Explore the Shang Dynasty's saga, from Jiandi's divine encounter to King Zhou's tyranny, and the enduring legacy of Shi Yan's music.
Before the establishment of the Shang Dynasty, there was a divine maiden named Jiandi who was playing on the outskirts filled with mulberry trees. She saw a black bird drop its eggs on the ground. These bird eggs had patterns of five colors: blue, yellow, red, white, and black, along with the characters “八百” (eight hundred) written on them. Jiandi picked up the bird egg and stored it in a jade basket, covering it with a red sacrificial robe. That night, Jiandi dreamt that the heavenly mother told her, “By nurturing this bird egg, you will give birth to a virtuous son who will inherit the golden virtues and become a king.” Consequently, Jiandi carried the bird egg, and after a year, she became pregnant. Fourteen months later, she gave birth to Qi. Subsequently, the Shang Dynasty ruled for eight hundred years, in accordance with the “八百” (eight hundred) written on the bird egg. Although the country faced droughts during this time, the descendants of Qi thrived and remained prosperous.
Fu Shuo was a hired laborer dressed in prisoner’s clothing, toiling near a water pool by the cliff’s edge. One night, Fu Shuo had a dream in which he was flying around the sun, surrounded by clouds. Upon waking, he used divination with yarrow stalks and received the Hexagram Tun, symbolizing the union of rulers and ministers. More than a year later, Shang Tang sent gifts of jade and silk to invite Fu Shuo to become his prime minister.
King Zhou of Shang was foolish and tyrannical, seeking to conquer the vassal states. He ordered two men, Fei Lian and E Lai, to kill virtuous ministers and scholars, seizing their precious possessions and burying them beneath the Qiong Tai platform. King Zhou also deceived the neighboring vassal states within a thousand miles of the capital, causing their signal towers to emit continuous smoke signals. From the Qiong Tai platform, King Zhou observed the signal fires of these vassal states. When a signal tower showed a fire, he raised an army to attack that state, killing its ruler, capturing its people, and plundering its singers and dancers, subjecting them to abuse and humiliation. King Zhou’s cruel actions incurred the wrath of heaven and the discontent of the people. At that time, there were red birds that carried torches in their mouths, emitting star-like lights to disturb the signal fires on the signal towers. King Zhou became confused and ordered the extinguishing of the signal fires on the towers. This brought joy and relief to the common people, ushering in a period of peace. When King Wu of Zhou eventually rose to overthrow King Zhou of Shang, a woodcutter and a shepherd boy reached into a tall tree’s nest and found a jade seal inscribed with the words: “The Water Virtue is about to perish, while the Wood Virtue is on the rise.” These characters were in the ancient seal script, indicating that the era of the Shang Dynasty was ending, and the era of the Zhou Dynasty was flourishing. Consequently, two-thirds of the kingdom had already submitted to the Zhou Dynasty. The common people lamented that the fall of the Shang Dynasty had come too late, while the arrival of the Zhou Dynasty had been long overdue.
Shi Yan was a musician in the Shang Dynasty. The position of a musician had been established since the time of Pao Xi, and it was passed down from generation to generation. When Shi Yan became a musician, he eloquently expounded the theories of Yin and Yang’s changes. He was well-versed in the methods of divination using tortoise shells, the recording of omens, and books on celestial records. No one could fathom his attitude towards life and his dealings with people. Over countless generations, Shi Yan would occasionally appear and then disappear. During the time of the Yellow Emperor, Shi Yan served as the Minister of Music. In the later Yin and Shang Dynasties, he revised all the musical codes from the era of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. When Shi Yan played the strings of a zither, the earth deity would emerge from the ground to listen attentively. When he played flutes and pipes, celestial beings from the heavens would descend. During the time of the Yellow Emperor, Shi Yan was already several hundred years old. He could discern the signs of prosperity, decline, rise, and fall by listening to the music played by various vassal states.
By the end of the Xia Dynasty, Shi Yan, carrying his musical instruments, fled to the Shang Dynasty. Later, during the reign of King Zhou of the Yin Dynasty, who was immersed in the pleasures of music and women, he imprisoned Shi Yan in the inner palace for prisoners, with the intention of subjecting him to the cruelest punishment. While imprisoned, Shi Yan played mournful Shang music, melodious Zhi music, and cheerful and optimistic Jiao music, among other tunes. The officials in charge of prisons reported the tunes Shi Yan played to King Zhou, but he remained dissatisfied, saying, “These tunes are all ancient and simple, and they do not please me.” He refused to release Shi Yan. In response, Shi Yan changed his tunes and played some seductive and alluring melodies that enchanted King Zhou and helped him pass the long nights of debauchery. This saved him from the punishment of being chained and executed. Later, when King Wu of the Zhou Dynasty led an army to overthrow King Zhou, Shi Yan disappeared after crossing the Pu River, and some say he drowned himself. Therefore, during the Jin and Wei periods, people carved his image on stones and cast bronze statues in his honor. They also built shrines to worship him, and the tradition of offering incense to him has continued without interruption.
Xiao Qilu said: The “Three Tombs,” “Five Classics,” and the studies of divination and astronomy, among others, contain various accounts, including the legend that Jiandi was born after swallowing a swallow’s egg. The “Book of Poetry” also mentions: “Heaven commanded a black bird to descend to the mortal world, and thus, the ancestor of the Shang, Qi, was born.” This poetic statement is accurate. This book claims that Jiandi conceived Qi while holding a bird’s egg, but there are many different opinions, so the records vary greatly. Fu Shuo left his laborious work as a construction laborer and escaped his hired status, and by responding to King Wu Ding’s invitation to serve as a minister of Yin, it can be said that he could foresee auspicious signs. His experience, meeting King Wen of Zhou while fishing at Panxi, is similar to that of Lv Shang, who approached King Tang of Shang by carrying a tripod and sacrificial vessels, yet different. Success is determined by fate, and one should not forcefully pursue it; as long as it aligns with the will of heaven, all things will come to fruition. This principle has been elucidated by the sages of old and is the highest way of living for those who understand the ways of the world. “Enjoying life and understanding one’s fate” is indeed a profound maxim.
To achieve eternal fame after death, that is what is meant by reputation. How could one not pass down their fame and honor to future generations, for posterity to extol their exemplary conduct? It’s similar to how gold and precious jade, even in the face of dust and ashes, cannot conceal their pure and unyielding qualities. Just as the turbid waters of the Zi River and Wei River cannot change the clarity of the Jing River and Pu River. In the face of the tyranny of King Zhou of Shang, Shi Yan altered the tunes he played to ensure his survival. He used his strategic wit to navigate perilous situations, seized opportune moments, obeyed his ruler, preserved his life, and obtained pardon. This is what is meant by turning danger into safety, ultimately avoiding disaster through his cleverness. Thus, the image of Shi Yan has been depicted in paintings, and his figure has been carved and cast into sculptures. People admire his musical talent and value the profound impact of his miraculous deeds. As for individuals like King Goujian, who constantly sought to showcase the virtues of Fan Li by creating bronze statues, it is inconsequential.