Sacred Books of the East/Volume 3/The Shu/Part 5/Book 6

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Book VI. The Metal-bound Coffer.


A certain chest or coffer, that was fastened with bands of metal, and in which important state documents were deposited, plays an important part among the incidents of the Book, which is therefore called 'the Metal-bound Coffer.' To what class among the documents of the Shû it should be assigned is doubtful.

King Wû is very ill, and his death seems imminent. His brother, the duke of Kâu, apprehensive of the disasters which such an event would occasion to their infant dynasty, conceives the idea of dying in his stead, and prays to 'the three kings,' their immediate progenitors, that he might be taken and king Wû left. Having done so, and divined that he was heard, he deposits the prayer in the metal-bound coffer. The king gets well, and the duke is also spared; but live years later, Wû does die, and is succeeded by his son, a boy only thirteen years old. Rumours are spread abroad that the duke has designs on the throne, and he withdraws for a time from the court. At length, in the third year of the young king, Heaven interposes. He has occasion to open the coffer, and the prayer of the duke is found. His devotion to his brother and to the interests of their family is brought to light. The boy-monarch weeps because of the unjust suspicions he had harboured, and welcomes the duke back to court, amid unmistakeable demonstrations of the approval of Heaven.

The whole narrative is a very pleasing episode in the history of the times. It divides itself naturally into two chapters:—the first, ending with the placing the prayer in the coffer; and the second, detailing how it was brought to light, and the consequences of the discovery.

It is in this Book that we first meet in the Shû with the duke of Kâu, a name in Chinese history only second to that of Confucius. He was the legislator and consolidator of the dynasty of Kâu, equally mighty in words and in deeds,—a man of counsel and of action. Confucius regarded his memory with reverence, and spoke of it as a sign of his own failing powers, that the duke of Kâu no longer appeared to him in his dreams. He was the fourth son of king Wăn; his name was Tan, and he had for his appanage the territory of Kâu, where Than-fû, canonized by him as king Thâi, first placed the seat of his family in B.C. 1327, and hence he is commonly called 'the duke of Kâu.'

1. Two years after the conquest of Shang[1], the king fell ill, and was quite disconsolate. The two (other great) dukes[2] said, 'Let us reverently consult the tortoise-shell about the king;' but the duke of Kâu said, 'You must not so distress our former kings[3].' He then took the business on himself, and reared three altars of earth on the same cleared space; and having made another altar on the south of these, and facing the north, he took there his own position. Having put a round symbol of jade (on each of the three altars), and holding in his hands the lengthened symbol (of his own rank), he addressed the kings Thâi, Kî, and Wăn.*

The (grand) historiographer had written on tablets his prayer, which was to this effect:—'A. B., your great descendant, is suffering from a severe and violent disease;—if you three kings have in heaven the charge of (watching over) him, (Heaven's) great son, let me Tan be a substitute for his person[4]. I was lovingly obedient to my father; I am possessed of many abilities and arts, which fit me to serve spiritual beings. Your great descendant, on the other hand, has not so many abilities and arts as I, and is not so capable of serving spiritual beings. And moreover he was appointed in the hall of God to extend his aid all over the kingdom, so that he might establish your descendants in this lower earth. The people of the four quarters all stand in reverent awe of him. Oh! do not let that precious Heaven-conferred appointment fall to the ground, and (all the long line of) our former kings will also have one in whom they can ever rest at our sacrifices.* I will now seek for your determination (in this matter) from the great tortoise-shell. If you grant me (my request), I will take these symbols and this mace, and return and wait for your orders. If you do not grant it, I will put them by[5].'*

The duke then divined with the three tortoise-shells, and all were favourable. He opened with a key the place where the (oracular) responses were kept, and looked at them, and they also were favourable. He said, 'According to the form (of the prognostic) the king will take no injury. I, the little child, have got the renewal of his appointment from the three kings, by whom a long futurity has been consulted for. I have now to wait for the issue. They can provide for our One man.'*

When the duke returned, he placed the tablets (of the prayer) in a metal-bound coffer[6], and next day the king got better.

2. (Afterwards), upon the death of king Wû, (the duke's) elder brother, he of Kwan, and his younger brothers, spread a baseless report through the kingdom, to the effect that the duke would do no good to the (king's) young son. On this the duke said to the two (other great) dukes, 'If I do not take the law (to these men), I shall not be able to make my report to the former kings [7].'*

He resided (accordingly) in the east for two years[8], when the criminals were taken (and brought to justice). Afterwards he made a poem to present to the king, and called it 'the Owl[9].' The King on his part did not dare to blame the duke.

In the autumn, when the grain was abundant and ripe, but before it was reaped, Heaven sent a great storm of thunder and lightning, along with wind, by which the grain was all broken down, and great trees torn up. The people were greatly terrified; and the king and great officers, all in their caps of state, proceeded to open the metal-bound coffer and examine the writings in it, where they found the words of the duke when he took on himself the business of being a substitute for king Wû. The two (great) dukes and the king asked the historiographer and all the other officers (acquainted with the transaction) about the thing, and they replied, 'It was really thus; but ah! the duke charged us that we should not presume to speak about it.' The king held the writing in his hand, and wept, saying, 'We need not (now) go on reverently to divine. Formerly the duke was thus earnest for the royal House, but I, being a child, did not know it. Now Heaven has moved its terrors to display his virtue. That I, the little child, (now) go with my new views and feelings to meet him, is what the rules of propriety of our kingdom require.'*

The king then went out to the borders (to meet the duke), when Heaven sent down rain, and, by virtue of a contrary wind, the grain all rose up. The two (great) dukes gave orders to the people to take up the trees that had fallen and replace them. The year then turned out very fruitful.*

  1. B.C. 1121.
  2. These were the duke of Shâo, to whom the preceding Book is ascribed, and Thâi-kung, who became the first of the lords of Khî.
  3. He negatives their proposal, having determined to take the whole thing on himself.
  4. Two things are here plain:—first, that the duke of Kâu offered himself to die in the room of his brother; and second, that he thought that his offer might somehow be accepted through the intervention of the great kings, their progenitors. He proceeds to give his reasons for making such an offer, which are sufficiently interesting. It was hardly necessary for Chinese scholars to take the pains they have done to free the duke from the charge of boasting in them.
  5. I suppose that the divination took place before the altars, and that a different shell was used to ascertain the mind of each king. The oracular responses would be a few lines, kept apart by themselves, and consulted, on occasion, according to certain rules which have not come down to the present day.
  6. Many scholars think that it was this coffer which contained the oracles of divination mentioned above. It may have been so; but I rather suppose it to have been different, and a special chest in which important archives of the dynasty, to be referred to on great emergencies, were kept.
  7. Wû died in B.C. 1116, and was succeeded by his son Sung, who is known in history as king Khăng, or 'the Completer.' He was at the time only thirteen years old, and his uncle, the duke of Kâu, acted as regent. The jealousy of his elder brother Hsien, 'lord of Kwan,' and two younger brothers, was excited, and they spread the rumour which is referred to, and entered into a conspiracy with the son of the tyrant of Shang, to overthrow the new dynasty.
  8. These two years were spent in military operations against the revolters.
  9. See the Book of Poetry, Part I, xv, Ode 2.