Sima Qian 司馬遷, ‘A Biography of Boyi and Shuqi’ 伯夷列傳

Although in the world of learning there exist a large number and variety of books and records, their reliability must always be examined in the light of the Six Classics. In spite of deficiencies in the Odes and Documents, we can nevertheless know something about the culture of the times of Emperor Shun and the Hsia dynasty. When, for instance, Emperor Yao wished to retire from his position, he yielded the throne to Shun, and Shun in turn yielded it to Yü. But in each case the high court officials first unanimously recommended these men for the position and they were given the throne for a period of trial. Only after they had discharged the duties of the imperial office for twenty or thirty years, and their merit and ability had become manifest, was the rule finally ceded to them. This proves that the empire is a precious vessel, its ruler part of a great line of succession, and that its transmission is a matter of extreme gravity. Yet there are theorists who say that Yao tried to yield the empire to Hsü Yu and that Hsü Yu was ashamed and would not accept it but instead fled into hiding. Again, for the time of the Hsia dynasty we have similar stories of men called Pien Sui and Wu Kuang. Where do people get stories like this? 國學夫學者載籍極博,猶考信於六蓺。詩書雖缺,然虞夏之文可知也。堯將遜位,讓於虞舜,舜禹之間,岳牧咸薦,乃試之於位,典職數十年,功用既興,然後授政。示天下重器,王者大統,傳天下若斯之難也。而說者曰堯讓天下於許由,許由不受,恥之逃隱。及夏之時,有卞隨、務光者。此何以稱焉?

The Grand Historian remarks: When I ascended Mount Chi I found at the top what is said to be the grave of Hsü Yu. Confucius, we know, eulogizes the ancient sages and men of wisdom and virtue, and quite specifically mentions such figures at T’ai-po of Wu and Po Yi. Now I am told that Hsü Yu and Wu Kuang were men of the highest virtue, and yet in the Classics there appears not the slightest reference to them. Why would this be? 太史公曰:余登箕山,其上蓋有許由冢雲。孔子序列古之仁聖賢人,如吳太伯、伯夷之倫詳矣。余以所聞由、光義至高,其文辭不少概見,何哉?

Confucius said, ‘Po Yi and Shu Ch’i never bore old ills in mind and hence seldom had any feelings of rancor.’ ‘They sought to act virtuously and they did so; what was there for them to feel rancor about?’ 孔子曰:「伯夷、叔齊,不念舊惡,怨是用希。」「求仁得仁,又何怨乎?」

I am greatly moved by the determination of Po Yi. But when I examine the song that has been attributed to him, I find it very strange. 余悲伯夷之意,睹軼詩可異焉。

The story of these men states that Po Yi and Shu Ch’i were elder and younger sons of the ruler of Ku-chu. Their father wished to set up Shu Ch’i as his heir but, when he died, Shu Ch’i yielded in favor of his elder brother Po Yi. Po Yi replied that it had been their father’s wish that Shu Ch’i should inherit the throne and so he departed from the state. Shu Ch’i like wise, being unwilling to accept the rule, went away and the people of the state set up a middle brother as ruler. At this time Po Yi and Shu Ch’i heard that Ch’ang, the Chief of the West, was good at looking after old people, and they said, ‘Why not go and follow him?’ But when they had gone they found that the Chief of the West was dead and his son, King Wu, had taken up the ancestral tablet of his father, whom he honored with the posthumous title of King Wen, and was marching east to attack the emperor of the Yin dynasty. Po Yi and Shu Ch’i clutched the reins of King Wu’s horse and reprimanded him, saying, ‘The mourning for your father not yet completed and here you take up shield and spear — can this conduct be called filial? As a subject you seek to assassinate your sovereign — can this conduct be called humane?’ The king’s attendants wished to strike them down, but the king’s counselor, T’ai-kung, interposed, saying, ‘These are righteous men,’ and he sent them away unharmed. 其傳曰:伯夷、叔齊,孤竹君之二子也。父欲立叔齊,及父卒,叔齊讓伯夷。伯夷曰:「父命也。」遂逃去。叔齊亦不肯立而逃之。國人立其中子。於是伯夷、叔齊聞西伯昌善養老,盍往歸焉。及至,西伯卒,武王載木主,號為文王,東伐紂。伯夷、叔齊叩馬而諫曰:「父死不葬,爰及干戈,可謂孝乎?以臣弒君,可謂仁乎?」左右欲兵之。太公曰:「此義人也。」扶而去之。

After this, King Wu conquered and pacified the people of the Yin and the world honored the house of Chou as its ruler. But Po Yi and Shu Ch’i were filled with outrage and considered it unrighteous to eat the grain of Chou. They fled and hid on Shouyang Mountain, where they tried to live by gathering ferns to eat. When they were on the point of starvation, they composed a song: 武王已平殷亂,天下宗周,而伯夷、叔齊恥之,義不食周粟,隱於首陽山,採薇而食之。及餓且死,作歌。 其辭曰:

We climb this western hill
and pick its ferns;
replacing violence with violence,
he will not see his own fault.
Shen Nung, Yü, and Hsia,
great men gone so long ago —
whom shall we turn to now?
Ah — let us be off,
for our fate has run out!

