Ancient China: Royal Sons of Heaven

The monarchs of Ancient China received their mandate to rule from Heaven. They were men, but they were divine men, and they mediated between their spiritual parent Heaven and the actual world called “Under Heaven.”

This idea that a great power in the sky conferred upon one especially worthy superman and his successors the right to rule all men goes back to the prehistoric mists that conceal the beginnings of Chinese history. From ancient legends of awesome nature gods, oral tradition handed down tales of the first kings of all, the true “Sons of Heaven.” They were the ultimate patriarchs, the founders of the Chinese nations of the past. In the fragments of ancient literature that remain they appear as the offspring of the union of earthly mothers with the heavenly deity, whose power showed itself in the thunder, whose majesty was represented by the sun and whose grace revealed itself in the fertilizing rain.

Direct descent from the sky-god, the great source of fertility on high, was the basis of all claims to royal legitimacy. The early “Sons of Heaven” were believed to be endowed with extraordinary spiritual power, obtained directly from their heavenly par­ent. This enabled them to establish hereditary dy­nasties of holy kings, but the precious spiritual power was not passed on intact to successive gen­erations. Gradually it dissipated itself until finally a king who was completely devoid of it inherited the throne. Heaven then withdrew its mandate from him and bestowed it anew on a hero of a different lineage.

The story of the evolution of the concept of kingship might be said to begin with Yao, one of the most ancient of the legendary rulers of primeval times. In tribal myth, he was a personified mountain who towered over his watery domain for countless years: “Yaos frame, approached closely, was like the sun; seen from afar, it was like a cloud.” Later, he was represented as a noble though extraordinary monarch who ruled during prehistoric times.


The legendary Emperor Yu was reputed to have founded the dynastic system as the first ruler of the Hsia Dynasty in the 23rd Century B. C. The Great Yii, as he was known, is credited with having built new waterways and a drainage system that controlled the flood-ridden Yellow River Valley.

Yaos most famous successors were Shun, who originally, it seems, was the master of the elephants who lurked in the dark forests, and Yii the Great, who made dry land available for the dwelling places of mortal men in the midst of the primeval waters:

When widespread waters swelled to Heaven and serpents and dragons did harm, Yao sent Yu to control the waters and to drive out the serpents and dragons. The waters were controlled and flowed to the east. The serpents and dragons plunged to their places.

On this land Yii the Great is believed to have established the Hsia kingdom, a society that may actually have existed around 2000 B.C. but for which there is no archeological or historical evidence. In the official accounts, Yu is described as a true “Son of Heaven,” born of a virgin who ate seeds, known to us as “Job’s Tears,” that contained the divine sperm of the sky-god. He is said to have passed the throne on to his son, thereby establishing the first hereditary dynasty of true men. Over the centuries, traditional belief was to become indistinguishable from historical fact, and the naive tales of the first “Sons of Heaven” were to lead to the concept of the dazzling, sacrosanct ruler of medieval China. One dynasty after another was to receive the mandate from Heaven and rule China until its spiritual power had been spent-a decline that often existed only in the political propaganda of the successful revolutionaries who founded succeeding dynasties.


A jade pi (pronounced “bee”)-a flat disk with a round hole symbolizing Heaven-was used in ceremonies by early Chinese kings when they appealed to celestial spirits. Such objects were also placed in royal graves.

The semilegendary Hsia Dynasty founded by Yii the Great is said to have been overthrown by the Bronze Age King T’ang, traditionally the first historical ruler of China, who, according to accepted tradition, was born of a mother made pregnant by a bird’s egg that fell from Heaven. He was the first king of the Shang Dynasty, which ruled the Middle Kingdom from about 1500 B.C. until about 1000 B.C.

The most important function of the Bronze Age king was to communicate with the spirit world -the gods of nature who were the source of his power and provided life-giving rain, and the ghosts of his departed ancestors whose infinite wisdom guided his actions. He did this in a number of ways.

