Sacred Books of the East/Volume 3/The Shu/Part 2/Counsels of Kao-yao

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Book III. The Councels of Kâo-yâo.


Kâo-yâo was Minister of Crime to Shun, and is still celebrated in China as the model for all administrators of justice. There are few or no reliable details of his history. Sze-mâ Khien says that , on his accession to the throne, made Kâo-yâo his chief minister, with the view of his ultimately succeeding him, but that the design was frustrated by Kâo-yâo's death. But if there had been such a tradition in the time of Mencius, he would probably have mentioned it, when defending Yü from the charge of being inferior to Yâo and Shun, who resigned the throne to the worthiest, whereas he transmitted it to his son. Kâo-yâo's surname was Yen, but an end was made of his representatives, when the principality belonging to them was extinguished in the dynasty of Kâu by the ambitious state of Khû. There is still a family in China with the surname Kâo, claiming to be descended from this ancient worthy; but Kâo and Yâo are to be taken together in the Shû as his name.

The 'Counsels' in the Book do not appear as addressed directly to Shun, but are found in a conversation between Yü and Kâo-yâo, the latter being the chief speaker. The whole may be divided into four chapters:—the first, enunciating the principle that in government the great thing is for the ruler to pursue the course of his virtue, which will be seen in his knowledge and choice of men for office, thereby securing the repose of the people; the second, illustrating how men may be known; the third, treating of the repose of the people; in the fourth, the speaker asserts the reasonableness of his sentiments, and humbly expresses his own desire to be helpful to the sovereign.

1. Examining into antiquity, (we find that) Kâo-yâo said, 'If (the sovereign) sincerely pursues the course of his virtue, the counsels (offered to him) will be intelligent, and the aids (of admonition that he receives) will be harmonious.' Yü said, 'Yes, but explain yourself.' Kâo-yâo said, 'Oh! let him be careful about his personal cultivation, with thoughts that are far-reaching, and thus he will produce a generous kindness and nice observance of distinctions among the nine branches of his kindred. All the intelligent (also) will exert themselves in his service; and in this way from what is near he will reach to what is distant.' Yü did homage to the excellent words, and said, 'Yes.' Kâo-yâo continued, 'Oh! it lies in knowing men, and giving repose to the people.' Yü said, 'Alas! to attain to both these things might well be a difficulty even to the Tî. When (the sovereign) knows men, he is wise, and can put every one into the office for which he is fit. When he gives repose to the people, his kindness is felt, and the black-haired race cherish him in their hearts. When he can be (thus) wise and kind, what occasion will he have for anxiety about a Hwan-tâu? what to be removing a lord of Miâo? what to fear any one of fair words, insinuating appearance, and great artfulness?'

2. Kâo-yâo said, 'Oh! there are in all nine virtues to be discovered in conduct, and when we say that a man possesses (any) virtue, that is as much as to say he does such and such things.' Yü asked, 'What (are the nine virtues)?' Kâo-yâo replied, 'Affability combined with dignity; mildness combined with firmness; bluntness combined with respectfulness; aptness for government combined with reverent caution; docility combined with boldness; straightforwardness combined with gentleness; an easy negligence combined with discrimination; boldness combined with sincerity; and valour combined with righteousness. (When these qualities are) displayed, and that continuously, have we not the good (officer)? When there is a daily display of three (of these) virtues, their possessor could early and late regulate and brighten the clan (of which he was made chief). When there is a daily severe and reverent cultivation of six of them, their possessor could brilliantly conduct the affairs of the state (with which he was invested). When (such men) are all received and advanced, the possessors of those nine virtues will be employed in (the public) service. The men of a thousand and men of a hundred will be in their offices; the various ministers will emulate one another; all the officers will accomplish their duties at the proper times, observant of the five seasons (as the several elements predominate in them), and thus their various duties will be fully accomplished. Let not (the Son of Heaven) set to the holders of states the example of indolence or dissoluteness. Let him be wary and fearful, (remembering that) in one day or two days there may occur ten thousand springs of things. Let him not have his various officers cumberers of their places. The work is Heaven's; men must act for it!'*

3. 'From Heaven are the (social) relationships with their several duties; we are charged with (the enforcement of) those five duties; and lo! we have the five courses of honourable conduct[1]. From Heaven are the (social) distinctions with their several ceremonies; from us come the observances of those five ceremonies; and lo! they appear in regular practice[2]. When (sovereign and ministers show) a common reverence and united respect for these, lo! the moral nature (of the people) is made harmonious. Heaven graciously distinguishes the virtuous;—are there not the five habiliments, five decorations of them[3]? Heaven punishes the guilty;—are there not the five punishments, to be severally used for that purpose? The business of government!—ought we not to be earnest in it? ought we not to be earnest in it?*

'Heaven hears and sees as our people hear and see; Heaven brightly approves and displays its terrors as our people brightly approve and would awe; such connexion is there between the upper and lower (worlds). How reverent ought the masters of territories to be!'*

4. Kâo-yâo said, 'My words are in accordance with reason, and may be put in practice.' Yü said, 'Yes, your words may be put in practice, and crowned with success.' Kâo-yâo added, '(As to that) I do not know, but I wish daily to be helpful. May (the government) be perfected!'


  1. The five duties are those belonging to the five relationships, which are the constituents of society;—those between husband and wife, father and son, ruler and subject, elder brother and younger, friend and friend.
  2. The five ceremonies are here those belonging to the distinctions of rank in connexion with the five constituent relations of society.
  3. See in next Book, ch. i.