In ancient China, people observed a three-year mourning period after their parents' passing, during which they lived in seclusion and hardly ever went out. They restrained themselves from enjoying such comforts as a luxurious dwelling, fine food, and soft and beautiful garments, and also abstained from pleasures of the spirit, such as watching or taking part in musical or dance performances, banquets, parties, trips, hunts, and so on.
The rites of mourning applied to everyone from the emperor down to the common citizens. Some emperors went into mourning and stayed away from the court for three years, leaving the government to their ministers. They secluded themselves in the palace, wore coarse garments, and ate bland food. They didn't visit their concubines or enter their gardens or ponds. They didn't shave or cut their hair, and did not talk unless it was absolutely necessary. Such behavior won the praise of sages. Other public officials also returned to their villages for three years' mourning. In modern terms, it would be equivalent to taking a leave of absence to go home. Ordinary people observed mourning by staying at home and not going to work. Those who were especially filial even built huts by the graveside of their parents and dwelt there.
Why did they restrain themselves in this way? Confucius was once asked by his disciple Zai Yu, "Why is there a three-year mourning period for parents? Isn't one year long enough? If every person in the country stops practicing the rites and performing music for three years, won't the rites and the music perish? All things, including the seasons, follow a yearly cycle; therefore, I think one year is enough."
Confucius asked him, "Would you feel comfortable wearing nice clothes and eating fine food only one year after your parents died?" Zai Yu answered frankly, "Sure, I'd be comfortable."
All Confucius could say was, "If you would feel comfortable, then just go ahead. When a person of true virtue mourns, he is so filled with grief that even if he eats fine food, he does not taste it; even if he hears fine music, it does not make him happy. In all the affairs of daily life, he feels no comfort or ease. That's why he has no inclination to indulge in pleasure. If you feel comfortable, go ahead and have your way." After Zai Yu left, Confucius said, "Zai Yu is truly lacking in humaneness. After a child is born, it cannot leave its parents' embrace for at least three years. Three years is the standard time of mourning for the whole country. I wonder whether Zai Yu loved his parents for three years."
The rites were set down according to the sentimental inclinations of the majority of the people, so that everyone would be able to uphold them and order could be maintained in society; they are not empty rules imposed upon people to restrain their freedom. In ancient times, people were more simple and kind-hearted. The instinct for parents to be kind and children to be filial was ever present. Therefore, when their parents passed away, it was natural for people to lose their appetite and have trouble sleeping. Truly, "the kindness of our parents is vaster than the heavens," and a lifetime of yearning for them would not be too much.
However, we all have duties and responsibilities to fulfill in life, so we cannot withdraw from the world and indulge in mourning forever--that would not be the Middle Way. On the other hand, one year didn't seem to be enough for mourning, so what could be done? As a compromise between the two, the period of three years was set as a token of repaying our parents for their toil in rearing us for the first three years of our lives.
Once the three years are over, one should restrain one's grief and return to a normal lifestyle. When Confucius' disciple Zi Lu felt reluctant to take off his mourning garb after completing the period of mourning for his sister, Confucius admonished him, "You think you're the only one who feels reluctant? Of all the people you meet on the road, who wouldn't be reluctant to take off the mourning garments? But the reason the ancient kings set forth the rites was to help those who are overly emotional to restrain their emotions, and those who are not sufficiently mournful to transform themselves through the rites." From this, we can see that the purpose of the rites is to help us restrain our emotions and express them within reasonable limits; it is not to deprive us of freedom. The rites are based upon principle and reason.
If you have good reason for not being able to carry out the rites of mourning, such as needing to earn money to support the family, being drafted into the military, or being involved in important public affairs, no one will blame you for being expedient. The rites are based on sincerity; if one were to concentrate only on external appearances and not have any real sincerity, then even if one observed the three-year mourning period, what meaning would it have? In that case Zai Yu's frank and unpretentious manner would be preferable. Actually, since the external formalities were designed for majority of the people, they can certainly be altered by the majority. The present age and society is so different from ancient times, that of course our rules of etiquette will be different from those followed by the ancients; however, the principle behind them unchangeable.
What is the principle? It is that of utmost sincerity. This is true not only of the rites of mourning, but also of the rites of burial and worship of the deceased. The ancients said, "One who is greatly filial thinks longingly of his parents for his or her whole life." That is to say, the thought of filial respect is the same whether one's parents are alive or deceased. Some people are mean and unfilial when their parents are living, and after their parents die, they may hold a grand funeral, perhaps hiring a professional "filial son" to cry in their stead, or perhaps having a great banquet with music and entertainment. Such hypocritical acts are both disgraceful and pitiful.
Zi Lu once lamented, "How miserable it is to be poor. One cannot support one's parents well when they are alive, and one cannot give them a good funeral after they die." Confucius consoled him, "As long as you do your best, even if you can only serve vegetable roots and plain water at the funeral, your parents will be happy. Who says you can't fulfill your filial duties? Even if you can't afford a coffin, if you can wrap the body with a straw mat so it won't be exposed, this is in accord with the rites. Who says you can't be filial? What does it matter if you are poor?"
Confucius' view toward the rites of mourning and worship of the deceased was: First, if one performs them according to one's status and financial situation, neither going overboard nor doing too little, then one is in accord with the rites. Secondly, one should genuinely feel sorrow and respect, which is to say, one should have the utmost sincerity.