It often seems these two facets are rarely in synergy, and such an observation is far from without merit. Since the human race took its first steps toward civilization, the myriad social forces which make us what we are (piety, sexuality, filial loyalty, community, etc..) are in constant conflict with one another. Each of us possesses a unique blend of these social forces acting upon, within, and through us–I believe we are, as most cognitive neuroscientists claim, observers of these forces more than we are those forces–and as a result we each have individuated compatibility and incompatibility with the world around us.
For some people, piety is of the utmost importance. For others, sexuality takes precedence. For others, community, and for still others the base, animal need to compete tops the list. Since each of us is different in this regard, fashioning ‘perfect’ or ‘utopian’ social systems is not only a doomed endeavor, it actually subverts the way we think about our fellow humans. Studying this phenomenon, one comes across useful paradigms such as ‘nature vs. nurture,’ or even ‘authoritarianism vs. libertarianism.’ But the paradigm I wish to examine today is one of ‘family vs. duty.’
As many of my readers already know, I’m quite fond of the Chinese classic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Within those pages is, I believe, the clearest and most useful primer on human psychology & sociology that has ever been put down in easy-to-digest form. The way this novel has earned such high marks in my esteem is the way it examines human nature from multiple perspectives, across generations and through dozens of different characters. The basic conflicts in the book, as in life itself, are far from uncommon when you break them down to their base components. In fact, as with any successful work of fiction, it is not the conflict itself (which serves merely as a setting) which makes a story worth hearing and retelling–it’s the actions and reactions of the characters navigating the conflict which makes it resonant with our psyches.
A major player in the early chapters of Romance of the Three Kingdoms (hereafter referred to as ROTK) is the valiant, headstrong warrior, Lü Bu. ROTK is a fantasy novel that is based, with surprising accuracy and faithfulness, on a collection of historical records often referred to as ‘Record of the Three Kingdoms,’ much of which was assembled in the immediate aftermath of the more than century long conflict. In the novel, Lü Bu is the equivalent of a modern day mega-star athlete: everyone wants him on their team, and he lives a prestigious life as a result. How much of this characterization is accurate of the real man is difficult to say, but one thing we know for certain is that the author of ROTK, Luo Guanzhong, took significant liberties with Lü Bu’s character–specifically regarding his marital/familial status.
In the historical records, Lü Bu had a wife and children to whom he was apparently quite faithful; in the fictional ROTK, he spends most of his page time pursuing a purely fictional character, Diaochan, who serves as a sublimely elegant vehicle for a handful of narrative plot points. But in both the historical and fictional accounts of the story, Lü Bu–who is easily the most vaunted and feared warrior in the known world–eventually finds himself caught in a dilemma: to be a good father/husband, or to be a good military commander. He chose the former, and soon thereafter was captured and executed by his rivals.
The differences between Eastern and Western Civilization are vast and difficult to pin down, but the ‘family vs. duty’ paradigm provides a rather clear view of some small portion of those differences–and the tale of Lü Bu choosing to stay at his family’s side in their hour of need, rather than to lead his men in battle against the enemy, is one that resonates far more clearly in the East than it does in the West. Let’s look at a couple more situations from the novel which further serve to illustrate this paradigm.
Xu Shu was a strategist and advisor in the Three Kingdoms period. He was something of the low-man-on-the-totem-pole in his peculiarly successful clique of fellow scholars and masterminds, but his skills still saw him direct the utter rout of Cao Ren during Xu Shu’s brief tenure at Liu Bei’s side (Liu Bei would later declare himself King, and eventually Emperor, after conquering roughly half of China at the height of his kingdom, Shu-Han’s, success).
Xu Shu helped direct Liu Bei’s forces–which had been without a truly capable ‘Director General’ until that point, and had suffered humiliating defeat after humiliating defeat as a result–to victory over one of Cao Cao’s most capable commanders, Cao Ren. Shortly after that victory, Cao Cao–knowing perfectly well how dangerous Liu Bei would be if he retained the services of someone like Xu Shu–hatched a scheme by imprisoning Xu Shu’s mother in the Capitol City, Xuchang, and sending a forged letter (ostensibly from her) requesting Xu Shu return to Xuchang immediately to spare her further indignity and shame. Xu Shu is torn by the event, and even knows that it’s a plot of Cao Cao’s doing, but ultimately he abandons his post as Director General to go see to his mother.
When he arrives, his mother is initially happy to see him–but when she realizes he fell for Cao Cao’s plot, she scolds him mercilessly for stepping away from his post at Liu Bei’s side. Shortly thereafter, she commits suicide in despair (think about that for a moment…) and Xu Shu remains a prisoner of Cao Cao for the rest of his life.
