King Zhou, thought to have reigned between 1075-1046 BCE in China, was the last ruler of the ancient Chinese Shang Dynasty. According to legend, he was the worst kind of mad tyrant, whose cruelty, debauchery and peculiarly insane whims led to the downfall of his dynasty’s power. Among the many dramatic and gruesome tales recorded about the bizarre figure of King Zhou, a pattern exists. He was apparently greatly interested in biology and the human anatomy, yet this benign interest was unfortunately twisted by his other traits of cruelty and morbid curiosity. The mixture of these characteristics, so the story goes, turned King Zhou into something of a mad scientist, who had his agents dissect different types of people within the kingdom in order to satiate his inquisitive mind.
Several of King Zhou’s supposed experiments were written down in the Book of Documents (Shang Shu), otherwise known as the Most Venerable Book, a text that has its origins in the days before Confucius (c. 551-479). According to the text, King Zhou gruesomely “cut open the bellies of pregnant women” (Shang Shu, chapter 27), and that, man or woman, noble or commoner—all types of people were butchered by the mad king. In another story, when the king was intrigued by the way some people build up a resistance to cold and wet environments, he decided to amputate and inspect the legs of rice farmers to see if their limbs had any anatomical advantage that helped them in the soggy rice paddies. Similarly, one time when the king became curious about the differences between those who were deemed wise, as opposed to those thought unwise, he allegedly ordered the executions of people with differing intelligence so that he could compare and contrast their organs. These two tales of gruesome human experiments appeared in a poem included in the aforementioned ancient text:
“Listen: he dissected the bare legs
Of those who work deep in the paddy fields
And cut out for casual inspection
The hearts of the highest men!”
(Shang Shu, chapter 29)
If there is a grain of truth to the lurid allegations made against the ancient king, it is no wonder that his reign led to a backlash that would end Shang Dynasty power in China. The unpopular ruler was defeated by King Wu, who set up his own dynasty to replace the Shang in China. King Wu’s dynasty was ironically called the Zhou Dynasty.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Painting from a Ten Kings of Hell series, by Riku Chuen, c. Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Most Venerable Book (Shang Shu), translated by Martin Palmer, Jay Ramsay and Victoria Finlay. London: Penguin Classic, 2014.