By the mid-11th century BCE, the long-ruling Shang Dynasty of ancient China was crumbling, marking the end of the royal clan’s hegemony that had flourished approximately between 1600 and 1046 BCE. According to the old legends and writings, the Shang Dynasty’s downfall was put in motion by a certain King Wen, who placed his own Zhou family atop a powerful coalition of peoples from the west and used this force to invade the Shang Dynasty’s territory. King Wen’s war of conquest, or at least the post-war stabilization and administration process, was completed by King Wen’s heir, King Wu of the Zhou Dynasty (r. 1046-1042 BCE). During King Wu’s inaugural reign, the new ruling family knew they would need to build some additional bases of operations, including another capital city, so as to better control all of the recently conquered territory that they had acquired by dethroning the Shang Dynasty. These proposed building projects, however, evidently did not come into fruition during the relatively short time that King Wu had absolute power. Instead, construction was said to have begun during the reign of King Wu’s young son, King Cheng of Zhou (r. 1042-1020/1005), whose rule was complicated by his many overbearing uncles—numbering around nine—as well as disgruntled remnants of the dethroned Shang Dynasty family.
In the early years of King Cheng’s reign, when the ruler was still young enough to require regents and counselors, the Zhou Dynasty made note of land along the banks of the Luo River (also called Luoyi, approximately in modern Luoyang, Henan) as a promising place to build a new capital city. This project was put off for several years as young King Cheng matured, but the ruler eventually dispatched two of his ablest uncles—the Duke of Zhou and the Duke of Shao—with the task of overseeing the rituals and construction concerning the new capital city, called Luo or Luoyang.
The Zhou Dynasty believed that ensuring the support of spirits and Heaven was just as important as keeping the living people docile, so they did not cut any corners while they sought to bless the site of the new capital and to appease the spiritual world before the city’s construction. As the story goes, both the Duke of Zhou and the Duke of Shao spent great amounts of time consulting with oracles and diviners about the site of the capital city, making sure Heaven showed no signs of displeasure with the site. Rituals and ceremonies involved in the founding of the city were commented upon in the Shang Shu, a text 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). The Duke of Shao, also known as Grand Protector Shao, was described as overseeing some of the divination experiments, with the Shang Shu saying, “the oracle was consulted about where the new city should be built. The augury was good, so the plans were laid out for this site” (Shang Shu, chapter 40). Additionally, the Duke of Zhou reportedly carried out his own much more extensive consultation of oracles and soothsayers, similarly asking them where the new city should be built. In a speech attributed to him in the Shang Shu, the Duke of Zhou allegedly said:
“I as well as the Grand Protector have taken it upon myself to visit the Eastern Lands and to investigate them thoroughly to find a site for the new capital…[W]e came to the city of Luo and there I consulted the oracle to ask about the area of the River Li which lies to the north of the Yellow River. I then asked the oracle about the areas that lie to the east of the Jian River and to the west of the Chan. And all of the oracles favoured Luo as the site of choice” (Shang Shu, chapter 41).
With oracles and divination out of the way, it was time to offer sacrifices at the chosen spot. Vassal rulers of the Zhou Dynasty were directed to send tribute to the site, but certain animals were also gathered for blood sacrifices. A specific selection of the sacrificial animals was taken by the Duke of Zhou, and he carried out the duty of ritualistically offering them to Heaven and earth. As told by the Shang Shu, the Duke of Zhou “performed the ritual sacrifice of two bulls, and the following day he performed the proper ritual sacrifice to the Earth God, offering a bull, a goat and a pig” (Shang Shu, chapter 40). More animal sacrifices were carried out when King Cheng arrived at the site. According to the Shang Shu, “the king came to the new city and he performed the winter sacrifice, offering a red bull to both [his late grandfather and father] King Wen and King Wu” (Shang Shu, chapter 41). Such were some of scenes of divination and sacrifice that were carried out before the building of the new Zhou capital. In order to also appease the likely-angered spirits of the ancestor kings from the toppled Shang Dynasty and their supporting deities, King Cheng was advised to perform some rituals borrowed from the Shang court during the dedication of the new city. After completing the prescribed sacrifices and rituals, one of the last acts that the king carried out during the new capital’s complicated dedication process was to pour out a libation intended for an unspecified entity at the site of the city’s Great Hall. Hopefully the Duke of Zhou liked the city he was building, for King Cheng tasked him with staying there for the foreseeable future to oversee the region and attend the needs of government.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Classic of Filial Piety, c section 13, chapter 16, by Li Gonglin (c. 1041–1106), [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.