CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 19, September 2009


The Triumph: A Heritage of Sorts | China Heritage Quarterly

嘉 The Triumph: A Heritage of Sorts

by John Minford

The following material is taken from a new translation, with commentary, of the Book of Change. This short extract can fruitfully be read in tandem with Mary Beard's The Roman Triumph, Harvard, 2007, where the scholar of classics argues that the Triumph was a central feature of Roman culture. Highly ritualised celebrations remain important means for expressing military prowess and political vigour in the contemporary world, something evident in Tiananmen Square on 1 October 2009.—The Editor.

Ceremonial triumphs, of a gruesome nature, have a long history in China. References can be found in the most famous of all the Confucian Classics, the ?eighth-century BCE Book of Change (Yi Jing 易經).

The text used here is that of the silk manuscript unearthed in 1973 at Mawangdui, near Changsha. The manuscript, which was buried in the tomb of the Marquis of Dai, Chancellor of Changsha, can be dated with some precision to the beginning of the second century BCE. (See Zhang Liwen 張立文, Boshu Zhouyi zhuyi 帛書周易注譯, Zhongzhou guji, 2008, p.346.)

Hexagram XXX
Orioles, Net



Yang in Top Place
The King
Goes to war.
A Triumph,
A Beheading.
Captives are taken,
Not from the enemy.
No harm.

Commentary: Compare this with a bronze inscription (the Duo You Ding Cauldron discovered in 1980) probably from the reign of King Li (859-842), in which 235 men have their heads cut off, 23 prisoners are shackled and held for interrogation, 117 Rong-barbarian carts are captured; and with another inscription probably from the slightly later reign of King Xuan (827-782), when the 'illustrious Earl Ji' attacked the Xianyun, cut off 500 heads, shackled 50 prisoners...—from Edward Shaughnessy, The Composition of the Zhou Yi (1983), pp.41-2, and p.298, n.49.

Compare also the contemporary classic, The Book of Songs (Shi Jing 詩經):

Song 168, verse 6

出車 'Out Go the Chariots'

Orioles sing in harmony.
In crowds we gather southernwood.
We capture prisoners for questioning.
We return home...


In his translation of The Book of Poetry Legge calls this song 'An Ode of Congratulation on the Return of the Troops from the Expedition against the Xianyun'. Prisoners are being interrogated, or as Legge speculates 'put to torture', before their ritual beheading (p.264).

Song 178, verse 4

采芑 'Gathering Millet'

How foolish were those savage tribes
To make an enemy of the great state!
Fangshu the Great Marshall
Laid mighty plans,
Led his army forth.
He captured prisoners for questioning.
Many were his war chariots,
Many and ample.
Like claps of thunder they rumbled.
Illustrious was Fangshu, he was true,
He smote the Xianyun barbarians,
He over-awed the tribes of Jing.


Again, Legge (p.284) describes this song as follows: 'Celebrating Fangshu, and his successful conduct of a grand expedition against the tribes of the South'. Fangshu's victory was the occasion for a great military triumph.

But the most famous triumph recorded in bronze inscriptions is the one celebrating the success of Yu's campaign against Devil Territory, on the Da Yu Ding and Xiao Yu Ding cauldrons.

In the twenty-third year of his reign (981 BCE), King Kang of Zhou 周康王 appointed a man named Yu 盂, the grandson of one Nangong Kuo 南宮括, one of the high ministers mentioned by the Duke of Zhou as serving both Kings Wen and Wu, to act as an overseer of the Supervisors of the Military [sirong 司戎].

Yu commemorated this appointment by casting a great ding 鼎 cauldron, now referred to as the Da Yu Ding [大盂鼎 the Great Cauldron of Yu], one of the most impressive bronzes of the entire period.

Da Yu Ding Rubbing

Two years later, Yu cast another bronze cauldron, known as the Xiao Yu Ding [小盂鼎 the Lesser Cauldron of Yu], the inscription on which describes in grand detail the ceremony held to celebrate his decisive military victory won by Yu over a people known as the Guifang 鬼方 [Devil Territory], probably living in the Ordos area of northern Shaanxi and Shanxi. Only portions of a single rubbing of the lengthy inscription of this vessel still survive (the vessel itself, probably discovered in the 1840s, was lost shortly thereafter in the course of the Taiping Rebellion), but it deserves extensive quotation both for the light it sheds on the Zhou expansion late in King Kang's reign, and also as an excellent example of the sort of military and court ceremonial narrative found in some bronze inscriptions.

It was the eighth month, after the full moon, the day was on jiashen [day 21]; in the morning dusk, the three officials of the left and the three officials of the right and the many rulers entered to serve the wine. When it became light the king approached the Zhou temple and performed the guo-libation rite. The king's state guests attended. The state guests offered their travel garments and faced east.

Yu with many flags with suspended Guifang...entered the Southern Gate, and reported saying: 'The king commanded Yu to take... to attack the Guifang and shackle chiefs and take trophies. [I] shackled two chiefs, took 482 trophies, captured 13,081 men, captured...horses, captured 30 chariots, captured 355 oxen and 38 sheep.'

The king called out command Yu with his trophies to enter the gate and present them in the Western Passageway... [He] entered and performed a burnt offering in the Zhou temple,... [He] entered the Third Gate, assumed a position in the central court, facing north. Yu reported...

The guests assumed position. [He] served the guests. The king called out: 'Serve!' Yu in their...presented guests... At mid-morning, three Zhou...entered to serve wine. The king entered the temple. The invocator...the state guests grandly toasted...used a victim in ancestral sacrifice to the king of Zhou [i.e. King Wen], to King [Wu] and to King Cheng...divination cracks have pattern. The king toasted. Toast followed toast: the king and the state guests. The king called out command Yu with the booty to enter. All of the booty was registered.—from Edward Shaughnessy, in Loewe and Shaughnessy, eds., Cambridge History of Ancient China, 1999, p.320ff.

Herrlee Glessner Creel's description of this ceremonial triumph is an evocative one, and his footnote particularly gruesome and enlightening.

The inscription records a great triumphal celebration of victories over the Demon Territory, which took place in the Zhou ancestral temple at the capital. The effect is one of great spaces, dimmed light, awe-inspiring and sometimes gruesome pageantry. In two campaigns he [Yu] captured many prisoners and much booty, which he enumerates for each campaign. Combining the two, the total is: three chieftains, five thousand and forty-nine severed left ears (or heads) of the slain. More than thirteen thousand and eighty-one men. More than one hundred and four horses. More than one hundred and thirty vehicles (probably carts rather than chariots). Three hundred and fifty-five cattle; thirty-eight sheep.

The King then congratulates Yu. Yu brings forward the three captive chiefs, and the King orders that they be interrogated as to the reason they have resisted the Zhou... The interrogation being completed, the three chieftains are decapitated. The thousands of severed ears or heads are then offered as a burnt sacrifice.


There is much discussion as to whether the character guo 馘 (and 聝 which is considered to be its alternate form) refers to severed left ears or heads... In the Zuo Commentary (Cheng 3) we find a captive officer who apparently has lost his guo 馘 yet continues to live; obviously it was not his head that was cut off. The character may have been used with more than one significance, and of course its meaning may have changed over time.—from H.G. Creel, The Origins of Statecraft in China, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970, pp.232-3.