Respect for Elders Does Not Mean Never Questioning Them

A lot of people have the misconception that by respect for one’s elders, Confucius teaches blind obedience to elders and unthinking acceptance of everything and anything elders say. I’ve even heard it from someone of Chinese ethnicity that Confucianism is fascist. Alas, alas, it is not so!

As we have discussed in this blog before and as we can see from Di Zi Gui, p.9, Confucius and the Chinese tradition has never advocated blind obedience to elders, authority, emperor, or parents. In fact, it is one’s duty to try to dissuade them if one believes they are falling into moral unrighteousness. Moreover, It is a grave offense to not do so, as one then becomes an accomplice in making one’s parents fall into moral unrighteousness.

Also, Confucius has never advocated unthinking acceptance of everything and anything elders, or parents, or authority, for that matter, say. If one does not understand one is supposed to ask questions. If one thinks an elder is wrong one should question what the elder is saying.

Take for example the essay “Explanation on Entering the Academy” by the well-known eighth century Confucian scholar Han Yu (韓愈). In it, the professor on entering the Supreme Academy one day lectures the students on focusing wholeheartedly on their studies and not worrying about whether they will be treated fairly after they graduate, whereupon a student rebuts the professor, pointing out how he, the professor himself, is unfairly treated. “Teacher, you mislead us (先生欺我哉),” says the student. Yes, true Confucianism, not the kind that is mistaken for the real thing, teaches questioning and challenging authority if one thinks they are mistaken.

What Confucius advocates is respect. And surely as part of respect one should have a high enough regard for one’s elders that they have enough self-confidence to be questioned or challenged by juniors who have sincere doubts, and enough intellectual ability and integrity to engage in honest and open exchanges of opinion.

Feng Xin-ming

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