Shun (舜) was one of the five legendary sage kings of ancient China in the 23rd or 22nd century BC. He reportedly ruled for nearly fifty years after the previous ruler Yao (堯) had abdicated in favor of him because of his higher virtue. Prior to his death, reputedly at the age of 100, he is said to have relinquished his throne to his successor, Yu (禹), who went on to establish the first recorded dynasty in China’s history, the Xia Dynasty (夏朝).
According to the common myth that Confucius clearly subscribed to, Shun was a compassionate man who led a humble and moral lifestyle even after Yao had given him two of his daughters in marriage together with a small parcel of land and a dowry. When he died of a sudden illness near the Xiang River during a tour of the empire, his two wives are said to have rushed to his body and wept by it for days. Their tears turned into blood, and such was their grief that they eventually threw themselves into the river and drowned.
An alternative version of his life suggests that Shun was a usurper who overthrew Yao and left him to die in prison – only to suffer a similar fate when his successor Yu rebelled and sent him into exile.
Confucius described the music of the Emperor Shun as being perfectly beautiful and perfectly good and the music of King Wu as being perfectly beautiful but not perfectly good.
Zigong said: “What if far-reaching policies were implemented among the people that benefited the masses? Could that be described as goodness?” Confucius said: “Such an action labeled as goodness could almost be described as perfection. Even Yao and Shun would not be able to match it! Good people help others get on their feet before themselves and empower them to achieve their goals before they achieve their own. When good examples can be followed in your immediate vicinity, it can be said that you are on the right track to goodness.”
Confucius said: “How majestic was the manner in which Shun and Yu ruled over the empire but treated none of it as their own.”
Shun ruled his empire with only five ministers. King Wu of Zhou said: “I have ten able ministers to keep everything in order.” Confucius said: “Talented people are hard to find: are they not? The times of Yao and Shun were said to be rich in talent, but King Wu was only able to find nine such men because one of his ministers was a woman. Although the Zhou controlled over two-thirds of the empire, it still served the Shang. You can truly say that the virtue of the Zhou was supreme.”