Venture into the Zhou Dynasty's tales of King Wu's conquest, royal gifts from distant lands, and the mystical appearances of mythical birds.
When King Wu of Zhou marched eastward to overthrow King Zhou of Shang, during the night when they crossed the river, the clouds shone brilliantly, illuminating the surroundings as if it were daytime. Eight hundred feudal lords gathered to form an alliance, raising their voices in unison. A group of large bees resembling splendid pheasants flew and gathered on King Wu of Zhou’s boat. King Wu of Zhou ordered an image of these large bees to be painted on the flag hanging from the boat. The next day, they executed King Zhou of Shang and displayed his head for all to see. The boat was named the “Bee Boat.” In the second year of Duke Ai of Lu, people from the state of Zheng attacked Duke Jian of Zhao and obtained a flag adorned with the image of a large bee, similar to the one on King Wu of Zhou’s flag. This incident is recorded in the “Six Secret Teachings of Taigong.” During that time, King Wu of Zhou had ordered the image of the bee to be painted on all banners as an auspicious omen. Now, people still depict the image of the bee on tokens of commands, which is the legacy of King Wu of Zhou’s Bee Flag.
In the third year of King Cheng of Zhou’s reign, an envoy from the Nilü Kingdom came to pay respects. The envoy reported that when departing from the Nilü Kingdom, they often traveled through the clouds, hearing the rumbling of thunder beneath the clouds. At times, they ventured into dark caves, where they could hear the surging of waves above the caves. The people of the Nilü Kingdom determined the positions of neighboring states by observing the movements of the sun and moon and understood the changing seasons by measuring variations in temperature. Upon examining the Nilü Kingdom’s calendar, they found it to be consistent with that of the Central Plains region. King Cheng of Zhou received the Nilü Kingdom’s envoy with the appropriate ceremonial etiquette.
In the fourth year of King Cheng of Zhou’s reign, an envoy from the Zhan Tu Kingdom presented a young phoenix. They transported the young phoenix in a carriage made of white, precious jade and adorned the jade carriage with colorful gemstones, driven by a red elephant. Upon arriving in the capital of the Zhou Dynasty, the young phoenix was placed in the Spirit Bird Garden for nurturing. It was provided with a nourishing concoction made from precious jade and fed with celestial fruits, both of which were gifts from the Lady Shang Xian. When the young phoenix first arrived in the capital, its feathers were not yet vibrant and distinct. However, after King Cheng of Zhou conducted grand ceremonies to worship Heaven and Earth at Mount Tai and Mount She Shou, the phoenix’s feathers became resplendent. All the birds and beasts in the Central Plains region ceased their clamor and cries as they all submitted to this divine bird that had come from afar. When King Cheng of Zhou passed away, the phoenix soared into the sky and flew away. During Confucius’s time as a minister in the state of Lu, miraculous phoenixes from various places would gather and frolic in Lu. However, in the later years of Duke Ai of Lu, the phoenixes no longer frequented the state of Lu, which led Confucius to lament, “The phoenix does not come; it is too sad!”
In the fifth year of King Cheng of Zhou’s reign, an envoy arrived from a distant country called Yinzhi, situated ninety thousand li away from the Zhou capital. They presented a talented woman skilled in embroidery and weaving. This woman had a graceful figure and a beautiful appearance. She wore a fine, breathable silk garment adorned with various patterns. The sleeves and front and back flaps of her clothing were very long, and when a gentle breeze blew, she would fasten her clothing sash together, fearing that the garments might flutter uncontrollably in the wind. The people of Yinzhi were proficient in weaving, as they would place multicolored silk threads in their mouths, pulling them out with their hands to create intricately patterned silk fabrics. The envoys from Yinzhi brought forth various splendidly colored silk fabrics: there was the Cloud Kun Silk, with patterns resembling clouds rising from high mountains; the Lie Die Silk, with patterns resembling clouds and mist covering low, tooth-like city walls; the Miscellaneous Bead Silk, with patterns resembling strings of pearls and jade ornaments; the Seal Script Silk, with patterns resembling characters written in large seal script; and the Bright Row Silk, with patterns resembling rows of bright lamps and candle flames. Each of these silk fabrics had a width of three chi. The men of Yinzhi were diligent in agriculture, capable of plowing one thousand mu of land in a single day. Yinzhi also presented a type of tall grain that produced enough rice grains in one stalk to fill a cart. Consequently, there was a four-character poem among the people that went: “Diligently laboring, ten mu each day; Can yield abundant harvests, ears of auspicious grain.”
