The Brass-bound Coffer
translated by Patrick Moran

The second year after the defeat of the Shang dynasty, the king (King Wu) had an illness and was distressed. The two dukes [the Duke of Tai and the Duke of Shao] said: "We will respectfully perform divination by scapulimancy for the king." The Duke of Zhou said: "It is not permissible to trouble our former kings." (Some scholars says this sentence means: "That will not be enough to emotionally influence our former kings.")

The Duke of Zhou then took it upon himself to make three platforms and sweep them all clean. He further made a platform south of them, and, facing north, the Duke of Zhou stood thereupon. He placed a bi [jade sacrificial offering] before him and held a gui [jade symbol of an officiant during a religious ceremony]. He made his plea to King Tai, King Ji, and King Wen. His scribes read out the following written prayer of entreaty:

"Your eldest grandson a-certain-one (the king's name was tabooed) had suffered a dangerous and terrible disease. Supposing that you three kings do indeed have the responsibility before Heaven to protect your descendants, then take me, Dan, in his place. I am kind and filled with filial piety. I have many talents and abilities. I am well able to serve ghosts and spirits. However, your eldest grandson is not like me in having many talents and abilities; neither is he well able to serve ghosts and spirits. But he has received the Mandate from the house of the Lord on High and [so] has possession of the entire world and therefore can give a secure position in the world below to your children and grandchildren. None of the people of the four quarters of the world fail to respect and stand in awe of him. Oh! Do not cast down the precious Mandate which Heaven has bestowed [upon our royal house] so that our former kings might have eternal sustenance. Now I will engrave [my question] on a great tortoise shell [in preparation for divination]. Should you respond favorably to me, I will offer up the bi and gui [jade articles] to you and return home to await your command. Should you not respond favorably to my plea, I will then conceal (i.e., take back to my treasury) the bi and gui.

Then he made divination three times by means of the tortoise shell, and each time the response was auspicious. He opened the lock and looked at the writings, and all were indeed auspicious as well. The Duke [of Zhou] said: "The signs show that the King will not be injured. I the little child have been personally commanded by the three Kings and their sole intent is to take care for the long term. It is that upon which we must depend -- that they will hold our king in their thoughts.

The Duke returned, and then deposited the document in a coffer bound with brass. The next day the King recovered.

[Years later] after King Wu died, Uncle Guan (Guan Xian, third younger brother of King Wen) and his several brothers spread accusations in the country saying that the Duke [of Zhou] would in future work against the interests of the young king (King Cheng). The Duke of Zhou thereupon proclaimed to the [other two] Dukes: "If I do not avoid [conflict by retiring from court], then I will have nothing to say in defense of myself to our former kings."

The Duke of Zhou resided in the east for two years and then the malefactors were captured. Afterwards, the Duke composed a poem to present to the king. It was named "The Owl." The king did not dare to voice recriminations against the Duke [for his critical poem].

That autumn there was a great crop awaiting harvest. Heaven used a great thunderstorm to blow down all of the grain and uproot great trees. The people of the country were in great terror. The king and his great ministers all wore their robes of state to open the writings preserved in the brass-bound coffer. So they obtained the story of how the Duke of Zhou had offered himself as a sacrifice to take the place of King Wu. The two Dukes and the King then asked the several chief scribes and the other servitors [about it]. They responded: "It is true! Oh! The Duke gave his command and so we did not dare to speak of it." The King held the written document and wept, saying: "There is no further need to make divination [to know the cause of Heaven's displeasure]. In the past, the Duke labored on behalf of the royal house, and only I the callow one failed to know of it. Now Heaven has manifested its fearsomeness in order to disclose the virtue of the Duke of Zhou. Now I the little child will personally go forth to welcome him as is in accordance with the ritual proprieties of our country."

As the King left the immediate vicinity of the capital, heaven cleared and the wind switched directions so that the grain all stood up again. The two Dukes commanded the people of the country to raise all of the trees that had fallen and firm them up. Thus there was a great harvest that year.