King Wen of Zhou

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Ji Chang
Overlord of the West
Elder of Zhou
Reign1100–1050 BC (50 years)
Born1152 BC (traditional) or 1112 BC (modern estimate)
Bi (Zhou state)
Died1050 BC (aged 62)
Cheng (Zhou state)
Bi (Zhou state)
SpouseTai Si
IssueBo Yikao
King Wu of Zhou
Xian, Marquis of Guan
Du, Marquis of Cai
Feng, Count of Wey
Wu, Count of Cheng
Chu, Monarch of Huo
Zheng, Count of Mao
Zai, Monarch of Dan
Zhenduo, Marquis of Cao
Xiu, Marquis of Teng
Gao, Count of Bi
Posthumous name
King Wen (文王)
Temple name
Shizu (始祖, lit. "First Founder")
FatherKing Ji of Zhou
MotherTai Ren

King Wen of Zhou (Chinese: 周文王; pinyin: Zhōu Wén Wáng; 1152–1050 BC, the Cultured King) was the posthumous title given to Ji Chang (Chinese: 姬昌), the patriarch of the Zhou state during the final years of Shang dynasty in ancient China. Ji Chang himself died before the end of the Zhou-Shang War, and his second son Ji Fa completed the conquest of Shang following the Battle of Muye, and posthumously honored him as the founder of the Zhou dynasty. Many of the hymns of the Classic of Poetry are praises to the legacy of King Wen. Some consider him the first epic hero of Chinese history.[1]

Although frequently confused with his fourth son Duke of Zhou, also known as "Lord Zhou", they are different historical persons.


Chinese scholars (e.g. Wang Yunwu (王雲五), Li Xueqin (李学勤), etc.) identified King Wen with a 周方白[a]; Zhōufāng bó; 'Elder of Zhou region' mentioned in inscriptions H11:82 & H11:84 among oracle bones excavated at Zhouyuan (周原), Qishan County.[2]


Painting of King Wen of Zhou by Kanō Sansetsu.
Japan, Edo period, 1632.

Born Ji Chang (姬昌), Wen was the son of Tairen and Ji Jili, the Elder of Zhou, a vassal clan of the Kingdom of Shang along the Wei River in present-day Shaanxi. Jili was betrayed and executed by the Shang king Wen Ding in the late 12th century BC, leaving the young Chang as the Elder of the Zhou lineage.

Wen married Taisi and fathered ten sons and one daughter by her, plus at least another eight sons with concubines.

At one point, King Zhou of Shang, fearing Wen's growing power, imprisoned him in Youli (present-day Tangyin in Henan) after he was slandered by the Marquis of Chong.[3] His eldest son, Bo Yikao, went to King Zhou to plead for his freedom, but was executed in a rage by lingchi and made into meat cakes which were fed to his father in Youli. However, many officials (in particular San Yisheng and Hong Yao) respected Wen for his honorable governance and gave King Zhou so many gifts – including gold, horses, and women – that he released Wen, and also bestowed upon him his personal weapons and invested him with the special rank of Overlord of the West (Western Shang).[4]: 717  Wen offered a piece of his land in Western Luo to King Zhou, who in turn allowed Wen to make one last request. He requested that the Burning Pillar punishment be abolished, and so it was.[dubious ].

Subsequently, upon returning home Wen secretly began to plot to overthrow King Zhou. In his first year as Overlord of the West, he settled a land dispute between the states of Yu and Rui, earning greater recognition among the nobles. It is by this point that some nobles began calling him "king". The following year, Wen found Jiang Ziya fishing in the Pan River and hired him as a military counselor. He also repelled an invasion of the Quanrong barbarians and occupied a portion of their land. The following year, he campaigned against Mixu, a state whose chief had been harassing the smaller states of Ruan and Gong, thus annexing the three of them. The following year, he attacked Li, a puppet of Shang, and the next year he attacked E, a rebel state opposed to Shang, conquering both. One year later he attacked Chong, home of Hu, Marquis of Chong, his arch-enemy, and defeated it, gaining access to the Ford of Meng through which he could cross his army to attack Shang. By then he had obtained about two thirds of the whole kingdom either as direct possessions or sworn allies. That same year he moved his administrative capital city[5] one hundred kilometers east from Mount Qi to Feng, placing the Shang under imminent threat. The following year, however, the Overlord of the West died before he could cross the Ford. Nonetheless, that other sources suggest he died in battle during the Zhou campaign against the Shang.[6]

