Historical figures in the Analects of Confucius: Sage King Shun

Shun (舜) was one of the five legendary sage kings of ancient China in the 23rd or 22nd century BCE. 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 (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.

Appearances in the Analects
Book 3, Chapter 25
Book 6, Chapter 30
Book 8, Chapter 18
Book 8, Chapter 20

Book 3
Chapter 25
子謂韶,「盡美矣,又盡善也。」謂武,「盡美矣,未盡善也。」
Confucius described Shao music as being perfectly beautiful and perfectly good and Wu music as being perfectly beautiful but not perfectly good.

Book 6
Chapter 30
子貢曰:「如有博施於民,而能濟眾,何如?可謂仁乎?」子曰:「何事於仁,必也聖乎!堯舜其猶病諸!夫仁者,己欲立而立人,己欲達而達人。能近取譬,可謂仁之方也已。」
Zigong said: “What about someone who acts generously towards the people and benefits the masses? Could that be described as goodness?” Confucius said: “Why stop at calling it goodness? It could be defined as perfection. Even Yao and Shun wouldn’t be able to match it! Good people help others get on their feet while establishing their own career; they help others to achieve their goals while achieving their own objectives. By standing in other people’s shoes, it can be said that they’re on the right track to goodness.”

Book 8
Chapter 18
子曰:「巍巍乎,舜禹之有天下也,而不與焉。」
Confucius said: “Shun and Yu were so majestic! They reigned over the world but never profited from it.”

Chapter 20
舜有臣五人,而天下治。武王曰:「予有亂臣十人。」孔子曰:「才難,不其然乎,唐虞之際,於斯為盛,有婦人焉,九人而已。三分天下有其二,以服事殷,周之德,其可謂至德也已矣。」
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.”

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