The Record of King Wu of Zhou's Royal Deeds in the Yi Zhou shu in Light of Near Eastern Royal Inscriptions.

Author:Grebnev, Yegor
Position:Critical essay

"Shi fu" [phrase omitted] (Hauling of Captives) (1) is a chapter in the Yi Zhou shu [phrase omitted] (Leftover Zhou Writings) that contains an unorthodox account of King Wu's [phrase omitted] (mid 11th c. BCE) conquest of China's first historically attested dynasty of Shang [phrase omitted] (late 13th-mid 11th c. BCE). It started gaining more scholarly attention in the twentieth century when important studies of this text were published, arguing that it contains the most credible account of the Zhou conquest of Shang in the received corpus. (2) Indeed, the "Shi fu" is remarkable for violating many of the conventional ideas about early Western Zhou [phrase omitted] (mid 11th c.-771 BCE) sage kingship: King Wu is portrayed as a ruthless conqueror exterminating his enemies in thousands and practicing human sacrifice on a large scale. This contradiction between the portrayal of King Wu in the "Shi fu" and his idealized representation in the later Chinese tradition is believed to have been explicitly mentioned by Mencius (ca. 372-289 BCE), who refused to accept a text similar and related to the "Shi fu" precisely because of its harsh details. (3) However, what appeared suspicious to Mencius became a proof of the text's credibility and authenticity for scholars in the twentieth century who, under the influence of contemporary theories of the linear evolution of human societies, were ready to accept violence and brutality as standard traits of the more "primitive" steps of historical evolution. As a result, the "Shi fu" is today widely acclaimed as an early, objective, and credible historical account of the Zhou conquest of Shang.

In this paper, I would like to challenge this consensus opinion by pointing out that the "Shi fu" does not correspond to the model of an objective historical account of a single campaign that has been imposed upon it in recent scholarship. Instead, I propose to read it as a monument to successful kingship, which is a textual type very well attested in Near Eastern material. By contextualizing the "Shi fu" against Near Eastern royal inscriptions instead of later Chinese historiographic accounts, I identify structural similarities in the conception and representation of kingship that the "Shi fu" shares with Near Eastern cultures. I also propose solutions to certain textual problems of the "Shi fu" that cannot be satisfactorily solved within the conventional paradigm. Although my observations question the validity of recent historical reconstructions, they can help us to see China less as an exotic exception in the ancient world and more as an important example of an early literate society that, despite its unique characteristics, had much in common with the better investigated ancient Near East. (4)


Mario Liverani's cautious remarks concerning the interpretation of Mesopotamian royal inscriptions seem to fully apply to the scholarship of the "Shi fu": "Historians' use of the celebrative texts issued by the ancient kings requires an understanding of their background and their purposes, and of the communicative conventions in use, in order to reach a deeper level of reading, to recover truth behind propaganda, and to identify the real problems behind their verbal resolution." (5) A comparable degree of awareness about the methodological complexity of textual interpretation has not yet become commonplace in the field of early China studies; therefore, in the contemporary discussion of the "Shi fu," a preoccupation with the proofs of authenticity and credibility has overshadowed the problem of textual interpretation and the decipherment of the text's compositional and linguistic conventions. Nevertheless, before a certain text is proclaimed credible, it is important to identify what kind of text we as scholars are facing. For example, Romeo and Juliet is credible as a play by Shakespeare, but it would be disastrous to treat it as a credible source for the study of medieval Italian society. Therefore, in order to use the "Shi fu" in a justified way as a source of historical evidence, we need to first identify this text; before we start approaching it with our questions, we need to understand what kind of message the "Shi fu," or rather its creators and transmitters, are attempting to deliver.

I understand this as a problem of contextualization and re-contextualization. (6) The reason why we are not attempting to use Romeo and Juliet as a source book for the study of Italian history is that we know from the continuous tradition how to contextualize it properly within the theatrical environment. No such continuous tradition of unequivocal interpretation exists for the "Shi fu," and even if it existed, we could not be certain that it would be equally applicable to the different stages of the text's long transmission history. Therefore, our only choice is to attempt to reconstruct the context relying on the available evidence. First, we can extract information from within the text, just as a careful study of the structure and composition of Romeo and Juliet would betray its theatrical origins even to a person who has no knowledge of European theatrical culture. Second, we can rely on external evidence, trying to reconstruct the context using similarly structured texts attested in other cultures. Likewise, a hypothetical researcher unfamiliar with Shakespeare but exposed to the structure of theatrical scripts for Peking opera would probably find it easier to re-contextualize Romeo and Juliet than someone who does not have knowledge about dramatic scripts.