Four years after his death, his second son, known as King Wu, followed his footsteps and crushed the Shang at Muye, founding the Zhou dynasty.[7] The name "Wen" now means "the Cultured" or "the Civilizing" and was made into an official royal name by King Wu in honor of his father. He was the only noble to bear the posthumous name "Wen" for almost the entire first half of the Zhou dynasty, despite its common usage as an epithet of eulogy, suggesting a special privilege.[8]: 15 

Mandate of Heaven[edit]

The theory of political legitimacy that prevailed during the Zhou dynasty and found adherents throughout the following millennia was known as the Mandate of Heaven. According to this theory, Heaven established the sovereign lexically the same way a sovereign would establish a vassal,[8]: 9  legitimacy flowed from Heaven's will through the person of the ruler to his lords and his family.[9] The sovereign was held to be Heaven's eldest son in a manner analogous to the patrilineal kin-based society of Predynastic Zhou. If the sovereign was insufficiently virtuous, Heaven would choose a new successor, portended by various omens or disasters.[10] King Wen was said to be mandated by Heaven because the virtue of the Shang kings had declined too greatly.[11]: 515–516  While this political theory gained a great deal of sophistication over time, it seems to have begun with King Wen reading the skies.

In 1059 BCE, two unusual celestial phenomena took place. In May, the densest clustering in five hundred years' time of the five planets visible to the naked eye could be seen in the constellation of Cancer, followed a few seasons later by an apparition of Comet 1P/Halley.[12]: 123–124, 129  One or more of these[13]: 38  was interpreted by King Wen as a visible sign indicating his divine appointment.[14]: 30–31  Early records, such as the inscription on the Da Yu ding, describe Heaven's Mandate in terms of an actual astronomic event: "the great command in the sky" (天有大令).[13]: 39 [b]

The transmitted record does not place King Wen's receipt of the Mandate in his biography, although the widespread traditions that hold the idea of its existence to be true universally agree that he did receive it at some point during his career. While his conquests, imprisonment, establishments, and rebellion form a traditional relative chronology, the absolute date calculated by modern scholars of the celestial phenomena that formed the seed of what has been called the Zhou dynasty's most important contribution to Chinese political thought[15]: 291  cannot be securely slotted into King Wen's timeline.


As depicted in the album Portraits of Famous Men c. 1900 CE, housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Ah! Solemn is the clear temple,
reverent and concordant the illustrious assistants.
Dignified, dignified are the many officers,
holding fast to the virtue of King Wen.
Responding in praise to the one in Heaven,
they hurry swiftly within the temple.
Greatly illustrious, greatly honored,
may [King Wen] never be weary of [us] men.

— "Eulogies of Zhou – Clear Temple" (Chinese: 清廟; pinyin: Qīng miào) [16]

Many of the older odes from the Classic of Poetry (Shijing 詩經) are hymns in praise of King Wen. He was additionally a great hero of Confucius, whose followers played a significant role in shaping Chinese culture.


King Wen is also credited with having stacked the eight trigrams in their various permutations to create the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching. He is also said to have written the judgments which are appended to each hexagram. The most commonly used sequence of the 64 hexagrams is attributed to him and is usually referred to as the King Wen sequence.

Posthumous honors[edit]

In 196 BC, Han Gaozu gave King Wen the title "Greatest of All Kings".[17]



  • Tai Si, of the Youshen lineage of the Si clan (太姒 姒姓 有莘氏)


  • Lady, of the Zi clan of Shang (子姓), a daughter of Wen Ding and a younger sister of Di Yi
  • Other spouses.


