The Historical Records is a history book written by Sima Qian. In writing "A Biographical Sketch of Boyi," Sima expresses his own lamentation through the story of Boyi and Shuqi. He quotes the words of an ancient philosopher: "Heaven shows no partiality, yet always aids the virtuous." Heaven does not differentiate between those who are close or distant; it treats all the myriad creatures of the world fairly and has no favorites. That's what "Heaven shows no partiality" means. Although Heaven is impartial, it often confers aid upon good and virtuous people.
Sima Qian makes use of this quote from the ancient Chinese text of Lao Zi. He said Boyi and Shuqi were both good people: one of them did not want to be an unfilial son, and the other did not want to be an unrighteous brother. When they saw Ji Fa (the future King Wu) attack King Zhou, they felt it was not right for a minister to be attacking his king. In general, Boyi and Shuqi wanted to avoid being involved in any matter that was not proper or good. They wanted to preserve the integrity of their own character.
Despite their goodness, what happened to Boyi and Shuqi in the end? Sima Qian says, "Although they accumulated so much humaneness and were so pure in conduct, they ended up starving to death." Most people explain humaneness as love, but humaneness actually refers to the perfection of character. Wishing to perfect their character, Boyi and Shuqi avoided doing anything that was inhumane, unrighteous, or wrong. The ancients called that "pure conduct," because their behavior was impeccable. They did not take a single wrong step or make a single mistake.
Those two virtuous men conducted themselves with such humaneness and purity, yet what was their fate? Boyi and Shuqi ended up starving to death. Refusing to serve as officials in the Zhou Dynasty or to accept the emolument given them by King Wu, their only recourse was to flee to Shouyang Mountain, where they picked thorn-ferns for food. They subsisted on thorn-ferns, a type of wild vegetable, and eventually died of starvation.
Now Tao Yuanming brings up a question. He says, "It is said that accumulated good brings a reward, / Yet there were Yi and Shu in the western mountains." "If good deeds are said to bring a good retribution, does that mean that Boyi and Shuqi were not good people? If they were good, why did they starve to death in the western mountains?" Tao does not explicitly say that they "starved to death" in his poem, because the educated people of ancient China were all familiar with that story from the Historical Records. Everyone had read it, so even though Tao only mentioned Boyi and Shuqi as being two men in the western mountains, everyone would know that they had died of starvation.
"A Biographical Sketch of Boyi" is one of Sima Qian's most excellent essays. He wrote seventy biographical sketches in all, and this was the first one. It is also his best biography. He brings up one of the biggest issues of life—whether or not there are consequences for good and evil. In the lines that follow, Sima Qian brings up an example of someone who was not good. He wrote, "The robber Zhi murdered innocent people and devoured their flesh, yet he enjoyed a long life. What morality did he observe?" Zhi was a terribly cruel and violent man in ancient China who regularly killed innocent people and carved out their organs to eat. Yet that notorious robber lived to the end of his natural life. Not only did he not starve, but he lived very comfortably.
Sima asks: What kind of morality did such a man observe? He was basically immoral. Why is it that those who live humanely and purely starve, while murderers with no sense of morality enjoy life to its natural end?
In addition to mentioning Boyi and Shuqi, two men from the distant past, and the robber Zhi, as examples, Sima further pointed out how, among ordinary people, we often witness active charity workers suffer poverty and hardship. We also see numerous evildoers who not only enjoy comfortable lives themselves, but ensure wealth and fortune for their posterity as well. Their wealth may have been obtained illegally, yet their families are able to enjoy it for generations.
And so Sima Qian concludes with a question: "If that is divine justice, is it reliable or not?" If Heaven truly has a principle of distinguishing right from wrong and good from evil, can this principle be trusted or not? Is it just or not? This is the issue put forth by Sima Qian in "A Biographical Sketch of Boyi."
To be continued