A mysterious wiseman named Yue lived a bizarre life around the late 13th century BCE. He was a contemporary of King Wu Ding of the Shang/Yin Dynasty (r. 1238-1180) and Yue’s fate would be intriguingly intertwined with that of the king. As the legends go, King Wu Ding spent the first years of his reign in silence and meditation. While he was in a meditative state or dreaming, the king allegedly had a vivid vision of a man who he believed would be a perfect mentor and official. After this experience, the king became obsessed with finding this person. He summoned artists and described for them the figure he had seen from his mind. The artists went to work and produced an illustration of the man the king had seen—unbeknownst to the king and his artists at that time, the artwork closely resembled the wiseman Yue.
King Wu Ding, determined to find the person from his vision, ultimately equipped trusted agents with the illustration of the mysterious figure and sent them out into the kingdom to search for anyone who resembled the artwork. It took some time, but the agents eventually ran into the mysterious wiseman, Yue, in a region called Fu Yan. This tale of King Wu Ding having a vision of the wiseman and then sending agents out to locate him was recorded 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). Purporting to quote King Wu Ding, the Shang Shu stated, “’while I was in a state of grace, meditating on the proper way ahead, I had a dream sent from on high. I saw that I had been bestowed a good advisor who would speak for me.’ The king then described the person he had seen in is dream and had a portrait made of him, which was sent throughout the land. As a result, it was found that only a man named Yue, then living in the wilderness of Fu Yan, fitted the description” (Shang Shu, chapter 21). This account, describing the wiseman living in the wilderness, makes Yue seem like an ascetic figure communing with nature. Other accounts, however, made Yue’s time in the Fu region seem less picturesque.
Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), the Grand Historian during the time of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (r. 141-87 BCE), made brief mentions of Yue in his text, the Shi ji (Records of the Grand Historian). Sima Qian and other sources referred to the wiseman as Fu Yue, with Fu (mentor) being a reference to the sage’s eventual role of instructing and advising King Wu Ding. In one section of the Shi Ji, Sima Qian quoted a poem by Jia Yi (c. 201-169 BCE), in which it was stated that “Fu Yue was sent into bondage” (Shi ji 84). In a later section of his text, Sima Qian elaborated further on the wiseman’s chained origins, stating, “Fu Yue served as a convict labourer among the cliffs of Fu” (Shi ji 124). These passages, instead of painting Yue as an ascetic mystic camping in the wilderness, contrastingly present an opposing view that Yue had been arrested and was an imprisoned laborer in the time before he was fortuitously discovered by King Wu Ding’s agents. Whatever the case, Yue was an intelligent and philosophically-astute person who gained the trust of the king and also earned the respect of other advisors in the king’s court.
Once Yue was finally discovered and ventured to the court of King Wu Ding, he began his duties by teaching the king the way of virtue. As the story goes, Yue and the king met twice a day—in the morning and evening—in order to discuss how a virtuous ruler should act. These lessons on virtue eventually transitioned into general advice on life, as well as suggestions for governing the realm. According to sayings attributed to the wiseman in the Shang Shu, Yue taught that rulers should operate with caution and situational awareness, and advocated for kings to rule through a system of virtuous meritocracy that rewarded both talent and virtue. Contrastingly, he warned rulers against succumbing to personal complacency and he also advised that states should cut down on arbitrary, burdensome ceremonies. In addition, Yue also stressed that instead of just knowing what is right and wrong, people should put that knowledge into action and make an effort to act virtuously. King Wu Ding was impressed and satisfied with these teachings and he eventually decided to promote Yue to the position of Prime Minister of the kingdom.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Sage Under Windy Tree, made by an unidentified artist from the 18th–19th century, [Public Domain[ via Creative Commons and the MET).
- The Most Venerable Book (Shang Shu), translated by Martin Palmer, Jay Ramsay and Victoria Finlay. London: Penguin Classic, 2014.
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.