In the sixth year of King Cheng of Zhou’s reign, the country of Ranqiu presented two paired birds, one male and one female, enclosed in birdcages made of jade. The envoys from Ranqiu had curly hair, pointed noses, and were dressed in garments adorned with patterns resembling the current “morning glow” fabric. They had traveled through more than a hundred countries before reaching the capital of Zhou. Along their journey, they encountered countless mountains and rivers. They crossed the iron-like peaks of Tiexian Mountain, traversed the tumultuous boiling sea, and passed through Snake Island, infested with venomous snakes, and Bee Ridge, where swarms of poisonous bees flew. Tiexian Mountain was as hard as iron, rugged and treacherous. The envoys from Ranqiu had to equip their wagon wheels with sturdy metal rims for the journey. By the time they reached the capital of Zhou, the wheels had been nearly worn down by the sharp mountain rocks. The boiling sea surged like a bubbling cauldron, and the skins and bones of fish and turtles in the boiling sea were as hard as stones, suitable for making armor. To cross the boiling sea, the envoys wrapped their ship’s hull in copper, preventing sea serpents from approaching.
When passing Snake Island, they used leopard skin to create a canopy for their carriage and pushed the carriage forward within the canopy. When traversing Bee Ridge, the envoys lit Hu Sumu wood, the smoke of which could kill various venomous creatures. The envoys from Ranqiu spent more than fifty years on their journey before arriving in the capital of Zhou. At that time, King Cheng of Zhou was holding the Fengshan ritual at Mount Tai and Mount She. These envoys had started their journey from Ranqiu as children and arrived in the capital city of Zhou, Luoyi, with white hair, despite being youthful when they left. Upon returning to Ranqiu, their appearances rejuvenated to their youthful vigor. The paired birds they presented were extraordinarily powerful and resembled magpies. These paired birds carried red clay from the South Sea, built their nests on the dark wood of Kun Mountain, and flocked to settle whenever a sage was born, symbolizing the remarkable achievements of the Duke of Zhou in assisting King Cheng of Zhou.
In the seventh year of King Cheng’s reign in Zhou, there was a country called Fulou located to the south of southern regions. The people of that country excelled in clever and versatile acrobatic performances. They could change their appearance and attire, from creating clouds and fog to engaging in the most intricate feats. They could craft clothing by linking together metals, jade, and feathers. They could even produce clouds and mist from their mouths, spew flames, and generate thunderous sounds by pounding their bellies. At times, they could transform into the shapes of rhinoceroses, elephants, lions, dragons, dogs, and horses. Other times, they became tigers or wild buffalo. The people of Fulou could also spit out living people who would then perform various entertaining dances and acrobatics. These performers’ bodies would twist and turn at the command of the performers’ fingertips, rapidly changing shape and size, creating a wondrous and dazzling spectacle. Their incredible transformations were highly regarded at that time. Even the court’s musical instruments were influenced by their techniques. Towards the end of the Zhou dynasty, some attempted to learn from them, but they could only grasp the basic skills, losing the subtleties. This tradition of skillful performance was passed down through the generations, becoming known among the common people as the “Pohou Technique.” “Pohou” is a mispronunciation of “Fulou,” which refers to the Fulou musical style, and it has continued to be practiced to this day.
