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?


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?


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?’


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.


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.


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!


They died of starvation on Shou-yang Mountain. When we examine this song, do we find any rancor or not?


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.


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?


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?


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?


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:


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


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.


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?