King Tai Wu was an early ruler of the ancient Chinese Shang Dynasty that held influence between the 17th and 11th centuries BCE. As King Tai Wu was one of the earliest of the ancient dynasty’s rulers, there are very few concrete facts about his reign. The little that we do know mainly comes from legends and allegorical tales recorded in ancient Chinese texts, such as the Shang Shu (variously translated as The Book of Documents or The Most Venerable Book), which has its origins in the days before Confucius (c. 551-479 BCE). Nonetheless, embellished legends are better than nothing, and in the case of King Tai Wu, the legendary stories that came to be recorded about him turned out to be quite flattering.
King Tai Wu was said to have been approximately the ninth ruler to hold power in the Shang Dynasty after its founding. Of all the kings produced by the Shang Dynasty in its many centuries of influence, Tai Wu was reportedly the monarch with the longest reign. Ancient scholars confidently claimed that he ruled for an awe-inspiring span of seventy-five years, and his reign was traditionally dated to 1637-1563 BCE. One would imagine that a ruler who managed to run a kingdom for seven-and-a-half decades would have to be a diligent and energetic fellow with a healthy lifestyle. This assumption, it turns out, is exactly how King Tai Wu’s character was portrayed in the ancient legends and tales that were recorded about his reign. The aforementioned Shang Shu claimed, “Tai Wu stood in trembling and fear of Heaven’s Mandate and as a result was both respectful and reverent. Disciplined, he never indulged in idleness and ruled his people with reverent deference. As a result, he was able to rule his kingdom successfully for seventy-five years” (Shang Shu, chapter 43). In addition to his own diligence, King Tai Wu also surrounded himself with effective ministers and managers who helped him to properly govern the realm.
Respect for King Tai Wu was not exclusive to the Shang Dynasty. He was also seen as a kindred spirit by the Shang Dynasty’s rival in the west—the house of Zhou. In the 11th century BCE, the powerful Zhou clan that was then overseeing the lands west of the Shang heartland had become equivalent in military power to the Shang Dynasty’s ruling line, setting in motion a showdown that would determine which family would be the hegemon of the ancient Chinese kingdoms. Along with the clash of might was a clash of character. The Shang Dynasty was accused, at least by the Zhou family and their supporters, of recently becoming too luxurious, wicked, lazy and wasteful. Early Zhou clan leaders, contrastingly, portrayed themselves and their forebears as being diligent, sober, frugal and efficient. These traits were emulated by the Zhou ruler, King Wen, who ignited the conflicted that would eventually topple the Shang Dynasty. King Wen of Zhou became legendary for his hostility to idleness and wasteful vices, particularly drunkenness. The Zhou family’s war of conquest over the Shang Dynasty was completed by King Wen’s heir, King Wu of the Zhou Dynasty (r. 1046-1042 BCE). Although the Zhou family had toppled King Tai Wu’s Shang Dynasty, they nevertheless continued to revere King Tai Wu as a great ancestor figure and a role model for future Zhou Dynasty kings.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Image of the interior of a vintage bowl with an illustration mimicking ancient Chinese tomb art, courtesy of The Historian’s Hut Archives).
- The Most Venerable Book (Shang Shu), translated by Martin Palmer, Jay Ramsay and Victoria Finlay. London: Penguin Classic, 2014.