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Book of Documents 尚書

周書 金縢 Zhou Shu - Metal-bound Coffer

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Two years after the conquest of Shang, the king fell ill, and was quite disconsolate. The two (other great) dukes said, 'Let us reverently consult the tortoise-shell about the king;' but the duke of Zhou said, 'You must not so distress our former kings.' He then took the business on himself, and reared three altars of earth on the same cleared space; and having made another altar on the south of these, and facing the north, he took there his own position. Having put a round symbol of jade (on each of the three altars), and holding in his bands the lengthened symbol (of his own rank), he addressed the kings Tai, Ji, and Wen.


The (grand) historiographer had written on tablets his prayer, which was to this effect: 'A. B., your great descendant, is suffering from a severe and violent disease; if you three kings have in heaven the charge of (watching over) him, (Heaven's) great son, let me Dan be a substitute for his person. I was lovingly obedient to my father; I am possessed of many abilities and arts, which fit me to serve spiritual beings. Your great descendant, on the other hand, has not so many abilities and arts as I, and is not so capable of serving spiritual beings. And moreover he was appointed in the hall of God to extend his aid all over the kingdom, so that he might establish your descendants in this lower earth. The people of the four quarters all stand in reverent awe of him. Oh! do not let that precious Heaven-conferred appointment fall to the ground, and (all the long line of) our former kings will also have one in whom they can ever rest at our sacrifices. I will now seek for your determination (in this matter) from the great tortoise-shell. If you grant me (my request), I will take these symbols and this mace, and return and wait for your orders. If you do not grant it, I will put them by.'


The duke then divined with the three tortoise-shells, and all were favourable. He opened with a key the place where the (oracular) responses were kept, and looked at them, and they also were favourable. He said, 'According to the form (of the prognostic) the king will take no injury. I, the little child, have got the renewal of his appointment from the three kings, by whom a long futurity has been consulted for. I have now to wait for the issue. They can provide for our One man.'


When the duke returned, he placed the tablets (of the prayer) in a metal-bound coffer, and next day the king got better.


(Afterwards), upon the death of king Wu, (the duke's) elder brother, he of Guan, and his younger brothers, spread a baseless report through the kingdom, to the effect that the duke would do no good to the (king's) young son. On this the duke said to the two (other great) dukes, 'If I do not take the law (to these men), I shall not be able to make my report to the former kings.' He resided (accordingly) in the east for two years, when the criminals were taken (and brought to justice). Afterwards he made a poem to present to the king, and called it 'the Owl.' The King on his part did not dare to blame the duke.


In the autumn, when the grain was abundant and ripe, but before it was reaped, Heaven sent a great storm of thunder and lightning, along with wind, by which the grain was all broken down, and great trees torn up. The people were greatly terrified; and the king and great officers, all in their caps of state, proceeded to open the metal-bound coffer and examine the writings in it, where they found the words of the duke when he took on himself the business of being a substitute for king Wu. The two (great) dukes and the king asked the historiographer and all the other officers (acquainted with the transaction) about the thing, and they replied, 'It was really thus; but ah! the duke charged us that we should not presume to speak about it.'


The king held the writing in his hand, and wept, saying, 'We need not (now) go on reverently to divine. Formerly the duke was thus earnest for the royal House, but I, being a child, did not know it. Now Heaven has moved its terrors to display his virtue. That I, the little child, (now) go with my new views and feelings to meet him, is what the rules of propriety of our kingdom require.' The king then went out to the borders (to meet the duke), when Heaven sent down rain, and, by virtue of a contrary wind, the grain all rose up. The two (great) dukes gave orders to the people to take up the trees that had fallen and replace them. The year then turned out very fruitful.

English translation: James Legge

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