Wu wang (died ca. 1116 B.C.) was the first ruler of the third Chinese dynasty, the Chou. He was the leader of the forces that overthrew the Shang dynasty.
The original name of Wu wang was Chi Fa. His family had settled in the Wei River valley of Shensi Province during the final years of the Shang dynasty. Archeologists have examined the cultural remains of the area but are yet uncertain to what extent the preconquest Chou people differed from the ruling Shang.
Wu wang's father, known as Wen wang, or the Cultured King, held a ministerial post under Chou Hsin, the Shang ruler. Chou Hsin is depicted in the Chinese tradition as an evil despot and debauchee who delighted in torturing and abusing his subjects. Wen wang, who then held the title of Earl of the West (Hsi po), became alienated from the Shang ruler and established a strong power base for his family in the Wei valley. He engaged in several skirmishes with the Shang, but it was his son, Wu wang, or the Martial King, who undertook large-scale warfare against Chou Hsin.
Assisted by his younger brother, Chi Tan, later known as the Duke of Chou (Chou kung), Wu wang organized an army composed of nobles who had been mistreated by Chou Hsin. Most of the accounts of Wu wang's rise to power are late idealizations and are not particularly reliable, but they are about the only sources presently available.
According to the prevailing tradition, Wu wang first met with his troops at a place called Meng Ford, where they urged him to attack Chou Hsin immediately. Wu wang refused to follow their advice, claiming that the proper time had not yet arrived. Two years later, when resentment against Chou Hsin had reached its peak, Wu wang gathered his troops again at Meng Ford and sent them out against the Shang on the plain of Mu just outside the Shang capital. The Shang troops were completely routed, and Chou Hsin was forced to commit suicide.
Wu wang immediately proclaimed the end of the Shang reign and the beginning of the Chou dynasty. The traditional date for the founding of the Chou dynasty is 1122 B.C., but as many as nine other dates have been suggested by modern historians, one as late as 1027 B.C. Having conquered the Shang by military might, Wu wang now had the problem of maintaining control. One of his first acts was to bestow parcels of territory on those groups who had helped him defeat the Shang. In order to win over the defeated Shang people, he gave Chou Hsin's son a fief where he could continue the Shang sacrifices.
Several years after the Shang conquest, Wu wang died. The traditional date for his death is 1116 B.C., but this date may not be correct. He was succeeded by his young son Sung, who assumed the title of King Ch'eng (Ch'eng wang). King Ch'eng's uncle, the Duke of Chou, ruled as regent until he became of age.
For background on Wu wang consult Friedrich Hirth, The Ancient History of China to the End of the Chou Dynasty (1911), and Herrlee Glessner Creel, The Birth of China: A Study of the Formative Period of Chinese Civilization (1937). See also Kenneth Scott Latourette, The Chinese: Their History and Culture (1934; 4th rev. ed. 1964), and Creel's The Origin of Statecraft in China, vol. 1: The Western Chou Empire (1970). □