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 14, Chapter 5
Book 20, Chapter 1

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 21
子曰:「禹吾無間然矣,菲飲食,而致孝乎鬼神,惡衣服,而致美乎黻冕,卑宮室,而盡力乎溝洫,禹吾無間然矣。」
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.”

Book 14
Chapter 5
南宮适問於孔子曰:「羿善射,奡盪舟,俱不得其死然。禹稷躬稼而有天下。」夫子不答。南宮适出,子曰:「君子哉若人!尚德哉若人!」
Nangong Kuo asked Confucius, saying: “Yi was a great archer and Ao was a great sailor, but neither died a natural death. Yu and Ji toiled on the land, but they came to own the world.” Confucius made no reply. Nangong Kuo left. Confucius said: “He’s a true leader! This man truly prizes virtue!”

Book 20
Chapter 1
堯曰:「咨!爾舜!天之歷數在爾躬,允執其中!四海困窮,天祿永終。」舜亦以命禹。曰:「予小子履,敢用玄牡,敢昭告于皇皇后帝,有罪不敢赦,帝臣不蔽,簡在帝心!朕躬有罪,無以萬方;萬方有罪,罪在朕躬。」「周有大賚,善人是富。」「雖有周親,不如仁人;百姓有過,在予一人。謹權量,審法度,修廢官,四方之政行焉。興滅國,繼絕世,舉逸民,天下之民歸心焉。所重民,食喪祭。寬則得眾,信則民任焉。敏則有功,公則說。」
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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