Historical characters in the Analects of Confucius: Sage King Yao

The sage king Yao (堯) was one of the five legendary rulers who unified ancient China and served as future role models for building a stable and benevolent system of government.

Yao is believed to have lived in the 23rd or 22nd century BCE, and is said to have assumed power at the age of 20 and voluntarily relinquished it to his chosen successor, Shun (舜), to whom he gave his two daughters in marriage, after seventy years on the throne. According to some sources, Yao went on live for a further thirty years following his abdication.

Yao is famous for his superior virtue and benevolence, which made him a model ruler. He is also credited with inventing the lunar calendar and the rites to bind the diverse cultures of the nascent state more closely together.

An alternative version of his life suggests that Yao was overthrown by Shun and died alone in prison. In turn, Shun may have gone on to suffer a similar fate when his successor Yu (禹) rebelled and sent him into exile.

Appearances in the Analects of Confucius
Book 6, Chapter 30
Book 8, Chapter 19
Book 8, Chapter 20

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 19
Confucius said: “What a great ruler Yao was! Absolutely majestic! Only heaven is great, and only Yao was able to emulate it. His virtue was so great that the people could find no words to describe it. How stunning were his achievements, and how brilliant the culture was that he created!”

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.”

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