An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Shun 舜

Jan 23, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Shun 舜 was one of the Five Emperors 五帝 in Chinese mythology.

According to the poems in the collection Chuci 楚辭, he must have been an ancestor deity of the Shang dynasty 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) and probably corresponded to the divine ancestor (di 帝) Kui 夔, called Gaozu 高祖 "High Ancestor". The historian and palaeographer Wang Guowei 王國維 (1877-1927) brought forward the argument that the deity Di Jun 帝俊 (or Qun 夋, phonetically close to Shun) mentioned in the book Shanhaijing 山海經 was identical with Kui, the character 夔 just being abbreviated to 夋.

One of the Five Emperors, Di Ku 帝嚳, who is also mentioned in the Shanhaijing, might also be identical with Kui (the two names being pronounced quite similarly). The character 俊 later disappeared in historiographical sources, and only 嚳 and 舜 survived, but were used for different personalities.

The book Guoyu 國語 confirms the theory derived from the oracle bone inscriptions, that Shun was an ancestor of the Shang. In the Dixi 帝系 genealogies of the Shiben 世本 books, Ku 嚳 is listed as the ancestor of Zhi 摯, Yao 堯, the Shang and the Zhou dynasty 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE). Shun/Ku himself is a descendant of Zhuan Xu 顓頊.

The Confucian philosopher Mengzi 孟子, as well as the book Mozi 墨子, say that Shun hailed from the southeast, around Mt. Lishan 歷山 in Shandong. This also corresponds to the identification of Shun as one of the Shang people. Yet both traditions, Confucians and Mohists, transform Yao, Shun and Yu the Great 大禹 into rulers of exemplary virtue, the latter as practical founder of the Shang dynasty.

Especially in the historiography of the Confucians, Yao, Shun and Yu are the sage-kings of the past to imitate which was to be the highest objective of all rulers. Yao entrusted Yu with the taming of the floods, a task which only Shun was able to bring to an end. Shun is said to have the tribal name Youyu 有虞 (or Yu 虞) and the family name Yao 姚 or Chonghua 重華 (according to the Chuci). He is therefore also known as Yu-Shun 虞舜 or simply Yu 虞. Yu might also be the name of a state or territory over which Shun ruled, but is rather a term of an official supervising parks and forests and organising royal hunts.

The history book Shiji 史記 says that Shun's father was called Gu Sou 瞽叟, his grandfather Qiao Niu 橋牛, who was a son of Gou Wang 句望, a son of Jing Kang 敬康, whose father was Qiong Chan 窮蟬, a son of Zhuan Xu 顓頊, who was Chang Yi's 昌意 son, the latter being a son of the Yellow Emperor 黃帝.

According to legend, Shun was treated very badly by his father, step-mother and his half-brother Xiang 象, so that he had to flee to Mt. Lishan, where he tilled the soil, to Hebang 河濱, where he was a potter, and Lake Lei 雷澤, where he lived from fishing. A collection of biographies of filial persons (Xiaozizhuan 孝子傳) from the bianwen 變文 stories found in Dunhuang 敦煌 narrates how he later returned and fed his hungry step-mother during a period of draught, forgetting all former injustice. After being made emperor, he also made his half-brother Xiang the Lord of Bi 庳 or 鼻, as the book Mengzi says. During his time as a peasant at Mt. Lishan the character bao 褒 "securing" appeared in his hand, so that he knew that he would one day become emperor. This story is told in the book Soushenji 搜神記.

Shun later found to Yao who entrusted him with government affairs and gave him his two daughters as wives. In the end, Yao handed over the reign of the empire to Shun. In the book Lienüzhuan 列女傳 it is told that the two daughters of Yao provided Shun with an antipoison that allowed him resisting the lulling forces of the wine his father Gu Sou offered to him in order to kill him. It is also said that in this text that Shun's sister pitied him and lived in harmony with her sisters-in-law.

The Shanhaijing says that the wives of Shun climbed Mt. Bishi 比氏 and produced a radiant light that was to be seen in a far distance. This story is similar to one told of Xi He 羲和 and Chang Xi 常羲, wives of Emperor Jun. Shun/Jun can thus be identified as a deity representing Heaven or the Sun.

After being made emperor, Shun took residence in Puban 浦阪 (modern Yongji 永濟, Shanxi) and fought against the three unruly Three Miao Tribes (Sanmiao 三苗), against Gong Gong 共工, Huan Dou 驩兜 and Gun 鯀.

He had two groups of ministers, the "Eight Gentle Ones" (bakai 八愷) Cang Shu 蒼舒, Tui Ai 隤敳, Tao Yan 檮戭, Da Lin 大臨, Long Jiang 龍降, Ting Jian 庭堅, Zhong Rong 仲容 and Shu Da 叔達, and the "Eight Primordials" (bayuan 八元, sons of Emperor Di Ku) Bo Fen 伯奮,Zhong Kan 仲堪, Shu Xian 叔獻, Ji Zhong 季仲, Bo Hu 伯虎, Zhong Xiong 仲熊, Shu Bao 叔豹 and Ji Kui 季狸. Shun appointed Yu the Great as Minister of Works (situ 司空) with the duty to tame the floods. His Minister of Education (situ 司徒) was Xie 契 (ancestor of the Shang dynasty), his Minister of Justice was Gao Yao 皋陶, his *Director of Grains (houji 后稷) was Qi 弃. Chui 垂 was the Director of Works (gonggong 共工), and the Supervisor of Forestry and Hunting (yu 虞) was Bo Yi 伯益.

Shun loved music, composed "airs of the south" (Nanfeng 南風) and ordered Kui to revise songs from the Southern Poetry. This story was told in the books Shizi 尸子 (quoted in the Yishi 繹史) and Lüshi chunqiu 呂氏春秋. The music of Shun is called shao 韶.

Shun died during an inspection tour in Cangwu 蒼梧 in the southern wilderness and was buried in Jiuyi 九疑 (later Lingling 零陵, modern Ningyuan 寧遠, Hunan). He had formerly made Yu the Great his successor. His wives remained at the tomb site, but dived into the River Xiang 湘, crossed Lake Dongting 洞庭湖 and emerged again from River Pu 浦, as a story goes that is told in the Shanhaijing.

While in some sources he is said to have toured the whole empire (i.e. greater parts of modern China), the Mengzi says that he was born in Zhufeng 諸馮 (modern Zhucheng 諸城, Shandong), lived in Fuxia 負夏 (modern Puyang 濮陽, Henan) and died in Mingtiao 鳴條 (modern Kaifeng 開封, Henan), all places located more or less in the Yellow River plain.

Shun on the one hand belonged to the leading persons of the Shang people that lived more in the east of the Yellow River plain, but on the other he is also geneologically connected with persons from the western part of Central China and the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di 黃帝). This shows that his figure was merged with different ancestral traditions.

Li Jianping 李劍平, ed. (1998). Zhongguo shenhua renwu cidian 中國神話人物辭典 (Xi'an: Shaanxi renmin chubanshe), 662.
Liu Qiyu 劉起釪 (1992). "Shun 舜", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 957.
Xiong Tieji 熊鐵基, Yang Youli 楊有禮, ed. (1994). Zhongguo diwang zaixiang cidian 中國帝王宰相辭典 (Wuhan: Hubei jiaoyu chubanshe), 8.
Yuan Ke 袁珂, ed. (1985). Zhongguo shenhua chuanshuo cidian 中國神話傳說詞典 (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe), 389, 405.