XIA DYNASTY EMPERORS AND THE THREE GREAT SAGE KINGS YAO, SHUN AND YU

THREE GREAT SAGE KINGS: EMPERORS YAO, SHUN AND YU


One imagining of Emperor Yao

The last two of the Five Legendary Emperors — Emperor Yao and Emperor Shun — plus Emperor Yu — the first legendary ruler of the Xia Dynasty, which itself is regarded by most scholars as legendary, with a few links to archeology evidence — are sometimes called the Great Sage Kings, based on their virtues and skills as leaders. Most scholars regard them as moralistic constructs conceived during the Classical Period of Chinese history, around the 5th century B.C., about 2,000 years before the sage kings were said to have lived, to reflect prevailing views of good governance and ethics.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The three model sage kings, Yao, Shun, and Yu, were expressions of the political ideals of the philosophers who celebrated them and who elaborated on their “historical” achievements. Their sage actions made the distant past a model for the future. In actuality, of course, the exemplary tales of these legendary figures were designs for the future invented, or re-invented, by the thinkers of the Classical present.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Venerated as the first emperor of China, Yu had thousands of concubines because he believed the more sex partners he had the longer he would live. He reputedly became immortal after he made love to a thousand young virgins. Emperor Yao was famous for his benevolent rule and lifestyle of a simple farmer.

Books: “Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present” by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2004); “Shang Civilization” by K.C. Chang (Yale, 1980). According to Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University: “There are several introductory essays on the nature of oracle inscriptions. David Keightley, the foremost Western authority in the field, has written two, of which the more accessible appears in Wm. Theodore de Bary et al., ed., “Sources of Chinese Tradition” (NY: 2000, 2nd edition). No book has been more influential for oracle text studies in the West than Keightley’s “Sources of Shang Tradition” (Berkeley: 1977). Although it is exceptionally technical, because it is very thoroughly illustrated and covers a wide range of topics it can be fun to page through even for the non-specialist. Keightley, also wrote “The Origins of Chinese Civilization” (Berkeley: 1983). His “The Ancestral Landscape: Time, Space, and Community in Late Shang China (ca. 1200-1045 B.C.)” (Berkeley: 2000) is an excellent source on Shang history, society and culture

Emperor Yao

Emperor Yao was the fourth of the Five Emperors. His ancestral name was Yi Qi or Qi and his given name was Fangxun. Also known as Tang Yao, he was the second son to Emperor Ku and Qingdu, Yao's mother, who has been worshipped as the goddess Yao-mu. Often extolled as the morally perfect and intelligent sage-king, Yao's benevolence and diligence served as a model to future Chinese monarchs and emperors. According to the legend, Yao became the ruler at 20 and died at 119 when he passed his throne to Shun the Great, to whom he had given his two daughters in marriage. According to the Bamboo Annals, Yao abdicated his throne to Shun in his 73rd year of reign, and continued to live during Shun's reign for another 28 years. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Early Chinese often speak of Yao, Shun and Yu the Great as historical figures, and contemporary historians believed they may represent leader-chiefs of allied tribes who established a unified and hierarchical system of government in a transition period to the patriarchal feudal society. In the Classic of History, one of the Five Classics, the initial chapters deals with Yao, Shun and Yu. +

Dr. Eno wrote: “Examining into antiquity, we find the Emperor Yao was named Fangxun. He was reverent, intelligent, patterned, and thoughtful, with a manner of graceful ease. He was sincerely reverent and able to yield to those worthy of it. His brilliance pervaded the four quarters of the land and reached to all on high and below. He shone forth his heroic virtue and thereby cleaved to all in the many lineages of his kin. Once his kin were in harmonious accord, he brought order and decorum to the many clans of his people, whose excellence shone forth. Finally, he united and harmonized the myriad states. In this way, the black-haired people were transformed in a timely peace. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Although Yao is said to have inherited the throne of China from his father, during the Classical period, history really begins with the Emperor Yao. Yao appears originally to have been the hero of a myth about astronomy. The great act of cultural creation for which he was deemed responsible was the determination of the movements of the sun and the creation of a calendar that matched the schedule of the human world with the rhythm of the natural seasons. In this way, Yao gets credit for three great achievements: 1) He adapted the “patterns” of the heavens to fashion a pattern for social activity; 2) He facilitated the rise of agriculture by giving farmers a reliable clock for planting and harvesting; 3) He invented government institutions to disseminate information about the schedule of society and supervise administration of social activity. In the view of Classical Chinese, these accomplishments amounted to the invention of civilized behavior, the promotion of economic prosperity, and the creation of bureaucratic government. /+/

“Yao is also celebrated for another great accomplishment, one which was somewhat controversial. Legend recounted that towards the end of his reign, Yao concluded that his own son was not virtuous enough to succeed to the office of king, and so commanded that a search be undertaken to find in his kingdom a man of virtue so exalted as to be worthy of the throne. The search produced the name of a common farmer named Shun, a man whose achievements were entirely confined to his private conduct. Despite the fact that he had previously held no public office, Yao designated this man his successor solely on the basis of his character. Though it did not in the end actually lead to the end of hereditary dynasties, this legend served to undermine the hereditary right to rule in China, and promoted the idea that personal virtue rather than birth was the ultimate criterion for power. /+/

Confucianism and Archeological Proof of Emperor Yao’s Existence?