  • By Tai Si:[19]
    • First son: Bo Yikao;
    • Second son: Fa (); ruled as King Wu of Zhou;
    • Third son: Xian (), ruled Guan;
    • Fourth son: Dan (),
    • Fifth son: Du (), ruled Cai;
    • Sixth son: Zhenduo (振鐸), ruled Cao;
    • Seventh son: Wu (), ruled Cheng ();
    • Eight son: Chu (), ruled Huo;
    • Ninth son: Feng (), ruled Kang then Wey;
    • Tenth son: Zai (), ruled Ran () or Dan ().
  • By other spouses:[21]
    • Ruler of Gao ;
    • Count of Yong ;
    • Zheng (), Duke of Mao ;[22]
    • Xiu (), ruler of Teng;[23]
    • Gao , ruled as Duke of Bi ;[24]
    • Count of Yuan
    • Marquis of Feng
    • Count of Xun
    •  Possibly Shi , Duke of Shao , ruler of Yan[c][25][26][27][28]
      • Served as Grand Protector to King Cheng[20]
  • Yuanhe Xingzuan "Register of surnames of the Yuanhe reign" lists King Wen's sons in a slightly different order of birth:[29]
    • Eldest son: Bo Yikao (伯邑考)
    • Second son: Fa, King Wu of Zhou (周武王)
    • Third son: Xian, Ruler of Guan (管叔鮮)
    • Fourth son: Dan, Duke of Zhou (周公旦)
    • Fifth son: Du, Ruler of Cai (蔡叔度)[d]
    • Sixth son: Chu, Ruler of Huo (霍叔處)
    • Seventh son: Wu, Ruler of Cheng (郕叔武)
    • Eight son: Feng, Ruler of Kang then Wey ([衛]康叔封)
    • Ninth son: Zheng, Ruler of Mao (毛叔鄭)
    • Tenth son: Zai, Ruler of Ran (冉[e]季載)
    • Eleventh son: Ruler of Gao (郜叔)
    • Twelfth son: Count of Yong (雍伯)
    • Thirteenth son: Zhenduo, Ruler of Cao (曹叔振鐸)
    • Fourteenth son: Xiu, Marquis of Teng (滕侯 / 滕叔繡)
    • Fifteenth son: Gao, Duke of Bi (畢公高)
    • Sixteenth son: Count of Yuan (原伯)
    • Seventeenth son: Marquis of Feng (豐侯)[f]
    • Eighteenth son: Count of Xun (郇伯)[g]


Gongshu Zulei (1192 - 1158 BC)
Gugong Danfu (1158–1126 BC)
Jili, Elder of Zhou
Tai Jiang of Pang
King Wen of Zhou (1125 BC - 1050 BC)
Queen Tai Ren



  1. ^ Rebus for 伯.
  2. ^ ; líng here is to be read as ; mìng, which had not yet developed at this early stage of the written language.
  3. ^ Not listed among King Wen's sons by Book of Han & Yuanhe Xingzuan
  4. ^ Possibly due to scribal error, Yuanhe xingzuan ranks Du as King Wen's 10th son like Zai. Here Du is treated as the 5th son following Shiji's & Zuozhuan's orderings
  5. ^ 𥅆 in Yuanhe Xingzuan; note the same phonetic component 冉; possibly due to scribal error, Yuanhe xingzuan ranks Zai as King Wen's 10th son like Du. Here Zai is treated as the 10th son following Shiji's & Zuozhuan's orderings
  6. ^ Possibly due to scribal error, Yuanhe xingzuan ranks him as King Wen's 17th son like Count of Xun. Here Marquis of Feng is treated as the 17th son following Zuozhuan's ordering
  7. ^ Possibly due to scribal error, Yuanhe xingzuan ranks him as King Wen's 17th son like Marquis of Feng. Here Count of Xun is treated as the 18th son following Zuozhuan's ordering


