Gao Yao (皋陶) was a member of court of the sage king Shun and served as a minister responsible for justice and music. So great did his reputation become that he was worshipped as the God of Justice in ancient China and the house of Li, which established the Tang dynasty, claimed him as an ancestor.
Although Gao was an advocate of capital punishment for perpetrators of fraud, corruption, and murder, he argued against the ancient tradition of punishing their whole families for their crimes. He also urged that the law should be applied fairly, so that no innocent defendants were punished unjustly. This was a revolutionary principle given the harsh and arbitrary nature of the justice system at the time.
After the death of Shun, Gao Yao went to become a senior counselor of his successor, Yu the Great. According to some sources, Yu was impressed by Gao that he chose him as his successor – only for Gao to die of an illness before him.
Appearances in the Analects of Confucius
Book 12, Chapter 22
Fan Chi asked about goodness. Confucius said: “Love others.” He then asked about wisdom. Confucius said: “Know others.” Fan Chi didn’t understand. Confucius said: “Promote the upright and place them above the crooked, so that they can straighten the crooked.” Fan Chi left. When he met Zixia he asked: “A short while ago when I saw Confucius I asked him about wisdom. He said: ‘Promote the upright and place them above the crooked, so that they can straighten the crooked.’ What does this mean?” Zixia said: “These are rich words indeed! When Shun ruled the world and was choosing from among the masses, he selected Gao Yao and those without goodness went away. When Tang ruled the world and was choosing from among the masses, he selected Yi Yin and those without goodness went away.”