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
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.”

Book 14
Chapter 5
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
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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