The Virtuous Cheng Tang of the Shang Dynasty

Throughout the history of China, whenever calamities like locust plagues, droughts, and meteor impacts occurred, the ancient monarchs considered these occurrences to be heavenly signs, warning and urging the monarchs to improve their administrations. Ancient Chinese monarchs believed that the root cause of natural calamities was that “the monarch’s virtue was not fit for his position.” They believed that monarchs must wear “white robes” (for mourning), “keep away from the palace” (refrain from comfortable living), “abstain from entertainment,” “partake in fasting,” as well as many other measures to help them engage in self-reflection and to be able to “cultivate virtue.” Some ancient Chinese monarchs would even “consider themselves responsible for all human crimes,” that might have brought about the calamities and so the monarchs would beg the nation to forgive them for their “unfit administration.” Virtuous ancient Chinese monarchs’ reactions to natural calamities were in compliance with ancient rules for government and administration such as “taking the heavenly law as the guiding principle, and virtue as the foundation of administration,” as well as “a monarch’s morality must comply with Heaven’s requirement of him.”

As a monarch genuinely prays for his subjects, his virtuous conduct will move both heaven and Earth, and he will leave a good example for future generations. Cheng Tang [1], the founder of the Shang Dynasty (16th to 11th century B.C.), was a benevolent and virtuous king. In The Biographies of Emperors (or Di Wang Shi Ji in Chinese), Cheng was described as a man of “nine feet in height, with the virtue of a saint.” During the Xia Dynasty (21st to 16th century BC), when Cheng was still a feudal lord, he went on a tour and saw a hunter spreading nets in all four directions while praying to heaven, “May all the birds in the sky, and all the beasts on earth in all four directions be trapped in my nets.”

When Cheng Tang witnessed this scene, he sighed and said, “Such cruel acts as spreading the nets in all four directions to catch all living birds and beasts are the very acts of the tyrant Jie of the Xia Dynasty.” Cheng Tang ordered the hunter to remove the nets facing three of the directions, leaving only one net facing one direction. The hunter changed his prayer to, “May all the wild creatures on the left escape further to the left. May all the wild creatures on the right escape further to the right. May all the wild creatures flying in the air soar higher. May all the wild creatures escaping toward the earth make a quick escape downward. Let only those wild creatures who are destined to die enter my nets.” When the feudal lords in the Han Nan area heard this story, they complimented Cheng Tang’s virtuous deed, “Cheng Tang is so virtuous that he was compassionate toward even the wild birds and beasts. It is not only men that will receive the benevolence of the king!” Soon a total of 36 feudal lords pledged their allegiance to him. This is the origin of a famous Chinese idiom: “Spread only one side of the net,” which now means, “giving the wrongdoer a way out by way of a second chance.”

According to the Book of Zhou (or Zhou Shu in Chinese), after Cheng Tang completed an Honourable crusade that ended the reign of Jie, a tyrant of the Xia Dynasty, “3,000 feudal lords gathered to determine the new ruler of China. Cheng Tang presented the imperial seal that he acquired from Jie, placed it on the left of the Chinese emperor’s empty seat, and bowed repeatedly to the seal. Upon completing paying respect to the imperial seal, Cheng Tang took his seat as a feudal lord, and said, “This throne belongs to a man of virtue, for China is a property of any family. Only a virtuous man should rule China. Only a man with principles (Tao) can govern the world because only a man with principles (Tao) knows how to govern the country properly.” Of all 3,000 feudal lords, no one dared to claim the throne. Cheng Tang modestly declined the unanimous vote of all feudal lords three times before he finally took the imperial seat graciously.

After Cheng Tang established the Shang Dynasty, the serious drought that had started during the reign of Jie of the Xia Dynasty continued to plague China. The drought, which lasted for seven years, caused all the rivers and wells to dry up, killed all the grass and trees, and stopped any crop seeds from germinating, thus denying the people any harvests. From the beginning of the drought, Cheng Tang had set up an altar in the suburbs, and prayed earnestly to Heaven to end the drought with rain. Seven years had passed, but the drought still persisted. Cheng Tang ordered the royal astronomer to seek a solution via divination. After the divination, the astronomer said, “We must use the sacrifice of a man to God to end the drought.” Cheng Tang thought for a while and said, “I am praying for rain for the sake of my subjects. If we have to sacrifice a man to heaven, I will volunteer to be the sacrifice.” Next Cheng Tang took a bath, abstained from meat in his diet, trimmed his hair and nails, and drove a white horse carriage whilst wearing a white coarse linen robe with a white belt to the alter at the mulberry grove. Cheng Tang said his prayer to heaven, “The fault is mine and mine alone. Please do not punish my subjects. If my subjects had done anything wrong that might contribute to the drought, I must be the root cause for their wrongdoings. Heaven and ghost spirits, please do not hurt my subjects because I failed to guide them properly due to my insufficient capability.”

Next Cheng Tang rebuked himself for six matters and said, “Was the drought caused by any lack of law and order in my administration? Was it because I had been oblivious to my subjects’ hardships and because I failed to fulfil their expectations? Was the drought caused by any corruption of the government officials that I was not aware of? Did I waste any money or manpower building an imperial palace on such a large scale? Did I allow the queen to interfere with politics? Did I employ corrupt and malicious government officials and take their bad advice?” By the time Cheng Tang finished his self-reflection, it began to pour within several thousand li’s [a unit of linear measurement equal to about one third of a mile]. The story about Cheng Tang’s volunteering to be the live sacrifice to Heaven was recorded in The Historic Records by Luu (or Luu Shi Chun Qiu in Chinese), The Works of Mocius [2] (or Mo Zi in Chinese), The Works of Xun Zi [3] (or Xun Zi in Chinese), The History of the Zhou, Lu, Qi, Jin, Zhen, Chu, Wu, Yue Dynasties (or Guo Yu in Chinese), Shuo Yuan (written by Liu Xiang) as well as many other historic books. The story of Cheng Tang was consistently recorded in all of those books.


[1] Cheng Tang was also known as Prince Tang, or Feudal Lord Tang, who overthrew the tyrant Jieh of the Xia Dynasty and established the Shang Dynasty in 1766 B.C.

[2] Mocius, or Mo Ti, was one of the great philosophers of the Epoch of Warring States, who preached love without distinction, or compassion.

[3] Xun Zi, or Xun Kuang, was known for his doctrine of man’s natural wickedness.

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