In the mid-11th century BCE, the realm of the ancient Shang Dynasty in China (flourished approximately 1600–1046 BCE) was challenged 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 wage war against the Shang Dynasty’s territory. King Wen’s wave of conquest was completed by his heir, King Wu of Zhou (r. 1046-1042 BCE), who was considered the first ruler of the Zhou Dynasty after it replaced the Shang clan as the hegemons of ancient China.
Although the Shang clan was dethroned, they were not annihilated. Instead, after the war, a great many members of the Shang family were spared and given the opportunity to rejoin society and be of use to the Zhou family. Most famously, legend held that King Wu of the Zhou Dynasty admired a certain virtuous nobleman of the Shang family who had criticized his own family’s rule before the downfall of the Shang Dynasty. King Wu, for his part, reportedly respected the man’s character and was willing to give the former dissident Shang nobleman a place in the Zhou Dynasty’s administration. The man in question (unfortunately left unnamed) was allowed to hold the rank of a viscount and his father reportedly became the vassal king of Yin. Like this vassal king, there were other existing Shang Dynasty holdovers who, too, were allowed to remain in positions of power. The viscount, in particular, became something of an agent and an advisor to King Wu, helping the ruler to implement his administration. He also reportedly was an educator of sorts, imparting knowledge to the king about anything the royal wanted to learn. King Wu’s reign, however, was relatively short, and when he died around 1042 BCE, surviving members of the Shang clan were tempted to act out against the new ruling family.
King Wu was succeeded by his young son, King Cheng of Zhou (r. 1042-1020/1005 BCE), whose rule was complicated by his many overbearing uncles—numbering around nine—as well as the disgruntled remnants of the dethroned Shang Dynasty family. Some disloyal uncles of the king and rebellious Shang family vassals launched dangerous revolts, but King Cheng’s trusted regents and loyalists, headed by the king’s revered uncle, the Duke of Zhou, quashed the outbreaks of rebellion. The aforementioned viscount 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 viscount, for his loyalty, was granted the lofty title of High Noble of the East and was tasked with overseeing the ritual ceremonies that honored the ancestors of his family. Other surviving Shang family members, however—after the latest bouts of rebellion and resistance—were not given the same respect and freedoms as the High Noble of the East. Instead, the Shang family members were rounded up and herded to a brand-new capital city that was being built by two of King Cheng’s uncles, the Duke of Zhou and the Duke of Shao, along the banks of the Luo River (also called Luoyi, approximately in modern Luoyang, Henan). The Shang clan would be moving to this new capital, named Luo or Luoyang, and King Cheng of Zhou would not take no as an answer. A text called the Shang Shu (variously translated as The Book of Documents or The Most Venerable Book), which originated in the days before Confucius (c. 551-479 BCE), purported to quote a proclamation from King Cheng that was narrated by the Duke of Zhou. It stated:
“I have built this great city of Luo to be a place where the whole country can find a focal point and where every prince can come to offer tribute and as the place where my ministers can serve. I invite you [Shang clan members] to settle here, as esteemed guests. You will retain all your lands, so you can afford to dwell here in honourable peace. Heaven will be kind to you if you show obedience and respect. But if you do not, then not only will you lose all your lands, but Heaven will exact revenge against you personally.” (Shang Shu, chapter 42)
Such was the ultimatum that was given—move to the new capital and live under close supervision, or face punishment and the seizure of everything you hold dear. With the previous rebellions already crushed, it was not too difficult to get the Shang clan to comply, albeit with some grumbling. There, besides appearances from the king, the Shang family members also had to watch out for the lofty figure of the Duke of Zhou, who was tasked by King Cheng with staying at Luo for the foreseeable future to oversee the region and attend to the needs of government, including keeping an eye on the Shang clan.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (cropped Barbarian Royalty Worshiping the Buddha, attributed to Zhao Guangfu (c. 923-976), [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.