Dr. Eno wrote: “The Emperor Yao became a very important figure to Confucianism, and it is probably the Confucians of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. who embellished his legend into the text we have here. “The Canon of Yao” is the opening section of the “Book of Documents”, which became one of the five most sacred Confucian texts. The style of the text itself is so consciously archaic that it is nearly unreadable (it purports, after all, to date from about 2000 B.C.). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

In September 2105, the China Daily reported: “Archeological findings on the ruins of Taosi in Linfen stand a good chance of being the location of the capital of the Yao period, which would extend Chinese history 300 hundreds years ahead of the Xia Dynasty (c.21st century-16th century B.C.), Chinese archeologists announced at press conference in Beijing on Thursday. Yao was one of the sage emperors living in the middle reaches of the Yellow River in Chinese mythology. Excavation of the Taosi site in Linfen city, North China's Shanxi province, began in 1978. [Source: China Daily, September 19, 2015 ||||]

“Wang Wei, head of the institute of archeology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that many experts in the archaeological circle have reached a consensus that Taosi is the capital of the Yao period. Latest excavations also showed the ancient city of Taosi covered an area of 2.8 million square meters with various functional divisions, including a royal palace, residential areas for nobles, the king’s mausoleum, and a ritual platform. Meanwhile, the concept of kingship,etiquette, private ownership, and an ancient calendar were also developed in the period of Yao, according to Wang's report. ||||

“Wang said that a series of archeological findings at the Taosi site proves that it matches the capital of the Yao period 4,200 years ago in terms of the period, location, scale, and level of civilization. Although the findings may still face some disputes, Chinese archeologists believe that through archaeological excavation and research, the legendary Emperor of Yao will become a true part of the history of China.” ||||

Emperor Yao and the Creation of the Calendar


Another version of Emperor Yao

Dr. Eno wrote: “One of the legends associated with Yao in many texts is his initiation of astronomical observations to determine the calendar. The arts of astronomy were of critical importance to early agriculture in many cultures, because of the great dependence of society upon the weather and its effect on crops. In cultures whose oldest calendars were purely lunar, as was likely the case in China, it was extremely difficult to separate the seasons from the weather and so measure the year and the intervals for crops that occurred within it. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

According to the legend of Yao and creation of the calendar: “Yao commanded the brothers Xi and the brothers He, in reverent accord with their observation of the wide heavens, to delineate the successive appearances of the sun, the moon, the stars, and the constellations of the zodiac, and so carefully bestow to the people the calendar of seasons. He separately commanded the brother Xizhong to reside at Yuyi, in the bright valley of Yanggu, there respectfully to receive as a guest the rising sun, and to discriminate and align the sprouting influence of the East. When at that place the length of the day was in balance with the night and the constellation Bird was in the center of the sky, mid-spring could be precisely determined. At such time, the people should be dispersed in the fields, and the birds and beasts mate and breed. /+/

“He further commanded the brother Xishu to reside at the south crossing Nanjiao, in the brilliant capital Mingdu, there to discriminate and align the transformation of the summer, and carefully to observe the exact limit of the gnomon shadow. When at that place the day was at its longest, and the constellation Fire was in the center of the sky, mid-summer could be precisely determined. At such time, the people should persist in their tasks, and the birds and beasts have light coats of feathers and fur. /+/

“He separately commanded the brother Hezhong to reside in the West, in the dark valley of Meigu, there respectfully to send off the setting sun and to discriminate and align the ripening influence of the West. When at that place the length of the night was in balance with the day and the constellation Vacuity was in the center of the sky, mid-autumn could be precisely determined. At such time, the people should be at ease, and birds and beasts put on new feathers and fur. /+/

“He further commanded the brother Heshu to reside in the boreal North, in the dark capital Youdu, to discriminate and align the boreal changes. When at that place the day was at its shortest, and the constellation Mao was in the center of the sky, mid-summer could be precisely determined. At such time, the people should keep within their homes, and the coats of birds and beasts be downy and thick. /+/

“The Emperor said, “Oh, you brothers of Xi and He, a round year consists of three hundred sixty-six days, and so you must by means of the intercalary month fix the four seasons and set the period of the year. In this way, the officers of state all being regulated in accord with this, their many accomplishments will shine forth with brilliance.” /+/

Eno noted: “Although Chinese astronomers understood that a solar year was 365¼ days, the calendar was never freed from its lunar origins. The twelve months of the year were 29 or 30 days long, and to keep the calendar synchronized with the seasons, “intercalary” leap months were added in seven of every nineteen years. The invention of this “solunar” calendar, which made agricultural planning possible, is here attributed to Yao. /+/

Emperor Yao Rejects His Own Son in Favor of a Meritorious Successor

Emperor Yao is most famous for his decision that his own son was inadequate for the throne and that it would be necessary to select a new ruler according to a criterion of merit, rather than birth. In the following passage he rejects his son Zhu for the position of prime minister. When succession to the throne is raised in the text, Zhu’s name is not mentioned. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

According to the story on Yao Seeking Meritorious Officers: “The Emperor said, “Now, who will search out for me a man able to accord with the seasons, whom I can raise and employ?” The minister Fang Qi said, “Your son and heir Zhu is most enlightened.” The Emperor said, “Indeed not! He is devious and quarrelsome. How could he suffice?” Then the Emperor said, “Who will carry on my accomplishments?” The minister Huan Dou said, “Ah! Gonggong has brought many great accomplishments to fulfillment.” The Emperor said, “Indeed not! He speaks of his plans with assurance, but his actions are entirely contrary. He is respectful in appearances, but he offends against Heaven!” [Gonggong is the name of a villain in some versions of a Chinese flood myth] /+/

“Then the Emperor said, “Oh, Chiefs of the Four Peaks, the waters of the flood wreak destruction far and wide. In their vastness they embrace the hills and submerge the mountains, seeming to inundate the heavens. The people below groan and murmur! Is there a man capable of restoring order to the waters?” All in the court said, “Indeed, there is Gun!” The Emperor said, “Indeed not! He is perverse: disobedient to orders and destructive to his peers.” The Chiefs of the Four Peaks said, “Yet try him to see if he can accomplish the work.” And so the Emperor said to Gun, “Go and be reverent!” For nine years Gun labored. But the work was not accomplished. [The identity of the Chiefs of the Four Peaks is unclear, but they are pictured as sagely high ministers who represent the lords of territories in all directions] /+/

