Bo Yi and Shu Qi chose death over eating the grain of Zhou-伯夷、叔齐宁死不食周粟

In Chinese history, there were two brothers whose thoughts, words, and actions were remarkably similar. Although not twins, their mutual understanding surpassed that of twin brothers. They were Bo Yi and Shu Qi, two princes from the state of Gu Zhu during the Shang and Zhou periods.

Gu Zhu was located in the present-day eastern part of Hebei, one of the earliest vassal states with a slave system along the banks of the Luan River. During the early years of the Shang Dynasty, around 1600 BCE, vassal states with the same surname were established, and Gu Zhu was one of them.

According to legend, Bo Yi and Shu Qi were the eldest and third sons of the ruler of Gu Zhu, and this was during the late period of the Shang Dynasty. When the ruler of Gu Zhu was alive, he keenly felt the tyranny of King Zhou of Shang and the small size of Gu Zhu, wishing for a virtuous and wise monarch. Both Bo Yi and Shu Qi were talented and capable of assuming this responsibility. However, the ruler leaned towards having Shu Qi succeed him. After the ruler’s death, Shu Qi, considering Bo Yi as the elder brother, intended to pass the throne to him. Bo Yi, in adherence to ritual and propriety, declined, saying, “It is the father’s command for you to inherit the position of the ruler, and it cannot be changed arbitrarily.” In order to let Shu Qi ascend the throne without worries, Bo Yi left Gu Zhu. Despite this, Shu Qi refused to become the ruler and also fled not long after. Fortunately, the deceased ruler had a second son, and the people elected him as the ruler.

Bo Yi and Shu Qi met on the shores of Bohai after their respective escapes. They thought it was a good arrangement, avoiding the control of the cruel King Zhou. So, they decided to live in seclusion with the Dongyi people, anticipating the arrival of a peaceful era. Later, hearing about the rise of the Western Zhou tribes, governed by King Wen with high moral character, they believed it was the ideal place for them to spend their later years. Thus, the two brothers traveled tirelessly, crossing mountains and rivers, until they reached the territory of the Zhou tribe at Mount Qi.

At this time, King Wen had already passed away, and King Wu had ascended to the throne. Hearing about the arrival of these two virtuous men, King Wu sent Duke of Zhou, Ji Dan, to welcome them. Duke of Zhou assured them that they would be treated in accordance with their talents. However, the two brothers found this to be contrary to the virtue they sought and were disappointed with the Zhou dynasty.

Later, King Wu led a large army to overthrow King Zhou of Shang. Bo Yi and Shu Qi physically stood in front of King Wu’s horse, admonishing him, “Our father has passed away, yet you, instead of attending to family affairs, have raised troops for conquest. This is unfilial. As subjects, you plan to assassinate the ruler and seize the throne, which is unrighteous!” Although the conquest of Shang was widely supported and inevitable, these two old men could not stop it with a few words. King Wu’s officers wanted to kill Bo Yi and Shu Qi, but they were stopped by the strategist Jiang Shang, who said, “These two are men of integrity. We cannot harm them.” Then, they were assisted to the side.

In 1046 BCE, the large army of King Wu clashed with the hastily organized slave army of King Zhou on the battlefield of Mu Ye. King Zhou faced internal rebellion, and the slave soldiers were unwilling to fight for him, turning against him on the battlefield. King Wu’s army swept through like an autumn wind scattering fallen leaves, and the Shang Dynasty was annihilated. After defeating Shang, King Wu established the Zhou Dynasty, becoming the hegemon.

However, Bo Yi and Shu Qi believed that the Zhou Dynasty, taking advantage of the chaos in the Shang Dynasty, used cunning strategies, propagated virtue to please the people, and relied on the military’s might for conquest and slaughter. They even used the pretext of ghosts and deities to glorify war. Although King Zhou was cruel, such methods to seize control were disgraceful. Bo Yi and Shu Qi were ashamed to live under the Zhou rule and vowed never to eat Zhou grain. However, the land under heaven was all part of the Zhou Dynasty, and the food was also Zhou’s. Therefore, they decided not to eat even wild vegetables. After seven days of starvation, they sang a song: “Climbing up Mount Shouyang, picking wild vegetables here. The Western Zhou uses violent means to control violence, changing the situation, not knowing this is wrong. The ancient kings Shennong, Yao, and Shun had such prosperous times; it’s afraid this won’t return. Where is our place of return? Alas, regretfully, we leave this world like this.” Shortly after, they starved to death on Mount Shouyang.

Bo Yi and Shu Qi’s act of letting go of their positions, preferring death over eating Zhou grain, received great praise from Confucius. Confucius referred to Bo Yi and Shu Qi as “virtuous men of old,” believing that their actions fully embodied the moral standards of “ren” (benevolence). Although they died of starvation, they “sought benevolence and obtained benevolence,” having no regrets.