Shun (Chinese leader)

Shun (Chinese leader)
A statue depicting Emperor Shun

Shun (Chinese: ; pinyin: Shùn) was a 23rd-22nd century BC leader of ancient China, among the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, whose half-century of rule was one of the longest in Chinese history.


Life of Shun

His ancestral name (姓)is Yao(姚),clan name (氏)is Youyu (有虞), given name is Chonghua (重華),the Great Shun (大舜) or Yu Shun (虞舜) (Yu was the name of Shun's fief, which he received from Yao – making him "Shun of Yu"[1]). He received the mantle of leadership from Emperor Yao at the age of 53 and died at 100, after relinquishing the seat of power to Yu, who founded the legendary Xia Dynasty. Shun's capital was at Puban (蒲阪) (presently in Shanxi).

Under the 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.[2] 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.[2]

After ascending to the throne Hi, Shun offered sacrifices to God, as well as to the hills, rivers, and the host of spirits.[3] 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.[4]

Shun divided the land into twelve provinces, raising altars upon twelve hills in each, and deepening the rivers.[5] 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.[6] Yu was subsequently appointed Minister of Works to govern the water and the land.[7] Later, Shun appointed Yu to be General Regulator (Prime Minister).[7] Yu wished to decline in favour of the Minister of Agriculture, or Xie, or Gao-Yao, but finally accepted upon Shun's insistence.[7] Shun then appointed Chui as the new Minister of Works.[8] Shun also appointed Yi as Forester to govern the beasts and trees of the land,[9] Bo-yi as Priest of the Ancestral Temple to perform religious ceremonies,[10] Hui as Director of Music,[11] Long as Minister of Communications to counter deceptions and false reports.[12]

Shun began to reign at the age of 30, reigned with Yao for 30 years, and reigned 50 years after Yao's death, then Shun died.[13]

In later centuries, Yao and Shun were glorified for their virtue by Confucian philosophers. Shun was particularly renowned for his modesty and filial piety (xiao 孝).

The name of Shun's mother was Wodeng (握登), and his birthplace was Yaoxu (姚墟).


Legend has it that Shun's birth mother died when Shun was very young. His father was blind and re-married soon after Shun's mother's death. Shun's stepmother then gave birth to Shun's stepbrother Xiang (象) and a stepsister. Shun's step mother and step brother treated Shun terribly, often forcing Shun to do all the hard work in the family and only give 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 stepbrother with kindness and respect.

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 can. When Shun first went to a village that produced pottery, after less than one year, the potteries 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 distressed over the fact that his 9 sons were all useless, only knew how to spend their days enjoying themselves with wines and songs. Yao asked his administers 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 who are used to good living, to live humbly and work along the people. However, Shun's stepmother and stepbrother became extremely jealous and conspired to kill Shun. Once, Shun's stepbrother 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 skillfully made a parachute out of his hat and cloth and jump 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 stepsister, 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 stepbrother, and always forgave them every time.

Eventually, Shun's stepmother and stepbrother repented their past wrongs. Shun heartily forgave them both, and even helped Xiang get an office. Shun also managed to influence Emperor Yao's 9 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 (己未). Yao's capital was in Ji (冀) which, presently, is also in Shanxi province.

Shun is also renowned as the originator of the music called Dashao (大韶), a symphony of nine Chinese music 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 (商均), as unworthy and picked Yu, the tamer of floods, as his heir.

Alternative biography

The Bamboo Annals and Han Fei paint a very different picture of Shun. He is said to have overthrown Yao and left him in prison to die. Danzhu, Yao's son and rightful heir, was banished and later defeated in battle. Yu then rebelled and banished Shun. This account was referenced in a poem by Li Bai.

Elements of this story depict Shun as a usurper. He comes from a family of criminals that claim to be descended from Zhuanxu, and thus distantly related to the royal family.

Events of Shun's regime

  • In the 3rd year of his regime, he ordered Jiutao (咎陶) to establish penalties to deal with various criminals.
  • In the 9th year of his regime, the West Queen came to worship in China and brought white jade rings and Jue (玦) as gifts.
  • In the 14th year of his regime, Yu of Xia was appointed to manage disasters caused by floods and winds.
  • In the 15th year of his regime, he appointed Houshi (后氏) to build the palace.
  • In February of the 17th year, dancing was first taught at schools.
  • In the 25th year of his regime, envoy of the Xishen (息慎) tribe came and, as gifts, brought the bow and arrow.
  • In the 29th year, he ordered Ziyi (子义) to serve as duke in Shang.
  • In the 30th year of his regime, his wife Mang (盲) died and was honored with a tomb built for her at Wei (渭).
  • In the 32nd year of his regime, he transferred military power to Yu of Xia.
  • In January of the 33rd year of his regime, he rewarded Yu of Xia for his achievement in managing the floods, in the aftermath of which, nine provinces were re-established in China.
  • In the 35th year of his regime, he ordered Yu of Xia to send troops to Youmiao (有苗). After Yu achieved victory, Youmiao sent an envoy with a request to join China.
  • In his 36th year of his regime, he ordered the Great Wall (of Shun's time, not the current Great Wall of China) to be torn down.
  • In the 42nd year of his regime, the Xuandu (玄都) people came to worship him and brought precious jade as gifts.
  • The winter of the 47th year of his regime was very warm and the grass did not die.
  • In the 49th year of his regime, he moved to Mingtiao (鸣条), a place later called Haizhou (海州) during the Warring States Period. His death came the following year, after a rule described as having lasted fifty years.

See also


  1. ^ Wu, note 83, page 105
  2. ^ a b Canon of Shun, v 2.
  3. ^ Canon of Shun, v 3.
  4. ^ Canon of Shun, v 4.
  5. ^ Canon of Shun, v 5.
  6. ^ Canon of Shun, v 6.
  7. ^ a b c Canon of Shun, v 9.
  8. ^ Canon of Shun, v 13.
  9. ^ Canon of Shun, v 14.
  10. ^ Canon of Shun, v 15.
  11. ^ Canon of Shun, v 16.
  12. ^ Canon of Shun, v 17.
  13. ^ Canon of Shun, v 20.


  • "Canon of Shun" (舜典), Classic of History (書經), traditionally first compiled and edited by Confucius (孔夫子), in about Fifth to Sixth Century BCE, in what is now China. (ISBN of original unavailable.)
  • Wu, K. C. (1982). The Chinese Heritage. New York: Crown Publishers. ISBN 0-517-54475X.

External links

Shun (Chinese leader)
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Emperor of China
ca. 2255 BC – ca. 2195 BC
Succeeded by

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