ave you all heard this song, “Gathering the Thorn Ferns”?
We climb West Mountain to gather the thorn ferns.
Violence is exchanged with violence,
but the injustice is not recognized.
Shen Nong, Yu, and Xia suddenly disappeared; where am I to go?
Wandering to and fro, my life is being exhausted!
This is the song that Bo Yi and Shu Qi sang before they starved to death.
Bo Yi was Lord Gu Zhu’s eldest son and was supposed to be the heir to the throne. However, his father wanted the youngest son, Shu Qi, to be his heir. Therefore, when Lord Gu Zhu died, Bo Yi fled to the North Sea so that Shu Qi would not have to yield the throne to him. Shu Qi, however, also renounced the throne and followed Bo Yi to the North Sea. As a result, the people could only give the throne to the middle son. Since Emperor Zhou of the Shang dynasty was cruel, the two brothers preferred to stay in the poor and backward North Sea area farming and tilling the land, rather than be officials in the imperial capital. At that time, since the natural living conditions were very bad in the North Sea area, it was difficult for people to make a living there. The strong lived by robbing, and the weak survived by stealing; there was no peace in the area. After the two brothers arrived, it was inevitable that people would go to give them trouble. But they were always generous and never seemed to mind. Not only that, their attitude was: “If you seize one share of our field, we will yield two shares of the field; if you steal one sack of rice from us, we’ll let you have two sacks of rice. In any case, since we still have the strength to work, we won’t starve.” They did not take advantage of other people, and they did not seek revenge either. All the neighbors were influenced by their example. Upon hearing their story, those who were dull and greedy became honest, and those who were weak and timid came to have courage, integrity, and resolve. In time, the brothers became advanced in years. Hearing that the leader Ji Chang [posthumously known as King Wen] in the west respected the elderly and honored the worthy and that he had the simple and honest style of the ancient emperors Shen Nong, Yao, and Shun, they led a group of followers and moved to Ji Chang’s state to live under his leadership. After Ji Chang died, his heir, Ji Fa, mobilized the troops and prepared to wage a punitive war against Emperor Zhou of Shang. The two elderly brothers, with tears streaming down their faces, held onto the reins of his horse and tried to remonstrate with Ji Fa, saying, “No matter how bad the Emperor is, we are still his courtiers. How can we attack him? Besides, by using military force to subdue atrocity, are you not trying to stop violence with violence? This is a great mistake! It is not the way of the ancient sages!” King Wu [Ji Fa’s posthumous title] said sincerely but firmly, “Old gentlemen! Please don’t be so inept! I am not killing our sovereign. I am simply acting in accord with heaven’s decree by removing the tyrant for the sake of the people. If the tyrant is not removed, the people cannot live in peace!”
After King Wu had pacified the kingdom and established the Zhou dynasty, the two brothers turned down the imperial offer of well-paid high official positions and retired to Shouyang Mountain. They gathered and lived on thorn ferns [osmunda regalis] that grew in the wild. Some people tried to urge them, “You said that eating the grain of the Zhou dynasty is shameful, but since the Emperor of Zhou owns the entire kingdom, Shouyang Mountain is also his!” Upon hearing that, Bo Yi put down his sickle and sighed, “The great earth under the heaven is vast, but there is no place for me!” So he sang his melancholy song and starved himself to death.