period; the earliest reference to a program of princely education that is focused on early childhood is found in the late fourth-century BCE text, Discourse on the States. This text also appears to be the earliest text to claim that moral cultivation begins during the prenatal period with “prenatal cultivation” (tai jiao 胎教). Discourse claims that King Wen’s virtue “resulted not only from formal instruction, but also from the spiritual purity and equanimity of the king’s mother during her child’s development in utero and her exemplary behavior throughout his early childhood” (Guoyu, 1988, pp. 386–387).13 Texts including Book of Odes celebrate King Wen’s mother, Tai Ren, but the most detailed account of her character is found in Collected Biographies of Women, which describes her as “upright, sincere, decorus, and engaged solely in virtuous conduct” and which describes her practice of prenatal cultivation: “When she was with child, her eyes beheld no evil sights, her ears heard no perverse sounds, and her mouth uttered no careless words. She was able to teach her child in the womb (能以胎教).” The text goes on to say that in ancient times, a pregnant woman practiced prenatal cultivation in a variety of ways:

She would not eat food with odd flavors; if the food was cut awry, she would not eat it; if the mat was not placed straight, she would not sit on it. She did not let her eyes gaze on lewd sights or let her ears listen to depraved sounds. At night she ordered blind musicians to chant the Odes. She spoke only of proper things. In this way she gave birth to children of correct physical form who excelled others in talent and virtue. Thus, during pregnancy, one must always be cautious about [external] stimuli. If one is stimulated by something good, then [the child] will be good. If one is stimulated by something evil, then [the child] will be evil. People’s resemblance to various things at birth is in every case due to the mother’s being stimulated by external things, so that in form and voice they come to resemble these things.

(Lienuzhuan 1.6, Kinney, 2014, p. 7)14

One of the things that is particularly interesting about these texts is that they take an interest not only in the physical health of children but their moral character as well. They also express the belief that these are not wholly separate domains: they understand that the food a mother eats can have an impact on a pregnancy, and this impact does not just include the development of a child’s physical form. Although a number of the specific claims they make are not accurate or are too strong (e.g., attributing a child’s “talent and virtue” to a mother’s behavior during pregnancy), a number of their more general points are surprisingly accurate (e.g., the fact that a mother’s behavior and environment can have a significant impact on a developing fetus, and this sometimes contributes to certain types of physical and emotional differences between children). So even though there are not good reasons for pregnant mothers to avoid food that is “cut awry,” there are good reasons for them to be careful to eat food that is prepared properly (and to avoid certain things altogether). Although the authors of early Chinese texts did not have an understanding of food-borne illnesses such as Listeria or risks such as fetal alcohol syndrome, they nevertheless believed that the things a pregnant mother consumes can significantly impact her pregnancy and the development of her future child.

To be sure, the story of King Wen’s mother emphasizes the role that her behavior during pregnancy played in the sort of person he became. On this view, moral cultivation begins not at birth, but during pregnancy. Prenatal cultivation was aimed at influencing the moral development of children at the earliest possible stage. Pregnant mothers were advised to carefully monitor all that they see, eat, hear, and say, and to embody ritual propriety. Kinney writes that these instructions were based on the principle of “simulative transformation” (xiaohua 肖化), according to which the things that affect the pregnant mother simultaneously affect the fetus (Kinney, 1995, p. 27). The basic idea that young children are affected by, and more specifically that they come to resemble, the things they are exposed to is seen in Jia Yi’s claim that the crown prince “only saw correct affairs, only listened to correct words, and only traveled the correct ways.” The claims made by Discourse on the States and Collected Biographies about King Wen’s mother take this idea a step further, to a child’s development in utero. Collected Biographies contends that if a pregnant woman is moved (gan 感) or affected by good things, it will impact her child positively, and the same basic principle was believed to hold if bad things affected her.

Kinney argues that by the Han we find clear evidence of “widespread circulation and acceptance of theories on the moral instruction of small children,” including the cultivation of fetuses, with three of the most prominent Confucians of the early Han—Jia Yi, Dong Zhongshu, and Liu Xiang—all advocating beginning moral cultivation as soon as possible (Kinney, 2004, p. 11).15 Both Jia and Liu also addressed prenatal cultivation, and these educational theories “gradually gained acceptance as the influence of Confucianism came to eclipse all contending schools of thought in the Han court” (Kinney, 2004, p. 11). The body of literature on this subject continued to grow, and manuals instructing women on “nurturing the fetus” (養胎) are included in the Mawangdui manuscripts from the early second century BCE. They offer month-by-month instructions concerning the development and nurturance of the fetus, with prohibitions and recommendations regarding the pregnant mother’s foods, activities, sights, sounds, and emotions (Wilms, 2005, p. 276).16 Sabine Wilms writes that these instructions were clearly aimed at producing offspring who were not just physically healthy but also had sound emotional and moral characteristics. This literature

had larger social, cosmological and philosophical ramifications. The texts … combine strands of philosophical and religious accounts of cosmogenesis and fetal development with literary traditions of medicinal therapy in pregnancy and childbirth and of behavioral and dietary taboos for the mother during pregnancy.