“The story of Yao seeks a successor goes: The Emperor said, “Oh, Chiefs of the Four Peaks, I have been on the throne for seventy years. You are able to carry out the mandate of office. I resign my throne to you.”The Chiefs said, “I have not the virtue. I would disgrace the imperial throne.” The Emperor said, “Then bring forth an illustrious man or raise one from among the rustic and unknown.” All then said to the Emperor, “There is an unmarried man among the common ranks called Shun of Yu.” The Emperor said, “Yes, I have heard of him. What is there to say of him?” The Chief said, “He is the son of the blind man Gu. His father is obstinate, his step-mother devious, and his half-brother Xiang is arrogant, yet Shun has been able to live in harmony with them and through earnest filial conduct to lead them towards good conduct and away from wickedness.” The Emperor said, “I will try him. I will marry him to my two daughters and observe his conduct towards them.” /+/

Emperor Shun

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Emperor Shun
Emperor Shun was the fifth of Five Emperors. Oral tradition holds that he lived sometime between 2294 and 2184 B.C. Shun is sometimes referred to as the Great Shun or as Yu Shun. The "Yu" in "Yu Shun" was the name of the fiefdom, which Shun received from Yao; thus, providing him the title of "Shun of Yu". Shun's given name was Chonghua. According to traditional sources, Shun became leader at the age of 53, and then died at the age of 100 years. Before his death Shun is recorded as relinquishing his seat of power to Yu: an event which is supposed to have eventuated in the establishment of the Xia Dynasty. Shun's capital was located in Puban, presently located in Shanxi. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Under Emperor Yao, Shun was appointed successively Minister of Instruction, General Regulator and chief of the Four Peaks, and put all affairs in proper order within three years. Yao was so impressed that he appointed Shun as his successor to the throne. Shun wished to decline in favour of someone more virtuous, but eventually assumed Yao's duties. It was said that "those who had to try a lawsuit did not go to Danzhu, but to Shun." Danzhu was the son of Yao.

After ascending to the throne, Shun offered sacrifices to the god Shang Di, as well as to the hills, rivers, and the host of spirits. Then he toured the eastern, the southern, the western, and the northern parts of the country; in each place he offered burnt-offering to Heaven at each of the four peaks (Mount Tai, Mount Huang, Mount Hua and Mount Heng), sacrificed to the hills and rivers, set in accord the seasons, months, and days, established uniform measurements of length and capacities, and reinforced ceremonial laws. +

Shun divided the land into twelve provinces, raising altars upon twelve hills, and deepening the rivers. Shun dealt with four criminals: banishing the Minister of Works to You island, confining Huan-dou on Mount Chong; driving San-Miao into San-Wei, and holding Gun a prisoner till his death on Mount Yu. Yu was subsequently appointed Minister of Works to govern the water and the land. Later, Shun appointed Yu to be General Regulator (Prime Minister). Yu wished to decline in favour of the Minister of Agriculture, or Xie, or Gao Yao, but finally accepted upon Shun's insistence. Shun then appointed Chui as the new Minister of Works. Shun also appointed Yi as Minister of Animal Husbandry to govern the beasts and trees of the land, Bo-yi as Priest of the Ancestral Temple to perform religious ceremonies, Hui as Director of Music, Long as Minister of Communications to counter deceptions and false reports.

According to the Canon of Shun, Shun began to reign at the age of 30, reigned with Yao for 30 years, and reigned 50 more years after Yao's abdication, then Shun died. The Bamboo Annals state that Yao chose Shun as his heir three years before abdicating the throne to him. Both sources agree that after abdicating, Yao lived for another 28 years in retirement during Shun's reign. In later centuries, Yao and Shun were glorified for their virtue by Confucian philosophers. Shun was particularly renowned for his modesty and filial piety.

Legends of Emperor Shun


Emperor Shun performs divination

Legend has it that Shun's birth mother died when Shun was very young. His father was blind and remarried soon after Shun's mother's death. Shun's stepmother then gave birth to Shun's half brother Xiang and a half sister. Shun's stepmother and half brother treated Shun terribly, often forcing Shun to do all the hard work in the family and only giving him the worst food and clothing. Shun's father, being blind and elderly, was often ignorant of Shun's good deeds and always blamed Shun for everything. Yet, despite these conditions, Shun never complained and always treated his father, his stepmother, and his half brother with kindness and respect. [Source: Wikipedia +]

When he was barely an adult, his stepmother threw him out of the house. Shun was forced to live on his own. Yet, because of his compassionate nature and his natural leadership skills, everywhere he went, people followed him, and he was able to organize the people to be kind to each other and do the best they could. When Shun first went to a village that produced pottery, after less than one year, the pottery became more beautiful than they had ever been. When Shun went to a fishing village, the people there were at first fighting amongst themselves over the fishing grounds, and many people were injured or killed in the fights. Shun taught them how to share and allocate the fishing resources, and soon the village was prospering and all hostilities ceased. +

When Emperor Yao became old, he became distressed over the fact that his 9 sons were all useless, only knew how to spend their days enjoying themselves with wine and song. Yao asked his administers, the Four Mountains, to propose a suitable successor. Yao then heard of Shun's tales. Wise Yao did not want to simply believe in the tales about Shun, so he decided to test Shun. Yao gave a district to Shun to govern and married his two daughters to him, with a small dowry of a new house and some money. +

