Historical figures in the Analects of Confucius: Sage King Yu

Yu (禹), also known as Yu the Great (大禹), was one of the three legendary sage kings that ruled ancient China in the 23rd or 22nd century BCE and laid the foundations for the development of its feudal society.

After being handed the throne by his predecessor, Shun (舜), 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. 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.

Unlike his predecessor Shun, however, Yu designated his son as his successor, establishing China’s first hereditary dynasty, the Xia (夏朝) in ca. 2070 BCE. Indeed, according to come accounts Yu overthrew Shun and sent him into exile as a prelude to establishing his own family dynasty. 

Appearances in the Analects of Confucius
Book 8, Chapter 18
Book 8, Chapter 21

Book 8
Chapter 18
Confucius said: “Shun and Yu were so majestic! They reigned over the world but never profited from it.”

Chapter 21
Confucius said: “I can find no flaw in Yu. He drank and ate simple fare, but he showed complete devotion in his offerings to the ghosts and spirits; he wore humble clothes, but his ritual vestments were magnificent; he lived in a modest palace, but he devoted all his strength to draining the floodwaters. I can find no flaw in Yu.”


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