Analects Book 18 historical figures: brothers, uncles, and nephews
The first chapter of Book 18 introduces us to one of the most notorious sovereigns in Chinese history together with three of his closest relatives and advisers who paid a heavy price for remonstrating against the wickedness of the king.
Zhouxin (紂辛) is the posthumous name given to the last king of the Shang/Yin dynasty (1600 BCE to 1046 BCE). Such was the disdain for him, the character 紂/zhòu is derogatory, meaning horse crupper, the part of the saddle that is most likely to be soiled by the beast.
Also known as Dixin (帝辛), Zhouxin was born in 1105 BCE and ruled for 29 years from 1075 BCE to 1046 BCE. According to most accounts, including that of Sima Qian in The Records of the Historian, he started out his reign as a vigorous and intelligent ruler. However, in the latter part he succumbed to the temptations of wine, women, and song when he fell under the spell of his notorious consort Daji (妲己) and neglected affairs of state in favor of increasingly debauched entertainments.
Sima Qian goes on to claim that the couple became so depraved that not even wild orgies were enough to satisfy their appetites. They also enjoyed paddling in small boats on a pool of wine that they drank from when thirsty, and when they needed real excitement liked to watch common prisoners and high-ranking officials who had incurred their displeasure being forced to hug a red-hot bronze cylinder filled with burning charcoal until they were incinerated.
Even if these tales are exaggerated, it is clear that the couple’s increasingly tyrannical rule caused such deep concern among the king’s court officials that some of the more courageous ones such as Weizi, Jizi, and Bi Gan attempted to persuade their sovereign to change his ways — only to suffer the most gruesome of consequences.
Zhouxin’s refusal to listen to his officials’ advice to curb his excesses led to rising discontent among both the nobility and the common people, not least because of the heavy taxes they were required to pay to fund his lavish lifestyle. Opposition to his rule grew so strong that his authority dwindled, and the Shang kingdom became ripe for the taking.
In 1046 BCE, King Wu delivered the coup de grace by vanquishing Zhouxin at the battle of Muye and establishing the Zhou dynasty. Following his defeat, Zhouxin committed suicide after gathering all his treasures in his palace and setting fire to the building. King Wu is said to have cut the head off his corpse and displayed it on a white flagpole for all to see. Daji’s head was also placed on a shorter pole after she was executed along with those of two more of his consorts who took their own lives.
Weizi (微子) is the honorific title of Ziqi (子啓), the eldest brother of Zhouxin. It can be translated as Lord of Wei or Master of Wei, which was the name of the fief that Zhouxin conferred on him after becoming king. Although both men had the same mother, Weizi was born when she was just a concubine of their father, King Yi, so he had no right to succeed to the throne. After Weizi’s mother was made the formal wife of King Yi, she gave birth to Zhouxin, who was made the crown prince and went on to rule after the death of their father.
Even though the two brothers appear to have had a productive relationship at the beginning of Zhouxin’s reign, after about a decade cracks started to appear in it as Weizi became increasingly concerned about his brother’s behavior. After failing to persuade Zhouxin to mend his ways, Weizi fled into exile in order to safeguard the royal family’s ancestral temple for future generations. Following the overthrow of the Shang dynasty, Weizi submitted to the authority of the new Zhou dynasty and was given the fiefdom of the small state of Song by the new ruler King Wu. He reigned as its duke for 13 years from 1038 BCE to 1025 BCE.
Jizi (箕子) is the honorific title of Xuyu (胥餘), the oldest uncle of Zhouxin and the grand tutor and advisor of the king. When he failed to convince his nephew to change his ways, Jizi is said to have pretended to be insane to avoid being forced to assume a senior official position in the evil regime and was thrown in prison and forced to labor as a slave. After Zhouxin was deposed, Jizi was released from captivity by King Wu of Zhou and acted as his advisor. Some later Han dynasty texts claim that King Wu subsequently gave the Korean peninsula to him as a fiefdom in gratitude for his assistance — though this is unproven.
Bi Gan (比干) was also an uncle of Zhouxin and served as an official in his court. He took a much firmer stance against the despotic behavior of his nephew than either Weizi or Jizi, arguing that it was the duty of a minister to do what was right even if it meant losing your life according to Sima Qian.
In one version of the tale of his gruesome death, Zhouxin is said to have been so infuriated by Bi Gan’s constant criticisms that he ordered his men to execute his uncle and cut out his heart to see if it had the seven openings that a true sage was believed to possess. Other versions of the tale suggest that it was Zhouxin’s evil consort Daji who got so tired of Bi Gan’s complaints about the couple’s depravity and extravagance that she persuaded her husband to have him killed.
Some scholars argue that Bi Gan was much freer to criticize Zhouxin than Weizi or Jizi because he was a much lower ranked official than they were and had no family to protect. Even if that is true, it does nothing to diminish his courage in speaking out against the autocratic behavior of his nephew.