Within the enigmatic and unknown that, in most cases, the history of China is already for us, there are some weird episodes in which it is difficult to establish where reality ends and where the myth begins, just as it also happens with some Roman emperors, whose strange behaviour is now being called into doubt. In the Chinese case we have, for instance, the ineffable King You of Zhou, to whom a bad prank ended up depriving him from his throne and turning him the last one in his dynasty.
We are talking about the Western Zhou dynasty, because, as we are going to see, there was an Eastern dynasty; its successor, in fact. We have to go back to a very distant time, to the 8th century B.C., which, to situate us, corresponds to the rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, to the Etruscan expansion through the Italian peninsula, to the laws of the Spartan Lycurgus, to the mythical foundation of Rome by Romulus and Remus or to the composition by Homer of The Iliad and The Odyssey, among many other noteworthy things.
The Zhou dynasty, the third one in the history of China and the second one for which there is documentary evidence after Shang (the first one would be the Xia, founded in the 21st century B.C. and considered a transition phase from Neolithic to Bronze Age; although its existence was demonstrated in 1959 when archaeological remains were found in Henan, it is so tinged with legend that it offers more doubts than certainties); the Zhou dynasty, we said, began in 1122 B.C. and its characteristic is that it was still not imperial but royal.
The Zhou kings came from the northeast of the country, around the upper Yellow River, now the province of Shanxi. The official account said that they overthrew the Shang – of which they were vassals – to replace their corrupt government with an honest and stronger one consolidated by the first three kings, Wu the Civilizer, Cheng the Warrior and Kang. There were thirteen in total (if the regency of Gonghe is included) and You was the last, being his fall wrapped also in an almost legendary shade, with bad omen natural phenomena and the appearance of a character who precipitated things.
In the same year, 780 B.C., two manifestations of Nature coincided: on one side, the first solar eclipse was registered in China and, on the other, an earthquake hit Guangzhong. This was the region from where the Zhou began their campaign against the Shang in approximately 1045 BC and would be the scene of the following events. A fortune-teller named Bo Yangfu interpreted those signs as a harbinger of the fall of the ruling dynasty, but it was the following year that the process really began.
It was then that Bao Si, a young woman whose origin was narrated in a fantastical way, appeared in History. The myth tells that she was born of a virgin slave who had been bitten by a black lizard, which, in turn, came from the spittle of two dragons that had been kept in the court since the times of the Xia and that poured slightly on the ground when King Li opened the box where it was kept to look at it. The girl, abandoned by her mother, was adopted by a couple who later gave her to King You as a maid.
Leaving aside the fable, the truth is that the king was dazzled by her and made her his concubine in 779 B.C., moreover, his favorite wife, to the detriment of Queen Shen, who was postponed along with Prince Yijiu. He also lost his status as heir to the son You had with Bao Si, called Bofu. But the new sovereign, perhaps because of her past, was of a sad character and her husband wanted to cheer her up by offering a fortune to whoever got it. Thus came the idea of a courtier to light the beacons to mock the nobles.
Beacon was the name given to the fire lit at the top of a watchtower to warn of something (enemies, arrival of ships …). The Greeks called it angaro (public messenger) but it is the other word, of Arab origin, the one that has transcended. In the case of China, this system had been set up in the face of an external threat: that of the quanrong, a nomadic ethnic group from the northwest of China whose power had grown considerably, forcing the kings to make some punitive expeditions and to organize themselves defensively in the face of a possible invasion attempt.
Beacons were part of that system and, in fact, on seeing the signal all the king’s vassals ran to the palace thinking that the feared moment had finally arrived…to find that everything was a prank intended to make the melancholic Bao Si laugh. Surely the thing would not have grown worse had it not been for the joke repeated several more times, irritating everyone and spreading distrust towards the reliability of the system.
Queen Shen saw an opportunity for revenge and supported by her father, a powerful aristocrat, entered into talks with the quanrong and other border states, agreeing on an alliance: the armies of those peoples would join Shen’s troops to overthrow You and restore her grandson’s right to inherit the throne. The joint attack took place in 771 B.C. against Haojing, the capital, and was successful because this time no nobleman heeded the warning. The old fable of Peter and the wolf in Asian version.
The king died in the battle beside Bofu while Bao Si was captured. Initially she was agreed to be freed in exchange for leaving the kingdom but ended up hanging herself, supposedly that same year. The quanrong looted the royal palace but finally agreed to leave on payment of a substantial bribe negotiated with Shen’s father, several notorious ones who supported the coup and Yijiu himself, who rose to the throne as the legitimate heir he was – or had been – exchanging his name for that of Ping of Zhou.
Thus, the dynasty continued with the same surname but a nuance was introduced. Since the capital had been half destroyed by war, in 722 B.C. the court moved further east to Chengzhou, from which time it became known as the Eastern Zhou dynasty. They ruled during the so-called Spring and Autumn Period and, despite lasting more than three centuries, until 481 B.C., the royal authority was not strong enough, being respected only ceremonially.
As a result, the territory was broken up into independent states which, confronted with each other for the sake of absolute power, would open another stage known as the Combatant Kingdoms. The most outstanding were those of Han, Zhao and Wei, although in the end, in 256 BC, it was Qin who managed to defeat them all, unifying the country and founding the homonymous dynasty, which came to be considered imperial with its first king, Qin Shi Huang. And in memories and glossed by writers, the parable of that king who was so in love with his queen that lost his throne for seeing her laugh remained forever.
Sources: The Cambridge History of Ancient China. From the Origins of Civilization to 221 BC (Michael Loewe y Edward L. Shaughnessy, eds)/Breve historia de la China milenaria (Gregorio Doval)/China, una nueva historia (John King Fairbank)/Records of the Grand Historian (Sima Qian)/Wikipedia