  1. ^ Theobald, Ulrich (December 19, 2010). "Zhou Wenwang 周文王, King Wen of Zhou". - An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art. Retrieved 2021-04-27.
  2. ^ Lin, Sen-Shou (1995). Problems in the Studies of Zhou Oracle-Bone Scripts (MA). University of British Columbia. doi:10.14288/1.0098998.
  3. ^ Cihai, p. 201.
  4. ^ Pines, Yuri (2020). "Names and Titles in Eastern Zhou Texts". T'oung Pao. 106 (5–6). Leiden: Brill: 714–720. doi:10.1163/15685322-10656P06.
    Pines notes (p. 717): “King Wen of Zhou’s 周文王 (d. ca. 1047 BCE) position under the Shang dynasty, Xibo 西伯, should be translated "overlord of the West," not "Earl of the West".” He further notes that this reading anticipates and is cognate with the title Ba, originally spelled with the same word.
  5. ^ Khayutina, Maria (2008). "Western "Capitals" of the Western Zhou Dynasty: Historical Reality and Its Reflections Until the Time of Sima Qian". Oriens Extremus. 47. Harrassowitz Verlag: 25–65. JSTOR 24048045.
  6. ^ <Gernet, J., (2019). EL MUNDO CHINO. Bogotá, Colombia: Editorial Planeta Colombiana>
  7. ^ Sima Qian, 史記 (Shiji) [10s BCE]. 10 vols. Beijing: Zhonghua Publishing, [1959] 1963.
  8. ^ a b Falkenhausen, Lothar von (1996). "The Concept of Wen in the Ancient Chinese Ancestral Cult". Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR). 18: 1–22. doi:10.2307/495623. JSTOR 495623.
  9. ^ Harari, Yuval Noah (2015). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Translated by Harari, Yuval Noah; Purcell, John; Watzman, Haim. London: Penguin Random House UK. p. 219. ISBN 978-0-09-959008-8. OCLC 910498369.
  10. ^ Szczepanski, Kallie (1 August 2019). "What Is the Mandate of Heaven in China?". ThoughtCo. Dotdash Meredith. Retrieved 28 April 2023.
  11. ^ Song, Yunwoo (2019). "The Emergence of the Notion of Predetermined Fate in Early China". Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy. 18 (4). Springer: 509–529. doi:10.1007/s11712-019-09684-1.
  12. ^ Pankenier, David W. (1995). "The cosmo-political background of Heaven's Mandate". Early China. 20. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 121–176. doi:10.1017/S0362502800004466. JSTOR 23351765.
  13. ^ a b Allan, Sarah (2007). "On the identity of Shang Di 上帝 and the origin of the concept of a Celestial Mandate (Tian Ming 天命)". Early China. 31. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1–46. doi:10.1017/S0362502800001796. JSTOR 23354211.
  14. ^ Li Feng (2008). Bureaucracy and the State in Early China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-88447-1.
  15. ^ Chen Sanping (2002). "Son of Heaven and Son of God: Interactions among Ancient Asiatic Cultures regarding Sacral Kingship and Theophoric Names". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. 3. 12 (3). Cambridge University Press: 289–325. doi:10.1017/S1356186302000330. JSTOR 25188290.
  16. ^ Kern, Martin (2010). "Early Chinese Literature, Beginnings Through Western Han". In Owen, Stephen (ed.). The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 23. ISBN 978-0-521-85558-7.
  17. ^ Creel. The Origins of Statecraft, p. 42.
  18. ^ Book of Han "Vol. 20 Tables of Persons - Then and Now" with annotations
  19. ^ Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian "Hereditary Houses of Guan and Cai" quote: "武王同母兄弟十人。母曰太姒,文王正妃也。其長子曰伯邑考,次曰武王發,次曰管叔鮮,次曰周公旦,次曰蔡叔度,次曰曹叔振鐸,次曰成叔武,次曰霍叔處,次曰康叔封,次曰冉季載。冉季載最少。"
  20. ^ a b Records of ritual matters by Dai the Elder (大戴禮記), "Protectors and Tutors (保傅), quote: "召公為太保,周公為太傅,太公為太師。" translation: "The Duke of Shao acted as Grand Protector, the Duke of Zhou as Grand Tutor, and the Grand Duke as Grand Preceptor."
  21. ^ Zuo zhuan, "Duke Xi -24th year - zhuan". quote: "管、蔡、郕、霍、魯、衛、毛、聃、郜、雍、曹、滕、畢、原、酆、郇,文之昭也。" translation by Durrent, Li, Schaberg (2016:380-1): "the domains of Guan, Cai, Cheng, Huo, Lu, Wei, Mao, Dan, Gao, Yong, Cao, Teng, Bi, Yuan, Feng, and Xun for King Wen’s sons of the odd-numbered generations"
  22. ^ Theobald, Ulrich (2012) Mao Gong 毛公, the Dukes of Mao for - An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art.
  23. ^ Theobald, Ulrich (2018), "The Regional State of Teng 滕" for - An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art.
  24. ^ Theobald, Ulrich (2018), "The Regional State of Wei 魏" for - An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art.
  25. ^ Bai Hu Tong, "Those whom kings consider not their subjects" quote: "召公,文王子也。"
  26. ^ Wang Chong, Lunheng, "Pneuma & Longevity"; quote: "邵公、周公之兄也" rough translation: "The Duke of Shao was the Duke of Zhou's older brother"
  27. ^ Huangfu Mi Records of the Generations of Emperors and Kings (帝王世紀), quoted in Gujin Tushu Jicheng (Complete Collection of Illustrations and Writings from the Earliest to Current Times) (古今圖書集成) vol. 63 / 91; quote: "召公,文王庶子。"; rough translation: "The Duke of Shao was King Wen's son by a secondary wife."
  28. ^ Theobald, Ulrich (2011) "Shao Gong Shi 召公奭, the Duke of Shao" for - An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art.
  29. ^ Yuanhe Xingzuan, Siku Quanshu version. Searchable full text in wikisource

Further reading[edit]

  • Ci Hai Bian Ji Wei Yuan Hui (辞海编辑委员会). Shanghai Ci Shu Chu Ban She (Shanghai), 1979 (in Chinese)
  • Wu, K. C. The Chinese Heritage. Crown Publishers (New York), 1982. ISBN 0-517-54475-X.
King Wen of Zhou
Born: 1152 BC Died: 1056 BC
Regnal titles
New title King of Zhou
1099 – c. 1050 BC
Succeeded by