Confucius said: “Shun and Yu were so majestic! They reigned over the world but never profited from it.” (1)
There’s always more than one side to every story. Before you decide whether to buy in to the version of it that someone is telling you, take some time to understand their motives in bringing it to your attention.
In this passage, Confucius has no compunction in praising the two legendary sage kings Shun (舜) and Yu (禹) to the skies for their selfless devotion to duty. No doubt this is because he believes they provide a perfect example of how an ideal ruler should act – placing their own interests behind those of their people.
If the mythology that has grown around Shun and Yu is correct, Confucius is perfectly justified in doing this. Shun lived during the 23rd or 22nd centuries BCE and is said to have reached the ripe old age of 100. He is celebrated for establishing a strong bureaucratic system for managing the country’s land and agricultural resources, while also creating a standardized measurement system during the course of his nearly fifty-year reign.
His handpicked successor Yu became 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. Indeed, Yu is said to have spent thirteen years toiling on the irrigation canal construction projects himself, sharing the same brutal labor and living conditions as his fellow workers. What, in short, is there not to like about these two paragons of leaderly virtue?
Potentially quite a lot, as it happens. What Confucius fails to mention in his praise of Shun and Yu is the manner in which they seized power – perhaps because he didn’t consider it important or perhaps because he was afraid that if he did it would question their very legitimacy.
According to the most popular version of the legend, Shun followed the example of his predecessor Yao (堯) by abdicating in favor of Yu, his most talented minister, rather passing on the throne his own son in a highly virtuous act the ensured the interests of the people were best looked after.
All well and good, perhaps, except another much darker version of the story posits that Shun was a usurper who overthrew Yao and left him to die in prison – only to suffer a similar fate himself when his successor Yu rebelled and sent him into exile. Although there is no evidence that this was what actually happened, there’s a very good chance that story of Shun’s and Yao’s accession was “reimagined” to legitimize their rule. That Yu broke with the practice of choosing the best man for the job by anointing his son as his successor and establish the first recorded dynasty in China’s history, the Xia (夏朝), only serves to further fuel suspicions about the veracity of the myth.
This wouldn’t be the first time that history has been (re)written by the victors – nor indeed will it be the last. But the murkiness of the affair does provide a useful reminder to dig much deeper into the background of a story before believing it no matter how reputable the source is. There is often much more to it than appears on the surface.
This article features a translation of Chapter 18 of Book 8 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 8 here.
I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Changhua, Taiwan.