In the twentieth year of King Zhao’s reign in Zhou, one day, as he sat in the Qi Ming Palace, he took a brief nap during the day while still dressed. Suddenly, he dreamt of dense white clouds rising and billowing. Within the clouds, there was a figure dressed entirely in feathers, which earned him the name “Feathered Man.” In his dream, King Zhao engaged in a conversation with this Feathered Man and inquired about the art of achieving immortality. The Feathered Man replied, “Your Majesty, your spiritual wisdom has not yet reached its full potential. Seeking the path to eternal life is unattainable for you.” King Zhao knelt before him and implored the Feathered Man to teach him a method to sever all desires. The Feathered Man then used his fingers to draw upon King Zhao’s chest, causing his chest to split open. At this moment, King Zhao woke up, but his front robes and the beddings were already soaked in fresh blood. As a result, King Zhao developed a heartache ailment, and he withdrew from his meals and abandoned music. After more than ten days had passed, King Zhao once again dreamt of the same Feathered Man from his previous dream. The Feathered Man told him, “Previously, I did what I did to replace your heart.” He then produced a one-inch square green pouch containing pills that connected his meridians and a powder that replenished his blood. The Feathered Man applied the medicine to King Zhao’s chest, and the heartache ailment was instantly cured. King Zhao asked the Feathered Man to leave the medicine behind, and he stored it in a jade jar, sealing it with a golden cord. Later, King Zhao applied the medicine to his feet and found himself able to fly between heaven and earth, reaching places thousands of miles away effortlessly, as if they were within arm’s reach. Whoever obtains and takes this medicine will achieve immortality.
In the twenty-fourth year of King Zhao’s reign in Zhou, the nation of Tu Xiu presented a pair of Green Phoenixes and Red Magpies, one male and one female of each species. During early summer, both the Green Phoenixes and Red Magpies shed their feathers. People gathered the long feathers molted by the Red Magpies to make fans, and they used the feathers of the Green Phoenixes to adorn their carriage covers. There were four fans made from the feathers of Red Magpies: the first was named “Floating and Drifting,” the second “Feathered Stripes,” the third “Diminished Radiance,” and the fourth was titled “Subtle Shadows.” During that time, Dong Ou presented two beautiful women, one named Yan Juan and the other Yan Yu. King Zhao had these two women take turns gently waving these feathered fans, standing on either side of him. A gentle breeze would scatter in all directions, creating a cool and refreshing atmosphere. These two women were eloquent speakers with splendid language skills, particularly skilled in cheerful songs and laughter. They walked lightly, leaving no footprints even on the fine dust, and they cast no shadows even when walking under the sunlight. On the day King Zhao drowned in the Han River, these two women were on the same boat with him, attending to him on either side. They tragically drowned alongside King Zhao in the Han River.
So, the people on both sides of the Yangtze and Han Rivers still remember them to this day and have built shrines for them by the riverside. In the following decades, people could still see King Zhao and the two women playing by the rivers of the Yangtze and Han. On the day of the Double Third Festival in late spring, people gathered by the shrine at the water’s edge to frolic, dispelling ill omens. Some brought seasonally fresh and delicious food and submerged it in the water after wrapping it in orchids and Du Heng. Some used five-colored silk threads to weave sacks for the food, while others used iron utensils to store it, all of which were submerged together. People employed various methods to disturb the dragons and aquatic creatures in the water, making them afraid to devour the offerings. The shrine built by the riverside was called the “Zhao Qi Shrine.” People used the feathers of the Green Phoenix to make two feathered garments: one was called “Yu Zhi,” and the other was called “Xuan Ji.” Wearing these feathered garments could ward off the cold. When King Li of Zhou went into exile in the Zi Land, the people of Zi Land obtained these two feathered garments and regarded them as magical items. So, they divided these two feathered garments among themselves, spreading the feathers of the Green Phoenix throughout the entire Zi Land. If someone was sentenced to death, plucking a feather from the garment could redeem them and spare their life, with one feather from the Green Phoenix being worth ten thousand taels of gold.
