In the days of the Shang Dynasty, there ruled a curious king named Wu Ding. His reign traditionally was dated to between 1324-1264 BCE, but has since been pushed forward by archaeologists to around 1238-1180 BCE. He ruled at the dynasty’s recently-built city of Yin, which had been designated as the new seat of power for the realm by Wu Ding’s uncle, King Pan Geng (r. 13th century BCE). Pan Geng was succeeded by his younger brother, Xiao Yi, who was the father of Wu Ding. When Xiao Yi died and the throne passed to his son, freshly-crowned Wu Ding was said to have taken a vow of silence as a form of ritual mourning in order honor his late father. As the story goes, Wu Ding strictly followed his vow, refusing to speak for a period of at least three years (which was a timeframe deemed appropriate for ritualistic mourning). During these years of silence, Wu Ding was able to govern his kingdom by answering questions and petitions through the means of letters and other forms of written statements. Although the king’s silence during the period of mourning was an inconvenience, the courtiers understood the situation and everyone did their best to adapt. After three years, the period of mourning was finally over and the courtiers were able to breathe a sigh of relief that their king could finally end his vow of silence. Yet, to the great confusion and shock of the court, King Wu Ding reportedly continued to strictly remain silent even after the official period of mourning had ended.
When Wu Ding’s advisers and counselors recovered from their surprise, they eventually confronted the king and asked him directly about why he persisted in remaining silent even though the period of mourning had elapsed. This tale, and the king’s response to the question, 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, “The king rightly mourned for the prescribed period of three years. However, when this time had passed, he still did not speak. His statesmen were very worried by this and remonstrated with him…In response, the king wrote the following: ‘I do not speak because although I am the ruler of the Four Quarters I do not feel virtuous enough to tackle the tasks ahead’” (Shang Shu, chapter 21).
In order to achieve his desire to become more virtuous, Wu Ding hired at least two wisemen to be his mentors. One known advisor was a man named Gan Pan, but it was really a mysterious sage named Yue (or Fu Yue) who became the king’s chief instructor and counselor. As told in the Shang Shu, the king and the wiseman Yue began meeting for lessons about virtue at least twice every day, with the classes occurring in the morning and the evening. After being instructed about the ways of virtue in this manner, King Wu Ding eventually felt confident enough to speak.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Poets Gathering in the Orchid Pavilion, attributed to Qian Gong and dated to 1607, [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.