Though given an office and money, Shun still lived humbly. He continued to work in the fields every day. Shun even managed to convince his two brides, the two princesses, Yao's daughters, named Ehuang (Fairy Radiance) and Nüying (Maiden Bloom), who were used to good living, to live humbly and work along the people. However, Shun's stepmother and half brother became extremely jealous and conspired to kill Shun. Once, Shun's half brother Xiang lit a barn on fire, and convinced Shun to climb onto the roof to put the fire out, but then Xiang took away the ladder, trapping Shun on the burning roof. Shun skilfully made a parachute out of his hat and cloth and jumped down in safety. Another time, Xiang and his mother conspired to get Shun drunk and then throw him into a dried-up well and then bury him with rocks and dirt. Shun's half sister, never approving of her mother and brother's schemes, told Shun's wives about the scheme. Shun thus prepared himself. Shun pretended to get drunk, and when he was thrown into the well, he had already a tunnel pre-dug to escape to the surface. Thus, Shun survived many attempts on his life. Yet, he never blamed his stepmother or his half brother, and forgave them every time. +

Eventually, Shun's stepmother and half brother repented their past wrongs. Shun wholeheartedly forgave them both, and even helped Xiang get an office. Shun also managed to influence Emperor Yao's worthless sons into becoming useful contributing members of society. Emperor Yao was very impressed by all of Shun's achievements, and thus chose Shun as his successor and put him on the throne in the year of Jiwei. Yao's capital was in Ji which in modern times is also in Shanxi province.Shun is also renowned as the originator of the music called Dashao, a symphony of nine Chinese musical instruments. +

In the last year of Shun's reign, Shun decided to tour the country. But unfortunately, he died suddenly of an illness on the journey near the Xiang River. Both his wives rushed from home to his body, and wept by the river for days. Their tears turned into blood and stained the reeds by the river. From that day on, the bamboo of that region became red-spotted, which explains the origin of spotted bamboo. Then overcome by grief, both women threw themselves into the river and drowned. Shun considered his son, Shangjun, as unworthy and picked Yu, the tamer of floods, as his heir. +

Emperor Shun: Paragon of Confucian Virtues

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The Emperor Shun became known as a paragon of filial piety in legend. The book of the Confucian philosopher Mencius records a number of lively tales about Shun’s family life – how he continued to love and honor his parents and younger brother despite their many imaginative attempts to murder him. In idealizing Shun, Mencius has to explain certain actions that Shun took that appear to violate cardinal rules. For example, we learn that Shun accepted Yao’s two daughters in marriage without informing his parents. It was unthinkably unfilial to marry without one’s parents’ approval (indeed, the norm was for parents to arrange marriages without even consulting the bride and groom), but in Shun’s case, we are told, he was justified because his evil parents would have vetoed any marriage and thus prevented Shun from carrying out the greatest of filial duties: providing his parents with descendants. (Marrying two women at once was, of course, perfectly acceptable in China’s polygamous society.) Accordingly he prepared and sent down his two daughters to the bend of the River Gui, to be wives of Shun’s family in Yu. The Emperor said to them, “Be reverent!” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University/+/ ]

“Shun appears originally to have been the hero of a moral legend about filiality: perfect dutifulness towards one’s parents. The virtue that brought him to the attention of Yao was this: although Shun was the son of two limitlessly evil parents and the older brother of an evil second son, he never wavered in his unceasing devotion to them. Though his evil family hated him for his virtue and tried continually to kill him, Shun never allowed their actions to obscure his feelings of love for them or his blunt his efforts to act for their welfare. Colorful tales are told about this dysfunctional family. For example, Shun’s parents devised a plan to kill him by asking him to repair the roof of their house, then, once he was at work, they removed the ladder he’d used and set fire to the house. On another occasion, they asked him to repair the family well and, once he was at work, sealed the well up. Shun escapes from all these misadventures. He preserves his life precisely because he regards it as his duty to save his parents from themselves – if he were to die, he would be unable to marry and produce children who would guarantee that later on his parents ghosts would be able to receive sacrificial nourishment through family worship. Apart from the disobedient act of declining to die as his parents wished, Shun continued to cater to their every wish. For this, he was made emperor. /+/

“According to the legend of Shun, as king his only achievements were to perpetuate and improve Yao’s administrative inventions. He also accorded with Yao’s vision of the kingship by passing over his own son in designating a successor, instead appointing his Minister of Public Works, Yu, to be the next emperor. /+/


Emperor Shun with elephants by Kuniyoshi Utagawa


Shun as a Successor to Yao

The Canon of Shun is from the “Book of Documents”, an undated collection of texts purporting to be the most ancient historical records in China, but with some exceptions, likely to have been written in the Classical era by pro-Confucian authors. According to the Cannon of Shun after Shun appointed deputy emperor by Yao: “Shun carefully set forth the excellence of the five cardinal relationships among people and they came to be universally observed. When he was appointed to supervise the many ministers, every office acted in accord with its proper season. He was charged to receive at court visiting lords from the four quarters, and all became compliant in submission. When he was sent to tour the great wooded preserves, even amidst violent wind and thunderous rain he did not go astray. [In classical formulation, the five cardinal relationships refers to the norms of conduct between parents and children, rulers and ministers or subjects, elder and younger, husband and wife, and among friends.] [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The Emperor said, “Come, my good Shun. For three years, when consulted you on affairs I have examined your statements and found that indeed you successfully act upon them. Now you must ascend the throne of the Emperor.” Shun declined, saying he yielded to one of greater virtue and would not be Yao’s successor. But on the first day of the first month, he did accept Yao’s retirement at the altar of the patterned Imperial ancestors.” /+/

Shun’s initial ritual acts: “Employing the pearl-adorned turning sphere with its transverse tube of jade, Shun calculated the movements of the seven governing celestial bodies. Thereafter, Shun delivered a ritual report to the Lord on High, sacrificed with reverent purity to the Six Exalted Ones, performed ritual offerings to the great mountains and rivers, and extended his worship to the host of spirits. /+/