From fragmentary literature of later times it appears that the ancient kings were believed to be able to renew their heaven-derived power from liaisons with rain-goddesses-lovely nymphs, clothed in swirling mists, who haunted sacred mounds and mountains, cloudy peaks and healing springs.
Chinese myths that preserve faded remembrances of early religion abound with references to the ritual matings of these goddesses with the king in the role of shaman-the medium between man and the spirit world. In such rituals the king became the temporary embodiment of Heaven and sought the love of a divine woman who could hardly be distinguished from the ancestress of his own clan. Indeed, the authority of the earliest Chinese kings appears to have derived as much from their intimacy with lovely female rain-spirits as from their kinship to revered kings of the past.

The archaic kings also got in touch with the gods of nature to make sure that Heaven provided adequate water for the dusty farmlands of the Middle Kingdom. In times of drought, it was the duty of the king to perform sacrifices to the gods, using elaborate bronze ritual vessels; it was also his function as the chief shaman to communicate directly with the sources of rain, high and low, whether in the form of a dragon, a rainbow-goddess or even the sky-god himself. He could also seek the help of rain-gods by staging a ritual dance in which the demon causing the drought was sacrificed. The king himself might participate in this ritual and dance under the hot sky, finally stripping off his robes and exposing his nude body to symbolic destruction by the blistering rays of the sun. In cases of extreme drought, a performer acted as proxy for the king, and, after completing the ritual dance, was indeed burned to death in a ceremony in which the earthly fire represented the solar fire in the sky. This important rite, modified with the rise of civilized sensibilities to omit human sacrifice and other barbarisms, continued to be performed down into medieval times. The shamanistic role of the “Son of Heaven” as intermediary between gods and men was never quite forgotten.

These communications with heavenly deities were equalled in importance by the exchanges between the kings of Shang and the ghosts of the venerable King T’ang and other royal ancestors. The records of some of these messages form one of the most significant archeological discoveries of our century -the now-famous “oracle bones.”

Just north of the Yellow River, in the classical heartland of China, lies the town of Anyang. Here, at the site of a great city of the Bronze Age, were found many inscribed tortoise shells and animal bones. First sold casually as prehistoric dragon bones, these relics were later discovered to contain the record of messages between the living and dead kings of Shang.

When the king wished to consult the divine will or foresight of one of these exalted spirits he had the royal diviner scratch his message on a flat, polished piece of bone. The diviner then applied a red-hot bar to a hole drilled in the bone and the intense heat produced a pattern of cracks. From this pattern the diviner interpreted the reply sent to the king by his long-dead ancestors.

The last Shang ruler, the official story of later times said, was a man of great personal strength and eloquence, but he had allowed his court to become so corrupt that it engaged in indecent, naked revels. Such decadence was an indication that the spiritual power of the line had been used up, and finally the king, abandoned by Heaven, burned himself in his splendid palace.

Heaven transferred its mandate to the house of Chou, the militant rulers of a small province to the west who swept across the Middle Kingdom and ruthlessly destroyed the Shang capital. The new dynasty was to rule China until the Third Century B.C, The men of Chou had their own revered mother, distinct from the deified mother of the Shang.

According to legend, she had stepped into the footprint of a huge, divine being and bore the totemic ancestor of the Chou line of kings. Later tradition was to transform a descendant of this union, Wen Wang, from a petty chieftain whose son led the conquest of Shang into a wise suzerain endowed with superhuman moral and political talents:

Wen Wang is placed above how radiant in Heaven! Although Chou is an old domain, its Mandate is a new one.

The holders of Chou were they not brilliant? The Mandate of god- is it not timely?

Wen Wang ascends, descends, to the left and right of god.

