Episode 3 - Yao, Shun + Yu

Mention where we left things last week – Huangdi had won the power struggle, Shennong died trying herbs and the demon Chi You was dead.

Huangdi did continue on his legacy and died in… well… nobody knows. Again like with Shennong’s birth. People were more concerned with the spectacle rather than the date. Plus this is pre-writing history we are talking here – unless we steal Doctor Who’s tardis, we will never know specific dates.

The next guy in our story is called Yao. He was born in around 2356 BC, in the town of modern day Linfen, which is in Shaanxi province.

Yao is said to have been a wise ruler, benevolent in every thing he did. He always looked to help the people under his rule.

Even created the world’s first well in Chinese culture. How do I know this? Well, went to Linfen and seen the well for myself – it had inscribed on it ‘The World’s first well’.

Now of course this is obviously up for debate, I did afterall, see the well in a temple dedicated to Yao. Coincidence?

Regardless of what you believe, Yao is said to have worked in the fields alongside his subjects, participate in the hunting and fishing with the locals, and solve disputes or problems everywhere he went. This in turn inspired a great deal of loyalty amongst his subjects.

But as time passed by – Yao started to get older. He needed an heir to the throne – would think it would his eldest son – HOWEVER this was before the era of Dynasties and dynastic succession. Yao wanted to bypass his family members (who he deemed as useless) and find the best man for the job in a sort system of voluntary abdication.

Yao found his man – Shun. The next guy in our narrative. What made Shun stand out to Yao?

Shun was a classic example of filial piety.

Born in the year 2294 BC – yep… Over 100 years after Yao was born by all accounts…. But like I mentioned, all dates are really loose at this time – so please try not to pay too much attention to them.

When he was young – his mother died. Some say it was during child birth, some say it was whe he was an infant.

His dad remarried and you better believe it – she was a wicked step-mother. Her son, Shun’s stepbrother was also horrible. Ancient Chinese Cinderella story coming…

Now it does seem like Shun’s father did have a bit of wealth because this seemed to be the only reason this woman was interested in him in the first place. Easy target as well as he was blind.

The mother and son started to work almost immediately – making Shun do all of the housework, giving his meals to the step-brother, or certainly feeding him less, dressing the step-brother in the finest of clothing while Shun wore rags. You get the idea. Again, think of Cinderella… But this time, there wont be a handsome prince with a glass slipper, we go off that course from here.

So as time progressed , they wanted Shun out of the picture completely, and tried several times to assassinate him, I will only mention 2:

  1. One day when Shun was doing some work in the fields, his brother approached him, saying that work needed to be done on the roof of the family home. Shun, obviously came with him to check it out. Shun’s step-brother then climbed off of the roof then set the house on fire. So what happened to dear old Shun? Well.. He kinda already knew about the plot and had another ladder place at the opposite side of the home – so as soon as he started to smell the smoke, it was just a case of climbing down the other side. Clever play there.
  2. This time, the step-mother got involved. Again, Shun was doing some housework, probably building a new home for the family… Then suddenly his mother in law came running out crying that someone had been stuck in the local village well (no, not Yao’s well) – and that Shun needed to save them. Again Shun obliged and rushed over to the well, then climbed down, All of a sudden, the well came crashing down in on itself and surely Shun was dead. The step-mother and son must have been dancing with joy at the thought of that, but no, Shun walked up to them pretending nothing had happened. So how did Shun escape this time? Well, again he knew about the plot and he, as well as a few friends/servants, dug a tunnel towards the bottom of the well, that way he could simply walk out safely whilst the well above collapsed.

How did Shun find out about these plots? It seems like it was all servants in the family home – who could overhear the private discussions between the step-mother and son. They were obviously sympathetic to Shun and told him everything.

Now of course everyone and their pet in the village knew the culprits behind this, but Shun forgave them each time. There was no hesitation.

This was admired by the people around him, and he was an inspiration to everything. For example, whenever Shun went fishing with his friends, they caught a lot more than usual. If Shun participated in a field there were bigger crop yields. You get the idea…

Yao took notice, and tested Shun in his hometown. After analysing Shun’s way of running government and his policies, it was a no-brainer for Yao.

And so after 70 odd years of rule, Yao married his 2 daughters off to Shun and proclaimed the new king of the Yellow River Valley. Yao then went to live on for another 20 odd years after doing this by all accounts.

Again, as for dates – there is no date. All I can find was the birth date for Shun and not the date his reign started.

Now Shun reigned very much like he lived his life, with much kindness. He continued on Yao’s legacy and shared the burdens of the people. All in all – great guy.

However both Yao and Shun did face one major problem, THE YELLOW RIVER.

Enter Chinese flood myth story – The Yellow River kept on flooding, displacing people, drowning people, ruining crops and causing all out mayhem.

It was Emperor Yao who appointed a man named Gun to stop the flooding – however Gun only tried to dam the river, and after 9 years – he got himself nowhere.

His 9th year ended with the transition of power from Yao to Shun, and let’s say Shun was not happy in the slightest with this. So… Gun was to be executed/exiled/imprisoned.

This is when our final character steps in: Yu.

Yu was born in 2123 BC and was the son of our unfortunate friend Gun.

Yu watched his dad trying to dam the river as a boy and tried out his own techniques at his young age.

After his father’s death – Shun appointed Yu to stop the river from flooding.

This was Yu’s time to shine – and his new ideas were implemented immediately. For example, he built canals, dykes, dredged the river and channelled the river off to new areas.

2 side effects:

  1. The flooding stopped.
  2. Water was channelled elsewhere for agricultural exploitation.

This was a long and hard process though, and it took 13 years to complete it.

Legend has it – that Yu was committed to his job so much that he didn’t see his family once during his time battling the floods. He did however, pass by 3 times:

The first: pregnant wife and she cried out to him, begging him to come home. He refused.

The second: Wife with baby boy, saying come and look at your son! Again, he refused.

The third: Wife and young boy came running out to him, and he heard his son speak for the very first time, he could ‘father, please come back’. But fighting back his tears, he refused.

Now I know, you are probably thinking, what a terrible dad. But Yu is rumoured to have said that seeing his family would be his reward after he completed his task.

Great leader, terrible dad and husband.

After this triumph over nature, Shun was impressed. So impressed in fact, that Yu became Shun’s successor.

Shun retired and Yu took over, now again – he continued the legacy of both Yao and Shun and led through example rather than through privilege.

When Yu’s time was coming to a close, he needed a successor, now normally he would have chosen the best man for the job, but this time it didn’t happen. There are 2 stories as to what happened next.

  1. Yu actually chose his successor, a man who helped him battle the Yellow River, but unfortunately, that guy died. And the nobles at the court favoured Yu’s son – Qi. They begged Yu, and finally he relented.
  2. After Yu chose his successor Qi secretly had the man killed and therefore cleared the path to power.

Regardless of this: After Yu died, dynastic succession became the dominant political transfer of power for the next 4,000 years.

And with Yu’s death, China’s first dynasty was born – the Xia, in the year 2060 BC.

So what is a dynasty?

A dynasty is a ruling family – so the transition of power goes from father to son. Or the oldest male relative within the family. This is significant as it changed the course of Chinese history for the 4,000 years. Now of course Yu and Qi didn’t know this at the time, but they did alter the course of history. For better or worse? We will never know.

And this is where I will leave things for this week, just because this is kinda the end of an era in Chinese history, as from now we will be looking into dynasties, and not famous characters.

Now I know, you think Xia can’t be mythical… But sorry, it is for the most part. And this will be the discussion for next week.

I hope you enjoyed the show, and I will see you next time on The Chronicler podcast channel, thanks for listening!