On the death of the retired Emperor Yao and Shun’s renewed administration: “In the twenty-eighth year of Shun’s reign, the Emperor Yao passed away. The people mourned for him for three years, as they would for a parent. Within the four seas all the eight kinds of musical instruments of were hushed. On the subsequent initial day of the first month, Shun went to the temple of the patterned ancestors. Then he deliberated with the Chiefs of the Four Peaks, wishing to throw open the gates of his court in the four directions, so that he could see with the eyes and hear with the ears of all in the four quarters. He consulted with the twelve pastoral lords, saying, “Be diligent and govern according to the timeliness of the seasons. Be gentle towards those distant and nurture the abilities of those near. Honor the virtuous and trust the good, but look upon glib talkers as a danger to you. In this way, even barbarous tribes will all submit to you.” /+/

Governance under Shun’s rule

Every five years Emperor Shun made one tour of inspection and the lords of each land appeared four times in audience at court, offering verbal reports of their governance that were assessed against their accomplishments, each receiving gifts of chariots and robes according to his merit. According to the Canon of Shun: “Shun divided the land into twelve provinces, erecting in each of the twelve an altar upon a mountain top and dredging the courses of the rivers. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Shun’s initial ritual tours of state: “In the second month of the year he made a tour of inspection to the East, as far as Dai Peak, where he presented a burnt offering to Heaven and sacrifices to the mountains and rivers in order. Thereafter he gave audience to the lords of the eastern lands. He put the seasons of their calendar in order, and set the initial days of each month. He made uniform the standards of the pitch pipes, of measures of length, capacity, and weight, and regulated the steelyard balances. He delineated the five classes of ritual ceremony, the rules governing the lords’ five jade ritual tallies, the three types of silk cushions, the two types of live offerings and the dead offering; and as for the five jade items, he stipulated that they should be returned to the lords at the close of their visits to court. In the fifth month Shun made a similar tour to the South, as far as South Peak, where he observed the same ceremonies as at Dai Peak. In the eighth month he made a tour to the West, as far as West Peak, where he did as before. In the eleventh month he made a tour to the North, as far as North Peak, where he observed the same ceremonies as in the West. He then returned to the capital, went to the temple of his own ancestors, and sacrificed a single bull. /+/

According to Eno: “Touring was a central part of the kingship at many times in early Chinese history. It is important to recall the enormous size of the territories that were, at least nominally, under the rule of the dynastic king at the center. Communications and roads being primitive, it was essential that the king devote significant time to making his presence personal to those who managed his government throughout the empire.Moreover, the king was the axial figure of those aspects of religious practice that grew to a level of “state religion” by the early Zhou. His periodic physical participation in the religious rites parceled out to his various regional representatives sustained their legitimacy and inspired awe among those who were ruled. The notion of the king’s tour, which we see here in a text that is basically a late Zhou creation, becomes even more central to the actual practice of government after the unification of China under a single ruler in 221 B.C..” /+/

According to the Canon of Shun: Shun “published a list of legal punishments, prescribing that banishment be used in mitigation of the five mutilations. Corporal punishment was to be administered with the whip in magistrates’ courts and with the stick in the schools; offenses could be redeemed through the payment of fines. Offenses committed unintentionally or under conditions of extreme misfortune were to be pardoned, but who transgressed arrogantly and were incorrigible were to be put to death. “Be reverent! Be reverent! And in punishments be compassionate.” [The “five mutilations” were execution, castration, cutting off the foot, cutting off the nose, and tattooing. These were, in fact, established forms of legal punishment in early China. Banishment would have been far less severe, and in the context of contemporary society this code would have seemed extremely humane.] /+/

Shun’s Appointment of the Officers of His Government:


Emperor Shun

On Shun’s appointment of the officers of his government, the Canon of Shun reads: “Shun said, “Oh, Chiefs of the Four Peaks, is there anyone capable of vigorous service who can make brilliant the affairs of the Emperor and supervise my ministries so that each fulfills its appointed tasks?”All replied, “There is Yu, the Minister of Works.” “Yes,” the Emperor said. “Oh, Yu! You have regulated the waters and the land. Exert yourself now in this office.” Yu did obeisance with his head to the ground, and wished to decline in favor of Qi, Xie, or Gaoyao. [Xie was, in clan legend, the founder of the royal lineage of the Shang Dynasty. “The Canon of Shun,” by “appointing” as the three chief officers in Shun’s court the progenitors of the Xia Dynasty (Yu), Shang Dynasty (Xie), and Zhou Dynasty (Qi), has retrospectively cast the history of dynastic rule in China as descending from an originally unitary age of governance in which all three “future” dynastic lines were legitimate leading participants.] [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University/+/ ]

“The Emperor said, “Now go and undertake your duties.” The Emperor then said, “Qi, the black-haired people are troubled by hunger. Be in charge as Prince Millet, and sow for them the various kinds of grain.” [Qi was, in Zhou Dynasty legend, the founder of the royal lineage of the Zhou people. He was also known as Prince Millet and it appears the Zhou adopted a much older mythical culture hero of agriculture to serve as their earliest ancestor.] The Emperor then said, “Xie, the people do not bear affection for one another and do not comply with the five cardinal relationships. Serve as Minister of Instruction and carefully set forth the five teachings that govern these, exemplifying attitudes of tolerance as you do so.”/+/

“The Emperor then said, “Gaoyao, the barbarous Man and Yi tribes disrupt our great land, which is filled with robbers, murderers, dissolute men, and traitors. Be Chief of Justice; employ the five mutilations to punish their offenses, and assigning the five forms of offense to the three courts of judgment, determine the appropriate place of exile for the five corresponding forms of banishment, assigning each of the five types of offenders to one of the three lands of exile. Exercise insight in your tasks and all will submit with sincerity.” The Emperor then said, “Who can superintend the labor of my lands?” All replied, “Indeed there is Chui!” “Yes!” said the Emperor. “Oh, Chui! You shall coordinate as my Chief of Works.” Chui did obeisance with his head to the ground, and wished to decline in favor of Shu, Qiang, or Boyu. /+/

