Emperors Yao, Shun, and Yu lived thousands of years ago, in ancient China. They reigned in succession, and were recognized for possessing great virtue. In the legends of traditional Chinese culture, Emperor Shun’s greatest virtue was filial obedience. It is said that his unwavering filial obedience was admired by heaven.
Shun’s original name was Yao Chonghua (this “Yao” is a different ancestral clan name than that of Emperor Yao). His blind father was stubborn and irrational, and often treated him badly. Wodeng, his mother, was a kindhearted woman, caring towards her son, but she died when Shun was very young. His father remarried, to a woman who lacked virtue and kindness. She gave Shun’s father a second son, Xiang, and a daughter, Ji.
As life went on, Shun’s half-brother Xiang was favored by his father and mother, and the three often mistreated and bullied Shun. They viewed him as an outsider, a thorn in their side, and even at times wished him dead.
Forced to do all of the hard work, while given the worst food and clothing, Shun’s home life was filled with hardships and tribulations. Yet he always maintained filial obedience, being respectful to his parents, and a responsible older brother to his younger siblings. He tried his best to maintain a happy family life.
Whenever Shun’s parents mistreated him, his first thought would be to examine himself. “I must have done something wrong that caused them to be angry and treat me this way,” he thought. He reflected on his words and actions to discover his shortcomings, while maintaining filial piety in the hopes of bringing happiness to his parents.
When Xiang would treat him badly for no apparent reason, Shun took it as a sign that he, as older brother, did not do well setting a good moral example. Shun was always strict with himself, striving to maintain high standards and good character, in his thoughts, words, and actions. Yet he still felt frustration at times, and would often go off into the fields, crying out loudly: “Why can I not bring joy to my family?”
Other people saw this heart, and were touched by his sincerity, especially in someone so young. It was said that Shun’s genuineness and true heart not only moved people in his community, but reached divine beings in the heavens and sentient beings walking the earth.
It is said in the ancient legends that when he plowed the fields near Li Mountain, he was in total harmony with his surroundings. An elephant came to help him plow, while swarms of birds arrived to remove weeds. People witnessed this – such great virtue – and were surprised and deeply respectful. Yet Shun conducted himself with modesty and humility.
As time passed, the legend of Shun’s familial obedience and virtuous nature spread throughout the land. Soon everyone in the country knew his story.
Emperor Yao was 86, and due to such age was seeking a successor. When he sought advice from his officials as to who would be a worthy candidate, all recommended Shun. And it was. If, despite such hardship, he could maintain his familial obedience and treat his family well, he would surely take good care of his people.
Yet even as emperor, Shun found it difficult to be happy and fulfilled. “Even now, my parents still do not like me. What is the point of being an emperor?”
His people were very touched by such words.
And in the end, so, too, were his family. They were deeply moved by such words, and, finally, treated him well.
Familial obedience was of high virtue in ancient China. If mistreated by parents and family, it may not be easy to forgive, to make sacrifices, and to maintain harmony. It is a higher virtue.
Living under such circumstances, it is difficult to be selfless, rise above, and do even better. This is why Shun, with his sincere heart and unwavering filial obedience, is exceptional.