Gradually, said the official story, the kings of Chou also became corrupt and decadent. A legend illustrating their supposed irresponsibility tells of one King Yu who almost caused the overthrow of the dynasty in the Eighth Century B.C. by indulging the whims of a beautiful but capricious and unsmiling concubine with whom he was infatuated. Finally the king thought of a way to make her laugh. He ordered the city’s beacon fires to be lit-a signal to the feudal lords that they should rush to the capital with their armies to resist barbarian invasion. When the fierce barons and their troops converged on the palace at full gallop, brandishing their swords, and found nobody to fight, they looked so ridiculous to the lady that she laughed merrily. Soon afterward a real invasion took place and the flares were lit. This time no help came and the city fell.

The dynasty survived but the secular power continued to decline.  An eminent Confucianist of the Fourth Century B.C., known to us as Mencius, explained the gradual weakening of the kings, after some three centuries of the king’s heritage in a dialogue concerning the rule, appeared to coincide with the rising power of transfer of rule from Yao to Shun: the feudal lords. Barons who controlled large fiefs seized and retained all political and military power, ignoring the ineffectual king, who sat in his capital surrounded by his ministers and policy makers, a host of minor administrators, judges, diviners. bath supervisors, dyers, lapidaries, bronzesmiths and many others. These shadowy kings appear in the fragmentary and biased documents only as aloof puppets, the tools of self-seeking lords.

Only the priestly functions remained the prerogative of the “Son of Heaven.” Just how many of the archaic duties of the shaman-king were still performed by the Chou kings of the Fifth Century B.C. is not revealed by contemporary texts. It is clear, however, that the monarchs of declining Chou, whether or not they continued the ritual soul-matings with rain goddesses and the like, did inherit many of the complex requirements and taboos appropriate to a ceremonial and magical king. The orientation of their halls, the designs and colors of their costumes, the ingredients of their meals, all were strictly regulated according to the season of the year, so that their every act would correspond to the momentary condition of their eternal relationship with the forces generated in Heaven. The correct observance of all seasonable rites insured the maintenance of the natural order, an abundance of crops and the health of the people. But by this time the rituals had deteriorated into highly formalized-but almost perfunctory ceremony.

It was into this world of narrow royal authority and widespread political anarchy that the itinerant sage Confucius brought his vision of the resurrec­tion of a glorious past. He and his followers re­emphasized the purely divine origin of royal duties and powers. An eminent Confucianist of the Fourth Centry BC known to us as Mencius, explained the king’s heritage in a dialogue concerning the transfer fo rule from Yao to Shun:

Wang Chang said, “ls it the case that Yao gave all Under Heaven to Shun?”

Mencius said, “Not so-the Son of Heaven has not the power to give all Under Heaven to any man.”

Wang Chang said, “So it may be-still, Shun surely possessed all Under Heaven. Who gave it to him?”

Mencius said, “Heaven gave it to him!”

Faithful and honorable use of these divinely granted powers was the king’s most important duty in the Confucianists’ view. They held up as examples to be emulated those ancient utopias that had been presided over by such Heaven-blessed kings as Yao, Shun and Yu the Great. These benign kings of antiquity, the Confucianists said, had shown their concern for the welfare of their subjects by bestowing on them the arts of civilization. A similar social responsibility was thus required of kings of any time: kings must be all powerful, but they must also care for the physical welfare of the lands and peoples entrusted to them.

The society that ultimately emerged out of the ruins of Chou feudalism was essentially Confucian in its insistence upon a utopian ideology and a rigid social hierarchy; it was theocratic, aristocratic and bureaucratic. One tendency of Confucian thought later regimes would find highly useful; the Confucianists emphasized paternal care on the part of divinely ordained autocrats, and willing obedience on the part of an orderly populace. This philosophy would prove an invaluable justification for the imperialist-minded monarchs of Han and later dynasties.

Yet after the fall of the Chou Dynasty in the Third Century B.C. it seemed for a time that the ideals of Confucius might be forgotten. Ying Cheng ruler “of the militant state of Chi’in, eliminating other claimants to the trembling throne of Chou, brought the whole of China under one rule, as Confucius had envisaged, but he did not adhere to the teachings of that sage.