“The Emperor said, “Now go and bring harmony to all under your supervision.” The Emperor then said, “Who is equal to the duty of superintending the grasses and trees, birds and beasts of the highlands and lowlands?”All replied, “Indeed there is Yi!” “Yes!” said the Emperor. “Oh, Yi! You shall be my Chief Forester.” Yi did obeisance with his head to the ground and wished to decline in favor of Zhu, Hu, Xiong, or Pi. /+/

“The Emperor said, “Now go and bring harmony to all under your supervision.” The Emperor then said, “Oh, Chiefs of the Four Peaks, is there any one able to direct my three ceremonies?” All answered, “Indeed there is Boyi!” “Yes!” said the Emperor. “Oh, Bo! You shall be Supervisor of the Ancestral Temple. Be ever reverent, day and night, upright and pure.” Boyi did obeisance with his head to the ground, and wished to decline in favor of Kui or Long. /+/

“The Emperor said, “Now go and be reverent!” The Emperor then said, “Kui, I appoint you to be Director of Music and to teach our sons that they may be straightforward yet mild, tolerant yet stern, strong yet without cruelty, spare in manner but without arrogance. The words of poetry express the poet’s aspirations: let song prolong that expression in modes that join in harmony. Let the eight kinds of musical instruments be tempered in tune so that none shall overstep its ensemble role; thus shall spirits and men be brought into harmony.” Kui said, “Oh, yes! For when I strike the stone chimes and make them ring, even the beasts shall join together, all as one in the dance!”

The Emperor said, “Long, I detest slanderers and those who engage in brutal conduct, frightening my hosts of people. I appoint you to act as Minister of Communication; day and night you shall proclaim my orders and convey reports back to me, in all things ever sincere.” Kui and Long are particularly intriguing figures here. “ Long” means “dragon,” while “ kui” denoted a one-legged ape-like monster, of which there were in ancient China precisely as many as there were dragons. That two ministers should be thus named may reflect the fantastic nature of the heroes of those myths that lie behind this account. /+/

“The Emperor said, “Oh! You twenty-two men, be reverent and through timely good works help accomplish the tasks entrusted me by Heaven.” [To make the number twenty-two make sense, commentators assume that the ten men just appointed by Shun are joined by the twelve pastoral lords, that is, the local leaders of territorial peoples throughout the empire Sun ruled] Every three years there was an examination of merit, and after three examinations the undeserving were degraded and the deserving promoted. In this way, the tasks of all were brilliantly accomplished, and the Sanmiao peoples were segregated and banished. /+/

Emperor Yu the Great


Yu the Great was a legendary ruler in ancient China famed for his introduction of flood control, inaugurating dynastic rule in China by founding the Xia Dynasty, and for his upright moral character. The dates proposed for Yu's reign precede the oldest known written records in China, the oracle bones of the late Shang dynasty, by nearly a millennium. No inscriptions on artifacts from the supposed era of Yu, nor the later oracle bones, make any mention of Yu; he does not appear in inscription until vessels dating to the Western Zhou period (c. 1045–771 B.C.). [Source: Wikipedia +]

The lack of anything remotely close to contemporary documentary evidence has led to some controversy over the historicity of Yu. Proponents of the historicity of Yu theorise that stories about his life and reign were transmitted orally in various areas of China until they were recorded in the Zhou dynasty, while opponents believe the figure existed in legend in a different form - as a god or mythical animal - in the Xia dynasty, and morphed into a human figure by the start of the Zhou dynasty. Many of the stories about Yu were collected in Sima Qian's famous Records of the Grand Historian. Yu and other "sage-kings" of Ancient China were lauded for their virtues and morals by Confucius and other Chinese teachers. +

According to several ancient Chinese records, Yu was the 8th great-grandson of the Yellow Emperor. Yu was said to have been born at Mount Wen, in modern-day Beichuan County, Sichuan Province, though there are debates as to whether he was born in Shifang instead. When Yu was a child, his father Gun moved the people east toward the Central Plain. King Yao enfeoffed Gun as lord of Chong, usually identified as the middle peak of Mount Song. Yu is thus believed to have grown up on the slopes of Mount Song, just south of the Yellow River. He later married a woman from Mount Tu who is generally referred to as Tushan-shi ("Lady Tushan"). They had a son named Qi, a name literally meaning "revelation". The location of Mount Tu has always been disputed. The two most probable locations are Mount Tu in Anhui Province and the Tu Peak of the Southern Mountain in Chongqing Municipality.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: Yu was “a semi-divine figure, part man and part beast, who tamed the flood by dredging the river beds of mud. This Yu of myth came to be identified with the founder of what was traditionally known as China’s earliest dynastic ruling line: the Xia Dynasty – Yu the man-beast became Emperor Yu. In “The Canon of Shun” we see him rewarded for his flood-taming skills by being promoted to Minister of Works under the Emperor Shun. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University/+/ ]

Emperor Yu and the Great Flood

Dr. Eno wrote: “Yu was originally the hero of an important myth concerning a great flood that occurred in China. The waters of all the major rivers swelled over their banks and the land was slowly sinking into sea. The legend tells us that Yu identified the problem as siltation of the river beds, and, using superhuman strength, personally dredged the rivers so they would again flow within their banks. (In fact, China’s main flood problems have always been due to the rapid siltation of the Yellow River in the north, whose periodic flooding throughout history inundated millions of square miles.) [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Great Flood of Gun-Yu, also known as the Gun-Yu myth, was a major flood event that continued for at least two generations, resulting in many deaths, great population displacements and associated disasters, such as storms and famine. According to mythological and historical sources, it is traditionally dated to the third millennium B.C., during the reign of Emperor Yao, and people left their homes to live on the high hills and mounts, or nest on the trees. Emperor Yao, as quoted in the Book of History, said: “Like endless boiling water, the flood is pouring forth destruction. Boundless and overwhelming, it overtops hills and mountains. Rising and ever rising, it threatens the very heavens. How the people must be groaning and suffering! “ +

