Mother Meng’s Three Moves – A Tale of Ideological Hierarchy
Come to think of it, the moral is rather unsettling.
As a pupil in a Taiwanese school, I was regularly fed with a stable diet of parables, fables, legends and myths from ancient or modern texts. Their moral teaching was unabashedly blatant. I learned about resilience, filial piety, true friendship and many other moral values through these texts. I learned also the unsurpassable priority of education above all other pursuits, delivered by none other than the archetypal pushy parent of all parents – Mother Meng.
Meng-zi (Mencius; c. 371 – c. 289 BC) was raised by his mother single-handedly after the death of his father. Their first house was near a cemetery and before long Mother Meng became anxious about her son’s disturbing behaviour. Witnessing regular burials had made him knowledgeable of funeral rites. He would spent time playing the role of a funeral director, reenacting ceremonial preceding with eerily pitch-perfect incantations. “This is no place to raise a child,” Mother Meng realised. So, they packed up and moved.
A market town presented several advantages, not to mention being close to all daily essentials. Mother and son soon found fulfilment in the hubbub of human interactions, characterised by animated commercial activities. Receptive to fresh stimulants, the young Mengzi quickly acquired the art of bartering. Setting up his own stall, Mengzi would act as a juvenile entrepreneur (of whom Lord Sugar would have been very proud); his willing playmates the customers. “I cannot possibly allow my son to grow up to be a market trader!” Mother Meng concluded. The bags were packed again. Mother and son dismantled their metaphorical market stall and rolled up the metaphorical awning and left the hustle and bustle of the market town in pursuit of pastures green.
After a careful consideration and scrupulous search, Mother Meng acquired a lodging near a school. Day and night, they were surrounded by cheery chantings of angelic notes. “I’ve finally found my son an ideal environs,” Mother Meng mused. A mother’s instinct about her son is never to be doubted. Indeed, young Mengzi’s transformation was for all to see. The sound of reading and the spectacle of learning began to rub off on him. Daily, he would recruit children from the neighbourhood to staff his pretend school, relishing the roles of master and pupil, observing closely the etiquette of scholastic rituals.
Besides Confucius, Mencius is undoubtedly the best know intellect from the Chinese classical world.
Surely, Mother Meng had got her priorities right. So, what is unsettling?
It just sounds depressingly familiar, even in the 21st-century social context.
Two millennia on, the narrative of social mobility still rings true. By the same token, the unvoiced narrative trope of social immobility gropes beyond its quasi-biographical terrain. The maternal dilemma may be local, the instinctive desire for a better future is unmistakably universal. Supplanting the Chinese names with any other names of racial or cultural heritage, the story would still resonate with unbearable weight of despair.
And here lies another disconcerting undertone. The narrative trope of privileging academic learning over all other forms of learning still dominates educational thoughts in certain quarters. Speaking from a self-professed “eternal student” like myself, my critique would immediately sound disingenuous and hollow. Nevertheless, the undeniable truth remains – academic excellence is still regarded as the only one form of learning that merits true accolade. I have to remind myself that shouldn’t be the case.
You think buying into the neighbourhood of a good school is a modern phenomenon? Well, Mother Meng has set the trend for the Chinese parents over 2000 years ago. Just as well she enjoyed the freedom of movement. Here is another thing, the supreme premium placed on education has meant property prices remain unreachable for many even the most aspiring and well-intentioned parents, never mind those dispossessed.
What does parental choice mean to them?