In Chinese accounts of the beginning of their civilization, three rulers of exceptional virtue followed the legendary culture heroes Fuxi (Fu-hsi), Shengnong (Shengnung), and the Yellow Emperor; they were Kings Yao, Shun, and Yu.
Their shared characteristic was that each rejected his own son as unworthy and tried to install the best-qualified man as his successor, unsuccessfully in the case of Yu.
Their unselfishness has figured importantly in Chinese historical writings and made them model rulers. Documents that purportedly date to their rule constitute the first section of the second Confucian classic, the Shu Jing (Shu Ching), or Book of History (also called Book of Documents).
Yao (r. 2357–2256 b.c.e.) and Shun (r. 2255–2205 b.c.e.) are revered figures because they epitomized wisdom, humility, and unselfishness. The canon of Yao in the Book of History cites Yao as a descendant of the Yellow Emperor and credits him with devising a calendar of 356 days to regulate agriculture, encouraging morality, establishing a rudimentary government, and above all selecting a successor unselfishly.
After ruling for 70 years he set about choosing a worthy successor because he thought his own son unfit and found a humble man called Shun, who was admired as a dutiful son to undeserving parents. Shun did not think himself worthy, but Yao insisted and married his two daughters to Shun to observe his behavior. Yao shared his rule with Shun for 28 years and then abdicated in favor of Shun.
Shun, according to legend, also descended from the Yellow Emperor and was a virtuous and benevolent ruler. Both Yao’s and Shun’s reigns were troubled by great floods and attempts to build dikes that did not work.
Shun then appointed an official named Yu to deal with the problem. Yu traveled the land and worked on flood control for more than a decade, succeeding because he dredged the riverbeds and channeled the water to the sea.
He worked so hard that on three occasions he passed his own house and heard his wife and children weeping in loneliness but did not go in. Such was his dedication that Shun set aside his son, made Yu his co-ruler for 17 years, and then abdicated in his favor.
Yu was also a humane and wise ruler (r. 2205– 2198 b.c.e.). Together Yao, Shun, and Yu are called the Three Sage Rulers. Yu also attempted to bypass his son and appoint the best man his successor. The people were so grateful to him that they insisted on putting his son Qi (Chi) on the throne.
Thus began the first Chinese dynasty, the Xia (Hsia) dynasty. The territory under these three rulers was centered on modern Shanxi (Shansi) Province in northern China. Later, Chinese historians idealized Yao, Shun, and Yu, extolling their reign as the golden age.
Their moral conduct became the grand themes of historical and literary writings for posterity. As a result of modern scientific methods of investigating history they have been assigned to the position of legendary figures.