A sharp pinch and my audible gasp marked the hollow needle’s passage through my left nostril. Minus the hemming and hawing over choosing the perfectly sized stud, the piercing process amounted to a ‘three’ on the pain scale and less than a minute to complete. In contrast, the battle against my parents bemoaning my tiny new 1 millimeter nose stud would last longer than its 4-6 month healing period. Though my ears and navel were already brimming with metal, my Chinese immigrant parents seemed to receive this nostril piercing as a final affront. 

My beloved piercing and I were a hearty 2,500 miles away from my family, which didn’t stop my parents in expressing their strong disapproval over virtual means. Their opposition to my piercing was so vehement that my dad offered to go vegan in exchange for its removal. To this day, the piercing is still intact, but I had never fully understood the cause of my parents’ severe displeasure towards it. Sure, they had cited concern over the piercing’s impact on my career potential, but why the urgency? Moreover, why had they phrased my piercing (an autonomous bodily decision) as a “grievous personal offense” to them both?

To find answers, I revisited my parents’ texts from a more culturally aware perspective. Despite growing up involved in Chinese extracurriculars and (somewhat) learning the language, I knew little about the Chinese traditions and values which shaped much of their beliefs. I had to do a deeper philosophical dive to get to the crux of their discontent. And what better way to start than with the heavyweight champion of Chinese ethical philosophy, Confucius? 

Confucian ethics measures morality as how well we live up to a certain role.

Confucianism has a complicated relationship with China in the modern age, with the challenges of modernization giving rise to Neo-Confucianism and other revisions to the system. Nevertheless, the influence of Confucian principles of morality can be observed throughout current Chinese social institutions. Confucian philosophy operates on role ethics, a type of ethical theory which prioritizes the roles we live in as opposed to how we may view ourselves as individuals. Unlike standard modes of Western ethics, Confucian ethics measures morality as how well we live up to a certain role – like that of a filial, or ‘good’, daughter.

Central to this theory (and my parents’ insistent nostril piercing critique) is the virtue of filial piety, or xiao (孝). Simply put, filial piety is organizing the virtue of respect hierarchically, starting with giving unconditional respect to your parents. However, filial piety has so many more facets than the commonplace ‘respect your elders’ adage, as outlined in the Classic of Filial Piety. Filial piety is not only a child’s obligation to care for their parents but also the parents’ obligation to fulfill their gendered roles to their children. In classic Confucian texts like The 24 Paragons of Filial Piety, these obligations are characterized by complete and utter displays of devotion. Some of which, like Number 21 (With Deep Concern, Tasting His Father’s Stool) and Number 9 (He Buried His Son for His Mother) have caused many to raise a critical eyebrow. 

Needless to say, modern displays of filial piety take on much tamer expressions of obeying your elders – like using honorifics or expressing one’s devotion through material care.  In the Analects, an ancient collection of snippets attributed to Confucius, filial piety is linked to “the root of benevolence”, one of the core behaviors necessary to satisfy the Confucian ideal of a junzi (君子). The idea of a junzi parallels Aristotelian virtue ethics in that the junzi is the epitome of exemplary moral behavior – disciplined, righteous, respectful, etc. 

Through this account of morality, my spontaneous nostril piercing decision, which evidently caused my Chinese parents ample stress, seemed to fall on the opposite of junzi virtues. To my parents, my decision was a highly individualistic, reckless display in which I fell short of my expected role as their filial daughter. My disregard to consulting with them perhaps represented a lack of ritual propriety (li), which admonishes improv and stresses that every action one undertakes bears a consequence on someone else. 

My nose piercing is here to stay.

While I understood this just fine and dandy, I was still perplexed about a certain phrase my parents had used. From a parental love “deep into [their] bone and blood”, my nose stud had hurt them such that they “really are feeling that [their] heart got pierced through.” Unsurprisingly so, this insinuation of feeling physically wounded on my behalf is linked to filial piety and its influence on perceptions of bodily autonomy. The first chapter of the Classic of Filial Piety reads “…seeing that our body, with hair and skin, is received from the father and mother, we dare not let it be damaged or injured. This is the beginning of filial piety.” This record posits that children’s bodies are gifted extensions of their parents, and thus the filial child must guard it against damage or injury. This, along with the element of belief in the negative health effects of body piercings, could help explain why my parents felt physically hurt in addition to having their parental authority challenged by undisciplined behavior.

Unfilial imposition or not, my nose piercing is here to stay. Though many of Confucius’ teachings remain timeless, some aspects, especially the disappointing portrayal of women in Confucianism, should be subject to proper philosophical debate and revision. We should continue to discuss the Confucian ideas which do linger in Chinese society and consequently, the Asian-American experience, with room for nuanced perspectives and the full complexity of his philosophy. In the meantime, I won’t hesitate to riddle my body cartilage with more holes, basking in the disapproving aiya! with a somewhat newfound understanding of the theories which constitute their displeasure. 

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  • Shannon Zheng

    Shannon Zheng is a multidisciplinary artist and designer studying Art & Design and Philosophy at the University of Michigan. She is interested in channeling art as a form of intervention, whether it be through constructing visual narratives to promote social change or designing confrontationally through an activist lens.