The Music-less Mourning For Emperor Yao

Emperors Yao and Shun were said to have been two ancient rulers in China whose tales were set in the earliest days of Chinese legend and myth. Yao’s reign was traditionally dated to around 2355-2285 BCE. As the story goes, when Emperor Yao had ruled for seventy years, he decided to go into retirement and nominated his son-in-law, Yu Shun, as his successor. During the early years of Emperor Shun’s long and eventful reign, traditionally dated from 2285-2205 BCE, the emperor’s retired predecessor lived on, existing peacefully out of the limelight. Yet, mortals—in their mortal state—cannot live forever. After reportedly spending nearly three decades in retirement, the retired ruler, Yao, died. According to folklore and myth about this event, Emperor Shun decided to honor his deceased predecessor with a long period of mourning. The most memorable feature of this mourning was a decree from Emperor Shun that forbid the people in his realm from playing music of any kind while the state mourned. This was described in the Book of Documents (Shang Shu), otherwise known as the Most Venerable Book, a text that has its origins in the days before Confucius (c. 551-479 BCE). On the mourning over Emperor Yao, the book stated, “his people mourned him as they would their parents. For three years all music was banned throughout the land” (Shang Shu, chapter 2). No mention was made about how well the people complied with the command, or what the punishment might have been if a person was caught playing music during the three-year ban.

Picture Attribution: (Section of an ancient Chinese tomb wall rubbing, housed in the archives of the Rijksmuseum, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Written by C. Keith Hansley



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