Legendary Foundations of Chinese Civilization: Emperor Shun

July 22, 2016 Updated: July 31, 2016

This is the fifth in a series of articles by Epoch Times describing the foundations of Chinese civilization, and setting forth the traditional Chinese worldview. The series surveys the course of Chinese history, showing how key figures aided in the creation of China’s divinely inspired culture. This installment covers the life and reign of Shun, successor to the vaunted Emperor Yao.

Seeing that his own son, Dan Zhu, was not morally fit for the throne, Emperor Yao sought the acquaintance of worthy men to whom he might pass on the weighty responsibilities of leadership.

Yao met with four different candidates, but they all declined the offer. Luckily, the last sage, Si Yue, recommended a fifth and final heir. That was Yu Chonghua, a man poor in station but superior in character, and who would be posthumously known as Emperor Shun.

A Filial Son in an Ungrateful Family

Shun was a man who spent nearly his entire childhood in the shadows of a wicked stepfamily. When his mother died and his father remarried, the new woman abused Shun and his elder brother. The two received frequent beatings and curses, and were sometimes starved.

Shun’s brother did not survive the torture, but for the future emperor, the suffering served to steel his moral character. When he was about 10 years old, a Taoist master called Wu Cheng Zi saw promise in the boy and wanted to teach him reading and writing.

An ancient depiction of Emperor Shun. (PD-Art)
An ancient depiction of Emperor Shun. (PD-Art)

This future was derailed by the interference of Shun’s stepmother, and he ended up driving cattle instead of studying.

Of Shun’s relatives, traditional records say that his father was a stubborn man blind to the concepts of right and wrong. His stepmother made up for her poor intellect with sinister cunning and a deceitful nature. His stepbrother Xiang was possessed by arrogance, ferocity, and selfishness.

Shun endured his abusive family with the filial respect required of a son. When his father beat him with a small rod, he would endure the punishment. When faced with a large club, he would flee to prevent his father from causing serious injury and thus committing a crime against his own kin. Whenever his family was in need, Shun would serve them dutifully.

Emperor Yao Summons Shun

Finally, Shun’s unloving and abusive family drove him out of the house, so he wandered to another state to make his living. He became a skilled artisan who perfected the art of pottery in a community that lies in today’s Shanxi Province.

People soon came to know Shun as a kind and respected young man. It was said that even the wild beasts came to his assistance. Once, when Shun was at work opening up uncultivated lands for farming around Mount Li, a wild elephant helped him hoe the field and birds rid the ground of weeds.

The common folk took these as auspicious signs of Shun’s coming greatness. Over time, Shun’s hard work and virtues paid off. In the areas around Mount Li, Shun helped settle land disputes by offering fertile, tamed fields to the poor and weak, while he continued to open unclaimed land. His generosity spurred a sense of self-sacrifice that spread throughout the community. Many outsiders came to live and work near Shun.

The sage Si Yue recommended Shun, then 30 years old, to Emperor Yao.

Shun was reluctant. “I am but an inferior man and dare not harbor dreams of greatness,” he told Si Yue.

Still, Emperor Yao summoned Shun for a meeting. According to a text compiled by the Confucian scholar Xun Zi, Yao asked Shun: “Should I desire to govern the world, which methods should I be advised to use?”

Shun responded: “If you maintain resolve without going astray, unfailingly attend to details, and are resolute in your faith and loyalty, the world will comply naturally. With a resolve equal to that of heaven and earth, and attending to details with the brilliance of the sun and moon, your honesty and loyalty prevails in the internal and manifests in the external. It takes form across the four seas and may be observed everywhere. What is there to govern then?”

Greatly impressed, Yao gave his two daughters to Shun in marriage, and bestowed upon him various gifts. Shun made his new residence near the river Gui, and continued to serve his stepfamily as before. His wives shouldered their feminine duties without arrogance.

Seeing the honors granted Shun, his family felt not happiness but rage and jealousy. His stepbrother Xiang devised various plots to murder Shun by burning and drowning, but none succeeded. Eventually even Shun’s wicked relatives were moved by his unyielding virtue and lack of resentment, and ceased meddling with him.

Shun’s Work

To groom Shun for the throne, Emperor Yao gave him powers of administration over education and government, and tasked him with receiving regional dukes and princes. When meeting with the nobility, Shun took care to observe the proper ritual etiquette to maintain a solemn atmosphere.

Shun’s education was centered on having the young learn from the old. In the Book of Rites, it is recorded that he had residences built for elderly ministers and commoners near the granaries, where children would be gathered to pick up on their knowledge and wisdom. This system formed the basis for schools into the Western Zhou Dynasty of the 10th century B.C.

During this time, the Great Flood (introduced in the previous installment) continued to ravage China. In one perilous assignment, Yao dispatched Shun to tour the country and survey the flood. Travelling through the mountains, forests, rivers, and swamps was a difficult task made worse by torrential rains and violent storms. It was easy to go astray and encounter attacks by venomous snakes and man-eating beasts.

Shun led his men bravely. During a trek off the beaten path in a forest, they met a trio of tigers. The beasts roared at the sight of so many people, but Shun stepped out and spoke to them. “We are here by command of the emperor to survey the Great Flood and help rescue the people,” he said. “We did not expect to see you here. Please return to your cave and do not block the road.”

The tigers complied and left. Of Shun’s encounter, Yao said: “Either the gods have blessed him, or his sincerity is able to move all creatures.”

(Brocken Inaglory/CC BY-SA 2.5)
(Brocken Inaglory/CC BY-SA 2.5)

The Reign of Shun

But when Emperor Yao requested that Shun take the throne, he modestly turned down the offer. Yao, however, was aging and had Shun act as a regent with the assistance of the agricultural minister.

Soon, various auspicious signs convinced Shun that he should accept the throne.

Yao would hand imperial authority over to Shun in an elaborate and pious abdication process, as depicted in Han Dynasty texts. The emperor bathed, abstained from meat and wine, and built new altars. He led Shun and others in praying to the heavens and selected a propitious day to begin the events.

On the day of the ceremony, Yao and his subordinates made sacrificial offerings to the gods. He sank a piece of jade into a river, and upon this act, colorful light burst out of the waters. Auspicious clouds and vapors gathered in the mountains. A great wind blew and the river surged.

A dragon appeared from the rapids carrying something between its teeth. It approached the altar and released the item before returning to the deep. The gift was a map, recording the positions of the sun, moon, and stars, as well as the rivers and mountain ranges of the land. This was the “He Tu”—usually translated as the Yellow River Chart.

Two years passed, and Yao held a second ceremonial rite. This time, a giant tortoise appeared, carrying a great tome on its shell. The volume was made of tortoise shell and was engraved with red Chinese characters calling for the ascent of Shun to the throne. This was Luo Shu, the Inscription of Luo.

Modernized diagrams of the He Tu (Yellow River Chart) and and Luo Shu (Inscription of Luo). (Philolo/PD-Art)
Modernized diagrams of the He Tu (Yellow River Chart) and and Luo Shu (Inscription of Luo). (Philolo/PD-Art)

Having witnessed these miracles, Yao abdicated the throne and Shun was made emperor.

Emperor Shun’s rule was humane. Corporal punishment and cruel tortures were abolished except in the most irredeemable cases. Thus crimes that would once have resulted in amputation of the nose or feet, beheading, or penal tattooing were now punished by exile, fines, or whipping. This was in line with Shun’s emphasis on moral education—he believed that a society in which people were ashamed to commit crimes was superior to one where they were beaten into obedience.

Read the next installment here