Historical figures in the Analects of Confucius: Duke of Zhou

The Duke of Zhou (周公) is a legendary figure in Chinese history and Confucius’s hero for the pivotal role he played in unifying the country under the Zhou Dynasty (周朝) and putting the foundations in place for its social, economic, and cultural development while acting as regent until his nephew assumed the throne as King Cheng (周成王).

The fourth son of King Wen of Zhou (周文王) and Queen Tai Si (太姒), the duke had the personal name of Ji Dan (姬旦). After his father’s death, he acted as a close aide to his second oldest brother, King Wu (周武王), and accompanied him when he defeated the Shang dynasty (商朝) at the Battle of Muye (牧野之戰) in around 1046 BCE and established the new Zhou dynasty.

In recognition of his service, King Wu granted his younger brother the fiefdom of Lu. Its capital was the city of Qufu, located in modern-day Shandong province. The duke, however, remained in the new Zhou capital much further west to assist his brother in setting up his new government. When King Wu died two years later, the duke became the regent for his brother’s baby son, vowing that he would give up the role when his nephew reached his majority.

Upon assuming this role, the duke fought off a series of rebellions from disgruntled Shang dynasty loyalists and his brothers Guanshu and Caishu, who accused him of usurping power for himself. After putting these rebellions down, he set about implementing a new feudal system that provided the foundation of what was seen by Confucius as a golden age of just government and universal prosperity. His establishment and promotion of elaborate ritual ceremonies played a key role in embodying the grandeur and vales of the new Zhou dynasty.

True to his word, the duke handed the reins of government to his nephew when he reached adulthood and acted as a close advisor to the young man until his death. He is credited with having written a number of books on the art of government as well as the seminal cultural classics the Book of Songs and the Book of Changes. In addition, he is said to have created the classical Yayue (雅樂) music that was played in court ceremonies and rituals.

In recognition of his achievements, King Cheng decreed that the duke’s descendants had the right to perform the court rituals and music of the Zhou dynasty. As a result, the state of Lu became the repository of Zhou culture, which Confucius spent his lifetime fighting to revive in order to return China to its glory days under the Duke of Zhou.

Appearances in the Analects of Confucius
Book 7, Chapter 5
Book 8, Chapter 11

Book 7
Chapter 5
Confucius said: “I am becoming terribly weak. It has been a long time since I last saw the Duke of Zhou in a dream.”

Book 8
Chapter XI
Confucius said: “Even if someone has all the outstanding talents of the Duke of Zhou, if they’re arrogant and mean all their other qualities aren’t worth looking at.”

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