What It Means To Be A ‘Son Of Heaven’

Stories of Virtue on China’s Earliest Emperors

What It Means To Be A ‘Son Of Heaven’
Emperor Shun's generous nature was said to have moved the Heavens, such that wild beasts came to his aid. When Shun was farming on Mount Li, an elephant helped him hoe the field and birds rid the ground of weeds.
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By Jade Pearce and Xing Sheng
Epoch Times, Minghui.org

The Three Character Classic, or San Zi Jing (三字经), is the best known classic Chinese text for children. Written by Wang Yinglin (1223–1296) during the Song Dynasty, it has been memorised by generations of Chinese, both young and old.

However, after the Cultural Revolution in China, the Three Character Classic was banned and eventually fell into disuse. In this series, we revive and review this great Chinese classic, drawing ancient lessons of wisdom for our modern-day lives. 

About 300 years after the Yellow Emperor’s reign, China saw the emergence of three historic emperors one after the other: Emperors Yao(尧), Shun(舜), and Yu(禹) the Great. Immortalised in Chinese history as sage-kings, they ushered in a Golden Age of virtuous rule.



The Epoch Times series “Legendary Foundations of Chinese Civilisation” chronicles the great achievements of these rulers. They governed with benevolence, wisdom, and humility, placing the common people’s interests foremost. They helped their people overcome natural disasters of drought and flooding. They established rituals and moral education, and enabled art and culture to flourish.

Above all, they were selfless in selecting their successor. After finding their own sons unworthy to the task, each emperor abdicated the throne to the most meritorious and worthy person they knew. Yao passed the baton to Shun, and Shun abdicated to Yu after Yu successfully quelled the great floods that Yao and Shun had failed to tame.

Yu became the ruler of China’s first dynasty, the Xia Dynasty. Although Yu had chosen another person instead of his son to be his successor, after his death the people chose his son to be the next ruler.

Chinese historical records unanimously uphold Yao, Shun and Yu as exemplary models of governance. And in the next few stories, we’ll see examples of the amazing character these historical figures displayed.

Emperor Shun’s Unconditional Compassion

During the later years of his reign, Emperor Yao (also known as Tang 唐) despaired at how morally unfit his nine sons were to lead the people. His sons indulged in song and wine daily, and his expected successor, Prince Dan Zhu, was a vicious playboy.

Yao thus sought other candidates, and eventually he found Yao Chonghua (also known as You-yu 有虞), who would become the future Emperor Shun.

Shun was born to a poor peasant family. While of humble origins, he was a man of extraordinary character. Shun’s mother died when he was young and his father remarried. Shun’s stepmother, half-brother, and father frequently abused Shun, who took the torturous punishment without complaint.

According to legend, Shun’s family attempted to take Shun’s life several times. In one incident, they asked Shun to repair a leaking barn roof. But when Shun was on the roof, his stepmother and half-brother lit the barn on fire. Shun escaped by jumping off the roof while using his hat as a parachute.

In another incident, Shun’s stepmother asked him to dig a well. Shun sensed something was amiss, and while digging the well he also dug an escape tunnel to the surface. When Shun had dug the well to a large depth, his stepmother and half-brother pushed dirt into the well, trying to bury him alive. Again, Shun escaped unscathed through the tunnel he had dug.

Shun never sought revenge, and instead reciprocated his family’s wickedness with kindness and respect. When he was barely an adult, his ungrateful family drove him out of the house, and he was forced to make a living on his own.

But Shun’s extraordinary compassion and leadership qualities shone through. When he came to a village that produced pottery, Shun perfected the art and transformed the village’s pottery to far greater standards. When he became a farmer, he would cultivate on unbroken fields until they were fertile, and then pass on the fertile fields to those in need.

His generosity inspired and transformed the community around him. People gravitated to the young leader and emulated his behaviour.

After many years of observing and testing Shun, Yao decided to have Shun succeed him. Shun’s humane nature extended throughout his reign—he abolished tortuous punishments like amputation and beheading; he emphasised moral education; and he influenced Yao’s sons to become useful members of society. When his family repented for their wrongdoings, he forgave them wholeheartedly, and even helped his half-brother become an official.

It’s hard to imagine how someone could emerge unsullied from such a brutal and unloving childhood. But the hardship tempered Shun’s character, transforming him into a tolerant, generous, and extraordinary leader. His story inspires generations to embrace hardship and abuse, and to turn it into a pure and positive force.

What It Means to Be a “Son of Heaven”

Chinese emperors were called “sons of Heaven”. Sent down by the gods to rule the people, this sacred title seemed to give Chinese emperors absolute and unquestionable authority.

But if one delves further into the history of these ancient emperors, this perception could not be further from the truth.

The ancient Chinese believed that Heaven was the ultimate ruler of Earth. Therefore, as a “son of Heaven”, an emperor was expected to strictly comply with heavenly virtues.

A virtuous ruler would receive Heaven’s assistance, and his kingdom would be peaceful and protected. An unprincipled ruler, however, would see his rule diminish and his empire doomed.

As a result, ancient emperors saw natural and man-made disasters as cautionary warnings from Heaven to reflect upon themselves and repent.

Some emperors even issued edicts of repentance to publicly confess their mistakes, a highly commendable act. If the emperors corrected their mistakes and cultivated their morality, they could help their people avert disaster.

What It Means To Be A ‘Son Of Heaven’
The virtuous Emperor Yao was said to have influenced the people with his virtuosity and ability to self-reflect.

While touring the countryside, Emperor Yao once met two criminals who were being taken to jail. Emperor Yao asked, “What crimes did you commit?”

The men replied, “The drought has lasted so long we have nothing to eat, so we stole food from other people’s homes.”

Emperor Yao turned to the soldier and said, “Release them and lock me up!” The soldier was stunned. How could he arrest the emperor?

Emperor Yao said, “I made two big mistakes and these two are not guilty. First, I failed to teach my subjects well, so they stole other people’s food. Second, I have no virtue, so we have no rain. All this is my fault.”

His sincerity moved the Heavens and it began to rain, ending the drought.

What It Means To Be A ‘Son Of Heaven’
King Tang of the Shang Dynasty, as imagined by Song Dynasty painter Ma Lin.

King Tang of the Shang Dynasty (商汤王) was another sagely ruler of great virtue. After overthrowing the tyrant Emperor Jie, the last ruler of the Xia Dynasty, King Tang issued an edict of repentance known as “The Edict of Cheng Tang”.

Tang wrote, “I, as an emperor, must bear all sins. I dare not forgive myself, for it is up to Heaven. I am responsible for millions of my people’s sins and the consequences of the sins must not be borne by the millions of my people.”

The Shang Dynasty later suffered from seven years of drought and famine. The king’s advisors suggested offering a human sacrifice to Heaven to beg for rain, but King Tang could not bear to do so. He cut off his long hair and prayed for rain, blaming the drought on himself.

He said, “My people must not pay for my sins. If my people have sinned, I must be responsible for them. There is no need to take their lives on account of my sins.”

Tang’s prayer moved the Heavens, and to the joy and relief of his people, a heavy rain ended the drought.

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