Zizhang said: “In the Book of Documents it is written: ‘When King Gaozong was mourning his father, he did not speak for three years.’ What does this mean?” Confucius said: “This did not apply only to King Gaozong; all the ancients did the same. When a king died, all the officials gathered together and took their orders from the prime minister for three years.”
King Gaozong (高宗) was a ruler during the Shang Dynasty (商朝), which ran from around 1600 BC to 1046 BC. Even though Confucius asserts that it was the custom for the heir of the throne to go into mourning for three years after the death of his father, Zizhang is no doubt correct in suspecting that this was honored more in breach than in actual implementation.
Just how would the heir be able to grab the reins of power after being away from court for such a long period of time? Confucius would no doubt have argued that the prime minister and his cabinet would have been be so inspired by the filial piety displayed by their future king that they would have voluntarily handed back power to him after he had completed his period of mourning. Others might suggest that the sage is being startlingly naïve in his understanding of how the world of politics operates.
The Book of Documents (書經/shūjīng) is over two thousand years old and one of the five classics of ancient Chinese literature.