King Wu: Zhou Dynasty’s First Emperor Respects Heaven

November 23, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
King Wu, the first emperor of the Zhou Dynasty. (Jessica Chang/Epoch Times)
King Wu faithfully followed his ancestors' teachings. The ancients advised rulers to be diligent and upright, to revere Heaven, love the people, and to reject idleness and extravagance. They warned that the affairs of a ruler will be thwarted if his selfish desires overcome moral principles. (Jessica Chang/Epoch Times)

King Wu of Zhou (周武王) was the son of King Wen of the Zhou Kingdom (周文王). Several years after King Wu succeeded to the throne, he conquered the Shang Dynasty (商朝) and established the Zhou Dynasty (周朝) (traditionally given as 1122–221 B.C.). 

The Zhou Dynasty was an important period of Chinese history. Thirty-seven emperors ruled for 900 years before it was conquered by the Qin Dynasty (秦朝) in 221 B.C.

Not only was the Zhou Dynasty China’s longest dynasty, but it was also the high point of ancient Chinese civilization. The Confucian and Daoist philosophies that developed during this dynasty influenced generations throughout Chinese history.

At the beginning of King Wu’s rule, he asked Jiang Ziya (姜子牙), his military adviser, whether there was a simple, effective principle recorded from the past that could enable future generations to preserve the foundation of the country created by their ancestors.

Jiang Ziya replied that there was such wisdom for effective rule contained in a sacred book passed down from preceding kings. He told King Wu that he could only hear it after purifying himself by fasting.

Three days later, King Wu, wearing his ceremonial cap, respectfully requested that he be granted this wisdom. He stood facing east to show his respect, rather than south, which is the direction rulers customarily faced when meeting their subjects.

Wisdom of Ancient Kings

Jiang Ziya then started to read from the book: “One who is diligent in administrating the country, shows reverence toward Heaven, and rejects idleness and extravagance, his affairs will prosper.

“One who neglects duty and covets ease and enjoyment, his affairs will decline.

“One whose righteousness overcomes personal desire, his affairs will go smoothly and be successful. One whose selfish desires overcome moral principles, his affairs will be thwarted.”

Jiang Ziya said, “This is the simple, effective principle that can enable future generations to preserve the foundation of the country created by their ancestors.”

He also told the king that if he rules with benevolence, his dynasty will be measured by dozens of generations.

Upon hearing this wisdom, King Wu was greatly inspired. He ordered these words to be written on his mirror and washbasin, his staff and sword, bow and spear, and on the pillar, door, and window, among other places, so that he could use them to caution and encourage himself at all times.

Humbly Seeking Good Advice

King Wu acted in a manner befitting a sage king, humbly and respectfully seeking good advice from wise and virtuous officials.

In addition, he had their words inscribed as rules to observe, and used them in self-reflection at every moment to correct his own conduct and thoughts.

With these actions, he diligently strove to cultivate a heart of pure wisdom that allowed him to understand the will of Heaven and to govern the country with benevolence.

The 900-year reign of the Zhou Dynasty can largely be attributed to its successive emperors who carefully safeguarded their ancestors’ teachings, respected Heaven, loved their subjects, and placed high importance on cultivating their moral character.

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