Analects Book 20: from violent usurpers to virtuous rulers

Richard Brown
3 min readDec 25, 2022

The second fragment in 20.1 features the oath taken by Tang, the first emperor of the Shang dynasty (1675 BC — 1646 BCE), in front of his troops before the decisive battle of Mingtiao that resulted in the overthrow of Jie, the evil last emperor of the Xia dynasty (2070–1600 BCE).

Shang was the name of the small vassal state that Tang ruled for 17 years before his victory over Jie. During that period, he gradually forged alliances with rulers of other states that were also part of the Xia dynasty. Appalled by Jie’s cruelty and depravity, these rulers supported Tang in his efforts to oust him, which culminated in a famous victory at the battle of Mingtiao amid a driving thunderstorm.

Tang is portrayed as a wise and virtuous ruler in ancient Chinese texts. He is said to have lowered the taxation and military conscription burdens on the common people and given money to the poor to buy back the children they had been forced to sell during the terrible droughts that afflicted the first few years of his reign. He was strongly supported by his able minister Yi Yin in laying the foundations of the Shang dynasty, which lasted for over 500 years.

Like Yao, Shun, and Yu, Tang takes his responsibilities towards the common people very seriously. If heaven deems he is wrong not to pardon the guilty ones from the previous regime, he implores it not to punish the people for his sin. Even if heaven decides that the people are wrong as well to support him in taking this action, he pleads that it should “let the responsibility lie with me alone.”

Tang’s defensiveness about refusing to pardon key figures from the previous dynasty is probably because even though he believed he did the right thing in overthrowing the evil Jie, he could still be regarded as a usurper for bringing the Xia dynasty to an end by violent means. Confucius certainly had the same reservation about King Wu, who is the likely source of the final fragment or fragments of 20.1.

Although the so-called Martial King did the right thing by deposing Zhouxin, the tyrannical last ruler of the Shang dynasty, and going onto establish Confucius’s beloved Zhou dynasty, the sage can only bring himself to describe the music of his coronation hymn as “perfectly beautiful but not perfectly good” in 3.25. In contrast, he describes the music of Shun’s coronation hymn as “perfectly beautiful and perfectly good” because of his peaceful accession to the throne.

Notwithstanding Confucius’s quibbling about his accession, King Wu lays out an inspiring vision of leadership that is still highly relevant today — one that is based on choosing the right talent, putting the right laws and regulations in place, and above all winning “the hearts of the people throughout the world” with tolerance, trust, passion, and fairness.

“The House of Zhou is greatly blessed, rich with outstanding people.” “Although I have my own kinsmen, I prefer to rely on people of consummate conduct. If the common people do wrong, let their faults fall on my head alone. If I set the standards for weights and measures, carefully examine the laws and regulations, and restore the offices that have been abolished, the authority of the government will reach everywhere. If I restore the states that have been destroyed, revive the broken dynastic lines, and bring back to office great talents who were sent into exile, I will win the hearts of the people throughout the world. I will give priority to the people; food; mourning; and sacrifice. If I am tolerant, I will win the masses. If I am trustworthy, the people will entrust me with responsibility. If I am enthusiastic, I will achieve success. If I am fair and just, I will bring happiness to the people.”

If only our current crop of political leaders could just try to live up to this vision today…

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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.