Xiao Qilu said: King Wu of Zhou waged war with wisdom and intelligence, following the will of heaven to overthrow tyranny. He did not force the fierce bear and leopard warriors into battle, nor did he burden his soldiers and generals with hardships. Instead, he quickly laid the foundation for the imperial enterprise as soon as he took to the battlefield. King Wu relied on the power of the divine, combined with auspicious omens, to achieve the unification of the realm. After King Cheng ascended to the throne, he established and revered the ritual and music system, marking a period of prosperity for the Zhou Dynasty. King Cheng rebuilt Luo Yi and relocated the Nine Tripods. He abolished harsh punishments, leading all nations to submit. Even the achievements of Emperor Yu in making the Xia Dynasty prosper and Emperor Yi in governing the prosperous Shang Dynasty cannot compare to King Cheng’s accomplishments. Therefore, it is said that King Cheng inherited the foundation of his ancestors, promoted the noble virtues of the former kings, and ensured the continuation of the legacy of King Wen and King Wu of Zhou. That is why the poem “Da Ya” in the “Book of Songs” praises King Cheng for his “virtuous deeds.”
His prestige and teachings spread to the farthest corners, and his benevolence extended to the nine regions of the world. The places influenced by the supernatural wisdom of King Cheng were peaceful and stable, and people from neighboring and distant nations came to submit. They crossed mountains, sailed across seas, and traveled through remote and treacherous paths to offer tribute to the Zhou Dynasty. During this period, the imperial court was filled with exotic treasures brought as tribute from foreign lands, and divine birds and mythical beasts roamed the royal parks. These treasures, with their unique and splendid appearances and special functions, surpassed any human-made decorations. Unfortunately, these treasures from distant lands were not recorded in official documents or on silk scrolls written in seal script.
When envoys from various kingdoms sent emissaries in large numbers, they crossed remote and distant lands, traveling day and night, relying on their observations of wind, direction, and celestial phenomena, and using waterways to reach the capital of the Zhou Dynasty. These envoys braved all hardships to make their journeys. This indicates that the influence of King Cheng’s teachings had penetrated even the most hidden and obscure places, and his virtues had reached the darkest and dimmest corners. However, after the prosperous reigns of Kings Cheng and Kang, the fortune of the Zhou Dynasty gradually declined. King Zhao could not continue the great achievements of his ancestors, and the fame and teachings of the former kings did not pass down to later generations. When he ventured south to Jingchu, acted against morality, toured various regions, and lost the hearts of his people, he tragically drowned in the Han River. His death was caused by a scheme devised by the people of Chu. Thus, in later times, there was the question posed by Guan Zhong to the envoy from Chu, “Why did King Zhao die during his southern expedition?” The author of the “Spring and Autumn Annals” considered Guan Zhong’s question to be a profound criticism. It’s regrettable that those two women sacrificed themselves for King Zhao, displaying the same loyalty and righteousness as Zichar Shi Sanliang, who sacrificed himself for Duke Mu of Qin. They were both loyal and unwavering, willing to face death. Reflecting on their actions, they adhered perfectly to the principles of loyalty between ruler and subject. However, rather than allowing their subjects to sacrifice themselves, it would have been better to strongly advise King Zhao against acting immorally in the first place. The people of Chu sympathized with the two women, believing that they should not have died in such a way.
周武王東伐紂，夜濟河。時雲明如晝，八百之族，皆齊而歌。有大蜂狀如丹鳥，飛集王舟，因以鳥畫其旗。翌日而梟紂，名其船曰蜂舟。魯哀公二年，鄭人擊趙簡子，得其蜂旗，則其類也。 【 事出《太公六韜》。】 武王使畫其像於幡旗，以為吉兆。今人幡信皆為鳥畫，則遺像也。