Reflections on History: Drought and Earthquake and the Collapse of the Western Zhou Dynasty

Lin Lang Ed.

PureInsight | July 21, 2003

[Series notes: The history of China is that of a succession of dynasties. The fall of each dynasty on China's stage gave rise to another. Thousands of colorful protagonists have graced the stage in this Chinese play and millions of Chinese people have endured tremendous suffering. During these events, natural calamities, often lasting for years, seem to have had major roles in the play. Each calamity warned oft retribution that would follow those who had violated the principles of Heaven. Each calamity seemed to announce the decline and fall of a dynasty, and predict the rise of a new dynasty led by a virtuous monarch.]

[] Toward the end of the Western Zhou Dynasty, prairies and forests withered; severe drought caused the ground to crack; three major rivers "rumbled;" the sources of these rivers either jammed or dried up, and there were strange signs in the sky. These natural disasters were the signs of the fall of the Zhou dynasty. In today's China, a severe nation-wide drought has lasted five consecutive years. Water reservoirs have dried up in Shandong province and northeastern China. Throughout the entire course of the Yellow River, water is in short supply. Beijing has been unusually hot; nation-wide, the past several winters were unusually warm. Locust swarms occurred in both northern and southern China of a size that could cover the sun. Sandstorms and hurricanes prevail over China. Floods, hailstorms and the SARS virus have taken turns invading China. What could these incessant natural disasters mean?

During the last year of Emperor Xuan's reign of the Western Zhou dynasty (about 803 B.C.), another serious drought occurred, this one lasting longer than any of the previous droughts. Not only did rivers and ponds completely dy up, but also prairies and forests withered and died. The drought had turned all farmland and and other land into wasteland. There was no food; man and livestock could not find drinking water. One entry in the Zhao Yan Chapter of The Book of Songs about this drought had this to say, "Heaven showed her rage and sent this disaster to us, which has caused famine. People were forced to leave their hometowns to seek food and water. All the farmland turned into wasteland." The song described an image of decline and fall caused by the drought: farmers abandoned their land, deserting their hometowns. Villages became ghost towns, and farmland turned into wasteland.

In response to the persistent severe drought, Emperor Xuan then commenced a formal worshipping ceremony to pray for rain, a ritual used in previous dynasties in the event of natural disasters. In Spring and Autumn with Commentary by Zuo Qiu-Ming a typical scenario where an emperor would resort to a worshipping ceremony is recorded:"[…] In response to the drought, the emperor feared that he may have done something that angered the heavens. He improved [his conduct] and cultivated himself, hoping to reduce the severity of the disaster." (From "The Biographies of Emperors." ) In Emperor Xuan's case, though, he lacked of the virtue of Shang Tang. Even when he prayed and improved his character a little, the heaven's rage would not recede. The drought continued to prevail over the Western Zhou Dynasty regions.

The severe drought continued into the Emperor You's reign. The continuing drought had put the Western Zhou Dynasty into a severe crisis, but the self-centered arrogant Emperor You refused to listen to any good advice that would get in the way of his addiction to an extremely sensual life. He simply abandoned all of his wits and his national administrative duties. Then an even more appalling calamity hit the West Zhou Dynasty - an earthquake.

In merely the second year of the Emperor You's reign (780 B.C.), an earth-shattering quake hit Haojing, the nation's capital back then, and shook the three main rivers, including Jing River, Wei River and Luo River, jamming the sources of the three main rivers, and Mount Qi collapsed in this earthquake. The prime minister Bo Yangfu decided that the earth's Yin and Yang were out of balance, which was the sign of the impending collapse of the Western Zhou Dynasty. Still, Emperor You remained indulgent to his sensual life, and oblivious to the nation and her people. Toward the end, Emperor You would even go to the length of tricking his feudal lords into rushing to the capital, just to amuse his favorite concubine, Bao Si.

Such is the infamous story of Emperor You of the Western Zhou Dynasty, who mocked his feudal lords by faking emergency fire signals.

After the second year of Emperor You's reign, other unusual signs, such as unusual tempertures and natural pheonomena, continued to occur. According to Zhu Shu Ji Nian [a chronicle book among a collection of ancient bamboo books, supposedly discovered in a prince's grave in the 4th century], "In the third winter of Emperor You's reign, the most giant lightning happened. In the summer of the fourth year, frost appeared and it snowed in June." This is apparently a record of an unusual climate where it was warm in winter and cold in summer. Warm winters help to breed pests, while cold summers damage crops.

These frequent natural disasters aggrevated the political and economic crises for the Western Zhou Dynasty. Emperor You's corruption and tyranny made everything worse.

In 771 B.C., Shen Hou finally united with Quan Rong and led a crusade into the capital of the Western Zhou, Haojing. Shen Hou killed the monstrous Emperor You and thus ended the Western Zhou Dynasty.

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