登彼西山兮,
採其薇矣。
以暴易暴兮,
不知其非矣。
神農、虞、夏忽焉沒兮,
我安適歸矣?
於嗟徂兮,
命之衰矣!

They died of starvation on Shou-yang Mountain. When we examine this song, do we find any rancor or not? 遂餓死於首陽山。由此觀之,怨邪非邪?

Some people say, ‘It is Heaven’s way to have no favorites but always to be on the side of the good man.’ Can we say then that Po Yi and Shu Ch’i were good men or not? They piled up a record for goodness and were pure in deed, as we have seen, and yet they starved to death. 國學或曰:「天道無親,常與善人。」若伯夷、叔齊,可謂善人者非邪?積仁絜行如此而餓死!

Of his seventy disciples, Confucius singled out Yen Hui for praise because of his diligence in learning, yet Yen Hui was often in want, never getting his fill of even the poorest food, and in the end he suffered an untimely death. Is this the way heaven rewards the good man? 且七十子之徒,仲尼獨薦顏淵為好學。然回也屢空,糟糠不厭,而卒蚤夭。天之報施善人,其何如哉?

Robber Chih day after day killed innocent men, making mincemeat of their flesh. Cruel and willful, he gathered a band of several thousand followers who went about terrorizing the world, but in the end he lived to a ripe old age. For what virtue did he deserve this? 盜蹠日殺不辜,肝人之肉,暴戾恣睢,聚黨數千人橫行天下,竟以壽終。

These are only the most obvious and striking examples. Even in more recent times we see that men whose conduct departs from what is prescribed and who do nothing but violate the taboos and prohibitions enjoy luxury and wealth to the end of their lives, and hand them on to their heirs for generations without end. And there are others who carefully choose the spot where they will place each footstep, who ‘speak out only when it is time to speak,’ who ‘walk no bypaths’ and expend no anger on what is not upright and just, and yet, in numbers too great to be reckoned, they meet with misfortune and disaster. I find myself in much perplexity. Is this so-called Way of Heaven right or wrong? 是遵何德哉?此其尤大彰明較著者也。若至近世,操行不軌,專犯忌諱,而終身逸樂,富厚累世不絕。或擇地而蹈之,時然後出言,行不由徑,非公正不發憤,而遇禍災者,不可勝數也。余甚惑焉,儻所謂天道,是邪非邪?

Confucius said, ‘Those whose ways are different cannot lay plans for one another.’ Each will follow his own will. Therefore he said, ‘If the search for riches and honor were sure to be successful, though I should become a groom with whip in hand to get them, I would do so. But as the search might not be successful, I will follow after that which I love.’ ‘When the year becomes cold, then we know that the pine and cypress are the last to lose their leaves.’ When the whole world is in muddy confusion, then is the man of true purity seen. Then must one judge what he will consider important and what important and what unimportant. 國學子曰「道不同不相為謀」,亦各從其志也。故曰「富貴如可求,雖執鞭之士,吾亦為之。如不可求,從吾所好」。「歲寒,然後知松柏之後凋」。舉世混濁,清士乃見。豈以其重若彼,其輕若此哉?

‘The superior man hates the thought of his name not being mentioned after his death.’ 國學「君子疾沒世而名不稱焉。」

As Chia Yi has said: 賈子曰:

The covetous run after riches,
the impassioned pursue a fair name;
the proud die struggling for power,
and the people long only to live.

貪夫徇財,
烈士徇名,
誇者死權,
眾庶馮生。

Things of the same light illumine each other; things of the same class seek each other out. Clouds pursue the dragon; the wind follows the tiger. The sage arises and all creation becomes clear. 「同明相照,同類相求。」「雲從龍,風從虎,聖人作而萬物睹。」

Po Yi and Shu Ch’i, although they were men of great virtue, became, through Confucius, even more illustrious in fame. Though Yen Hui was diligent in learning, like a fly riding the tail of a swift horse, his attachments to Confucius made his deeds renowned. The hermit-scholars hiding away in their caves may be ever so correct in their givings and takings, and yet the names of them and their kind are lost and forgotten without receiving a word of praise. Is this not pitiful? Men of humble origin living in the narrow lanes strive to make perfect their actions and to establish a name for themselves, but if they do not some how attach themselves to a great man, a ‘man of the blue clouds,’ how can they hope that their fame will be handed down to posterity? 伯夷、叔齊雖賢,得夫子而名益彰。顏淵雖篤學,附驥尾而行益顯。巖穴之士,趣捨有時若此,類名堙滅而不稱,悲夫!閭巷之人,欲砥行立名者,非附青雲之士,惡能施於後世哉?


Source

‘The Biography of Po Yi and Shu Ch’i’ 伯夷列傳, in Ssu Ma Ch’ien 司馬遷, Records of the Grand Historian 《史記》, translated by Burton Watson, online at: https://wangdun.wordpress.com/2007/03/11/burton-watson-records-of-the-grand-historian/. The romanisation and spelling of the original have been retained.