Born in the early part of the 11th century BCE, Boyi (伯夷) and Shuqi (叔齊) were the sons of a ruler of the minor state of Guzhu (孤竹) during the time when the ruling Shang dynasty (商朝) was collapsing under the dissolute rule of its last emperor Di Xin (帝辛).
When their father chose the younger Shuqi his successor, Shuqi declined the offer. His elder brother Boyi then refused the throne as well, insisting that his younger brother take it. Rather than fight with each other over who was the rightful ruler, the two brothers fled to the nearby state of Zhou (周).
But when King Wu (周武王), the new ruler of Zhou, immediately took up arms against the collapsing Shang dynasty after the death of his father, the two brothers were so appalled at the lack of filial devotion he displayed in not completing the required period of mourning and in planning to attack his sovereign emperor that they reportedly seized the reins of Wu’s chariot to prevent him from setting off to war.
Although Boyi and Shuqi were saved from certain death at the hands of Wu’s angry guards by a kindly general who recognized the strength of their moral convictions, the brothers were ignored and the army continued on its way. In protest, Boyi and Shuqi refused to eat any produce from the state of Zhou and retired to the wilderness of Shanxi province where they reportedly lived only on fiddlehead ferns until they were told by some kindly soul that even these humble plants were now the property of Zhou. As a result, they stopped eating them and died of starvation – earning themselves a reputation for purity and rectitude.
Confucius said: “Boyi and Shuqi never kept old grievances in mind and hence rarely aroused any resentment.”
Ran Qiu said: “Does the Master support the ruler of Wei?” Zigong said: “Well, I’m going to ask him.” Zigong went in and asked Confucius: “What sort of people were Boyi and Shuqi?” “They were virtuous men of old.” “Did they complain?” “They sought goodness and attained goodness. Why should they have complained?” Zigong left and said to Ran Qiu: “The Master does not support the ruler of Wei.”