The ministers of Ch’in were followers of a school of political doctrine that had gained prominence during the brutal years of the Fourth Century B.C., the school of Legalists. They thought that government could become a science only if governors were not deceived by such pious, unworkable abstractions as “humanity” and “tradition.” In the view of this group, attempts to improve the human situation by ethical precepts and noble example were bound to be useless. What was needed was strong government and a carefully devised code of law, stringently and impartially enforced. Wang Ch’ung, the First Century A.D. philosopher, summed up the attitude of the Legalists in this fashion:

Make standards clear

Give precedence to achievement.

If the ‘good’ are not profitable to the nation do not supply rewards.

If the ‘unworthy’ are not harmful to good order, do not apply penalties.

For a while it seemed that these hard-headed, utilitarian doctrines might triumph. Indeed, the founder of Ch’in hoped that his totalitarian government would endure forever. He disdained the old title wang, “king,” which had long been devalued by its repeated usurpation by other great lords in the last years of Chou. In its place he created for himself the title huang ti, often translated as “emperor,” which would remain the highest title of the rulers of China until 1911. The first word, huang, connoted “radiant, illustrious, glorious”, and was used in ancient times to describe celectial divinities. The second word, ti, was the title of the highest spirit-kings of Shang. The Ch’in founder also usurped the old title of “Son of Heaven” until then the prerogative of the kings of Chou in direct line of descent from T’ien, “Heaven.” He became a divine monarch modeled after the old holy kings of Shang and Chou. He bore a strong resemblance to the deified Greek kings of Egypt and Syria or to the Roman Caesars-the “Divine Augusti”-with their own temples and priesthoods.

The mighty Ch’in empire barely survived the lifetime of its brilliant founder; it was overthrown by civil war three years after his death. Probably the most important factor contributing to his over­throw was the unquenchable resentment of the feu­dal barons against encroachment on their powers. Another was undoubtedly the deep-rooted loyalty of the populace to the traditions associated with the holy kings of their forefathers.

After several years of anarchy a military officer named Liu Pang, a man of peasant stock, succeeded in uniting the Middle Kingdom under the Han Dynasty in the year 202 B.C. This less centralized empire was to succeed where Ch’in had failed; it was to become the Roman Empire of the East.

Fundamental to its success was the establish­ment of a state religion, the
sole purpose of which was to maintain the power, majesty and divine authority of the monarch and the cosmic system he represented. Based on surviving fragments of late Chou books associated with Confucius and his followers, this religion held that the ruler was re­sponsible for the well-being of his people and for setting an example of moral virtue.

One ideal formulation of the role of the Han Son of Heaven was drawn up by Tung Chung-shu, a theorist who believed in rigid mathematical propor­tion in social arrangements and therefore divided the emperor’s responsibilities into three parts.

He makes the sacrifice (to Heaven) in the suburb with utmost respect; He serves his forefathers in the ancestral shrines; He elevates and illuminates both filial and fraternal piety; He displays what is unique in filial conduct. By these means he honors the Heavenly base. He holds the ritual plow and tills in person; He gathers the mulberry and tends the sillc worms himself; He breaks the grassland and propagates cereals; He opens ground and clears it away-for adequate clothing and food. By these means he honors the Earthly base. He founds a Round Academy and village centers of learning; He cultivates filial and fraternal piety, respect and deference;  He enlightens through instruction and conversion; He inspires by ceremony and music. By these means he honors the Human base.

The secular administration of the realm from Han times on was delegated to a vast bureaucracy comprising great ministers of state, private officers of the semidivine household of the emperor, military mandarins and their elegant guard divisions, as well as the less-glamorous bureau chiefs, tax experts, censors, inspectors, civil engineers and agents of state monopolies. All of these were responsible to the chief ministers who were, in tum, directly responsible to the “Son of Heaven” for the proper conduct of the nation’s affairs. Chief ministers were usually appointed in pairs as Ministers of the Left and Right, each checking and balancing the other. Some were members of old and powerful families; some were political geniuses risen from the ranks. Their rise might be spectacular and their power and wealth immense-but their ruin could be swift and total.

