“Beating swords into plowshares” is a saying that dates back 4,000 years to a story of the legendary ruler Xia Yu, also known as “Yu the Great.”
About 4,000 years ago, there were many tribes that lived near the Yellow River. The region was subject to frequent flooding, and Emperor Yao appointed Gun, Xia Yu’s father, to devise a plan to prevent further flooding. Gun ordered the construction of a 2.4 meter-high wall around the city to contain the flood waters. Fearing for the security of the city, he also dug a moat around the city wall.
Gun’s efforts to stop the flooding lasted for nine years, but eventually the people lost faith in him, and other tribes saw this as an opportunity to attack the Xia tribe. Gun was later executed by Emperor Yao’s successor, Shun. However, Xia Yu was highly trusted by Emperor Shun, and was appointed to succeed his father.
Xia Yu had learned from his father’s mistakes. Gun had lost the support of the leaders and the people by building a high wall for protection. Xia Yu ordered the wall to be demolished and the moat to be filled. He also shared the treasures given to him with the people.
With an upright moral character, Xia Yu organized the people to construct canals to divert floodwater away from the major rivers to the sea. He worked on this project for 13 years and never returned to his home village during this period.
Legend says that in those 13 years, he passed by his house three times without going in, which was a sign of his perseverance. His canal system succeeded in preventing further flooding, which brought peace and prosperity to the Xia tribe.
Xia Yu’s selfless character won the hearts of the people. Under his leadership, they worked hard and diligently, with very few incidents of theft. The Xia tribe became strong and wealthy because of his efforts.
When other tribes saw how peaceful and happy the people of the Xia tribe were, they wanted to become Xia Yu’s subjects. When Xia Yu held his first meeting with all the leaders of the tribes at Tushan, tens of thousands came with treasures dedicated to him. Eventually, Emperor Shun deemed Xia Yu to be his successor.
“Swords” means weapons and represent war, while “plowshares” represent instruments of peace and friendship. “Beating swords into plowshares” therefore represents turning to peaceful pursuits and away from war.
This the origin of the saying “beating swords into plowshares.” To govern a country requires a wise and selfless leader with an upright moral character. It is the foundation for peace and prosperity.
Translated by Mindy Chao