Gun is the name of a villain in some versions of a Chinese flood myth. He was appointed by Emperor Yao to control the flood. His flood control plan relied on use of a miraculously continuously self-expanding soil, Xirang, which he stole from the Supreme Divinity, who was angered by the act. Gun used the magical Xirang earth to block and barricade the flood waters with and patch up dams, dikes, and embankments. Thse efforts temporarily solved the problem but were not able to overcome the Great Flood. Whether his failure to abate the flood was due to divine wrath or to engineering defects has been debated by Chinese scholars for centuries. In “The Canon of Yao,” Gun was transformed in legend into the father of Yu. +

Under Emperor Shun, Yu was appointed as Minister of Public Works with the task of controlling the flood. Yu tried a different approach than Gonggon, which seems to have involved relying more on drainage and less on containment with dams and dikes, plus defeating and utilizing various supernatural beings such as a channel-digging dragon and a giant mud-hauling turtle. In the Book of Documents, Yu is quoted as saying: “The inundating waters seemed to assail the heavens, and in their extent embraced the hills and overtopped the great mounds, so that the people were bewildered and overwhelmed. I opened passages for the streams throughout the nine provinces and conducted them to the seas. I deepened the channels and conducted them to the streams.”

Eno wrote: “So diligent was Yu in this work, that in the seventeen years that it took him to design and administer the massive water conservation project that relieved the flood, he never once returned home to sleep in his own bed, though three times his travels took him past his own door. This display of virtuous altruism (a devotion to others over oneself) is what led Shun to designate him as the next emperor.” /+/

The Great Flood myth was in wide circulation in early China. “Its basic resemblance to the biblical flood tale has occasioned much speculation. Reconstructions of the Chinese flood myth suggest that in its early forms the tale involved a demon named Gun, an evil force who caused or prolonged the flood. “The Canon of Yao” recasts him in historical garb as an incompetent proto-bureaucrat, unable to manage a water conservancy emergency.” /+/


Yu and the Great Flood


Emperor Yu as the Ruler of China

King Shun passed the throne to Yu instead of to his own son. Yu is said to have initially declined the throne, but was so popular with other local lords and chiefs that he agreed to become the new emperor, at the age of fifty-three. He established a capital at Anyi, the ruins of which are in modern Xia County in southern Shanxi Province, and founded what would be called the Xia Dynasty, traditionally considered China's first dynasty. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Yu's flood control work is said to have made him intimately familiar with all regions of what was then Han Chinese territory. According to his Yu Gong treatise in the Book of Documents, Yu divided the Chinese "world" into nine zhou or provinces. These were Jizhou, Yanzhou, Qingzhou, Xuzhou, Yangzhou, Jingzhou, Yuzhou, Liangzhou and Yongzhou. Once he had received bronze from these nine territories, he created ding vessels called the Nine Tripod Cauldrons. Yu then established his capital at Yang City. According to the Bamboo Annals, Yu killed one of the northern leaders, Fangfeng to reinforce his hold on the throne.

According to the Bamboo Annals, Yu ruled the Xia Dynasty for forty-five years and, according to Yue Jueshu, he died from an illness. It is said that he died at Mount Kuaiji, south of present-day Shaoxing, while on a hunting tour to the eastern frontier of his empire, and was buried there. The Yu mausoleum known today was first built in the A.D. 6th century (Southern and Northern Dynasties period) in his honor. It is located four kilometers southeast of Shaoxing city.

Eno wrote: “Whether for good reasons or bad, Yu ended the tradition of non-hereditary succession to the kingship. He passed the throne on to his son, a succession that became the beginning of the Xia Dynasty...Yu is a transitional figure: he is the last of the figures who we may say for certain are more mythical than historical, and it is he who is cast in the role of the ruler who establishes the absolute rule of hereditary succession to office – the Xia Dynasty, (whose historical authenticity is much disputed). The Xia royal line after Yu included over a dozen kings, whose general anonymity may be the best evidence of their historicity. (Why invent featureless figures?) When we reach Tang, the first leader of the Shang people to rule as King, independent evidence confirms that we have entered the realm of real rulers rather than legendary ones.

After the Legendary Emperors

Dr. Eno wrote: ““After the era of the three sage kings, the chronology of the Chinese past begins to resemble history rather than legend. But the ideas that people of Classical times had about great men and events of the post-legendary era were not necessarily accurate, and sometimes resemble legend as much as the tales of Yao, Shun, and Yu. In particular, narratives about the founding of the Zhou must be seen as moral tales rather than as factual accounts. Though the events are clearly based on fact, the stories have more to contribute to our understanding of early Chinese ethics than early Chinese history. /+/ [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The Classical thinkers did not make much use of the histories of the Xia and Shang Dynasties. For our purposes, these two long eras can be reduced to a single story, told twice. In the case of each dynasty, the main theme of the story is simply this: The ruling house was established by a sage, whose great work was perpetuated by a series of wise successors. Ultimately, however, there arose a king who was evil, lustful, and who fell under the influence of an alluring evil wife and a clever evil minister. The people suffered, and a virtuous hero arose from among them to overthrow the oppressive ruler and establish a new dynasty. /+/

“The outline of these historical fables makes it clear that three issues were key to their creation: First, women should have no role in government because the sexual attraction of women can sink government into debauchery. Second, the wise exercise of power by a legitimate ruler can be undermined by the wiles of evil ministers, so virtue rather than competence must be the chief criterion for holding high office. Third, although it is appropriate that kings should pass their thrones on to their sons, if a legitimate ruler lacks ethical virtues to the extent that his governance becomes oppressive to his people, he loses legitimacy, and may be overthrown by an unrelated successor who possesses virtue appropriate to the royal office. /+/