Although the emperor’s hold over the populace through the state religion and the bureaucracy was very strong, the sovereigns of Han were still conscious of their irregular inheritance of the sacred throne of Chou. They therefore justified the seizure of power by the founder of their dynasty by formalizing and exploiting the old belief that the Mandate of Heaven could expire. As promulgated in Han times, this theory provided legitimacy to successful revolutionists and permitted the founding of new dynasties by those not descended from the sky-god and an earthly mother. This doctrine held that Heaven could hand down its mandate to any virtuous hero, imbuing him with spiritual force so potent that all mankind must submit to him; Heaven could also withdraw its mandate from an unworthy ruler. The virtuous sword of a new “Son of Heaven” could then bring the corrupt dynasty to an ignominious end.

This flexible doctrine of kingship legitimized Han claims to the heavenly mandate, but it also made the dynasty vulnerable to pretenders and adventurers. Well aware that their power and glory were not guaranteed forever, these new “Sons of Heaven” surrounded themselves with magicians, shamans and diviners whose duty it was to watch earth and sky for signs of Heaven’s judgment on their reigns-indications of the prospects of their continued tenure.

Heavenly tokens might appear at any time or place-in a remote province or at the gates of the palace itself. For example, ancient swords found rotting in the soil were crucial omens. They were regarded as weapons of power left by Heaven for the use of a future hero who would receive the mandate to rule. Rust and patina merely disguised the hidden spiritual power, which might flash forth as a purple glow. It was the duty of the corps of diviners to interpret such omens for the king so that he could take action to forestall revolution.

Favorable omens-the appearance of a white peacock, the vision of a dragon in the aurora borealis or the unearthing of a mysteriously inscribed jade -were widely publicized. Upon receipt of the pleasing report, a delegation was dispatched to the scene to authenticate the lucky find. If it was an immovable object, such as a holy tree, an artist went along to delineate the form. When the omen had been duly documented, court poets were required to compose intricately worded odes in its praise.

The occasion was celebrated all over the empire with the proclamation of feast days, amnesties for convicts and often the formal declaration of a new era-perhaps named “Red Crow” or something equally appropriate, such as “Yellow Dragon” or “Eternal Harmony”-slogans as meaningful and hopeful in Chinese antiquity as the era names proclaimed by our own leaders-”New Deal,” “New Frontier” and “Great Society.”

Blessed by the divine message that authorized him to rule over all peoples, the “Son of Heaven” went off to war. Tribute or slavery-these were the choices available to the inferior races destined to be his subjects. The noble joy of mastery over lesser peoples and the pleasures afforded by easy access to domestic slaves and fine gems, furs and perfumes was surely deserved by the agent of Heaven who brought virtue and civilization to all nations. The First Century philosopher Wang Ch’ung wrote of the results of the far-flung conquests of Han:

The Jung and Ti tribes of antiquity now participate in the Middle Kingdom; the Naked Men of antiquity are now clothed in court costume; the bare-headed ones of antiquity are now hatted with blazoned caps, and the barefooted ones of antiquity are now shod with Shang slippers.

In spite of its power and in spite of its precautions, the Han Dynasty was destined to distintegrate. The states that succeeded it in the north fell into the hands of barbarian invaders who overran the Middle Kingdom in waves between the Third and the Sixth Centuries A.D. But the great and holy role conceived for the ancient “Son of Heaven” survived even these vicissitudes.


The expansion of empire, from the small holdings of the Shang Dynasty to the giant territory of the T’ang Dynasty, is shown above. The first annexations toolc place during the Third and Second Centuries B.C. But not until some 900 years later did Chinese influence reach its zenith.

