Yao and Shun

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YAO AND SHUN were legendary sage-rulers of antiquity in China. According to traditional Chinese historiography, Tang Yao (Yao of the Tang clan or state; personal name, Fang Xun) or Tang Dao ruled from 2356 to 2256 bce. A ruler of great virtue, he considered his son Dan Zhu (or, in some versions, his ten sons) unworthy to rule the empire, and thus selected Shun to be his successor, having first given to him his two daughters in marriage. Yu Shun (personal name, Zhong Hua) served Yao first as a minister, then in Yao's old age as regent, finally succeeding him and ruling for fifty years. Shun in turn considered his son Shang Xun (or, in some versions, his nine sons) unworthy to rule and so he selected Yu as his successor. Yu became the founder of the Xia, traditionally considered to be the first hereditary dynasty in China.

In Zhou dynasty (eleventh to third century bce) texts, history conventionally begins with the time of Yao. All the great cosmological events took place during his rule. The ten suns appeared, nine of which were shot down by the archer Yi; Buzhou Mountain, the pillar of the northwest, was brought down by Gonggong; and the great flood occurred, which was eventually controlled by Yu. During the Warring States period (403221 bce), however, other rulers, some of whom were originally the mythical ancestors of other houses, began to be placed before Yao, and in the Shi ji, the universal history compiled by Sima Qian during the second century bce, Yao and Shun are but the most recent of five emperors.

Yao abdicated to Shun because of Shun's virtue. An exemplar of filial piety since the Zhou period, Shun often appears on temple frescoes, usually following a plow drawn by an elephant. His filial piety is exemplary because his wicked father, Gu Sou ("blind man"), and his younger brother Xiang ("elephant") both tried to murder him. They first tried to kill him by removing the ladder and setting fire to a granary while he was repairing its roof; then they filled in a well that he had been sent to dredge. The earliest version of this story is in the Mengzi. In the more elaborate Han dynasty version found in Lienu zhuan (Biographies of exemplary women), Yao's daughters advised Shun how to escape his father's evil schemes. Shun continued to serve his father as a son should and without resentment; according to the Mengzi, his father was in the end pleased.

Although Shun is a symbol of filial piety, in accepting the succession to Yao and in marrying Yao's two daughters, he both went against his father's will and displaced Yao's son from the succession. His role therefore is paradoxical, and his story exemplifies the conflict between the principles of rule by virtue and rule by hereditary right that is a common theme in the succession legends recorded in Zhou dynasty texts. Motifs in the story of Shun's succession, such as the ruler's perception of his successor's virtue in spite of his lowly position and his willingness to rely on a man of low birth, also occur in the legends that surround the foundation of the hereditary dynasties.

Elements in the stories of Yao and Shun in early texts suggest still earlier legends concerning clan origins. The earliest record of the story of Yao and Shun is found in the "Yao dian" chapter of the Shang shu, a Zhou dynasty text. In this text, Yao is called di (lord), a title that suggests Shangdi, the high lord of the Shang dynasty (c. sixteenth to eleventh century bce) who is later equated with Tian (Heaven). The succession story of Yao to Shun may contain the remnants of an earlier cosmogonic myth in which the Lord on High first gave the rule to Shun, the progenitor of the Shang people. Shun has been identified with Di ku (who gave birth to the first Shang ancestor, Xie, by means of the egg of a black bird) and with Zhun, the husband of Xihe (who gave birth to the ten suns) and possibly the highest ancestor claimed by the Shang kings in their oracle-bone inscriptions. Shun is also closely associated with the Eastern Yi tribe. His two wives are sometimes identified with the goddesses of the Xiang River in the "Nine Songs" of the Zhuzi.

The philosophers of the Warring States period recounted the story of Shun's succession to Yao with differing emphasis and attitudes concerning the role of the sage and the right to hereditary succession. Recently discovered philosophical texts written on bamboo slips and buried in tombs around the end of the fourth century bce include several accounts of Shun's accession to Yao with many details not found in the traditional texts. These suggest that the idea that a virtuous ruler should appoint a sage rather than an heir as his successor was an important philosophical position in this period.

See Also

Chinese Religion, article on Mythic Themes; Kingship, article on Kingship in East Asia.


Allan, Sarah. The Heir and the Sage: Dynastic Legend in Early China. San Francisco, 1981. A discussion of the Warring States legend and its meaning in philosophical texts.

Allan, Sarah. The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art, and Cosmos in Early China. Albany, N.Y., 1991. Includes the hypothesis that the legend of Yao and Shun was based upon an earlier cosmogonic myth.

Sarah Allan (1987 and 2005)