Traditional Culture: The Potter Yu Shun Influenced the Land of Dongyi

Yu Shun was one of the Five Emperors of China in ancient times. His family name was Yao, and his given name was Chonghua. He was from the area where the current Zhucheng City in Shandong Province is located. Emperor Shun was very talented and noble. Even at a very young age, he had become well known for his devotion to his family.

Shun was born into a poor family. Even though he was a descendant of Emperor Zhuan Xu, for five generations, his family had been in the lowest class in that society. Shun's father, Gu Sou, was blind, and his mother died when he was little. Gu Sou married again and the stepmother gave birth to a boy named Xiang. “Father is stubborn, mother is overbearing, and Xiang is arrogant.” They conspired together many times to try to kill Shun. Yet Shun never failed to pay filial respect to his parents and obeyed them unconditionally. He never ignored his responsibility as an older brother and was kind and caring toward Xiang. Not just for a day or two, but for years and years, Shun treated his family this way always. When his family planned to kill him, Shun ran away just in time, and as soon as the situation got a little bit better, he returned and tried his best to help them. It was said that “The family couldn't kill Shun when they wanted to, yet when they needed him he was always around.” In such a bad family, Shun tempered himself and further improved his moral character.

According to legend, Yu Shun had also made tremendous contributions to the development of Chinese pottery. In order to make a living, Shun worked as a potter in Zhufeng Village by the Yellow River. History reports that “Shun made quality pots and earthenware, beautifully done with no flaws.” Shun's workmanship and technique were remarkable. The pots that he made were skillfully crafted, beautiful, reasonably priced, and durable. When making pots, Shun paid extra attention to the material used, was very specific about the firing temperature, and took his time to knead the clay and prepare it the right way. Thus, many people loved Shun's pots. Many potters wanted to learn Shun's techniques, which he very willing to share. Because Shun was such a great potter, many people didn't mind traveling from afar to buy pots from him, and his products were in high demand. Yet Shun remained meticulous about his products from the beginning to the end. He wouldn't even raise the price and only ever made a 10 percent profit.

Shun's advanced technology of using a potter's wheel spread all over the area near the Yellow River. Since there were more and more potters in the area near Dongyi, and the earthenware was in short supply, the potters started to cut corners on labor and material for the sake of profits. They didn't prepare the clay well enough and shortened the time of firing the earthenware in the kiln. As a result, the earthenware became fragile and broke after being used for only a short time. The potters were making huge profits because they saved on labor, time, and material.

After hearing about this, Shun went to a place called Wei to open a pottery business in order to guide the potters and to benefit the people of that area. While he was there, Shun meticulously studied the techniques and skills of making unfinished clay pots and finished earthenware. Shun used advanced firing technology and strove to produce strong and durable pots. He also added beautiful decorations and ornaments to his products and changed the openings of the pots from big to small. Everybody loved his earthenware, and business people poured in to buy Shun's pots.

According to legend, since everybody bought the pots made by Shun, the other potters had hardly any business, and nobody went to them anymore. They were very angry with Shun, so one day they went to make trouble for him. Shun said to them, “Do you think that I came here to compete with you and steal your customers? Whether or not to make pots is up to me, yet the choice to buy is not mine. If nobody wants to buy my pots, I can't force them; if everybody buys my pots, I can't refuse. Please think about it, everyone. We all make pots, yet why do people buy my pots and not yours? Why is that?” The potters answered, “Your pots are durable and reasonably priced. Our pots are fragile and pricy. So people buy from you, not from us. Aren't you purposely opposing us and competing for our business and clients?”

Shun asked, “Think about the fabric and textile products that we use every day. It is obvious you guys wouldn't buy low quality products. Then why would I make fragile ceramic products to sell?” The potters said, “People used to buy our pots. Ever since you came, they stopped buying from us. So it's all because of you and not because our pots are fragile.” Shun said, “That is not true. People used to buy from you because there was no one else they could buy from. They had to buy from you, not that they liked to. For example, during the years of big crop failures, people ate bran and grass, not because they wanted to, but because they had to. By selling fragile products, you are doing the same as forcing them to eat bran scraps and grass roots. Isn't that so?” The potters responded, “We are craftsman who live off of our skills. We only know about making money and becoming rich. We don't care about being nice!” Shun said, “That is not so. Wealth is within kindness. Without kindness, where could you find wealth?” Hearing this, the potters eagerly wanted to know what the reasons were, so Shun guided the potters, saying, “The difference between humans and animals is kindness. If I do not cheat others, then they also will not cheat me. If I cheat them, then they must cheat me. In order to become rich, you have cheated others by selling them fragile pots. However, everybody wants to make money and become rich. If people in all the trades think like you and make shabby products of poor quality, I ask you, 'Could you still make money?' What you make is only earthenware, and you have to buy countless other commodities from others. You only have one product to compete with many other products, so how could you win? Even if you make more profit on the pots, you don't know how much more money you have to spend on other products! Without kindness there is no wealth, so isn't it wise to be kind?”

The potters seemed to come to a realization and said, “True, in the past few years, many products on the market have become less and less durable, all because of this.” Afterwards, the potters followed Shun's good example and conducted themselves and ran their businesses honestly. They paid attention to their pots and no longer made low quality products. Their pots were again made strong and durable.

The land of Dongyi was relatively undeveloped at the time, and the local people were unkind. In doing business, it was common among the merchants to produce poor quality products in order to make a profit. Yet when a wise and genuine person ruled the country, “Morals came first and guidance was emphasized.” He did not use strict laws and harsh punishments to enforce his power. After hearing what Shun said and seeing how he conducted himself, the potters changed their ways of doing things and started over. The locals again became more kind and honest. There was no need for repeated demands or coercion. All that was needed was to teach and pass on the spiritual obligations, and then everybody improved their characters and was kind. There wasn't much that needed to be done, yet the world was well ruled and everything in order.

The book Historical Records - Records of the Five Emperors evaluates Emperor Shun as follows: “When Shun was a farmer at Mountain Li, the local people gave him their land; when he was a fisherman at Lake Ze, the local fishermen let him stay in their houses; when he was a potter at the Yellow River, the earthenware in that area was not of poor quality. The first year he was there, more residents gathered; the second year he was there, a city was built; by the third year, a great metropolis was established.” Wherever he worked, there would be a trend toward courtliness and kindness; wherever he went, people followed him. Thus Sima Qian praised Shun, “Civilization and kindness in the world started with Yu Shun.”

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