During the reign of King Zhong Kang of the Xia Dynasty (said to have ruled in China around 2159-2146 BCE), a solar eclipse reportedly caused a great deal of embarrassment and political turmoil for the dynasty. Two astrologer officials named Xi and He (likely hereditary titles) were supposed to predict such eclipses and give the government warning ahead of time. Yet, according to the ancient Chinese Book of Documents (Shang Shu), these officials “had neglected their duties because they got drunk the whole time in their home towns” (Shang Shu, chapter 9). As such, the king, his ministers, and the people they were governing were all caught by surprise when the eclipse hit, as the astrologers had not sounded any prior warnings about the celestial event. For king Zhong Kang, the blunder by his officials was extremely embarrassing and potentially dangerous—after all, it was not good P.R. for a dynasty dependent on the perception of a mandate of heaven to suddenly seem out of sync with the heavens.
Fortunately for King Zhong Kang, he had the perfect scapegoats to blame for the unexpected eclipse. Before rumors could begin spreading uncontrollably about the eclipse being a bad omen for the Xia Dynasty, the king was able to inspire an uproar against his drunkard astrologers for their negligence. The post-eclipse behavior of the two officials in question did not help their case, for the astrologers were too shocked and scared to make any interpretations or excuses that might have saved their lives. Instead, faced by the dire situation they were in, the astrologers behaved in an incredibly awkward manner, which only helped the king regain support among the nobles and the masses. The Book of Documents described the odd behavior of Xi and He, as well as the charges that were evidently brought against them:
“Through all of this [eclipse] Xi and He sat like corpses, hearing nothing and understanding nothing. They were totally at a loss to explain what Heaven was doing and as a result they have been charged with the death penalty—which has been the consequence of this kind of behavior from the earliest times. The regulations clearly state that if the eclipse comes after their prediction, then they must be executed. Likewise if the eclipse comes before their prediction, they must also be put to death” (Shang Shu, chapter 9).
Citing the regulations above, the king dispatched one of his vassals with an army to arrest and execute the astrologers. Zhong Kang also evidently managed to convince the masses that his dynasty still retained the mandate of Heaven, for the Xia Dynasty would continue to maintain power for centuries after his reign.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Chitasei Go Yō / Wu Yong Zhiduoxing, painted by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798–1861), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Most Venerable Book (Shang Shu), translated by Martin Palmer, Jay Ramsay and Victoria Finlay. London: Penguin Classic, 2014.