China once again became a great empire in the Seventh Century under the leadership of the house of T’ang. T’ang armies not only restored all of the holdings claimed by earlier dynasties but also extended them to make China the greatest empire in the world. Under the T’ang emperors the unique prestige of the old title “Son of Heaven” was restored, the state religion was revitalized and the vast government bureaucracy once again administered a unified realm. The three centuries of T’ang rule were to be remembered as China’s greatest age.

At that time the Chinese monarch became known throughout Asia as a mighty king, comparable only to the Persian King of Kings and the Roman Caesar. His title, “Son of Heaven,” became familiar in the medieval West in a variety of translations and paraphrases, all of which attested to his divinity and to the divinity of his imitators. Both The Thousand and One Nights and Marco Polo’s description of the wonders of the East refer to the King of China as faghfur, which is a corruption of an Iranian title meaning “Son of God.” The kings of Bactria called themselves Devaputra, “Sons of God,” and even the petty kings of medieval Central Asia assumed the title “Son of Heaven,” in feeble emulation of the great Chinese original.

The holy atmosphere that enveloped the emperor at great state ceremonies set him apart from ordinary men. These rites included some that would quickly be recognized as part of the state religion, such as the great sacrifice to Heaven in mid-winter, presided over by the emperor, garbed in archaic robes covered with sacred symbols. They also included those ceremonies that we might consider merely political and social, such as the great levees at which the emperor received ambassadors bearing tribute from their humbled sovereigns. On such occasions, the inner court glittered with gold and figured silks, and the “Son of Heaven” was surrounded by belted archers and halberdiers clad in rich armor and bright capes, bearing regimental ensigns embellished with the shapes of wild horses and leopards. In the form of symbols of submission, the wealth of the Indies and all the East lay piled on the marble floor of the great Palace.

Let us look behind the gorgeous ceremonial robes and the clouds of sandalwood smoke at the brilliant Eighth Century Emperor Li Lung-chi, one of the men who inherited the awesome role of the “Son of Heaven.” He may be said to epitomize the blend of characteristics typical of his age: worldly sophistication, social responsibility in the Confucian tradition and respect for ancient rites.

Li Lung-chi was a man of strong personality, impressive appearance and exemplary manners. He was as skilled in the manly arts of horsemanship, archery and polo-playing as he was learned in the noble arts of calligraphy, astronomy and music. Indeed, he was an accomplished performer on several musical instruments as well as an informed student of musical theory. He founded academies in his capital for the study of popular music and dancing and kept his own company of actors on the palace grounds. He took a keen interest in scientific and technological problems; among other achievements, his reign is noted for the building of an iron suspension bridge over the Yellow River, its bamboo cables held on the banks by cast-iron supports in the shape of oxen, and for the construction of a water-powered astronomical clock that provided information for a reformed calendar.

Li Lung-chi was also a humane man-he decreed the abolition of the death penalty and founded a hospital for the sick and maimed beggars of the capital city. Twenty years after the beginning of his reign a courtier observed that Li Lung-chi was getting thin. “Let my figure be lean,” he replied, “but all under Heaven must be fat.”

True to the centuries of tradition that were his heritage, Li Lung-chi exemplified the kingly model,  described by the followers of Confucius. The T’ang “Son of Heaven” never failed to seek the aid of the mighty but by now almost anonymous deities who radiated energy from the high places of his realm. During the drought of 723 AD. Li Lung-chi stood on a mat for three days, exposed to the open sky, and prayed for water from Heaven, just as his predecessors, the kings of Shang, had done some 1,700 years before. But by Li Lung-chi’s time the sovereign’s role was priestly rather than shamanistic. He could communicate with the spirit world but he was not possessed by the spirit; he merely acted a formal part in an ancient play. However, religious func­tions were carried out with great strictness, sobriety and attention to detail; the officers in charge of the offerings were flogged if their jade symbols, bolts of precious silk and sacrificial animals were not up to specifications.

Far from the center of things were the provincial magistrates who were well aware of the importance of their positions yet hopeful that one day they might be called to the glorious capital. They toiled at the essential tasks of collecting taxes and tribute, improving field production and bringing civilized modes of conduct and a sense of confidence in the central government to the ignorant farmers and benighted aborigines in their charge.

