Statue of Wu Zixu in Suzhou
(Wu kingdom title)
|Heroic and Upright King
(Tang Dynasty title)
|God of Waves
(as a river deity)
- Note: names are in simplified characters followed by traditional and Pinyin transliteration.
Wu Yun (died 484 BCE), better known by his courtesy name Zixu, was a general and politician of the Wu kingdom in the Spring and Autumn Period (722–481 BCE). Since his death, he has evolved into a model of loyalty in Chinese culture. He is the best known historical figure with the Chinese family name "Wu" (伍). All branches of the Wu clan claim that he was their "first ancestor".
The historical records of Wu are found in the famous Chinese classics: Historical Records (史記; Shǐjì) by Sima Qian, The Art of War by Sun Tzu and The Annals of Lü Buwei. He is also mentioned in Guliang Zhuan and Gongyang Zhuan. The accounts differ, showing the significant influence of folklore on his historical character.
Wu Zixu was the second son of Wu She (伍奢), the Grand Tutor of the crown prince Jian of the state of Chu (楚). In 522 BCE, Fei Wuji, a corrupt official was sent to Qin to select a bride for the prince. King Ping of Chu received a princess from the state of Qin (秦) as a bride for his son, but decided to keep her for himself upon seeing her beauty. Fei Wuji, having gained favour from the King, convinced King Ping that Wu She and the crown prince himself would start a rebellion due to the bride being from Qin, and persuaded the king to execute Wu She. Before his death, Wu She was forced, under duress, to send a letter to his sons, Wu Shang (伍尚) and Wu Zixu, which asked them to join him in the capital. While both realized that this was a trap, Wu Shang decided to go to the capital to die with his father. Wu Zixu, promising revenge, fled to the state of Wu.
Wu Zixu, along with Prince Jian's son, Prince Sheng, hoped to flee to the state of Wu. Wu Zixu, however, was a wanted man. He and the young prince were constantly pursued by soldiers. King Ping also ordered a very tight controls over the state's borders to catch Wu Zixu. As Wu Zixu approached Zhaoguan (昭关), the last pass to the state of Wu (吳), he sought the help of the physician Donggao Gong (东皋公), who recognized him as Wu She's son. Donggao Gong felt deep sympathy for Wu Zixu's plight and offered to help him escape across the border.
According to legend, Donggao Gong gave refuge to Wu Zixu in his home for a week. Under enormous stress, Wu Zixu's hair turned completely white and his facial features aged greatly. The change was a blessing in disguise as Wu Zixu’s changed appearance helped him to escape and head to the state of Wu (吳).
Campaign Against the State of Chu
In 506 BCE, during the reign of King Zhao of Chu, King Helü decided to invade Chu. The king personally led the army, along with his younger brother Fugai, Wu Zixu, as well as Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War. Although Chu had a strong army led by Nang Wa and Shen Yinshu, it suffered a heavy defeat at the Battle of Boju. King Zhao of Chu fled to Sui and the Wu army captured Ying, Chu's capital. After entering Ying, Wu Zixu exhumed King Ping's corpse, and gave it 300 lashes to exact vengeance.
The military victory led to Wu Zixu's elevation to Duke of Shen (申). Subsequently, he was known by the name of Shen Xu (申胥).
Bo Pi, whose grandfather had also been unjustly killed in state of Chu (楚), arrived in the state of Wu. Despite warnings about Bo Pi's character, Wu Zixu recommended him to the king of Wu, who made Bo Pi a minister.
After the death of King Helü, Wu Zixu did not earn the trust of Fuchai (夫差), the new monarch of Wu. Wu Zixu saw the long-term danger of King Goujian (勾踐) of Yue (越) and advised the king to conquer that state. The King, however, listened instead to Bo Pi, who had been bribed by the Yue state. Concerned with the safety of the kingdom, Wu Zixu pleaded with the king to take action against Yue but was ignored. The King gave Wu Zixu a sword and ordered him to commit suicide on the justification that his behaviour amounted to sabotage. Before he committed suicide, Wu Zixu asked King Fuchai to remove his eyes after his death and hang them on the city gate so that he could watch the capture of the Wu capital by the Yue army.
Ten years after Wu Zixu's death, as Wu Zixu had predicted, King Goujian (勾踐) of Yue (越) conquered the state of Wu. Faced with the demise of his state, King Fuchai committed suicide. He lamented that he did not heed the counsel of Wu Zixu and covered his face as he died because he dared not face Wu in the afterlife.
Some Chinese believe that the Dragon Boat Festival, celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month and usually associated with the poet Qu Yuan (屈原), actually commemorates the death of Wu Zixu, whose body was thrown into the river near Suzhou after his forced suicide.
After Wu She's imprisonment, the king ordered the executions of both Wu She and his eldest son, Wu Shang (伍尚). Although Wu Zixu's desire to avenge his father has often caused him to be seen as a filial son, his action was in fact ambiguous according to the morality of the times, as can be seen by his brother's choice to accept his father's will and go to his death. This ambiguity is used by Sima Qian in the Shi Ji to reflect on Sima Qian's own choice to accept castration for the sake of a greater goal rather than take the honourable path of suicide.
In some parts of China, Wu Zixu is worshipped as a river god, with the title of "God of Waves" (濤神).
A Memorial in honour of Wu Zixu was recently built in Suzhou.
Various plays exist in Peking Opera and other local operas based on Wu Zixu's story, among them Wen Zhaoguan (文昭关).
- Yún is the correct pronunciation of Wu Zixu's given name 員, not Yuán. See  and .
- Durrant, The Cloudy Mirror, p.182 n.35
- Sima Qian. "伍子胥列传 (Biography of Wu Zixu)". Records of the Grand Historian (in Chinese). Retrieved 30 November 2011.
Media related to Wu Zixu at Wikimedia Commons