(Wilms, 2005, p. 278)

Over time, a concern with the cultivation of good moral character continued to appear alongside developing concerns with physical health in texts that sought to address the proper nurturance and cultivation of the fetus.

Children and Moral Development

The attention that Confucians gave to prenatal cultivation was attention given to the experience of pregnancy—an experience belonging uniquely to women, and a number of Confucian texts affirm the unique role of mothers in children’s moral development. Indeed, Collected Biographies of Women, compiled by Liu Xiang (c. 79–8 BCE), is not only the first extant Chinese work that is focused solely on women, but the first work of its kind anywhere in the world.17 The text features 125 biographies of women from early China (the eighth century BCE through the Han), specifically focused on women’s virtues and vices. Kinney writes that the text is particularly distinctive with respect to early Confucian accounts of childhood moral development because it sets forth “in more than a few scattered comments methods for moral training in early childhood,” while also affirming the transformative role of mothers in the moral education of their children (Kinney, 2004, pp. 20–21). Particularly noteworthy aspects of Collected Biographies include its account of the relationship that develops between mothers and their children during pregnancy and throughout a child’s life, its description of the methods used by mothers in the moral cultivation of their children, and its endorsement of the view that the early years of a child’s life are a unique and critical time for moral cultivation. Like Jia Yi, “Liu Xiang recognized that moral development was a slow and gradual process, and that it was far easier to transform the malleable nature of the child before bad habits and behavior had become ingrained” (Kinney, 2004, p. 25).

The opening chapter, “Biographies on the Deportment of Mothers,” features a number of important remarks about the moral development of young children, and Lisa Raphals points out that this chapter “clearly takes early childhood as the beginning of moral development and explicitly recognizes the importance of women” (Raphals, 1998, p. 22). This chapter also had an enduring influence on the Confucian tradition: Raphals notes that it “was widely quoted in later periods for its examples of mothers’ efficacious education of their sons; in particular, Zhu Xi (1130–1200) made extensive use of it in his Instructions for Learning (Xiao xue), including the emphasis on prenatal instruction” (Raphals, 1998, p. 22). This is an important reminder that classical and Han texts deeply influenced the accounts of later Confucians. A good example of the clear emphasis on the moral cultivation of children in this text is seen in the story of Xie, who grew up to become the Minister of Instruction during sage-king Shun’s reign as well as the father of Cheng Tang, the founder of the Shang dynasty. We are told that as Xie grew up, his mother, Jian Di, “taught him about moral principles and the various degrees of precedence in human relationships. Xie, by nature, was intelligent and benevolent. He was able to cultivate her teachings and thus finally established his reputation” (Lienuzhuan 1.3, Kinney, 2014, p. 4). His mother “esteemed benevolence and exerted herself reverently…. She taught according to the correct principle of things, extended mercy, and possessed virtue. That Xie served as aide to the ruler was no doubt due to his mother’s efforts” (Lienuzhuan 1.3, Kinney, 2014, p. 5). The text outlines the qualities of Xie’s mother and how she taught her son according to the rites and the order of relationships, exhibiting benevolence and kindness while also maintaining a stern hand. Xie’s success is attributed to his mother’s efforts, much like Jia Yi attributes the success of the Three Dynasties to the care and moral cultivation the crown princes received as infants.

