An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Di Xin 帝辛 King Zhou 紂

Dec 29, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

King Zhou 紂 (trad. r. 1154-1123, rather probably 1060-1027 BCE), also called Shou 受, posthumous title Di Xin 帝辛, was the last ruler of the Shang dynasty 商 (17th to 11th cent. BCE). He was a son of King Di Yi 帝乙 and succeeded him as a ruler of the Shang. Although a minor son of Di Yi, he could mount the throne because his mother was the primary consort of the late king.

According to historiography, King Zhou was fond of wine and women. He once attacked the small state of the Lord of Su 有蘇, and in order to appease the king, the Lord of Su presented him with his daughter, Da Ji 妲己. King Zhou was so enamoured with his new consort that he forgot all about governing and fulfilled all the wishes of beauty Da Ji. She had played the frivolous smusic (yinsheng 淫声) for the dances of the northern miles (beili zhi wu 北里之舞) and collected strange animals in the palace garden. She used to banquet on the Shaqiu Terrace 沙丘臺, where she had dug out a wine pond (jiuchi 酒池) and a meat forest (roulin 肉林), where her guests cavorted with each other naked.

King Zhou raised taxes to pay all this luxury and tightened corporal punishment. He also invented the punishment of the burning pillar (paolao zhi xing 炮烙之刑) that was to be walked over by delinquents. Some histories say that this was an invention of Da Ji in order to satisfy her sadism.

King Zhou rebuked all criticism and incarcerated opponents like the Earl of the West 西伯, Ji Chang 姬昌, who was imprisoned in Jiuli 羑里 (modern Tangyin 湯陰, Henan). Only when the Earl presented women and beautiful horses to the cruel King, he was released. The King's own older brother Weizi 微子 remonstrated against the cruel government, but he was dismissed. His uncle Bi Gan 比干 also criticised the king and was killed atrociously by cutting out his heart. It is said that also this was an idea of Da Ji who wanted to see if such a paragon of virtue as Bi Gan had a heart with seven apertures.

The King's uncle Jizi 箕子 was also incarcerated as a madman. King Zhou also moved to a new capital, Chaoge 朝歌 (modern Qixian 淇县, Henan). At that time the son of the Earl of the West, Ji Fa 姬發, rose his weapons against the tyrant king and won a lot of allies among the regional rulers (zhuhou 諸侯) and some non-Chinese tribes in the west and southwest. In the battle of Muye 牧野 (near modern Qixian), the Shang army was defeated, so that King Zhou, without protection, withdrew to the "Deer Terrace" Lutai 鹿臺, where he burnt himself, while Da Ji strangulated herself.

Ji Fa, known as King Wu 周武王, founded the Zhou dynasty 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE). Wu Geng 武庚, a son of King Zhou, was named heir to the Shang and was given the title of Lord of Yin 殷君. A decade later he rebelled against the Zhou dynasty and was killed in battle. His younger brother Weizi continued the house of Zhou as Marquis of Song 宋.

Chen Quanli 陳全力, Hou Xinyi 侯欣一, ed. (1988), Diwang cidian 帝王辭典 (Xi'an: Shaanxi renmin jiaoyu chubanshe), 11.