Tang (湯) founded the Shang dynasty after overthrowing Jie (桀), the tyrannical last ruler of the Xia dynasty, in around 1600 BCE. He is also known as Cheng Tang (成湯), which literally means “Tang the Successful/Accomplished”.
Shang was the name of the small vassal state that Tang ruled for 17 years before his victory over Jie. During the course of his reign, he gradually built up alliances with rulers of other states that were also part of the Xia dynasty. Appalled by Jie’s cruelty and depravity, these rulers supported Tang in his efforts to oust him, which culminated in a famous victory at the battle of Mingtiao (鳴條) amid a driving thunderstorm.
Tang is portrayed as a wise and virtuous ruler in ancient Chinese texts. He is said to have lowered the taxation and military conscription burdens on the common people and given money to the poor to buy back the children they’d been forced to sell during the terrible droughts that afflicted the first few years of his reign. He was strongly supported by his able minister Yi Yin (伊尹) in laying the foundations of the Shang dynasty, which lasted for over 500 years.
Tang is mentioned twice in the Analects, though not by Confucius himself. 20.1 features the famous oath (湯誥) he took in front of his troops before the decisive battle of Mingtiao.
(1) Tang’s personal name was Zilu (子履). He is referred to as Da Yi (大乙) on oracle bones found in Shang dynasty archaeological sites.
Appearances in the Analects of Confucius
Book 12, Chapter 22
Book 20, Chapter 1
Fan Chi asked about goodness. Confucius said: “Love others.” He then asked about wisdom. Confucius said: “Know others.” Fan Chi didn’t understand. Confucius said: “Promote the upright and place them above the crooked, so that they can straighten the crooked.” Fan Chi left. When he met Zixia he asked: “A short while ago when I saw Confucius I asked him about wisdom. He said: ‘Promote the upright and place them above the crooked, so that they can straighten the crooked.’ What does this mean?” Zixia said: “These are rich words indeed! When Shun ruled the world and was choosing from among the masses, he selected Gao Yao and those without goodness went away. When Tang ruled the world and was choosing from among the masses, he selected Yi Yin and those without goodness went away.”
Yao said: Oh, Shun! The Heavenly succession was bestowed upon you; hold faithfully to the middle way; if the people within the Four Seas fall into suffering and penury, the honors bestowed on you by Heaven’s gift will be taken away from you forever.
Shun passed the same message to Yu.
Tang said, “I, the humble Lu, dare to sacrifice a black bull and dare to make this declaration before my great Lord. I dare not pardon those who are guilty. Your servants cannot hide anything from you. You have already judged them in your heart. If I am guilty, please do not punish the people of the myriad states because of me; but if the people of the myriad states are guilty, let the responsibility lie with me alone.”
“The House of Zhou is greatly blessed. Good men are its riches.” “Although I have my own kinsmen, I prefer to rely on good men. If the common people do wrong, let their faults fall on my head alone. If I set the standards for weights and measures, carefully examine the laws and regulations, and restore the offices that have been abolished, the authority of the government will reach everywhere. If I restore the states that have been destroyed, revive the broken dynastic lines, and bring back to office great men who were sent into exile, I will win the hearts of the people throughout the world. I will give priority to the people; food; mourning; and sacrifice. If I am tolerant I will win the masses. If I am trustworthy, the people will entrust me with responsibility. If I am enthusiastic, I will achieve success. If I am fair and just, I will bring happiness to the people.”