Later on in the book, one of the most epic sequences in that story unfolds prior to the Battle of Chi Bi (Red Cliff, popularized most recently on film by John Woo). That sequence involves one of Liu Bei’s bravest warriors, Zhao Yun, rescuing Liu Bei’s infant son from Cao Cao’s army. In the 2010 TV series, Three Kingdoms, this rescue sequence takes up the better part of an entire episode, and during the fight to safety Zhao Yun constantly shields the baby from harm–going so far as to sling the child across his chest with a makeshift harness–while battling through Cao Cao’s legion.
Zhao Yun suffers numerous wounds, and ultimately fails to protect Liu Bei’s wife (who, knowing Zhao Yun would never abandon her, suicidally threw herself down a well to make possible Zhao Yun’s escape with the infant) but does manage to return to Liu Bei with the infant child safely strapped to his chest. Exhausted, bloodied, and beaten from the fight, Zhao Yun presents the ‘young lord’ to Liu Bei on bended knee, apologizing profusely for his failure to save Liu Bei’s wife. Liu Bei accepts the child, takes one look at it, and then does something that takes everyone by surprise.
He throws the baby onto the ground in disgust, never taking his eyes off Zhao Yun.
Zhao Yun is stunned, but Liu Bei clutches the dauntless warrior in his embrace and says in no uncertain terms that he values Zhao Yun’s life far more than ANY infant’s, and that he could not bear to have lost Zhao Yun for such a small thing as an infant child.
And for the full weight of this to sink in, you’ve got to understand: Liu Bei is the absolute, uncontested, 100% HERO of this story. His quest is to restore the Han Dynasty while every other warlord of the land seeks to carve his own piece off for himself or, more usually, wants to become Emperor for himself. The whole world knows of Liu Bei’s virtue, his sincerity, his piety, and his honor.
And he tossed his infant son on the ground in disgust–an act which earns him significant praise and approval from the rest of his followers.
Later on in the same story, when Liu Bei is attempting to recruit the disguised Pang Tong into his army, Liu Bei once again ignores his child in favor of pursuing a talented officer for his organization. He’s making clear that whenever there’s a conflict between family and duty, he will choose the latter every time. On his death bed, he even goes so far as to tell his most trusted and valued adviser (Zhuge Liang) that if his son proves incapable of providing the necessary leadership for his kingdom, Zhuge Liang is to depose him and assume the throne for himself so that the work of Shu-Han (his kingdom) can be fulfilled.
The ‘family vs. duty’ paradigm is one that intrudes into nearly all of our lives, and usually on a daily basis. That’s why the scenes described above resonate with ROTK readers (and that resonance underpins my great respect and appreciation for the novel), and in the end scenes like Liu Bei tossing his child onto the ground are supposed to shock the audience/readership–likewise, scenes like the one where Lü Bu hesitates to lead his army due to concern for his loved ones are supposed to make the audience/readership empathize with the man. We all understand why he did what he did, which is why his end is such a tragedy. Even Xu Shu’s flight to Xuchang, to look after his elderly mother, is something each of us could see ourselves doing–and even defending as the Right Thing To Do(tm).
In the end, there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ responses to the ‘family vs. duty’ conflict. There are only human responses, which run the gamut and include those described above. One fascinating thing to me is how the East and the West differ so fundamentally on this point: in China, for example, social unity and harmony are more greatly valued than liberalism and freedom are, compared to the West . Still, true solidarity in either Eastern or Western culture is far from reality, and likely can never fully be achieved in spite of the best efforts of those cultures’ leaders–leaders like William Shakespeare, Luo Guanzhong, Thomas Jefferson, or anyone else who’s put pen to paper in an effort to identify and comment fundamental human truths.
Culture definitely matters in terms of cultivating preferences in conflicts like ‘family vs. duty’, but superiority and inferiority are probably impossible to totally establish when comparing and contrasting different cultural impacts on the world. Some cultures foster expression at the expense of productivity, while others focus on productivity to the near-exclusion of all else. It seems apparent that a given culture will outperform another if the variables are to its advantage, whereas it might take a subtle tweak of those same variables to flip the advantage from one side to the other. It seems to me, however, that there’s a great opportunity for each of us to learn a little more about our fellow humans by examining relatively stark cultural differences like those between the East and West on issues like Family vs. Duty.
And at the end of the day, we should all be seeking to expand our understanding of the world around us–which includes our fellow humans.