King Zhou ([ʈ͡ʂoʊ]; Chinese: 紂王; pinyin: Zhòu Wáng) was the pejorative posthumous name given to Di Xin of Shang (商帝辛; Shāng Dì Xīn) or King Shou of Shang (商王受; Shāng Wáng Shòu), the last king of the Shang dynasty of ancient China.[4] He is also called Zhou Xin (紂辛; Zhòu Xīn). In Chinese, his name Zhòu () also refers to a horse crupper,[5] the part of a saddle or harness that is most likely to be soiled by the horse. It is not to be confused with the name of the succeeding dynasty, which has a different character and pronunciation (; Zhōu).

King Di Xin of Shang
King Zhou of Shang illustrated in the Ehon Sangoku Yōfuden (c. 1805)
King of Shang dynasty
Reign1075–1046 BCE (29 years)
PredecessorDi Yi (his father)
Born1105 BCE
Died1046 BCE
SpouseConsort Daji
Jiuhou Nü
IssueWu Geng
Family name: Zǐ (子)
Given name: Shòu (受)[1][2] or Shòudé (受德)[3]
Posthumous name
Zhou (紂)
Di Xin (帝辛)
FatherDi Yi

In later times, the story of King Zhou became a cautionary tale on what could befall a kingdom if its ruler gave into corruption and moral depravity.



Di Xin is the posthumous name given by the Shang dynasty imperial house. Di Xin was born with the family name Zi, lineage name Yin, and the given name Shou. He was called King Shou of Shang by the kingdom of Zhou when he was alive. After his death, he was given a derogatory posthumous name, King Zhou of Shang (商紂王) by the succeeding Zhou dynasty, with Zhou (紂) meaning "horse crupper", implicating "injustice and harm".[6][7]

Early reign


In the Records of the Grand Historian, Sima Qian wrote that Di Xin, in the early part of his reign, had abilities which surpassed those of the ordinary man, and was quick-witted and quick-tempered. According to legend, he was intelligent enough to win all of his arguments, and he was strong enough to hunt wild beasts with his bare hands.[8] He was the younger brother of Zi Qi (子啓) and Zi Yan (子衍) (later rulers of Zhou's vassal state Song)[9] and father of Wu Geng. His father Di Yi had two brothers, Ji Zi and Bi Gan. Di Xin added to the territory of Shang by battling the tribes surrounding it, including the Dongyi to the east.

Late reign


A significant amount of information regarding Di Xin's life had been falsified by following dynasties. Thus, many modern-day historians[who?] believe that he was, in fact, reasonable and intelligent, without several of the cruelties attributed to him. The following are accounts of him written in records published in the millennium following his death, during which many misconceptions surrounding him arose.

In his later years, Di Xin gave himself over to drinking, women, and abandoned morals, preferring these to the proper governance of the country, and ignored almost all affairs of state. According to Sima Qian, he even hosted festive orgies, where many people engaged in immoral things at the same time with his concubines and created songs with crude (erotic) lyrics and poor rhythm. In legends, he is depicted as having come under the influence of his wicked wife Daji, and committing all manner of evil and cruel deeds with her.

One of the most famous forms of entertainment Zhou enjoyed was the "Alcohol Pool and Meat Forest". A large pool, big enough for several canoes, was constructed on the Palace grounds, with inner linings of polished oval-shaped stones from the seashores. This allowed for the entire pool to be filled with alcohol. A small island was constructed in the middle of the pool, where trees were planted, which had branches made of roasted meat skewers hanging over the pool. This allowed Zhou and his friends and concubines to drift on canoes in the pool. When they thirsted, they reached down into the pool with their hands and drank the wine. When they hungered, they reached up with their hands to eat the roasted meat. This was considered one of the most famous examples of decadence and corruption of a ruler in Chinese history.[10][better source needed]

According to the Records of the Grand Historian, in order to please Daji, he created the "Punishment of burning flesh with a hot iron (炮格之刑)". One large hollow bronze cylinder was stuffed with burning charcoal and allowed to burn until red-hot; then prisoners were made to hug the cylinder, which resulted in a painful and unsightly death.

