This verse speaks of the child's duties when his or her parents are sick. However, due to the changing times and social customs and the differing cultural backgrounds, this verse-especially the first line-has become a source of controversy and has lost its original meaning. If taken literally, how can we taste medicine before we give it to our parents? Isn't it dangerous to casually take medicine that is not prescribed for one? Let us explain the meaning of the Chinese character chang 嘗 for "taste," and then this verse will become easier to understand.
The character chang was a term used in ancient China during harvest time. After the newly harvested crops were ritually offered to the mountain, forest, and earth spirits to give thanks, everyone would taste a little bit of the offering. That was known as chang xin 嘗新 "tasting the new." Thus chang meant "using the tip of the tongue to distinguish the flavor," and it also came to mean "to taste" or "to give expert evidence."
In ancient China, natural herbs were boiled and decocted to make medicine. Thus, chang meant to lightly taste the herbal decoction with the tip of the tongue, not to swallow it down. Of course, there is no way to taste modern medicines which come in the form of pills and capsules. All you would be able to taste is their sugar coating.
The purpose of tasting medicine is to determine (1) how hot it is, and (2) whether it is the correct prescription. Chinese herbal decoctions are effective only if taken warm. However, they cannot be too hot, for overly hot medicine can harm weak patients. Our hands are not reliable for measuring the temperature of the decoction, since the accuracy of the measurement would depend on the person measuring, the material of the container, and the properties of the medicine. The only way to do it is to lightly test the decoction with the tip of one's tongue. A concerned filial child will not recklessly serve his parents a steaming hot or cold bowl of medicine.
How can one determine whether the medicine is the correct one? Among the numerous varieties of Chinese medicine, there are several thousand which are commonly used. Yet all of them can be classified according to the five flavors: sour, bitter, sweet, acerbic, and salty. The five flavors are primarily used to treat the five organs: the heart, liver, spleen, kidneys, and lungs. Generally speaking, sour medicines are used to treat liver diseases and rheumatism. Medicines of a sweet nature are used to treat diseases of the spleen and stomach, depression, and other such ailments. Bitter medicinal herbs are for the heart, acerbic herbs for the lungs and bronchial tube, and salty ones for the kidneys.
With a single taste, one can get a general idea of whether the medicine obtained is the correct one. Although only someone who is well-versed in medical lore and the properties of medicines can get a really accurate idea, tasting the medicine before giving it to his or her parents is a gesture of concern on the part of a filial child. Now that we have a better understanding of this verse, we should have no reason to criticize it. With regard to the pills and capsules of modern medicine, the word "taste" can be interpreted as "examine," that is, to make sure our parents take the right medicine at the right times and in the right dosages (because sometimes sick people have to take more than one kind of medicine). This is one of the reasons we should carefully attend to our parents when they are sick.
Sick people may be dizzy, or have trouble getting around, or be unable to feed themselves or to use the toilet; they need other people to help them in all aspects. When they are sad, afflicted, or afraid, they especially need others to support and console them. Taking care of sick people can be very hard, especially if one has financial difficulties, family responsibilies, or pressures from work or school. If one has to make many trips to the hospital to take care of a sick person who may not be in a normal state of mind, one may become physically and mentally exhausted. There is a Chinese saying, "There are no filial children by the bedside of one who is chronically ill." Yet one cannot really blame the children. A filial child merits the name "filial" because he or she is able to rise above the crowd, practicing what is difficult to practice, and enduring what is hard to endure.
The second line of the verse says that we should wait on our sick parents day and night, without leaving their bedside. Although this may not always be possible in our modern society, we should still try our best to be filial. Our spirit should be one of "giving our all" without one whit of selfishness. As children, we should simply ask ourselves if we have done our best for our parents; the methods we use are not fixed, but can depend on the person, time, and situation.
Emperor Wen of the Han dynasty personally tasted his mother's medicine, and he became one of the Twenty-four Filial Paragons of China. Although he was the emperor and was occupied with the myriad affairs of ruling the country, he personally waited upon his mother day and night. This is truly remarkable. We shouldn't try to find an excuse, saying, "Well, the emperor was wealthy and didn't have to work to make a living. Of course he had the time and energy to take care of his mother around the clock. What's the big deal about tasting her medicine once in a while?" Yet take a look at history in China and other countries and see how many filial children have come from rich families.
The line "Wait upon them day and night, without ever leaving their bedside" is talking about the spirit with which we should serve our parents. We shouldn't become attached to the details of time and place and misunderstand the true intent of the sages.
In studying the classics, we have to grasp the spirit of the principles and practice them in our daily lives. Then we will be able to roam with the sages and worthies of old. We should not interpret the classics so literally that the meaning is lost, or else we will only taste the dregs of the noble ideas of the ancients. If we insist on condemning all the classics as outdated, we will gain no benefit from them. We are simply repeating what we hear, which is based upon mistaken views. If we treat the dregs as the cream and jump to conclusions like this, we are not doing justice to the ancients.