King Tai Jian was reportedly the second ruler from the ancient Chinese Shang Dynasty, which, according to tradition, overthrew the preceding Xia Dynasty in 1766 BCE (an event that has since been redated by archaeological work to about 1600 BCE). Therefore, King Tai Jian’s reign would traditionally be r. 1753-1700 BCE, or shifted to a more modern estimate of r. 1587-1534 BCE. Date particularities aside, King Tai Jian was said to have had a shaky start to his reign. Specifically, at the time that the new king ascended to the throne, his state of mind was not yet mature and virtuous enough for the responsibilities put on his shoulders. This was concerning to a wise minister named Yi Yin, who was a respected holdover from the reign of the Shang Dynasty’s founder, Tang. As an advisor and mentor of King Tai Jian, Yi Yin decided to launch an unorthodox intervention to straighten out the new ruler’s behavior.
According to legend, Yi Yin concocted a plan to convince the king to relocate himself to the city of Tong, which was near the tomb and shrine of the “First King” (presumably Tang, the Shang Dynasty’s founder). To incentivize the king to travel to the region, Yi Yin built a brand-new palace at Tong. But, as Yi Yin’s purpose was instructive and educational, the palace was not designed for pleasure or fun. Instead, it was specially constructed to accommodate meditation and introspection.
Thankfully for the realm, King Tai Jian—although flawed—was a man willing to improve himself. He ultimately took Yi Yin’s advice and visited the new palace at Tong. There, the palace’s meditative enhancements and the nearby proximity of the tomb of the First King combined to have a great effect on Tai Jian. His alleged transformation was recorded 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 BCE). The text stated:
“[Yi Yin] built a palace for the young king at Tong, close to the tomb and shrine of the First King, where he could reflect upon his life so far and reform himself. The new king went to the palace and he was distressed by his former behavior, repenting and bemoaning, until at long last he was able to be truly virtuous” (Shang Shu, chapter 14).
After this experience, so the legend claims, King Tai Jian was a changed man, and, after returning to his capital city, he continued to rule virtuously and ethically. The king appreciated Yi Yin’s efforts in bringing about the transformation, and their partnership in government only grew in trust and productivity. Nevertheless, Yi Yin eventually retired, believing he had fulfilled his duties as a minister and a mentor.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene from the handscroll painting, Duke Wen of Jin Recovering His State, attributed to Li Tang (c. 1070s–1150s), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- The Most Venerable Book (Shang Shu), translated by Martin Palmer, Jay Ramsay and Victoria Finlay. London: Penguin Classic, 2014.