King Tang of Shang Dynasty and Minister Yi Yin — Founders of Shang Dynasty

Zi Lv (about 1670 BC — 1587 BC), respected as King Tang of Shang, Tang, Cheng Tang, Shang Tang, Da Yi, or Tian Yi, was the founder of the Shang Dynasty (about 1600 BC — 1046 BC), the first empire that was documented directly by characters of the oracle bone scripts in the history of China. 

He was also one of the most virtuous monarchs that were highly respected by Confucianists.

With the assistance of remarkable minister Yi Yin, Tang overthrew the Xia Dynasty (2070 BC — 1600 BC) through war, as the first person that rebelled a king and replaced a huge empire by force in Chinese history.

Their excellent diplomatic strategies and military skills not only brought a brand new dynasty but also indicated that nothing is permanent, which is an important ideology in Chinese culture.

Portrait of the King of Shang, By Artist Ma Lin of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 —  1279)

Portrait of the King of Shang, By Artist Ma Lin of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 —  1279) — Taipei Palace Museum

Noble Lord Tang and His Expanding Tribe

A noble named Xie contributed significantly assisting Yu the Great to defeat the huge flood. 

After everything had settled, Yu the Great established Xia Dynasty, and subinfeuded a state named Shang to Xie.

Centuries later, the current King Jie of the Xia Dynasty was a luxurious tyrant, who gradually lost loyalty and support from many of his vassal states.

Tang, on the contrary, was quite respectful and ambitious. He migrated his capital city, encouraged agriculture and economy, and implemented a series of good policies to recruit talented people to serve in his state. 

Meanwhile, he married a highborn girl from another strong tribe named Youshen and built a solid alliance since after. 

Bronze Wine Cup (Jue) of the Xia Dynasty, Unearthed from Erlitou Site — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

A Slave Born, Exceptional Strategist Yi Yin

After Tang got married, soon, he found his wife’s private cook named Yi Yin was quite smart and insightful. 

Yi Yin (about 1649 BC — 1550 BC), an abandoned child, was found in an open field by his adoptive mother, a slave who was collecting mulberry leaves. Yi Yin grew up as a slave too, and inherited his adoptive father’s occupation, as a chef in the noble families.

Gradually, many nobles started to ask for advice from Yi Yin, who impressed Tang of Shang by his inspiring idea of comparing cooking to the management of a country.

Scripts on Oracle Bones of the Shang Dynasty

Scripts on Oracle Bones of the Shang Dynasty — National Museum of China

Then, Tang nominated Yi Yin as one of his most powerful officials and respected him as an honored master.

Afterward, Yi Yin assisted Tang and enlarged the territory, built a solid connection with Xia’s queen Mo Xi, bribed some of Xia’s officials to get info, and allied many other vassal states that were unsatisfied with King Jie’s reign. 

Besides, Shang also defeated and annexed nearby tribes and expanded their territory. 

Battle of Mingtiao Between Xia and Shang

After years of preparation, Tang and Yi Yin finally found a good opportunity and declared war against King Jie of Xia.

In a place named Mingtiao, Empire Xia and Shang fought the final, decisive battle, and Xia lost in the end. 

The King Jie of Xia was exiled to a mountain, and the Xia Dynasty was officially ended after this Battle of Mingtiao.

Soon, King Tang of Shang defeated tribes that were still loyal to the Xia, and supported by around 3000 lords of the complied tribes, established the Shang Dynasty. 

As the King Tang of the Shang Dynasty, he was quite diligent and thoughtful; he elected many intelligent and qualified officials, lowered taxes, and extended the territory, which all brought his people happier and stable lives.

Bronze Weapons (Ya Chou Yue) of the Shang Dynasty

Bronze Weapon (Ya Chou Yue) of the Shang Dynasty — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The Beginning of Seizing Power by Force

King Tang of Shang was the first person in the history of China that overthrew a huge kingdom and established a new empire through war. 

Tang of Shang and Yi Yin’s overthrowing of the Xia Dynasty set an excellent example concerning the shift of power and authority: a king could be overthrown, a dynasty could be ended, and a new empire could be established, by all means.

Nothing is permanent. 

For monarchs, the most important mission was to bring civilians good lives. 

After King Tang of Shang passed away, Yi Yin assisted his two sons reigned the empire well. 

Until his grandson, Tai Jia ascended to the throne. 

Unearthed Dragon Shaped Turquoise Artifact of the Shang Dynasty — Harvard Art Museums (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Banished and Improved King Tai Jia

King Tai Jia (? — 1570 BC), named as Zi Zhi, was the grandson of King Tang of Shang. 

After his two uncles all passed away, Tai Jia, supported by Yi Yin, ascended to the throne and became the fourth king of the Shang Dynasty.  

King Tai Jia had been a fine monarch in the beginning. Gradually, he became more and more obsessed with being powerful and enjoying a luxurious life. What’s more, he started to ignore Yi Yin’s bright suggestions.

Hence, Yi Yin, as the respectable teacher of previous kings, and the current regent, banished Tai Jia to guard in the mausoleum of King Tang of Shang.

During that period, Yi Yin reigned the empire well as a real monarch, while keeping sent intelligent scholars to tell King Tai Jia with stories of the King Tang of Shang, about how those brave ancestors conquered countless obstacles and built this prosperous empire. 

Tai Jia was moved, and had changed a lot; he started to help civilians nearby and decided to inherit his ancestors’ kingdom in the right way.

Unearthed Owl Shaped Bronze Wine Vessel (Xiao You) of the Shang Dynasty

Unearthed Owl Shaped Bronze Wine Vessel (Xiao You) of the Shang Dynasty — Shanxi Museum

Brilliant Yi Yin and His Legacy

Hearing his decent behaviors, Yi Yin welcomed King Tai Jia back to the capital three years later and returned him all power.

Afterward, Tai Jia became a brilliant monarch that brought his people with better lives and peace. 

Yi Yin was the first official, in the documented Chinese history, who had abolished and empowered a king.

After King Tai Jia was welcomed back, Yi Yin stayed as an important and excellent minister until he passed away and was buried using a king’s ceremony. 

Jade Figurine Wearing A Phoenix Crown of the Shang Dynasty

Jade Figurine Wearing A Phoenix Crown of the Shang Dynasty — National Museum of China

Besides Yi Yin’s remarkable political and military achievements, he was also an excellent cook, a knowledgeable doctor, and a well-respected wizard.

His contribution to Chinese food and medication was influential and exceptional: his herbal medication prescriptions were frequently mentioned and used in books in the following thousands of years of history of China.

Nowadays, he is still respected as the father of Chinese food by many professional cooks. 

Ceremonial Bronze Cooking Utensils (Ding) of the Shang Dynasty Decorated with Mythical Animals' Patterns — Jiangxi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)