Chinese historical legend: End of the Shang Dynasty

“Zhou Xin, the last emperor of the Shang Dynasty, he loved women and drinking and his favorite concubine was a woman called Da Ji.  We say she is hu li jing, a fox spirit that tricks men. Right, so Da Ji never smiled and the emperor wanted to see her smile, so he—oh wait, I have to tell you, in ancient China they had an alarm system set up, so if the emperor was in trouble, he’d have someone light a bonfire, and people further out would see the fire and light fires too and send armies to help, and then people even further out would see those fires and light their own and send armies, and so on. So Zhou Xin lit the alarm fire to try to make Da Ji smile, and a few days later, soldiers from all over China arrived at the palace, but there was nothing for them to do because it was just a joke, and Da Ji finally smiled. And because only this could make her smile, the emperor did it again and again, and finally the other towns got tired of having to send soldiers to the palace all the time, and they probably got tired of having to get new wood all the time too, so they just stopped sending soldiers when they saw the fire. And then when the palace was actually under attack, no one came, and that’s how the Shang Dynasty ended.”

My informant believes that he learned this story from his father, who has an interest in ancient Chinese history. Interestingly, my informant had never heard of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” which was the tale I immediately thought of after he told me this legend. Both the Boy and Zhou Xin waste others’ time and resources for their own amusement, and by the end, people no longer believe their cries for help. As a result, the Boy loses the sheep he was supposed to protect, and Zhou Xin loses the kingdom he was supposed to defend.

This legend takes place on a much larger scale and is set during a real historical period with real historical figures.  Zhou Xin was the last emperor of the Shang Dynasty and is remembered in history as 商紂王, Shang Zhou Wang, a derogatory title applied posthumously to reflect his unsuitability to be emperor. This legend explains why the Shang Dynasty ended (Zhou Xin’s allies thought the alarm fires were another joke) and gives and example of something Zhou Xin did to earn his pejorative nickname.