In some cases, Collected Biographies specifies that a child’s mother alone deserves the credit for cultivating her son’s excellence of character. The biography of Tu Shan, wife of the legendary sage-king Yu (the reputed founder of the Xia dynasty), explains that Tu Shan raised her son Qi alone while her husband was taming the flood waters: “Alone, Tushan taught with great insight and thereby brought about Qi’s education. When Qi grew up, transformed by her virtue and following her teachings, he established his renown…. Yu went forth to divide the land. While Qi wept and wailed, alone, his mother ordered their affairs, she taught him about goodness until finally he succeeded his father” (Lienuzhuan 1.4, Kinney, 2014, pp. 5–6).18 The text also details the story of King Wu’s mother (known by the honorific title Wen Mu 文母), noting that she “was benevolent and understood the Way” and “taught her ten sons so that from the time they were small until they were grown, they never laid eyes upon evil or perversion” (Lienuzhuan 1.6, Kinney, 2014, p. 7). The text emphasizes the way in which she prevented her sons’ exposure to harmful influences, which is a consistent concern in early Confucian texts that discuss childhood development, as we have seen. It also specifies that she protected and instructed them from the beginning of their lives until they were adults, explicitly stressing the temporal aspect of moral cultivation and the fact that it must continue over the entire course of a child’s life. Kinney argues that although we find a number of common ideas and phrases concerning moral education in the text, including “to teach and transform” (jiaohua 教化) and “to transform and instruct” (huaxun 化訓), the idea of “gradual transformation” (jianhua 漸化) is particularly distinctive, as Liu Xiang was the first thinker to explicitly relate this idea to the moral cultivation of children (Kinney, 2004, pp. 22–23). The idea is that virtuous character develops through a slow, continuous process of moral cultivation. This is something that Confucian moral philosophers of many stripes emphasize, from classical thinkers like Mengzi and Xunzi to Neo-Confucians like Zhu Xi—even though they understand the transformation process in very different terms. What is significant about the texts that discuss children is that they highlight just how early that gradual process begins, and the critical roles of parents, as well as rituals, during those early stages. From the standpoint of these texts, the process of moral cultivation is not something that is only or primarily accomplished by good teachers or sages at a later stage of one’s development. Parents have a special (and ongoing) role to play, and while good teachers are a critical part of children’s (and adults’) lives, the degree of influence that parents have—as any teacher will attest—is highly unique.

Kinney notes that gradual transformation is also emphasized in the story of Mengzi’s mother, whom Liu Xiang praises for understanding “how children are gradually imbued with the values and behaviors of those around them” (Kinney, 2004, p. 23). The story of Mengzi’s mother and her admirable dedication to her son during his childhood is one of the most famous Confucian stories in East Asia. Indeed, it is recalled in a traditional saying that serves as a reminder of the importance of parents making sacrifices for their children’s well-being and which is well-known in both Chinese and Japanese: “Mengzi’s mother moved three times” (孟母三遷). It is worth noting that although this story about Mengzi’s mother is perhaps the most widely known, there are multiple stories in Collected Biographies that recount her moral instruction and influence on Mengzi both as a child and as an adult. We can easily appreciate, then, not only from this story but also from the fact that there are stories about Mengzi’s mother’s influence throughout his life why Liu Xiang praises her understanding of the gradual process of moral cultivation.

She lived near a graveyard. During Mengzi’s youth, he enjoyed playing among the tombs, romping about pretending to prepare the ground for burials. Mother Meng said, “This is not the place to raise my son.” She therefore moved away and settled beside the marketplace. But there he liked to play at displaying and selling wares like a merchant. Again Mother Meng said, “This is not the place to raise my son,” and once more left and settled beside a school. There, however, he played at setting out sacrificial vessels, bowing, yielding, entering, and withdrawing. His mother said, “This, indeed, is where I can raise my son!” and settled there. When Mengzi grew up, he studied the Six Arts, and finally became known as a great classicist. A cultivated person would say, “Mother Meng was good at gradual transformation.”

(Lienuzhuan 1.11, Kinney, 2014, p. 18)19

This passage clearly affirms the transformative influence that virtuous mothers were believed to have on their children through moral cultivation, and notably, Mengzi’s mother was a widow; hers is the first known story of how a single mother raised her children. The quotation from the Book of Odes that concludes the passage stresses that the scholars and sages of early Confucianism, admired for their virtues, were given a nurturing environment in which they were encouraged to develop morally right from the start. Mengzi’s mother understands that his moral cultivation has already begun, and that it will continue throughout his life. This story highlights the Confucian belief that childhood is an important opportunity for moral cultivation, and that parents play a unique role in this process.

