Thursday, June 30, 2016

Badass Historical Chinese Bros, Part II: the Duke of Zhou

 Hi everyone, welcome back to Office Hours with the Brofessor: The Show Where I Say Things. Tonight: Badass Historical Chinese Bros, Part II: The Duke of Zhou—or as I like to call him, the Duke of Bro.

The Duke of Bro lived during the 11th century BCE in the ancient cradle of Chinese civilization: The Yellow River basin. The Duke, along with his older brother Wu, were vassal lords of the once-mighty Shang dynasty. The Shang had ruled the land for five hundred years, but their apogee had long since passed. While the first Shang kings had been wise and virtuous, the incumbent ruler was a despotic psychopath who spent his days paddling around a swimming pool filled with beer. Seriously, he had a beer pool. When he wasn’t doing laps he enjoyed coming up with increasingly inventive ways to kill people who criticized him.

Wu, the Duke, and the other vassals knew this wicked king would get around to them sooner or later, so before long they rose up in revolt. The leader of the rebel army was Wu, while his brother the Duke was his right-hand man. Having overthrown the Shang, Wu set up the Zhou dynasty as the successor state. Wu himself didn’t have much time to enjoy his victory, since he died just two years into his reign. Thus passed the throne to his young son, with my man the Duke as regent.

Now, for a lesser man, this would’ve been a great time to usurp the throne, but not the Duke of Bro. Having ruled wisely and well in the young king’s place, he was perfectly happy to hand over power when the young man came of age, and continued his career as a royal adviser. His loyalty has made him a Chinese culture hero even to this day.
One of the Duke’s greatest accomplishments as regent was to establish a doctrine that would shape the next three thousand years of eastern political thought: the Mandate of Heaven.

If the Mandate has an equivalent in Western culture, it’s the Divine Right of Kings. Essentially, the Mandate was a divine command that a particular dynasty rule “All under Heaven” (Chinese tian1xia4). Whoever held the Mandate—that is, the reigning monarch—was known as the “Son of Heaven” and seen as a living manifestation of divine will.

The Mandate, however, was not unconditional. It only applied as long as the ruling dynasty behaved itself. A decadent and corrupt ruler could expect sooner or later to lose the mandate to someone more deserving.

This doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven was put forth mainly to counter the propaganda of Shang loyalists and pretenders. They argued that, as descendents of the gods, the Shang had an innate right to rule.

Not so fast, said the Duke of Bro. He didn’t argue that the Shang had once been the Sons of Heaven, but the later Shang’s reprehensible conduct had stripped them of the title. Or had they forgotten how the Shang themselves came to power?

Well, no one could argue with that. Five hundred years previously, the Shang had overthrown the previous dynasty. A dynasty which, though founded by virtuous and exemplary rulers, had become corrupt and tyrannical.

So the Shang pretenders came half steppin’ and my man the DOB pretty much dropped the mic on their punk asses, thereby legitimizing his brother’s dynasty. The Zhou would go on to become the longest-lasting Chinese dynasty, ruling in some capacity for the next eight centuries, thanks largely to the efforts of the Duke of Bro.

Another reason the Duke of Bro rules is that he is, according to legend anyway, the one who compiled the Shi-Jing, or Classic of Poetry. It’s this collection of absolutely gorgeous Classical Chinese poetry that’s just a joy to read. I can’t recommend it highly enough if you’re into this kind of thing, which I believe everyone should be. It’s not only very beautiful poetically, but it’s also a cool look into ancient Chinese culture. We can also use the rhyme schemes in the Shi-Jing to help reconstruct Old Chinese phonology, which makes it enormously important to the field of historical linguistics. Let’s take a quick look-see, shall we?

"How the dolichos spread itself out,
Extending to the middle of the valley!
Its leaves were luxuriant;
The yellow birds flew about,
And collected on the thickly growing trees,
Their pleasant notes resounding fair."
--From Odes of Chow and the South.  II. Koh t'an.  (Legge translation)

(It’s actually about sex.)

So that’s about it for my main man the Duke of Bro, the DOB, makes Shang pretenders run and flee. I hope you enjoyed meeting him. Up next we have: Badass Historical Chinese Bros, Part III: Guan Yu. See you next time!

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