Necessarily the actions of these officers were sometimes brutal. A military official, even in the enlightened years of T’ang, occasionally felt obliged to make a pyramid of the heads of perverse rebels or obdurate aborigines as a warning to others who might wish to reject the beneficent rule of the “Son of Heaven.” Even a civil official was often required to bring misery and death to the people with whose welfare he was entrusted in order to fulfill the tribute quotas required by the distant court. Drowned pearl-divers along the sou them coast and the broken necks of bird-hunters among the northern crags bear witness to such practices.

The multitude of governors, mayors, petty staff officers and country bureaucrats also had their spiritual duties. They were ex-officio priests of the state religion. Their ordinary religious responsibilities were similar to those of Emperor Li Lung-chi: they were obliged to go through a period of purification before each worship service, fasting, washing their hair, breathing sacred incense and meditating on holy things. The rites over which they presided resembled those held in the great capital-chants, dances, prayers and offerings to the gods.

Such rites were performed at times when there were signs that the spiritual world was out of joint -prolonged drought was a typical occasion. Such a disaster might be blamed on spiritual flaws in the “Son of Heaven” himself, and hence were likely to lead to insurrection and even to the overthrow of the government. Accordingly, the monarch’s representatives made sure that every possible avenue of extrication was explored-above all, the good old rituals.

Despite these safeguards, the rich, expansive and creative rule of T’ang was eventually terminated by insurrection, brought about through greed, treachery, ambition and the unavoidable tensions . Engendered by an expanding empire. An Lu-shan, an illiterate but ambitious barbarian whom Li Lung-chi had befriended and raised to a high army command, precipitated a civil war and brought peace and prosperity to an end. The emperor was compelled to abdicate in 766, though he lived out six more gray years to die at the age of 77.

The T’ang empire continued to exist for another 150 years, though its magnificent imperial domain lay in ruins and its control over internal affairs was constantly weakening.

The beginning of the end is remembered as March 17, 905, a festival day in the official almanac. On this holiday a great banquet was prepared in the imperial park of Loyang, the ancient capital of the divine kings of Chou, now the eastern capital of T’ang. The host was Chu Chiian-Chung, all-powerful warlord and protector of his most honored guest, Emperor Li Tsu, sovereign of the imperial house of T’ang. Pre-eminent among the other silk-clad guests were the nine brothers of the young monarch. Wine was served on the banks of the Pool of Nine Turnings. Then the nine young princes, possible heirs to the throne, were seized by Chu’s men, hanged and thrown into the lake.

Two years later, Li Tsu, then 17 years old and surrounded by the creatures of the warlord, submitted a formal instrument of abdication to Chu Chuan-chung who had meanwhile eliminated all rival contenders to the throne. Chu Chiian-chung then assumed the imperial robes in a city not far from Loyang and declared the inauguration of a new era, hopefully named “Opening of Tranquility.”

On March 25, 908, the unfortunate Li Tsu, his act on the stage of life done, was discreetly put to death lest he become a rallying point for future revolutions aimed at restoration of the glorious house of T’ang. So ended a tragic and dramatic medieval performance of an archaic drama-the transfer of the mandate of Heaven.

Womanly Virtues

Chinese emperors and their courtiers had bevies of wives and concubines, all expected to be models of decorum. Their deportment was not left to chance. The ladies were indoctrinated by an instructress, whose perfectionist rules were recorded in a lofty moral tract entitled The Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies. “Correct your character as with an ax, embellish it as with a chisel,” this text commanded in part.

Such expectations were often little more than wishful thinking. The Chinese master who painted the following illustrations for the tract recognized that ladies preferred gossip, primping and intrigues to moral improvement. His pictures are tinged with an irony as delicate as the strokes of his sensitive brush.


The imperial instructress pens her “Admonitions” on proper conduct for ladies.

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