An Ancient Victory

Can a victory in battle have implications which last millennium?

Living in China, I get used to thinking a tad differently from the way the rest of the world thinks… so  here’s the story….

Walking through the streets of the New Village was much like walking through any town in China these days – no local colour, the newer areas populated with rows of shopping malls with restaurants on every floor – contrasted with the older town – in this case a nondescript shambles of a town, wide roads, corner stores, a food street with steam filling the atmosphere from the countless noodles and steamed buns on offer, mixed with fumes from overheated motorbikes and motorized bicycles. Yes, there are towns in China wheres bicycles can be seen, but they are dying out – it’s not the 1990s any more.

nondescipt shop in new part of New Village

The “new” in New Village needs to be put into perspective – it was new way back in the Sui dynasty (581- 618 – a short-lived dynasty preceding the Tang). Like I mentioned, one starts to see things differently – like time and history – when living in China for lengthy periods.

Chinese dynasty timeline from http://www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/history/ Click on picture for larger view

New Village had really one claim to fame – it was the site of a very ancient battle. An important battle – events which followed the victory here were to unleash cosmic waves, ripples of time, which guided and underpinned just about all of China’s future, up until today.

What was so special about this victory, this battle, that caused the influence of the victors to perculate through all future Chinese time?

The last king of Shang was fond of parties. He was not so fond of opposition. Opponents to his regime were killed, their blood filled the wine pools for his extravagant parties. Guests could wander along the vast park he set aside for entertaining, picking of roasted meat that hung from trees. He was found of a particular type of meat – human. Roasted slices of human flesh were strung to trees, for guests to consume.

Di Xin, the last king of the Shang dynasty with his concubine Da Ji. He was renowned for his extreme cruelty – killing opponents and having their corpses dried to paste, cutting of the legs of an old man who was hesitating before he crossed a cold river. He was given the posthumous name King Zhou,, a character which means “horse crupper'” – or the part of a saddle most likely to be soiled. This word “zhou” is a different one, and pronounced differently from, the ‘zhou” of the Zhou dynasty. Photo source from http://history.cultural-china.com/en/182History5291.html

 You kind of get the drift, right? The last king of Shang was corrupt, downright evil even. Such atrocities caused others to rebel, and the nearby Zhou kingdom, did what warring states do,  formed allegiances, and gathered an army to defeat the Shang.

Before we get to that though, we’ll take a tour through the Shang jails, where we will find King Wen of Zhou, who’d been locked into a cell for years. Family, friends, princes from allied states all tried to bribe the Shang king to free him, to no avail. Instead, the Shang king killed King Wen’s son and fed his prisoner meat from his son’s corpse.

King Wen of Zhou – the first King of the Zhou state who was imprisoned by the corrupt Shang emperor, and wrote a treatise on the Yi Jing ( I Ching) whilst in jail. image source: http://history.cultural-china.com/en/46History1568.html

Whilst in prison, King Wen whiled away the hours studying the hexagrams of the Yi Jing ( I Ching) and, contemplating them, reordered them. King Wen’s order of the hexagrams is the one most commonly used to this day, known as King Wen’s sequence.

King Wen contemplating the Yi Jing hexagrams. Image from http://www.i-ching.hu/array/kingwen-story.htm

Eventually enough bribes caused King Wen’s release. He continued to form alliances with nearby states, and eventually died, leaving his son, Prince Fa in power. Fa was to  become known as King Wu, the Military King. He marched his armies to a ford in the Yellow River, all were waiting to attack. Inexplicably, much to the chagrin of his allied commanders, he ordered his armies back to the Zhou homelands. Ancient texts record King Wu as saying “You do not know heaven’s mandate” as his reason for this seemingly odd act.

King Wu had dreamed of a scarlet crow alighting on Zhou soil – this was code for astronomical events. The “vermillion bird” is one of China’s ancient megaconstellations located in the western sky. It is unsure just exactly what the “heaven’s mandate” was, but what is certain is some kind of heavenly alignment was exactly what King Wu was waiting for.

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Display of starmap used by the ancients in museum in Henan.

Following diviniation, King Wen had his soldiers pause on the banks of the river until the time was right. Crossing the river in darkness, they began their attack against an army that greatly outnumbered them. Some claim the “heaven’s mandate” was a solar eclipse, and as the Zhou armies crossed the ford at Mengjin, surpising the superior forces of the Shang, an eclipse darkened the world, sending the Shang armies into confusion, allowing the lessor forces of Zhou to win the battle.

Archeoastronomers have also dated the alignment of five planets in the sky at the time of the Zhou conquest, an unusal event, codified in ancient writings as “the great scarlet crow clasped a jade sceptre in its beak” – ie in the  beak area of the megaconstellation Vermillion Bird ( or Scarlet Crow) five planets were aligned, looking like the cosmic bird held a jade spectre in its mouth.

This then was Heaven’s Mandate – a literal, cosmic mandate in the form of star alignments ( or perhaps a solar eclipse) which signalled to King Wu it was time to fight the good fight.

Zhou and their allied armies defeated the numerically superior Shang armies at Muye, in an historic battle that echoed down Chinese history .

What made the battle of Muye – the Wilds of Mu – successful? It was all in the timing.

The victory at Muye was to signal the beginning of the Zhou dynasty. King Wen’s other son, Dan, the Duke of Zhou, went on to write the moving lines in the Yi Jing and become known through Chinese history as an example of righteousness.

The Zhou dynasty influenced much of what we consider as essentially “Chinese culture ” – Daoism, the Yi Jing,  Chinese philopospy, and also codified town planning which still resonates in state administration today. Even Confucius famously once said “I must be slipping, I dreamt of Zhou Gong last night”.

The victory which gave governance to a state which was to influence a country for millennia was one wrought by those with belief in their ability to divine the cosmos, and by a kingdom which epitomized “right behaviour” against the corrupt behaviour of the Shang.   A good versus evil story of mythic proportions.

Part of the renvovated old town in the city called New VIllage. Photo from http://www.spaceshipchina.com

I walked through the wide modern avenues of the New Village, where peasants had jumped aboard the ‘get rich quick’ train only in the last five years, noting nothing really of interest. Just another town with shopping towers and malls with gold-trimmed resturants.

  The ghosts of an ancient battle might have long since left their glory grounds, but the principles they fought for, the guidance of King Wen, King Wu and the Duke of Zhou, had determined the unfolding of Chinese culture for millennia.  

The victory of the battle at Muye, founded on the Zhou king’s belief in their innate relation to the wider cosmos and the determination to defeat extravagant corruption, and consequently  having long-lasting implications across a nation, is unique amongst world history.

I walked along the streets of the New Village, not going into the flashy shops of the new town nor the dusty road-side stores of the old, thinking of King Wen and the Duke of Zhou.

The featured image at the top is of daggers of the sort used during the Zhou-Shang battles. Archeoastronomers argue over which interpretation is correct – a solar eclipse, or the alignment of five planets whose light could be seen through the darkness – or even, both. SJ Marshal has written a book called “Mandate of Heaven” which uses lines from the Yi Jing ( I Ching) to determine events which took place during the Zhou overthrow of the Shang. David Pankenier writes about “the cosmo-politcal background of Heaven’s Mandate” and refers to the archeoastronomical symbolism of the “scarlet crow” as the megaconstellation Vermillion Bird.

All photos, unless otherwise indicated, brought to you by Spaceship China.