According to legend, since everybody bought the pots made by Shun, the other potters had hardly any business, and nobody went to them anymore. They were very angry with Shun, so one day they went to make trouble for him. Shun said to them, “Do you think that I came here to compete with you and steal your customers? Whether or not to make pots is up to me, yet the choice to buy is not mine. If nobody wants to buy my pots, I cannot force them; if everybody buys my pots, I cannot refuse. Please think about it, everyone. We all make pots, yet why do people buy my pots and not yours? Why is that?” The potters answered, “Your pots are durable and reasonably priced. Our pots are fragile and pricy. Therefore, people buy from you, not from us. Aren’t you purposely opposing us and competing for our business and clients?”
Shun asked, “Think about the fabric and textile products that we use every day. It is obvious you people would not buy low quality products. Then why would I make fragile ceramic products to sell?” The potters said, “People used to buy our pots. Ever since you came, they stopped buying from us. So it’s all because of you and not because our pots are fragile.”
Shun said, “That is not true. People used to buy from you because there was no one else they could buy from. They had to buy from you, not that they liked to. For example, during the years of big crop failures, people ate bran and grass, not because they wanted to, but because they had to. By selling fragile products, you are doing the same as forcing them to eat bran scraps and grass roots. Isn’t that so?” The potters responded, “We are craftsman who live off of our skills. We only know about making money and becoming rich. We don’t care about being nice!” Shun said, “That is not so. Wealth is within kindness. Without kindness, where could you find wealth?”
Hearing this, the potters eagerly wanted to know what the reasons were, so Shun guided the potters, saying, “The difference between humans and animals is kindness. If I do not cheat others, then they also will not cheat me. If I cheat them, then they must cheat me. In order to become rich, you have cheated others by selling them fragile pots. However, everybody wants to make money and become rich. If people in all the trades think like you and make shabby products of poor quality, I ask you, ‘Could you still make money?’ What you make is only earthenware, and you have to buy countless other commodities from others. You only have one product to compete with many other products, so how could you win? Even if you make more profit on the pots, you do not know how much more money you have to spend on other products! Without kindness there is no wealth, so isn’t it wise to be kind?”
The potters seemed to come to a realization and said, “True, in the past few years, many products on the market have become less and less durable, all because of this.” Afterwards, the potters followed Shun’s good example, conducted themselves, and ran their businesses honestly. They paid attention to their pots and no longer made low quality products. They produced strong and durable pots again.
The land of Dongyi was relatively undeveloped at the time, and the local people were unkind. In doing business, it was common among the merchants to produce poor quality products in order to make a profit. Yet when a wise and genuine person ruled the country, “Morals came first and guidance was emphasized.” He did not use strict laws and harsh punishments. After hearing what Shun said and seeing how he conducted himself, the potters changed their ways of doing things and started over. The locals again became more kind and honest. There was no need for repeated demands or coercion. All that was needed was to teach and pass on the spiritual obligations, and then everybody improved their characters and was kind. There was not much that needed to be done, yet the world was well ruled and everything in order.
The book Records of the Grand Historian has a chapter “Annals of the Five Emperors” in which the author, Sima Qian, evaluated Emperor Shun as follows: “When Shun was a farmer at Mount Li, the local people gave him their land; when he was a fisherman at Thunder Lake, the local fishermen let him stay in their houses; when he was a potter at the Yellow River, the earthenware in that area was not of poor quality. When he remained at the same place for one year, people gathered; for two years, a city was built; by the third year, a great metropolis was established.” Wherever he worked, there would be a trend toward courtliness and kindness; wherever he went, people followed him. Thus, Sima Qian praised Shun, “Civilization and kindness in the world started with Yu Shun.”