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"King Wên is on High"

The following poem is from the Shih Ching. It is the the 243rd poem appearing in commentator Mao's ordering of the Shih Ching, but is often numbered 241st in English versions of that anthology. The poem recounts the passing of old dynasties and their replacement with new ones, and offers didactic advice to Zhou rulers regarding appropriate behavior. Compare it with "Mighty is God on High," which deals with similar concerns and uses similar wording.


King Wên is on High; 1

Oh! He shines in Heaven! 2

Zhou is an old people,

But its mandate is new. 3

The land of Zhou became illustrious, 4

Blessed by Heaven's Mandate.

King Wên ascends and descends

On God's left hand, on His right.


Very diligent was King Wên,

His high fame does not cease;

He spread his bounties in Zhou,

And now his grandsons and sons,

In his grandsons and sons

The stem has branched

Into manifold generations,

And all the knights of Chou

Are glorious in their generation.


Glorious in their generation,

And their counsels well pondered.

Mighty were the many knights

That brought this kingdom to its birth.

This kingdom well they bore;

They were the prop of Zhou.

Wonderful were those many knights

Who gave comfort to King Wên.


August is Wên the king;

Oh, to be reverenced in his glittering light!

Mighty the mandate that Heaven gave him.

The grandsons and sons of the Shang,

Shang's grandsons and sons,

Their hosts were innumerable.

But God on high gave His command,

And by Zhou they were subdued.


By Zhou they were subdued;

Heaven's charge is not forever.

The knights of Yin, big and little,

Made libations and offerings at the capitol

What they did was tomake libations

Dressed in skirted robe and close cap.

O chosen servants of the king,

May you never thus shame your ancestors!


May you never shame your ancestors,

But rather tend their inward power, 5

That for ever you may be linked to Heaven's charge

And bring to yourselves many blessings.

Before Yin lost its army

It was well-linked to Heaven above.

In Yin you should see as in a mirror

That Heaven's high mandate is hard to keep.


The mandate is not easy to keep.

Do not bring ruin on yourselves.

Send forth everywhere the light of your good fame;

Consider what Heaven did to the Yin.

High Heaven does its business

Without sound, without smell.

Make King Wên your example,

In whom all the peoples put their trust.


1. The word Wên is not a common name in Mandarin. We do not know precisely what it means, but it may be related to a similar pictographic symbol which can represent "culture" and "pen," and it is used as an antonym for wu (war). It may be, as Waley suggests in Appendix IV of The Book of Songs, that it represents refinement and book-learning, as opposed to battle-prowess. Thus, the poem may speak of "King Culture." The name Wên, though not in common use, does appear hundreds of times in inscriptions and monuments as a stock epithet for ancestors. It may not be significant, but when the symbol for wên is placed on top of the symbol for "heart," it creates the word "strong." Likewise, when the symbol for wên is placed on bottom of the word "day," creates the a symbol used as a synonym for "heaven." See Arthur Waley, The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry, Appendix IV, note number 1.

2. The word translated here as "Heaven" is tian in Mandarin Chinese. The written symbol for tian literally means "The highest," and can refer to both "the sky" and "the gods." The written ideograph shows an inverted V shape with two horizontal lines crossing the top, the highest of which holds blank space, indicating that there is nothing above this highest point.

3. The word I translate here as "mandate," and which Waley translates as "charge," is Ming. Tian Ming ("the mandate of heaven") represents the divine right to rule the Chinese people, a right that could be revoked at any time. A ruler earns the mandate of heaven by being an ethical, fair, and just ruler. As long as he behaves in that manner, it is a sinful, evil act for the people to disobey him. However, as soon as the rulers stop being ethical, fair, and just, the wicked rulers lose the mandate of heaven.

4. Zhou is more frequently transliterated as Chou in English.

5. The word translated as "virtue" here is , which does not mean virtue in the English sense of ethics, but rather "virtue" in the same sense as when we speak of the "virtue" or potency of a drug. It implies mana, power, force, the inner power that excludes physical strength. This may or may not be ethical in nature. See Arthur Waley, The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry, Appendix IV, note number 2.




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