Kings of Pre-Qin Period (in brief)
The earliest of these Pre-Qin rulers were mostly legendary and semi-mythological. There were the so-called “Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors”. Later historical records have identified varied versions of which rulers were included in this group. According to Records of the Grand Historian, the Three Sovereigns were Fu Xi, Nuwa, and Shennong, and the Five Emperors included Huangdi, Zhuanxu, Emperor Ku, Emperor Yao, and Emperor Shun. Whoever the term referred to, these rulers were either demigods who helped the ancient people improve their livelihood by inventions and imparting essential knowledge and skills or model, or sage-rulers with sound moral quality to govern the nation.
Compared with the earlier, more legendary rulers, rulers of the Three Periods (Xia, Shang, and Zhou Dynasties) appeared more down-to-the-earth in historical records.
King Jie of Xia and King Zhou of Shang were both notorious examples of corrupt, ruthless, despotic rulers. King Zhou of Shang, for example, was given to drinking, women, and pleasure-seeking, lacked morals and neglected state affairs. He ordered to build a “wine pool and meat forest” – a large pool filled with alcohol and dotted by an island in the middle where roasted meat hanged on the trees. King Zhou would, in the company of his favorite concubine Daji, drift on a boat in the pool, drink wine when thirsty and reach for meat when hungry. In order to please Daji, he created a punishment by which prisoners were ordered to hug a hollow bronze cylinder stuffed with red-hot burning charcoal, much to the amusement of King Zhou and Daji.
King Jie of Xia and King Zhou of Shang were to be overthrown by King Tang of Shang and King Wu of Zhou respectively. The latter two were held as respectable, just, and capable rulers. The Chinese feudal system began with King Wu of Zhou, who, after defeating the Shang Dynasty, divided the land between his brothers and generals, creating scores of small vassal states to the Zhou Kingdom.
Other notable kings of the Zhou Dynasty include:-
- King Mu of Zhou, who is recorded to have made a grand tour/expedition to the western regions;
- King You of Zhou, who pleased his new queen by falsely lighting beacon fires at which his vassal nobles rushed to help. (Later however, when he sent the signal again in the face of a real invasion, no reinforcement came to his service. ) The Chinese version of the crying-wolf story.
Thanks to written records, more details are available about the historical figures of the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period. While the Zhou monarch lost its prestige, its vassal states became more prominent. Both Periods were riddled with wars and complex diplomatic maneuvers between the vassal states vying either for survival or hegemony. Notable rulers of the Spring and Autumn Period mainly include the Five Hegemons (see Spring and Autumn Period).
The Warring States Period saw many reforms in the rivaling states. Earl Xiao of Qin employed Shang Yang to carry out the most thorough-going and successful reforms of all states. Other reform-minded ministers, Li Li, Wu Qi, and Zou Ji, were appointed and trusted by Marquis Wen of Wei, King Dao of Chu, and King Wei of Qi respectively. King Wei of Qi opened himself to criticisms from the ministers, officials and citizens, rewarding them, and rid the Qi of numerous problems. In the State of Zhao, King Wuling introduced more reforms to the military. The robes and normal court attires worn by Zhao commanders were to be replaced by pants, belts, boots, fur caps, and fur clothes, all of which were better suited to cavalry fighting.
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