An interesting figure known only by his title of viscount lived in China during the transformational mid-11th century BCE. Although the name of this viscount was not recorded, a decent amount of information was nevertheless preserved about the individual. In terms of personality, the viscount was known as a man of integrity, honesty, wisdom and bravery. Regarding social and familial status, he was a member of a branch family of the collapsing Shang Dynasty in China (flourished approximately 1600–1046 BCE). Although the viscount was not in the top imperial succession of the overall dynastic empire, he was reportedly the eldest son of a Shang family vassal king. Despite the viscount’s own familial links to the Shang Dynasty, he reportedly became an outspoken critic of the last dynastic ruler, King Zhou (r. 1075-1046 BCE). Unfortunately, because ancient history is so laden with legend and folklore, it is not clear just how bad the reign of King Zhou of Shang might have truly been. Nevertheless, like Caligula and Nero in ancient Rome, King Zhou was remembered in history as the ultimate evil tyrant. The downfall of the Shang Dynasty (also called the Yin Dynasty due to the family’s last capital city), as well as the existence of the viscount, was commented on in an ancient text called the Shang Shu. The text, often known as The Book of Documents or The Most Venerable Book, was a record written before the days of Confucius (c. 551-479 BCE). In it, a poem attributed to the viscount (known then as the Viscount of Wei) lamented the ethical decline of the Shang/Yin Dynasty that he served:
“The Viscount was outspoken, and said:
‘Scholars, great and small, this Yin dynasty
has now lost its right to rule over our land.
The people of Yin think it’s fine
to perform crimes of daylight robbery and viciousness
no matter how great or small.
The nobles even encourage each other in this
and no one is ever challenged! But now
the common people are in revolt, and at last
the whole edifice is collapsing…”
(Shang Shu, chapter 26)
Although the viscount mentioned internal revolt, this was ultimately not the greatest danger faced by King Zhou of the Shang Dynasty. West of King Zhou’s domain, the weakness of the Shang Dynasty was sensed by a powerful ruler known as King Wen (leader of a state ironically named Zhou). King Wen and his large household of sons (allegedly ten of them) successfully led the Zhou people in war to displace the Shang Dynasty as the top power of ancient China. Although King Wen was the spark and vehicle of his Zhou Dynasty’s rise to power, it was Wen’s leading son, King Wu, who completed his father’s war, crushed the Shang Dynasty, and was considered the first ruler of the new order. King Wu of the Zhou Dynasty (r. 1046-1042 BCE), after establishing his dominance, quickly shifted to restoring order and administration to the realm in a feudal fashion.
In his post-war rule, King Wu evidently became aware of the outspoken Shang family viscount that had criticized his own family’s rule before the downfall of the Shang Dynasty. The viscount had survived the war and was willing to work with the new regime. King Wu of the Zhou Dynasty, for his part, reportedly admired the man’s character and was willing to give the former dissident Shang nobleman a place in the Zhou Dynasty’s administration. Whereas the viscount was known earlier as the Viscount of Wei during the fall of the Shang Dynasty, he became temporarily repositioned during the reign of King Wu of Zhou as the Viscount of Qi. Additionally, the viscount’s father became the vassal king of Yin. In the new status quo, the viscount became something of an agent and an advisor to King Wu, helping the ruler to implement his Great Plan and also helping educate the king on anything he wanted to learn. The Shang Shu preserved many wise sayings and philosophical axioms, in poetic form, that were attributed to the viscount, including:
“The essence of demeanour is respect
and of thinking—perception.
And so respect creates reverence
reason creates order
clarity creates wisdom
understanding creates possibilities
—and perception creates the sage.”
“Without diversion, without ambivalence
follow the Royal Model.
Without pursuing your own desire
walk the way of the Royal path.
be guided by the Royal Path.
Without factions, without prejudice
the Royal Path is smooth, is easy.
Without prejudice, without breaking away
the Royal Path is level, is straight.
Without stupidity, without bias
the Royal Way is true and appropriate.
Seeing such excellence,
(Poems attributed to the Viscount of Wei/Qi in the Shang Shu, chapter 32)
According to the tradition recorded in the Shang Shu, the viscount outlived King Wu of Zhou, who died around 1042 BCE. Power passed to King Wu’s son, King Cheng of Zhou (r. 1042-1020/1005), whose rule was complicated by his many overbearing uncles, as well as disgruntled remnants of the dethroned Shang Dynasty family. The viscount, who evidently was reverted back to being the Viscount of Wei, reportedly remained firmly on the side of King Cheng. Yet, in an uncomfortable twist of events, the viscount’s father—the vassal king of Yin—was involved in a rebellion against King Cheng. The rebellions, however, were crushed by the king’s loyalists, and in the struggle many of the remaining members of the Shang Dynasty were killed or removed from positions of influence. The viscount, as he had remained loyal to King Cheng, eventually found that he was the senior-most surviving member of the toppled Shang family that was still alive and who was still in good standing with the authorities. In that capacity, the viscount found himself given the task of overseeing the ritual ceremonies that honored the ancestors of the Shang Dynasty—it was an important task, for although the last king of the dynasty was seen as a tyrant, many of the preceding Shang Dynasty kings were celebrated heroes. On this, the Shang Shu, in a chapter titled “The Commission to the Viscount of Wei,” wrote that, “The king spoke to the eldest son of the King of Yin and appointed him to oversee the rites and rituals due to his ancestors” (Shang Shu, chapter 36). After being instructed in this way, the viscount was also graced by the king with a new title of High Noble of the East.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Zhao Mengfu Writing the Heart (Hridaya) Sutra in Exchange for Tea, by Qiu Ying 仇英 (c. 1494-1552), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Cleveland Museum of Art).
- The Most Venerable Book (Shang Shu), translated by Martin Palmer, Jay Ramsay and Victoria Finlay. London: Penguin Classic, 2014.