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Zhou Wenwang 周文王, King Wen of Zhou

Dec 19, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Zhou Wenwang 周文王, King Wen of Zhou, personal name Ji Chang 姬昌, was a nobleman of the late Shang period 商 (16th-11th cent.). He was a grandson of Duke Danfu 公亶父 and son of Jili 季歷.

Jili and his son distinguished themselves, according to the traditional Zhou period (11th cent.-221 BCE) 周 hagiography, by kindheartedness and virtuous behaviour. Duke Danfu therefore wanted to transmit the rights of his territory to his yonger son Jili. Jili's older brothers Taibo 太伯 and Zhongyong 仲雍 acknowledged this paternal wish and withdrew to the south. When Ji Chang finally inherited the throne, he invited competent and wise counsellors to serve him, among these Tai Dian 太顛, Hong Yao 閎夭, San Yi Sheng 散宜生, Yu Xiong 鬻熊, and Xin Jia 辛甲.

Ji Chang was elevated to one of the Three Dukes (sangong 三公) serving King Zhou 紂 of the Shang dynasty 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE). King Zhou is said to have exerted a tyrannic regime and had killed the dukes of Jiu 九 (or Gui 鬼) and of E 鄂 (Yu 邘).

Ji Chang was slandered by the Duke of Chong 崇侯 and was encarcerated in Youli 羑里. Later on he was pardoned. For his presenting the territory of Western Luo 洛西 to the king, he was given the title of Viscount of the West 西伯, with the duty to supervise the western territories from his residence at Qiyi 岐邑 (Qishan 岐山).

In the course of time, Ji Chang was able to gain an ever higher reputation among the regional rulers (zhuhou 諸侯), while the king of Shang lost control over his nobles. He acted as mediator in the quarrel between the lords of Yu 虞 and Rui 芮, defeated the intruding western steppe people of the Quanrong 犬戎 and defeated the lord of Mixu 密須 who had permanently harrassed the regional states of Ruan 阮 and Gong 共.

He then continued to expand his influence towards the east, conquering the regional state of Li 黎 (also called Li {利/邑=𨛫}, Qi 耆, or Ji 飢 [𨸔]). Zu Yi 祖伊, a counsellor to the king, admonished his ruler to change his politics, but King Zhou did not care for his words. Ji Chang continued his conquest campaigns and occupied the territory of E (Yu), not far from the royal domain, and also that of Chong, where he had established a new residence, Feng 豐.

Shortly later, the Viscount died in Cheng 程. He was buried in Bi 畢. His son Ji Fa 姬發, the future Zhou Wuwang 周武王, finally ended the Shang dynasty and proclaimed the dynasty of the Zhou. He also bestowed the poshumous title of King Wen "the Cultivated" to his father.

Confucian historiography ascribed the invention of the eight trigrams (bagua 八卦) to King Wen, which he is said to have developed during his encarceration in Youli. Indeed, archeological discoveries at Qishan brought to light oracle brone inscriptions including characters similar to the trigrams.
King Wen is often named together with his son, as the pair Wen-Wu 文武, as paragons of virtuous and holy rulers.

Liu Xueqin 劉學勤 (1992). "Zhou Wenwang 周文王", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 3, 1604.