Zhou and Daji were known to get highly aroused after watching such torture. Victims ranged from ordinary people and prisoners to high government officials, such as Mei Bo.[11]

In order to fund Zhou's heavy daily expenses, heavy taxes were implemented. The people suffered greatly, and lost all hope for the Shang dynasty. Zhou's brother Wei Zi tried to persuade him to change, but was rebuked. His uncle Bi Gan similarly remonstrated with him, but Di Xin had his heart ripped out so he could see what the heart of a sage looked like. When his other uncle Ji Zi heard this, he went to remonstrate with the kingly nephew and, feigning madness, was imprisoned.



When the Zhou dynasty's army, led by Jiang Ziya, defeated the Shang dynasty at the Battle of Muye in 1046 BC, Di Xin gathered all his treasures around himself in the Palace, and then set fire to his palace and committed suicide. After his death, Di Xin's head was cut off and displayed on a white-flag pole by Ji Fa. Of Di Xin's favorite consorts, Da Ji was executed and two more committed suicide, and their heads, likewise, were displayed on either small white flag poles or red flag poles.[12][13][14][15][16]

The name Zhòu (紂; crupper) actually appeared after the death of King Zhou, a posthumous name. This name was meant to convey a negative value judgement, and his reign accumulated stories of increasingly egregious corruption. Centuries after his death, he had acquired the reputation of almost a paradigmatic wicked ruler.[17]

Mentions in literature and legend


Zhou is mentioned in the Confucian Analects (19 "子張");[18] and also in the Three Character Classic.[19] Zhou is also one of the main subjects of Fengshen Yanyi (Investiture of the Gods) and its various derivations in popular media. Thus, Di Xin, also known as Zhou, has served as a (negative) exemplar of Confucian principles (presented as the wicked ruler who justifies regime change according to the Mandate of Heaven), as well as becoming an icon of popular culture. This makes for a biographically interesting figure, but one challenging a clear distinction between history, legend, and philosophical point-making.

In Fengshen Yanyi, Zhou visited the Goddess Nüwa's temple and offended the Goddess with his lustful comments towards her beauty. In response, Nüwa decided that the Shang dynasty should end and sent her three subordinates to become three beautiful women (including Daji) to bewitch Zhou. Under the influence of these women, Zhou becomes a ruthless king, losing the support of people and triggering his downfall. Until now, nobody knows most of his lifestyle from the reduced amount of artifacts found regarding to him.

In the novel, King Zhou has a wife named Queen Jiang, while Daji served as an imperial concubine. King Zhou had two sons, Yin Hong and Yin Jiao, with Queen Jiang. The character of Queen Jiang in the novel was based on the real historical figure and consort of King Zhou, Jiuhou Nü. Jiuhou Nü was the daughter of the leader of the Guifang, Jiuhou, and was presented to King Zhou through a political alliance.[20][21]

According to the Fengshen Yanyi, Jiang Ziya recognized that King Zhou was a well-versed and well-trained individual who became an incapable ruler only because of having fallen victim to seduction. After his death, Jiang Ziya deified King Zhou as the Tianxi Xing (天喜星 "Star of Heavenly Happiness"). As the Tianxi Xing, he had the responsibility of managing the marriage affairs of humans.

Archaeology and historiography


Archaeologists believed that Tomb 1567 at the Yinxu site was constructed for King Zhou, but he was not buried there due to his suicide in Battle of Muye.[22]

Following the downfall of the Shang Dynasty, Di Xin and Jie of Xia (the last king of the Xia Dynasty) were recorded as tyrants in most historical records by historians of later dynasties. However, some ancient historians and modern historians have cast doubts on this narrative due to archeological evidence contradicting historical records or inconsistencies found between older and later records.

In the most common narrative, Di Xin killed his uncle Bi Gan by ripping his heart out. The Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project and other studies have pointed out inconsistencies. Bi Gan's death due to remonstration is only recorded in the Spring and Autumn period, while the account of his heart being removed by Di Xin appeared much later in the fables of the Warring States period, indicating the extra details were likely added to reinforce Di Xin's tyrannical image.[23][24]

Di Xin is also known for his Alcohol Pool and Meat Forest at Deer Terrace Pavilion, used as evidence for historians of later dynasties to condemn the decadence and corruption of Di Xin. However, modern archaeological evidence at Deer Terrace Pavilion found a pool at the base of the structure purely for water storage and sanitation.[citation needed] The narrative of "Pool of Wine" was questioned as early as in the Han dynasty. Scholar Wang Chong, in his work Lunheng, suggested the accounts of "wine pools and meat forests" were unreliable.[25] During the Southern Song Dynasty, scholar Luo Mi wrote in the Lushi also considered the allegations against Di Xin to be largely unreliable and exaggerated after reviewing various documents.[26]

