Duke Jing of Qi had a thousand war chariots. On the day of his death, the common people could find no virtue to praise him for. Boyi and Shuqi starved to death in the wilderness around Mount Shouyang. To this very day, the common people still praise them. Does this not prove my point?”
What kind of legacy do you wish to leave when you depart this mortal coil? All your fame and wealth will count for nothing if you have not put it to good use and touched people in a positive way.
This article features a translation of Chapter 12 of Book 16 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 16 here.
(1) Duke Jing of Qi was an all-too-typical example of a Spring and Autumn period ruler who succumbed to the temptations of wealth and power and taxed his people heavily to pay for his lavish and lascivious lifestyle. Confucius had an audience with the duke, probably in 505 BCE, just as he was beginning his slide into debauchery, famously declaring that the secret to good governance was to: “Let lords be lords; ministers be ministers; fathers be fathers; and sons be sons.” In common with other rulers, of his time, the duke ignored the sage’s advice. Following his death in 490 BCE, the state of Qi descended into chaos as a result of his decision to designate the son of his favorite concubine as his successor rather than one of the four sons of his first wife. When the duke’s grave was discovered in 1964 near to the ancient Qi capital of Linzi in present-day Shandong province, a huge pit containing the skeletons of 145 horses was unearthed. It is estimated that there are the remains of over 600 horses on the site.
(2) The brothers Boyi and Shuqi were widely celebrated as models of filial devotion even though it could be argued (by this observer at least) that their dedication to this principle was more than a little extreme. Born in the early part of the 11th century BCE, they were 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. His elder brother Boyi then refused the throne as well, insisting that his younger brother take it. Rather than fight with each other over who was the rightful ruler, the two brothers fled to the nearby state of Zhou. But when King Wu, the new ruler of Zhou, immediately took up arms against the collapsing Shang Dynasty after the death of his father, the two brothers were so appalled at the lack of filial devotion he displayed in not completing the required period of mourning and in planning to attack his sovereign emperor that they reportedly seized the reins of Wu’s chariot to prevent him from setting off to war.
Although the Boyi and Shuqi were saved from certain death at the hands of Wu’s angry guards by a kindly general who recognized the strength of their moral convictions, the brothers were ignored, and the army continued on its way. In protest, Boyi and Shuqi refused to eat any produce from the state of Zhou and retired to the wilderness of Shanxi province where they reportedly lived only on fiddlehead ferns until they were told by some kindly soul that even these humble plants were now the property of Zhou. As a result, they stopped eating them and died of starvation.
I took this image in the ancient cedar forests on Alishan in central Taiwan. Some of the trees there are over a thousand years old.