Analects Book 20: from virtuous leadership to hereditary succession
The opening lines of 20.1 takes us back to the beginning of the formation of the Chinese state during the third millennium BCE under its legendary sage kings Yao, Shun, and Yu. According to the most popular version of the mythology surrounding them, both Yao and Shun selected their successor based on his virtue and voluntarily relinquished power to him during their lifetime rather than allowing a member of their family to inherit the throne.
Yao is said have chosen his successor Shun, a young man from a poor family who was reputed to have shown extraordinary filial devotion to his cruel parents and elder brother, and given him his two daughters, Ehuang and Nuying in marriage to assist him. After Shun had proved himself to be worthy following a series of arduous trials, Yao abdicated in favor of him at the age of seventy and went on to live another thirty years before passing away.
The opening lines of 20.1 are purportedly from the speech that Yao made to Shun upon his accession to the throne:
“Oh, Shun! The heavenly succession now rests on your shoulders; hold faithfully to the middle way; if the people within the Four Seas fall into suffering and penury, the honors bestowed on you by heaven’s gift will be taken away from you forever.”
Note how even at the dawn of Chinese antiquity, the moral responsibility of the leader to rule his people benignly so that they do not “fall into suffering and penury” is starkly spelled out. If a leader should fail in his ethical duty, he will lose what later became known as the mandate of heaven and be relieved of all his power and riches. This is, of course, a theme that Confucius expounded on frequently in his teachings.
No doubt inspired by his father-in-law’s words, Shun then went on to rule for nearly fifty years before giving way to his successor, Yu, who became renowned in Chinese history for building a system of irrigation canals that reduced flooding in the rich agricultural plains surrounding the Yellow River and brought unprecedented prosperity to the nation.
Unlike his predecessors, however, Yu designated his son as his successor, establishing China’s first hereditary dynasty, the Xia, in around 2070 BCE. From then on, although a ruler was expected to be virtuous like Yao and Shun he also had to come from the right blood line. It was only in the most extreme circumstances of war, famine, and family infighting that he risked losing the mandate of heaven.
Even though Confucius champions Yu and Shun as role models of virtuous leadership in the Analects, he never once goes as far as to suggest a return to their practice of choosing someone outside their family as their successor. For all his criticism of the corruption and depravity of the ruling elite of his day, he favors reforming the existing hereditary system over fundamentally changing it.