When Not to Obey or Cooperate with Parents
According to Confucius, one must not obey or cooperate with one’s parents when doing so will land one’s parents in moral unrighteousness. Of course, this is an infreqent circumstance that one may, with luck, never encounter, but one must do one’s duty when the circumstance arises.
One day, one of Confucius’ foremost disciples, Zeng Zi, the author of the famous Xiao Jing (Classic of Xiao 孝經), stood still and let his father hit him over the head with a stick in a fit of rage. Zeng Zi almost passed out, and his father felt great remorse after. Zeng Zi, however, felt that he was displaying xiao by “accepting punishment from his father.” When Confucius heard about this, however, he got very angry. He severely reprimanded Zeng Zi for lacking xiao in having stood still instead of running away. Confucius said that only if his father was holding a thin twig should Zeng Zi have stood still to take the punishment. By letting his father hit him over the head with a stout stick, Zeng Zi was sinking his father into moral unrighteousness (陷父於不義). Indeed, what if Zeng Zi had died, Confucius asked. Then the father would have been guilty of a serious crime. Zeng Zi’s cooperation to let his father succeed in committing an offense against moral righteousness, Confucius stressed, was a great transgression against xiao.
According to another famous Confucian thinkers, Mencius, going along with instead of dissuading parents from moral unrighteousness is the second greatest transgression against xiao (the greatest being not having offspring).
Therefore, it is a Confucian, i.e. traditional Chinese, principle that one must do one’s best to dissuade parents from doing what is immoral or unrighteous. According to the classic Di Zi Gui (”Students’ Rules”), one must, in a soft tone of voice and with a smile on one’s face, advise one’s parents against the matter that is morally wrong. If the parents don’t accept the counsel, then one waits until one’s parents are in a good mood and then again try to dissuade them. If that fails weeping and wailing follows, and even if one’s parents get annoyed and angry to the point that they hit one, one should not mind. ( Di Zi Gui, page 9)