Chinese monarchs were known for their debauchery, which caused the fall of many a dynasty. But in the female-biased society, the blames were often placed upon the women involved with them. Da Ji has always been depicted as the worst woman that China has ever had in its long history.
The legend about Da Ji was made known by the popular Historical Romance of Apotheosis (Feng Shen Yanyi). The novel described Da Ji as the incarnation of a silvery fox that assumed a human form after a thousand years of self cultivation. She was summoned by Nü Wa, the celestial sovereign, to corrupt the Di Xin, the tyrant of the powerful state of Shang so that his people would rise and overthrow him. Incidentally, Di Xin is known historically as Zhou. Before Da Ji’s departure, Nü Wa promised her an immortal status after her mission was accomplished.
According to historical record, however, Da Ji was the beautiful daughter of a noble family named Su in the state of You Su. In 1047 B.C., Zhou, the tyrant of Shang, conquered the state of Su and took Da Ji as his trophy. By then, the king was in his sixties and had been in his throne for forty years. He had been known as strong, heroic, oratory and well versed in music. Under his reign, Shang had become a powerful and prosperous state. He certainly had his Achilles’ heel, namely, his infatuated love for women. Ever since Zhou had Da Ji as his concubine, things began to change, for the worse.
Zhou liked Da Ji so much that he tried every means to ingratiate himself with her. Da Ji liked animals, so he built her a zoological Xanadu with a large collection of rare birds and animals. She liked dancing and singing, so he ordered artists to compose lewd music and choreograph bawdy dances. Forgetting about state affairs all together, King Zhou began to spend all his time with Da Ji. He would gather three thousand guests at one party to enjoy his “pond of wine” and “forest of meat,” which was cooked meat strips hanging from a wood of trees. King Zhou would allow the guests to play a cat and mouse game in the nude among the trees so that Da Ji could be amused. When a maid of honor, daughter of Lord Jiu, could not bear the sight of such debauchery and protested, King Zhou had her slain, her father grounded, and his flesh fed to the tyrant’s vassals.
Eventually Da ji became a brute herself. It was said that her greatest joy was to hear people cry in physical sufferings. Once, as she saw a farmer walking barefoot on the ice, she ordered his feet be cut off so that she could study it and figure out the cause of its resistance to cold temperature. In another occasion, she had a pregnant woman’s belly cut open so that she could satisfy her curiosity of finding out what happened therein. To verify the old saying that “a good man’s heart had seven openings,” she had the heart of Bi Gan, an honest minister, cut out and subjected it to her fertile scrutiny.
|King Zhou of Shang|
On top of all those atrocities, Da Ji was best known for her invention of a device of torture called Paolao: a bronze cylinder heated like a furnace with charcoal until the sides were extremely hot. Then the victim would be bound on the cylinder and baked to death. Da Ji would take great delight in the painful cries of the condemned.
While the tyrant Zhou was occupied with making himself and Da Ji happy, a Zhou1 tribe began to grow increasingly stronger. Its hatred towards the tyrant was deep-rooted. When Boyi Kao, eldest son of Ji Chang, leader of the Zhou tribe, visited Chao Ge, capital of Shang, he had a love affair with Da Ji. In his wrath, the tyrant Zhou had Kao killed and his body grounded. As if it were not enough, Zhou made Ji Chang drink the soup of his son’s flesh before jailing him. Only after many rescue efforts including intensive bribery was Ji Chang finally released two years later. Twelve years after Ji Chang’s death, his youngest son Ji Fa launched an attack against Shang to revenge his family.
The anger and hatred created by the brutality of tyrant Zhou and Da Ji among their own people made it easier for Ji Fa to achieve his goal. In the face of the Zhou tribe’s onslaught, the better armed and once invincible army of Shang suddenly gave in and many soldiers even turned their weapons against their tyrannical ruler. Seeing his dynasty doomed, tyrant Zhou committed suicide by setting fire upon himself. Da Ji was later put to death byJi Fa, king of the new Dynasty of Zhou.
According to The Historical Romance of Apotheosis (Feng Shen Yanyi), however, after the fall of the Shang Dynasty, Nü Wasentenced Da Ji, the incarnation of a fox, to death instead of making her an immortal as she had promised because she found her over zealous in doing what she had been asked to do. Da Ji had made her people so mad that it left Nü Wa no alternative.
Historians today argued that neither King Zhou of Shang nor Da Ji had committed as many of the atrocities as the legends claimed. It could be a propaganda ploy on the part of the Zhou tribe to demonize the couple in order to rally support in their cause. If that is true, then Da Ji would have been the victim of the first psychological warfare that history has ever seen.
Note: The word “Zhou” being all over the place here is really confusing. However, it is not the case in Chinese. For the Chinese character for “Zhou” the tyrant is , which reads in a falling tone while the Chinese character for “Zhou” the tribe is , which reads in a level tone.
Text and translation by Haiwang Yuan