King Zhou of Shang Di Xin — Controversial Last King of Shang Dynasty

Di Xin (1105 BC — 1046 BC), the last king of the Shang Dynasty, had long been considered responsible for the perdition of his kingdom. Hence, he was given a derogatory posthumous title: the King Zhou of Shang, or Shang Zhou Wang.

As one of the most controversial kings in the history of China, the King Zhou of Shang was always described as being aggressive, outrageous, and extravagant; together with his beloved evil queen Su Daji, they destroyed the kingdom together.

Many other historical events, however, indicated that he might be quite an ambitious and exceptional king that had flourished the kingdom, but failed because of conspiracy and betrayal. 

King Zhou of Shang Dynasty Di Xin

Resentment Among Ancestors of Shang and Zhou

When Di Xin’s grandfather was the king of Shang, he felt threatened by one of his vassal states named Zhou, which kept expanding through battles.

Though Zhou’s lord had paid tribute constantly and never behaved irresponsibly, Di Xin’s grandfather tricked and imprisoned Zhou’s current lord, who then passed away during the captivity.  

This event made Zhou consider the Empire Shang as their biggest and only enemy. 

Then Di Xin’s father, who believed that what they did to Zhou was inappropriate, tried to unite Zhou by marriage, and soon after he ascended to the throne.

Zhou’s new lord, the son of the lord that died in Shang’s prison, pretended to comply but still kept preparing for revenge.

Therefore, when Di Xin became the king, the Zhou regime had been preparing for their vengeance for a long time.

Bronze Weapons (Ya Chou Yue) of the Shang Dynasty
Unearthed Bronze Weapon Yue of the Shang Dynasty

Unearthed Bronze Weapons (Yue) of the Shang Dynasty — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Inner Crisis and Conflicts of the Shang Empire

Di Xin was a very strong, courageous, aggressive, and confident prince of Shang.

 

After his father passed away, he got the throne because of his exceptional strength and talent, also because his birth mother was the noble Queen.

However, many officials still support his older brother named Weizi, who didn't get the throne for his mother was an imperial concubine.

Consequently, at the beginning of Di Xin’s reign, he spent lots of time suppressing and fighting against those nobles and officials that were opposed the legality of his throne.

Di Xin nominated many civilian and slave-born people to be officials and generals of Shang. Under their assistance, he published some advanced policies to develop agriculture and the economy. 

Many nobles of Shang, including his big brother Weizi, escaped and surrendered to Zhou.

 

They were unsatisfied with Di Xin’s taking power away from them to those humble people.

Bronze Softshell Turtle With Four Arrows on Back that Recorded King Di Xin's Archery Etiquette

Bronze Softshell Turtle With Four Arrows on Back that Recorded King Di Xin's Archery Etiquette — National Museum of China 
Inscriptions on it noted that King Di Xin shot four arrows on a large softshell turtle accurately, and rewarded it to a historiographer.

Military Accomplishment of Di Xin the King Zhou of Shang

When he ascended to the throne, many nearby regimes had already expanded to some degree and kept challenging Shang’s authority. Some of them also allied together to fight against the Shang. 

As an exceptional militarist, King Di Xin led Shang’s army and defeated all of those rebellions, and largely expanded his territory. 

Most coastal provinces of China, like Shandong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Fujian, were included in the reign of the Middle Kingdom for the first time in Chinese history. 

Those decades of wars brought the king huge territory, a large number of slaves, as well as an extremely beautiful woman named Su Daji, the daughter of a lord whose state had been conquered by the king. 

In some historical documents, the king fell in love with Su Daji at first sight; he took her back to his fancy palace, and they spent a luxurious life together. 

Ritual Bronze Cooking Utensils (Yan) with Inscriptions Recording King Di Xin's Military Success of Conquering A Regime named Renfang

Ritual Bronze Cooking Utensils (Yan) with Inscriptions Recording King Di Xin's Military Success of Conquering A Regime named Renfang — National Museum of China

The Battle of Muye and the King’s Suicide

In the year 1046 BC, Zhou's Lord Ji Fa was informed that Shang’s main force was fighting far away in the east of China, which left the capital city of Shang poorly defended. 

Hence, Lord Ji Fa and his prime minister Jiang Ziya led Zhou’s army, and together with some other rebellion lords, they decisively attacked Shang’s capital city. This was the Battle of Muye.

The reasons for Zhou’s expedition include King Di Xin having been obsessed with alcohol and women, disrespecting other nobles, ignoring grand sacrificial ceremonies, and empowering humble people.

On the other side, Di Xin had to arm many slaves to fight back.

Zhou’s soldiers were brave and well trained, however, the Shang’s hastily organized slaves, most of whom were captives of wars and had never been treated well, had mutinied out of sudden.

The king's royal soldiers and generals, most of whom sacrificed in the end, fought bravely but still failed.

Hearing Zhou’s army succeeded and was marching toward the royal palace, King Di Xin wore his most valuable outfit and fancy jade jewelry, came to the tallest building in his palace, and burnt himself down there.

Zhou’s lord, then, cut off the king's head and killed his beloved woman.  

Unearthed Ritual Bronze Vessel (Li Gui) with Inscriptions Carved inside Recorded the Battle of Muye that Perished Shang Dynasty, and the Establishment of the Zhou Dynasty
Inscriptions about the Battle of Muye on the Unearthed Bronze Bowl (Li Gui) of the Zhou Dynasty

Unearthed Ritual Bronze Vessel (Li Gui) with Inscriptions Carved inside Recorded the Battle of Muye — National Museum of China

Ending of the Shang Dynasty

After King Di Xin’s death, the Shang Dynasty officially ended. 

Lord Ji Fa, now the King Wu of Zhou, established the Zhou Dynasty, granted Shang’s capital city to the son of the late king, and allowed him to rule Shang’s surrendered people there. 

Di Xin’s son Wu Geng, a few years later, rebelled but was conquered. Other forces of Shang that refused to surrender to Zhou, kept fighting but failed, or moved up north far away. 

Many former nobles of Shang surrendered and kept serving the Zhou Dynasty, including Weizi, the big brother of Di Xin.

Two of the king’s favorite generals sacrificed their lives in the Battle of Muye. But their descendants established the State Qin about 800 years later, which in the end perished the Zhou Dynasty. 

Di Xin's achievements were glorious from a modern perspective: he promoted and accelerated cultural fusion by extending his territory, had refuse to hold fancy and tremendous worship ceremonies, promoted talented people from all class origins, and further restrained noble’s power.

On the other hand, for people of his time, his over-drinking, tremendously luxurious, and cease of holding big sacrifice ceremonies were unusual, and decades of expanding wars also wasted a great deal of manpower and resources. 

Site of Xin Yu, the Last Capital City of the Shang Dynasty

Site of Xin Yu, the Last Capital City of the Shang Dynasty — Anyang City, Henan Province