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Stories of fraternal bonding in ancient China

Brotherhood: that (usually) naturally strong bond of men who grow up together, play together, get into trouble together, and sometimes quarrel or fight. Last week, social media celebrated this bond with Brother’s Day, but ancient China was rife with stories of brotherly pairs who exemplified fraternal love (or didn’t).

According to Confucian values, the ideal fraternal relationship is 兄友弟恭, meaning “The elder brother is friendly and the younger brother is respectful.” Because of the (all but defunct) One-Child policy, many of today’s youngsters don’t have brothers. But given the following famous pairs in history, this could be a good thing:

Boyi and Shuqi make senseless sacrifices

Boyi and Shuqi were sons of the ruling lord of Guzhu, a vassal state of the Shang (1600 – 1046 BCE) and Zhou (1046 – 256 BCE) dynasties. The younger brother, Shuqi, was the chosen successor of his father, but he felt he should give the throne to his elder brother due to the ritual law of primogeniture. Boyi, though, believed it would be unfilial to accept the throne against his father’s will, so he left the country to avoid further discussion of the matter.

However, 孝 (filial piety) was not the only moral principle at stake: 悌, meaning “love and respect one’s elder brother,” was no less important in ancient society than respect for parents, so Shuqi also left the state. Eventually, the throne went to another brother who apparently had no such qualms.

Boyi and Shuqi both went to Zhou territory, which was under the reign of King Wen. Years later, King Wen died and his son Wu decided to marshal his military forces and conquer the Shang dynasty, which was ruled by the infamous tyrant Emperor Zhou. Though Boyi and Shuqi were aware that Zhou was a terrible monarch, these famously moral brothers didn’t agree with Emperor Wu’s decision, asking, as Confucius did, “You began a war even before burying your father properly, is that filial? As a vassal, you tried to kill your emperor, is that righteous?”

King Wu was outraged, but let the brothers leave instead of killing them. After the new Zhou dynasty was founded, Boyi and Shuqi refused to eat any grain produced in Zhou territory in protest of King Wu’s bloody war. They instead went to Mount Shouyang and scratched a living eating wild herbs. Later, the brothers realized these herbs technically also belonged to the Zhou, so they starved themselves to death.

Role models or tiresome pedants? Though modern views tend toward the latter, ancient people held up Boyi and Shuqi as role models of integrity.

Cao Pi and Cao Zhi are adversaries in verse

Not all brothers were as self-sacrificing as Boyi and Shuqi. Chinese history saw plenty of brothers killing one another in competition for power.

Cao Pi and Cao Zhi were both sons of Cao Cao, the warlord who founded the State of Wei in the Three Kingdoms period (220 – 280 CE). Both brothers and their father were talented poets, but Cao Zhi enjoyed the greatest fame. After Cao Cao died, Cao Pi inherited the throne, but kept trying to find an excuse to kill Cao Zhi due to jealousy and paranoia. According to a story recorded in A New Account of Tales of the World, at one banquet, Cao Pi demanded  Cao Zhi create a poem within seven strides, or die. Cao Zhi knew what his elder brother intended, but still managed to produce a poignant poem:

People burn the beanstalk to cook beans,
The beans in the pot cry out.
They are born of the same root,
Why should they hound each other to death?


The verse is obviously a metaphor for the brothers’ constant warring, but Cao Pi was evidently moved enough to spare his brother’s life, and the last two lines poem have been frequently cited to criticize any kind of civil war or internal strife in history.


author Sun Jiahui (孙佳慧)

Sun Jiahui is a freelance writer and former editor at The World of Chinese. She writes about Chinese language, society and culture, and is especially passionate about sharing stories of China's ancient past with a wider audience. She has been writing for TWOC for over six years, and pens the Choice Chengyu column.

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