Analects Book 16 Characters: Confucius lauds Boyi and Shuqi

Richard Brown
4 min readJun 11, 2022

Who were Boyi and Shuqi, the two poster boys of filial devotion who Confucius lauds in 16.12? This question is relatively easy to answer given the reasonable amount of information that is available about them. But the reason why the sage champions the two brothers as moral exemplars is much more difficult to discern. Not only did they refuse to comply with the wishes of their father when he asked first one and then the other to become his successor. They also took the principles of filial devotion to such an extreme that they descended into what can only be described as suicidal madness. Here is their story in all its strange and convoluted glory.

Boyi and Shuqi were born in the early part of the 11th century BCE as the sons of a ruler of the minor state of Guzhu during the time when the ruling Shang Dynasty was collapsing under the dissolute rule of its last emperor Di Xin.

When their father chose the younger Shuqi as his successor, Shuqi declined the offer, probably in deference to his older brother. Boyi, however, refused the throne as well, insisting that his younger brother take it, presumably because he thought Shuqi was more suitable for the role. Rather than fight with each other over who was the rightful ruler, the two brothers fled to the nearby state of Zhou. Perhaps I am missing some nuances here but given that both men disobeyed the instructions of their father, it is hard to see how their abandonment of him shows them to be models of filial devotion.

When Boyi and Shuqi arrived in the state of Zhou, the new ruler King Wu was taking up arms against the collapsing Shang Dynasty following the death of his father. The two brothers were so appalled at the lack of filial devotion that King Wu displayed in not completing the traditional three-year period of mourning before setting off to war that they reportedly seized the reins of king’s chariot to prevent him from leaving.

Boyi and Shuqi also regarded King Wu’s plans to overthrow his sovereign as a flagrant breach of filial propriety, even though the last Shang Dynasty emperor Di Xin was a brutal and depraved tyrant. At least in their eyes, it was better for everyone to suffer at his hands rather than commit the cardinal sin of destroying the established order. So much for the mandate of heaven!

Although Boyi and Shuqi were saved from certain death at the hands of King Wu’s angry guards by a kindly general who recognized the strength of their moral convictions, their remonstrations were ignored and the army continued on its way. In protest, the two brothers refused to eat any produce from what they regarded as the illegitimate state of Zhou and retired to the wilderness of Shanxi province well away from the conflict.

Following their arrival, the brothers reportedly subsisted on a meager diet of fiddlehead ferns until they were told that even these humble plants were now the property of the new Zhou dynasty that King Wu had founded after defeating Di Xin. As a final, some might sigh futile, act of resistance against the king’s lack of filial devotion, they stopped eating and died of starvation.

Like Boyi and Shuqi, Confucius had qualms about the legitimacy of King Wu’s overthrow of the last Shang Dynasty sovereign and his failure to observe the traditional three-year mourning period following the death of his father. However, given that he based his entire philosophy on a call to return to the so-called golden age that emerged following the establishment of the very Zhou Dynasty that King Wu founded, it is clear that he was a lot less extreme in the practice of the principles of filial devotion than the two brothers were.

Confucius’s willingness to overlook the refusal of Boyi and Shuqi to follow the wishes of their father to succeed him is even more curious. Even though he did argue that it was permissible and perhaps even desirable for a son to remonstrate with his parents when he considered it necessary, he also said that the son should ultimately obey the instructions of his mother and father if he failed to change their minds. Why Confucius make the two brothers an exception to this rule is, to put it mildly, is a great mystery.

Perhaps the answer is that by the time Confucius lived Boyi and Shuqi had become so synonymous with filial devotion that the sage chose to cite their names as a form of rhetorical shorthand to strengthen his condemnation of the corrupt and depraved Duke Jing of Qi. Whether or not he was justified in doing this by ignoring the glaring inconsistencies in their tale is, of course, another story.

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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.