Both Collected Biographies and the Book of Rites suggest that ritual shapes the character of children from a young age. Some of the rites applied specifically to children, and the text specifies the ages at which they were expected to master various rites. For example, the Book of Rites specifies that “at the age of seven, boys and girls did not occupy the same mat nor eat together; at eight, when going out or coming in at a gate or door, and going to their mats to eat and drink, they were required to follow their elder:—the teaching of yielding to others was now begun” (Liji 10.33, Legge, 1885, p. 478). The latter rite is designed to help cultivate filial piety in children, which confirms the view that cultivating the virtues begins early. At thirteen, the text specifies, boys “learned music, and to repeat the odes, and to dance the shao 勺 (of the duke of Zhou). When a full-grown lad, he danced the xiang 象 (of king Wu)” (Liji 10.34, Legge, 1885, p. 478). Here we find a distinction drawn between dances learned when one is younger as opposed to full-grown, which again shows that the rites were a part of moral cultivation throughout childhood. Even being capped at age nineteen did not represent the end of moral education: at this time a boy “first learned the (different classes of) ceremonies, and might wear furs and silk. He danced the da xia 大夏 (of Yu), and attended sedulously to filial and fraternal duties. He might become very learned, but did not teach others—(his object being still) to receive and not give out” (Liji 10.34, Legge, 1885, p. 478). This passage shows that capping did not represent the completion of one’s moral education, since boys at this age did not teach others; learning was still considered their primary task. However, boys at this age “attended sedulously to filial and fraternal duties,” which suggests that they were well educated and practiced in fulfilling their filial and fraternal duties at this stage.

Deference and filial piety were valued in boys as well as girls, which helps to show that across a variety of early Confucian sources, filial piety serves as a critical part of the foundation for a person’s moral development, regardless of gender. Children were educated in gender-specific activities, and the experiences and training of girls are included in the Book of Rites. At age ten, girls learned the arts of

pleasing speech and manners, to be docile and obedient, to handle the hempen fibres, to deal with the cocoons, to weave silks and form fillets, to learn (all) woman’s work, how to furnish garments, to watch the sacrifices, the supply the liquors and sauces, to fill the various stands and dishes with pickles and brine, and to assist in setting for the appurtenances for the ceremonies.

(Liji 10.36, Legge, 1885, p. 479)

The education of girls consisted largely of instruction in domestic activities, but it is significant that these activities were recognized as important enough to merit inclusion in the Book of Rites; many traditional cultures marginalize women’s roles to the extent that they are excluded from such texts. According to the text, the proper age for women to marry in early China was twenty or twenty-three (Liji 10.37), which is a notable contrast to the childhood marriage practices of later China and much of the world. The older ages confirm that women were seen as moral agents who were capable of cultivation, and that they should receive an education before they marry; indeed, these ages suggest that women’s moral education and cultivation, including their knowledge of the rites and their domestic skills, were quite advanced by the time they married.20 All of this makes sense in light of the important role that women had in the moral cultivation of their children; in order to instruct children in such things as following the rites, mothers would need to have received this education themselves.21


Given the length of Confucian history, it is not possible in the space of this article to review all or even most of the Confucian texts that discuss childhood development, which is why our primary focus is on earlier Confucian texts. However, it is worth noting that Zhu Xi (1130–1200 CE) stands out from other later Confucians for many reasons, including his exceptional influence. Additionally, Zhu Xi has a great deal to say about childhood education that is explicit and interesting, and his views can augment our understanding of the concrete things that were involved in Confucian childhood education. Zhu Xi writes that in antiquity, boys entered the school for lesser learning at eight years old and “were instructed in matters such as ritual, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy, and mathematics, as well as in matters of filial piety, fraternal respect, loyalty, and fidelity.”22 He stresses the importance of these early stages of childhood education, arguing that the lesser learning of the ancients “fostered truthfulness and inner mental attentiveness in young children. Their germs of goodness would thus become manifest. Still, they were unable to infer from lesser learning the affairs of greater learning, so they entered the school for greater learning” at age fifteen. According to Zhu Xi, though, children’s education began much earlier: “From the time they entered the school for lesser learning, the ancients were already personally familiar with many matters” (Gardner, 1990, p. 89). He goes on to report that “in antiquity young children were taught as soon as they could talk and eat. What they studied included cleaning and sweeping and polite conversation. Thus when they grew up, they could easily discuss matters” (Gardner, 1990, p. 94). Thus, in Zhu Xi’s work, we see further exposition of many of the ideas concerning childhood development that are found in texts from the classical and Han periods.