Xia Dynasty Emperors

Sima Qian wrote in Shiji 2.83-88: “Emperor Yu had bestowed the realm upon Yi. After the period of three years mourning was complete, Yi yielded the throne to Qi, the son of Yu, and retired to live on the south face of Mt. Chi. Because the son of Yu was worthy, the empire attached its loyalty to him. When Yu had died, although he had entrusted the realm to Yi, Yi had not long served as aide to Yu and the empire was to yet attached to him. The patrician lords all left Yi and presented themselves at the court of Qi, saying, “This is the son of our former ruler, Yu.” And so Qi ascended the throne as the Son of Heaven, Emperor Qi of the Xia. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Emperor Qi of the Xia was the son of Yu. His mother was a woman of the Tushan clan. The clan of the Yushi would not submit to the Xia and Qi attacked them, fighting a great battle at Gan. On the eve of battle, Qi swore the “Oath at Gan.” He summoned his six high ministers and laid the oath forth before them. Oh, you men of the six offices. I swear to you now, the clan of Youhu has transgressed. It has disgraced the five regularities and cast away the example of the three upright emperors. Heaven has therefore cut off its mandate. Today I merely exact with reverence the punishment of Heaven. /+/

“Should those on the left not attack on the left or those on the right not attack on the right, then you shall not have carried out my orders. If any should drive their chariot horses other than in the proper manner, then you shall not have carried out my orders. If you follow my orders, then I shall reward you before the ancestral tablets. If you do not follow my orders, you shall be cut down before the altars of state and I shall destroy your families. Thereupon, the clan of Youhu was annihilated and all in the empire attended at the court of the Emperor Qi. /+/

“When Emperor Qi of the Xia died, he was succeeded by Emperor Taikang. The Emperor Taikang lost control of his state. His five brothers awaited him at the bend of the River Luo and composed the “Song of the Five Brothers.” When Emperor Taikang died, he was succeeded by his younger brother, who ruled as Emperor Zhongkang. In the time of Emperor Zhongkang, the clans of the Xi and the He sank into lustful license. They discarded their office of calendrical observations and through time out of joint. Yin led a righteous campaign against them and composed “The Campaign of Yin.” /+/

When Emperor Zhongkang died, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Xiang. When Emperor Xiang died, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Shaokang. When Emperor Shaokang died, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Yu. When Emperor Yu died, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Huai. When Emperor Huai died, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Mang. When Emperor Mang died, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Xie. When Emperor Xie died, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Bujiang. When Emperor Bujiang died, he was succeeded by his younger brother, Emperor Qiong. When Emperor Qiong died, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Jin. When Emperor Jin died, he was succeeded by the son of Emperor Bujiang, Emperor Kong-. /+/

Emperors Kong and Jie and the Demise of the Xia Dynasty

Sima Qian wrote in Shiji 2.83-88: “Emperor Kong-was fond of magic and affairs of the ghosts and spirits. He was licentious and chaotic. The virtue of the House of Xia declined and the patrician lords revolted. Heaven sent down two dragons, one male and one female. Emperor Kong-was unable to feed them, and could locate no one from the Dragon Master clan. After the decline of the House of Yao-Tang (the clan of the Emperor Yao) among the clan descendants was one Liu Lei who had studied dragon training from a member of the Dragon Master clan. He came into the service of Emperor Kong-who bestowed upon him the surname of Dragon Driver and endowed him with all the properties descending from the clan of Pigskin. The female dragon died, and was prepared as a dish for House of Xia’s tables. The House of Xia thereupon ordered Liu Lei to procure more dragons for them, and in fear he ran off. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“When Emperor Kong-died, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Gao. When Emperor Gao died, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Fa. When Emperor Fa died, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Lü-. This was Jie. Between the time of the Emperor Kong-and the time when the Emperor Jie came to the throne, many of the patrician lords had rebelled against the Xia. Jie did not apply his efforts to building virtue, and his military activities harmed the common people till they could not bear it. /+/

“Then Tang led his troops forth and attacked Jie of the Xia. Jie fled to Mingtiao and was later banished to die in exile. Jie said, “How I regret that I did not kill Tang when he was in the Tower of Xia! Now it has come to this. And now Tang sat astride the throne and held court to the empire in place of the Xia. He bestowed an estate upon the descendants of the Xia. During the Zhou Dynasty, their estate lands were located in Qi. [Tang’s story parallels that of King Wen of the Shang Dynasty. King Wen was also imprisoned and released by a lascivious ruler]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “One of the colorful stories illustrating Jie’s character which unfortunately does not appear in the “Shiji” account concerns a concubine whom he acquired in the course of a war campaign (some texts speak of two sisters). So infatuated did he become with this woman, who unfortunately bore him no sons, that he had his queen thrown in the River Luo to drown in order that this favorite, Meixi, should have no competitor at court. The following account captures the flavor of this tale, which may be compared of other evil “last rulers,” Zhòu of the Shang and You of the Western Zhou (whose story appears later in these readings). It appears that all these men fell victim to a single variety of evil influence. /+/

““Jie was of extraordinary strength. He could twist iron bars and tear apart tigers and rhinoceroses with his bare hands.... In the thirty-third year of his reign, he attacked Mount Meng, the country of the Youshi, who offered him the princess Meixi to propitiate him. The king made her his concubine and followed everything she told him to do.... The king had a palace built for Meixi, fashioned entirely of carnelian stone with halls of ivory, a jadeite tower, and a bed of jade. They engaged in lewd behavior and ordered that lascivious music and dances be performed for them... The king ordered that a lake of wine be constructed in which boats could be sailed. At the roll of a drum, 3,000 people would come drink from it like cattle.” Then Jie summoned Tang of the Shang and imprisoned him in the Tower of Xia, releasing him when his term was over. Tang cultivated his virtue and the patrician lords all cleaved to Tang. /+/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University/+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei: Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021


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