In fact, both approaches can be combined as our understanding of the text's structure can be elucidated by comparable textual structures in other cultures. That is why the study of the "Shi fu" against Near Eastern material is particularly rewarding.


When it comes to the quality of the received text of the "Shi fu," one has to acknowledge that it is certainly corrupt and contains transmission errors. A comparison of the received "Shi fu" and passages from an unpreserved cognate text named "Wu cheng," cited in the chapter "Lu li zhi" [phrase omitted] (Treatise on Calendar and Musical Tones) of the Han shu [phrase omitted] (History of the Han), reveals the probable degree of corruption and the range of various kinds of errors in the received "Shi fu." (7) In the following comparison, I have highlighted the characters in the "Shi fu" that do not correspond to the version preserved in the Han shu. (8)


[phrase omitted]


[phrase omitted]


[phrase omitted]

Apart from simple orthographic variations that do not affect the understanding of the text (yue [phrase omitted], yi [phrase omitted], and po [phrase omitted]), there are more significant problems with the "Shi fu" as contrasted to the text cited in the Han shu.

1) Date manipulation. There is a difference in the date sequence in the first passage: the "Shi fu" has bing-chen [phrase omitted] (53/60) and ding-si [phrase omitted] (54/60) while the Han shu version has ren-chen [phrase omitted] (29/60) and gui-si [phrase omitted] (30/60). The yuexiang [phrase omitted] ("lunar phase") formula in this passage is reversed to its opposite: while the Hanshu version reads pangsipo [phrase omitted] ("nearing the death of the moon's brightness"), (9) the "Shi fu" has pangshengpo [phrase omitted] ("nearing the birth of the moon's brightness"). In the second passage, the Han shu mentions the third month, while the "Shi fu" gives the second month; however both agree on the same cyclical date jia-zi [phrase omitted] (1/60). Combined, these differences do not look like simple copyist errors, and it seems that the chronology has been consciously modified in one of these texts. Knowing that the Yi Zhou shu has survived more transmission vicissitudes than the Han shu, (10) it appears more probable that the Han shu chronology is closer to the common ancestral version than the one in the "Shi fu." However, no matter which redaction is given higher priority, this example demonstrates that the dates in the "Shi fu" could have been subject to conscious manipulation and cannot be accepted uncritically.

2) Character substitution. While the Han shu starts its third citation from the character wei [phrase omitted] (initial particle), which is quite common at the beginning of dating formulas, the "Shi fu" gives an unexpected shi [phrase omitted] ("time"), which is more difficult to accommodate with the context. In all other comparable passages, the "Shi fu" uses wei [phrase omitted] as well; the occurrence of shi looks like an error.

3) Transposition and omission of characters. The version of the Han shu often contains variants that appear more sensible grammatically and semantically, differing from the "Shi fu" only in the sequence of characters. In the first passage, the Han shu version reads seamlessly: [phrase omitted] ("then King Wu set off in the morning from Zhou in order to attack [Shang king] Zhou"), while the "Shi fu" contains a combination of the coverbs zi [phrase omitted] ("from") and yu [phrase omitted] (universal coverb, often meaning "at") that is difficult to reconcile: [phrase omitted] ("then the king set off from at [!] Zhou to attack Shang king Zhou"). In the second part of the third citation, the Han shu version reads: [phrase omitted] ("sacrificed at the Heaven's post"), which is obscure but arguably more acceptable than the "Shi fu" version, which omits the character tian [phrase omitted] ("Heaven"): [phrase omitted] ("sacrificed at the post"). Finally, the very last phrase in the Han shu version is also easier to understand: [phrase omitted] ("then, taking [what they received from] the many countries, they sacrificed the decapitated heads at the Zhou temple"). Although this passage looks cryptic and archaic, it is more sensible than the version of the "Shi...

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