On-line Talk: Knapp, “The Birth of Popular Confucianism”

10th June 2021: Prof. Keith Knapp (The Citadel) presenting “The Birth of Popular Confucianism: Evidence from Dunhuang of the Creation of the Twenty-four Filial Exemplars.” 

The Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge holds a series of talks each term whose overall theme links with Dunhuang and/or the Silk Road. These take place via Zoom on Thursdays and require pre-registration. This week’s talk will begin at 5pm UK Time (BST), lasting an hour with time allocated afterwards for questions, debate, and discussion.

We welcome listeners from all fields who feel that these talks may help their own research or who are curious to know about the diverse topics covered. This seminar series is organised by Dr Imre Galambos with the generous support of the Glorisun Global Network and Dhammachai International Research.

To register for this week’s talk, please follow this link:https://zoom.us/meeting/register/tJIodOytrTkpEtBYrzlCaz3_OTikd3n4KMJk

If prompted to enter a passcode, please enter: Dunhuang

According to nineteenth and early twentieth century missionaries, if a Chinese family owned just one book, it was the Ershisi xiao 二十四孝 “The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars.” In early imperial times, men of letters and even emperors compiled works called Xiaozi zhuan 孝子传“Accounts of Filial Offspring,” which often contained a multitude of narratives concerning devoted sons, daughters, and creatures. When and how did a work for popular audiences, “The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars” come about?

Several documents from the treasure-trove of texts found at Dunhuang provide us with some answers.  One of the most important of them is the Late Yuan Jian’s Seat-Settling Text of the Twenty-four Filial Exemplars 故圆鉴二十四孝押座文, compiled by the monastic Yun Bian 云辩(d. 951). Although this text does not list all twenty-four exemplars, its title makes it apparent that the Twenty-four Filial Exemplars was already in existence at that time. Remarkably, two of the exemplars it lists are the historical Buddha and Mulian. Four untitled documents found at Dunhuang take a form that resembles later “Twenty-four Filial Exemplars” texts: they list a filial son or daughter, relate one of his/her exemplary deeds, and then end with a verse summary. It seems apparent that these are our earliest examples of Ershisi xiao. Interestingly, the few stories these fragmented texts include novel stories, such as that of the Buddhist filial son Shanzi 睒子, as well as the Wife of Wang Wuzi 王武子妻, an exemplar of filial cannibalism. Indicative of the popularity of tales of outstanding filial offspring, two of the most famous ones even have their own bianwen 变文 “transformation texts:” Sage Emperor Shun 舜子and Dong Yong 董永.

What these documents suggest is that the first creators of popular Confucian texts were possibly either Buddhist clerics or devout laymen. The notoriety of Confucian filial sons was such that Buddhist authors drafted them to teach the dharma.

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