With the continuous research on the Shang and Zhou dynasties, backed by the excavation of oracle bones, bronzeware, and other archaeological materials, the modern academic community increasingly questioned the tyrannical portrayal of Di Xin. The depiction of Di Xin during the Western Zhou period, though negative, did not contain substantive brutality. The earliest record written in the Zhou dynasty, Book of Documents, lists only six accusations against Di Xin, including listening to women, appointing fugitives to government/military positions, not performing proper rituals, excessive drinking, and believing in his destiny being in the heavens (Mandate of Heaven). The Da Yu ding during King Kang of Zhou period recorded that the primary reason for the downfall of the Shang Dynasty was the Di Xin's excessive drinking. The descriptions in later dynasties become more bloodthirsty and brutal, with increased details, even though the events took place in the distant past.[27][28][29][30][31]

In excavation sites of the late Shang Dynasty, grave goods made of metal and wood became more common while sacrificial goods for rituals were reduced, signifying a trend toward simpler burials. Prior to Di Xin's rule, King Zu Jia of the Shang dynasty simplified and formulated the imperial rituals, increasing the use of grain and dance during rituals in place of human and animal sacrifice. There were barely any instances of human and animal sacrifices towards the end of the Shang Dynasty when Di Xin reigns. After the Shang dynasty, the Zhou dynasty stopped simplifying the ritual procedures and instead increased the frequency of human sacrifices, a custom that continued to persist for several hundred years in the succeeding Zhou dynasty and its vassal states. The simplified rituals of Di Xin and the late Shang dynasty can be considered a progressive cultural change, while in the perspective of the later Zhou dynasty, it was disrespectful to the ancestors.[30][31][32][33][34][35][36][37][38][39][40][41][42][43]

Women held many official positions during the Zhou dynasty, such as jobs responsible for managing rituals, advising military affairs, managing court and guests, and they were highly respected by the Shang state, which was observed by numerous scholars like Chen Xi, Zhang Maorong, Wang Qiwei, Wang Hui, Wang Ruiying, Du Fangqin, He Min, Geng Chao, Xie Naihe.[44][45][46] According to scholarly analysis, the overall status of women in the Shang Dynasty was significantly higher than that of the following Zhou dynasty. During Zhou, women were increasingly excluded from military and political matters while the state emphasized domestic roles for them like silk production and weaving. The appointment of women in power during the Shang dynasty indicated a more progressive and gender-equal culture, while the Zhou state, following Confucian rituals, was more conservative.[30][47][48][49][50][51][52][53][54][55][56]

Appointing fugitives to government positions was another justification for Zhou to overthrow Shang. This was intentionally done by Di Xin, who used this method to suppress the clans who held too much power in court. Di Xin believed in meritocracy and employed fugitives from other countries.[50][57][58] Drinking was part of the Shang culture; thus, Di Xin's drinking problem wasn't uncommon during that period.[31][59]

The concept of the Mandate of Heaven is a subject of considerable debate. Some scholars, like Chao Fulin, argue that the Shang Dynasty did not possess the later concept of the 'Mandate of Heaven', which dictates the rise and fall of dynasties. In the 'Book of Shang,' the term 'Mandate of Heaven' actually refers to 'the command of the ancestors' (the spiritual power of the ancestors in heaven to bless or abandon one's life).[60][61][62]

Gu Xiagang and other Doubting Antiquity School historians noted the further into later periods, the more detailed and numerous the accusations of Di Xin became. During the Spring and Autumn period, intellectuals from various schools of thought traveled around China to present their political ideologies. In their allegorical stories, Di Xin, the deceased ruler of the fallen former dynasty, was portrayed as a negative exemplar to propagate the notion of 'evil deserves retribution.' Compared to the original documents from the Western Zhou period, they ascribed numerous new accusations to King Zhou, such as the story of Alcohol Pool and Meat Forest and "Punishment of burning flesh with a hot iron (炮格之刑)". Following the Han Dynasty and onward, rulers continued to propagate the image of King Zhou of Shang as a negative figure. Over centuries of accumulated vilification, Di Xin (King Zhou) gradually became characterized as the epitome of a tyrant.[63]


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Further reading

King Zhou of Shang
Regnal titles
Preceded by King of China
1075 BC – 1046 BC
Succeeded by