Yi Yin ( 伊尹) was the right-hand man of Tang, the founder of the Shang dynasty, helping him to overthrow Jie, the despotic last ruler of the Xia dynasty, and build the foundations of his new government.
According to one popular legend, Yi Yin was the slave of a man called (有莘), who instructed him to accompany his daughter when he sent her to marry Tang. After being made Tang’s chef, Yi Yin spiced up the meals he served his king with his thoughts on how he should overthrow Jie and gradually became a trusted member of his retinue. Other stories about him differ greatly with this account, suggesting that Yi Yin was a wise man whom Tang had to approach many times before he finally decided to join him.
Yi Yin appears to have a been a lot more conservative than Tang about how to run the military campaign against the unpopular but still powerful Jie, cautioning the king against rushing into an attack when his opponent was still strong enough to resist it. When the time was right, the Shang armies swept the Xia forces aside, pausing only for Tang, at the behest of Yi, to give his famous oath before winning the decisive battle of (鳴條) amid a raging thunderstorm.
After this great victory, Yi Yin assisted Tang in the establishment of his new government. After Tang and his two sons died in quick succession, Yi served as the regent or prime minister of the king’s grandson Taijia (太甲). According to accounts in the Records of the Grand Historian and Zuozhuan Commentary, Taijia proved to be such a tyrant that Yi Yin was forced to exile the young monarch for three years until he proved to have changed his ways enough to be allowed to return to the throne.
The reformed Taijia proved to be a much more benevolent king the second time around, enabling Yi Ying to retire a few years later. Yi Ying outlived Taijia, finally passing away at the reputed age of 100 in the eighth year of the reign of Taijia’s successor, Woding (沃丁). To honor the great man, Woding reportedly held a lavish funeral and entered into three years of mourning.
In contrast, the Bamboo Annals claims that Yi Yin banished Taijia in order to seize power for himself. After he had held it for seven years, Taijia murdered him and reclaimed his throne.
Yi Yin is featured just once in the Analects of Confucius. Despite the conflicting stories about him, he has enjoyed a strong reputation for loyalty and probity that has lasted until this day.
(1) Yi Ying’s original name was Yi Zhi (伊挚). He was also known as Ah Heng (阿衡).
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.”