Until recently, Confucian views of childhood development have been given little attention. Recent studies have examined Chinese views on this topic from different periods (Hsiung 2005; Kinney, 1995, 2004; Knapp, 2005; Lee, 2012, 2014) and offered translations and studies of some of the key Chinese texts that discuss childhood (Csikszentmihalyi, 2006; Kinney, 2014). Recent works have also argued that Confucian accounts of these matters differ in a number of important ways from those of Western philosophers, align with our best science on certain dimensions of childhood development, and have constructive value for us today in working to promote social and policy change relating to families (Cline, 2015). Future study of this area is particularly important given the centrality of ethics and moral cultivation in the Confucian tradition.23 Confucian accounts of prenatal and childhood moral development demonstrate that Confucian philosophers not only offered sophisticated theories of human nature and the cultivation of a variety of virtues; they also gave careful consideration to the question of how and when the process of moral cultivation begins. Confucian thinkers also understood, long before the work of modern psychologists, that the earliest stages of children’s lives are an especially critical time for the development of their character, and that parent–child relationships are the single most influential factor in the development of a child’s character during this time. This helps to show why they are worthy of study not only by specialists in Chinese philosophy but also by those with an interest in early childhood moral cultivation.


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(1.) My translation. The Analects (Lunyu) is the most influential record of Kongzi’s thought. When I refer to Kongzi in this article, I am referring to the family of thinkers and the philosophical vision that are associated with him in the Analects, and here I am primarily concerned with explicating the account that we find in the received text of the Analects. For a detailed account of my view of textual matters relating to the Analects, see Cline (2013a), 20–23. Throughout this book, all quotations from the Analects follow the numbering found in the Chinese University of Hong Kong Institute of Chinese Studies Ancient Chinese Texts Concordance Series (Lau and Chen, 2006), and translations follow Watson (2007) except where I have indicated that the translation is my own.

(2.) On the age for capping, see Kinney (1995), 34. See also the Liji, Book 10 (“Neize”) Sec. 2, verse 34. For a translation, see Legge (1885), 478. This passage also says that at the age of capping, one “attended sedulously to filial and fraternal duties.” I will discuss the significance of this claim further later.

(3.) “Sprinkling” refers to sprinkling earthen floors with water, in order to maintain them properly.

(4.) My translation.

(5.) For a translation, see Slingerland (2003), 198.

(6.) For examples of this view, see Legge (1880), 140–141 and Ames (2009), 265.

(7.) For further discussion of this and other passages concerning religious belief and practice in the Analects, see Cline (2013b).

(8.) All translations from the Mengzi follow Van Norden (2008) unless otherwise indicated.

(9.) For a detailed analysis of Mengzi’s use of the metaphor of spouts, see Ivanhoe (2000).

(10.) My translation.

(11.) All translations from the Liji follow Legge (1885) (unless otherwise specified) with book and verse followed by page numbers.

(12.) For a discussion of Xunzi’s views on childhood, see Cline (2015). For a full translation of the Xunzi, see Hutton (2014).

(13.) See Jinyu 晉語 4, sec. 24. Also see Kinney (2004), 10–11.

(14.) All translations from the Lienuzhuan follow Kinney (2014) with chapter, story, and page number.

(15.) For Dong Zhongshu’s view, see Hanshu, 56. Jia Yi mentions prenatal cultivation in the Xinshu (“Taijiao zashi”) while his writings in the Hanshu (which are examined here) stress early childhood education. Liu Xiang’s view is found in the Lienuzhuan, which I discuss in this article.

(16.) The silk manuscript from Mawangdui on fetal development and childbirth is referred to as Taichanshu 胎產書 (“Book of the Generation of the Fetus”). For a translation, see Harper (1998): 372–384.

(17.) For a translation of the Lienuzhuan, see Kinney (2014). On the textual history, authorship, and interpretation of the Lienuzhuan, see also Raphals (1998), esp. 87–138. As Raphals notes, a significant number of the Lienuzhuan’s intellectual virtue stories are corroborated by pre-Han texts.

(18.) The legend of sage-king Yu taming the floodwaters appears in a number of early Confucian texts, including the Mengzi (3A4 and 3B9).

(19.) Translation slightly modified.

(20.) See Lee (2000) for an argument that women were believed to be capable of cultivating the same virtues as men, even though their roles differed.

(21.) Fathers, too, were thought to play an important role in childhood education. For discussion, see Cline (2015).

(22.) Many of Zhu Xi’s remarks on this topic are found in Conversations of Master Chu, Arranged Topically, Ch. 1: “Lesser Learning” (Gardner, 1990, 88).

(23.) For detailed studies of Confucian ethical views and their contemporary relevance, see Ivanhoe (2000, 2013) and Van Norden (2007).