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 14, Chapter 42
Book 20, Chapter 1

Book 3
Chapter 25
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
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
Confucius said: “Shun and Yu were so majestic! They reigned over the world but never profited from it.”

Chapter 20
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.”

Book 14
Chapter 42
Zilu asked how to become a leader. Confucius said: “Cultivate yourself to be respectful.” Zilu asked: “Is that all there is to it?” Confucius said: “Cultivate yourself to bring peace to the people. Cultivate yourself to bring peace to the people: even Yao and Shun wouldn’t have been able to match it.”

Book 20
Chapter 1
Yao said: Oh, Shun! The Heavenly succession was bestowed upon you; hold faithfully to the middle way; if the people within the Four Seas fall into suffering and penury, the honors bestowed on you by Heaven’s gift will be taken away from you forever.

Shun passed the same message to Yu.

Tang said, “I, the humble Lu, dare to sacrifice a black bull and dare to make this declaration before my great Lord. I dare not pardon those who are guilty. Your servants cannot hide anything from you. You have already judged them in your heart. If I am guilty, please do not punish the people of the myriad states because of me; but if the people of the myriad states are guilty, let the responsibility lie with me alone.”

“The House of Zhou is greatly blessed. Good men are its riches.” “Although I have my own kinsmen, I prefer to rely on good men. If the common people do wrong, let their faults fall on my head alone. If I set the standards for weights and measures, carefully examine the laws and regulations, and restore the offices that have been abolished, the authority of the government will reach everywhere. If I restore the states that have been destroyed, revive the broken dynastic lines, and bring back to office great men who were sent into exile, I will win the hearts of the people throughout the world. I will give priority to the people; food; mourning; and sacrifice. If I am tolerant I will win the masses. If I am trustworthy, the people will entrust me with responsibility. If I am enthusiastic, I will achieve success. If I am fair and just, I will bring happiness to the people.”

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