Gaozong (高宗) is an honorary title of Wu Ding (武丁), who is widely regarded as the greatest king of the Shang dynasty. According to the traditional chronology, he reigned from 1324 – 1264 BCE, but inscriptions found on oracle bones unearthed at the ruins of his capital near present-day Anyang date his reign three quarters of a century later from 1250 – 1192 BCE.
As a young boy, Gaozong was sent by his father Xiao Yi (小乙) to live and work among the common people so that he would be able to understand the hardships they faced in their daily lives. When his father died and he assumed the throne, Gaozong observed the traditional three-year morning period. During this time, he lived alone in a simple hut wearing shabby clothes and subsisting on plain fare. He never saw and spoke to anyone from his family or the court, leaving his father’s former officials to take care of the government.
Even though Zizhang questions the utility of such a long mourning period in Analects 14.40, Confucius and many others regarded Gaozong’s strict observance of the ritual as having been particularly auspicious because it ushered in over fifty years of enlightened rule and steady expansion of Shang territory.
Even after the formal mourning period was over, Gaozong continued to refuse to speak – causing great concern among the officials who were running the government on his behalf. According to the Book of Documents, the young king wrote a response to them explaining that he was waiting for the arrival of a wise man who had come to him in a dream to act as his advisor.
He then provided a description of the man, and after having portraits painted of him ordered a search for him throughout the kingdom. When a man fitting the description was found working as a slave laborer on a road building project in a wilderness area called Fu Yan, Gaozong appointed him as his chief minister and gave him the name of Fu Yue (傅說).
Gaozong and Fu Yue forged a highly successful partnership that ushered in a golden age for the Shang dynasty. At the urging of Fu Yue, Gaozong inspired his people through his strict adherence to ancient rituals and rules of propriety. To counter threats against the kingdom and expand its borders, the two men pursued a strategy of forging alliances with friendly neighboring tribes through marriage and conquering those that opposed them through aggressive military campaigns.
Through these alliances, Gaozong acquired over sixty wives and consorts, including three queens. Uniquely among Chinese rulers, he had no compunction about giving his queens positions of real authority in his government and allowed them to take an active role in rituals. His favorite Fu Hao (婦好) became a high priestess and military commander and is said to have led an army of thousands of soldiers to victory against a tribe that was threatening the kingdom. Another of his wives called Fu Jing (婦妌) was a diviner who was also in charge of agricultural production.
Gaozong was the longest reigning monarch of the Shang dynasty, ruling for over fifty-years. Records of his reign have been found on inscriptions on numerous oracle bone fragments discovered in archaeological sites around his former capital Yin. Some even go as far as to record the sacrifice of human prisoners captured during military campaigns.
In 1976, the tomb of Gaozong’s favorite wife Fu Hao was discovered, revealing a wealth of stunning jewelry, ritual vessels, bells, statues, pottery and other artifacts made from jade, bronze, ivory, stone, and ceramics that demonstrate the sophistication and prosperity of the society and culture that the couple ruled over.
Appearances in the Analects of Confucius
Book 14, Chapter 40
Zizhang said: “In the Book of Documents it is written: ‘When Gaozong was mourning his father, he did not speak for three years.’ What does this mean?” Confucius said: “This did not apply only to Gaozong; all the ancients did the same. When a king died, all the officials gathered together and took their orders from the chief minister for three years.”