Confucius said: “How majestic was the manner in which Shun and Yu ruled over the world but treated none of it as their own.”
This passage has an echo of the theme of the first chapter of Book 8, in which Confucius praised Tai Bo, the eldest son of the founding ancestor of the Zhou Dynasty (周朝) [1046–256 BC], who voluntarily left the kingdom of Zhou to enable his father to designate his youngest brother Jili (季歷), who was renowned for his great wisdom, as heir to the throne.
Believed to have lived during the 23rd or 22nd centuries BC, the Emperor Shun (舜) was said to have lived until he was 100 and ruled with great wisdom for nearly fifty years. Shun passed the throne on to Yu (禹), his most able minister, rather than his own son.
This turned out to be a sound decision as Yu went on to become renowned in Chinese history for building a system of irrigation canals that reduced flooding in the rich agricultural plains surrounding the Yellow River and brought unprecedented prosperity to the nation. Unlike his predecessor Shun, however, Yu designated his son as his successor, thus establishing China’s first hereditary dynasty, the Xia (夏朝).
Confucius is praising both emperors for their selfless devotion to the service of the country and people, which laid the foundation for the subsequent growth of the nation. Shun built up a strong bureaucratic system for managing the country’s land and agricultural resources, while also establishing a standardized measurement system. Yu is famous for having spent thirteen years toiling on the irrigation canal construction projects and sharing the same conditions as his fellow workers.
Given that Shun and Yu lived so far back in Chinese antiquity, it is highly likely that the tales of their virtues and accomplishments had already been heavily exaggerated by the time Confucius lived over a thousand years later. But they were obviously credible enough for him to believe them – or perhaps he saw no harm in using them to do some myth making of his own.