Stories from Ancient China: Emperor Shun Inspired by Example

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China’s moral and ethical code of conduct has a very ancient history that dates back to Emperor Shun in 2255 B.C.

Many centuries preceding the teachings of Confucius in the 5th century B.C., Emperor Shun was known as the founder of China’s social rules in the family and among the various members of society. He said there should be affection between father and son, justice between a monarch and his ministers, duty between husband and wife, respect for ones’ elders, and trust among friends.

This became the core of Chinese ethical culture. The stories passed down about Emperor Shun tell of his great magnanimity and always setting a good example.

Emperor Shun grew up as a commoner during the reign of Emperor Yao. Emperor Yao was a man of high moral character who valued virtue. When Yao neared the end of his reign, he realized that none of his nine sons had the virtue to inherit the throne, so he sent out his ministers to search for a young man who possessed the great virtue needed to become emperor.

After a time of searching, all of the emperor’s ministers recommended that 30-year-old Shun be chosen, as he had a reputation of exceptional filial piety -- respecting and caring for his elders.

So Emperor Yao went to meet Shun, taking along two of his daughters to become Shun’s wives. Yao also told his sons to make friends with Shun and observe how he conducted himself and whether he was competent and truly virtuous.

As time went by, Shun proved himself worthy. In marriage, he was honest, generous and forgiving. Consequently, the two princesses were devoted wives and did not look down on Shun or his family, despite their own royal status.

Shun was modest, amiable and diligent. He gave good land to others for growing crops. As a result, people did not quarrel with each other over property boundaries and also became more caring.

When out fishing, Shun would not occupy the part of the river teeming with the most fish; and gradually people also did the same, leaving the good fishing grounds to others.

Shun’s character profoundly influenced people. Everyone wanted to be Shun’s neighbour, and everyone living near him felt inspired to be good. As a result, in one year the area where Shun lived grew into a village, and in the second year it became a small town. In the third year the small town grew into a big city.

When Shun was 50, Emperor Yao asked Shun to serve as acting emperor. Shun’s great character and ability had convinced Emperor Yao. When Shun was 61, he officially became emperor.

Emperor Shun’s reign lasted 39 years, and the country was in good order. He ruled with compassion, and everyone loved and obeyed him. Emperor Shun died when he was 101 years old.

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