King Wen of Zhou (周文王) is honored as the founder of the Zhou dynasty (周朝), even though in actual fact it was his son who actually established it after defeating the last Shang dynasty (商朝) king Zhouxin (紂辛) at the bloody battle of Muye (牧野之戰) in ca. 1046 BCE.
Born Ji Chang (姬昌) in 1152 BCE, King Wen took over as ruler of the then small state of Zhou after his father had been executed by the Shang king Wen Ding (文丁) in the late 12th century BCE. As the new king’s power and influence grew, the Shang king Zhouxin began to see him as a threat and had him thrown in prison in Youli (羑里) in modern-day Henan province, only agreeing to release him after being plied with lavish gifts from King Wen’s supporters.
Following his release, King Wen continued to expand his influence among the ruling class of the dynasty who were appalled at the debauchery of Zhouxin and also found time to raise a family of over ten sons together with his wife Queen Tai Si (太姒).
Wen’s eldest sons Tai Bo, (泰伯) and Zhongyong (仲雍) voluntarily relinquished their claim to the throne to their younger brother Jili (季歷). After King Wen died, he went on to achieve his father’s dream of overthrowing the Shang dynasty and established the Zhou dynasty as King Wu (周武王). Following King Wu’s own death only two years later in ca. 1049 BCE, King Wen’s fourth son, the legendary Duke of Zhou (周公), restored full unity to the country while acting as regent until his nephew assumed the throne as King Cheng (周成王).
King Wen (whose title literally means “Cultured King”) is widely celebrated in the Book of Songs (詩經/shījīng). He is also said to have created the eight trigrams (八卦/bāguà) that form the basis of the Book of Changes (易經) and written the first commentary on them during his period of incarceration.
Appearances in the Analects of Confucius
Book 9, Chapter 5
When Confucius was trapped in Kuang, he said: “King Wen is dead, but the civilization he created lives on with me, doesn’t it? If heaven wished civilization to be destroyed, why was it entrusted to me? If heaven doesn’t wish civilization to be destroyed, what do I have to fear from the people of Kuang?”