King Zhuang of Chu made a stunning debut-楚庄王 一鸣惊人

Chu State, located in southern Han, has been a constant source of trouble for the Zhou royal court since its establishment. From periods of submission to outright betrayal, it posed a significant threat to the Central Plains vassals. Later, Chu’s ruler, Xiong Tong, boldly declared himself king, becoming Chu King Wu. Through the governance of King Wu, King Wen, and King Cheng of Chu over several generations, the state expanded its territory and grew in strength, constantly eyeing the Central Plains. The Central Plains vassals rallied under the slogan of “honoring the king and expelling the barbarians,” primarily directed against Chu.

During the hegemony of Duke Huan of Qi, Chu was confined to Zhaoling. Subsequently, Duke Wen of Jin declared hegemony, defeating Chu at Chengpu. Despite Chu’s efforts to advance northward, it remained powerless.

In 628 B.C., ambitious Crown Prince Shangchen assassinated King Cheng and proclaimed himself as Chu King Mu. With ambitions to dominate the Central Plains, Chu King Mu recognized the formidable strength of Jin under the leadership of Zhao Dun. Thus, he adopted a strategy of biding his time, actively implementing policies to strengthen Chu, but was still unable to advance northward due to the strong suppression by Zhao Dun.

In 613 B.C., Chu King Mu, burdened by the regret of not achieving dominance in the Central Plains, succumbed to a sudden illness. His young legitimate son, Xiong Lü, ascended to the throne, known as the remarkable King Zhuang of Chu. Facing internal instability with the powerful aristocratic family of Guo Ao, who were prone to rebellious ambitions, and external threats from rival Jin, King Zhuang found himself in a precarious situation.

In King Zhuang’s first year of reign, Jin’s Prime Minister Zhao Dun marched south to seize the state of Zheng, which submitted to Jin. Jin, along with allies like Song, Lu, Chen, Wei, Zheng, Cao, and Xu, formed an alliance in Xincheng. Chen and Song, formerly aligned with Chu, shifted allegiance to Jin during the alliance, directing their hostility towards Chu.

The following year, Jin, using the pretext of Cai State not participating in the Xincheng alliance, sent forces to attack Chu’s neighboring state, Cai. Cai resisted vigorously and sought help from Chu, but King Zhuang did not send troops to assist. Under Jin’s fierce attack, Cai’s capital fell, and the ruler of Cai, to avoid total annihilation, made a covenant with Jin. This event left the ruler of Cai deeply anguished, and he passed away the following year.

In the autumn of the third year, Chu experienced a severe famine. Various tribes in the vicinity rebelled, with the Shanrong tribe from the east of Ba State raiding Chu’s southwestern border. Subsequently, tribes from the east, such as the Yi and Yue, took advantage of the chaos, disrupting the southeastern border, occupying Yangqiu, and directly threatening Zizhi. The vassal state Yong, which had been loyal to Chu, incited various barbarian tribes like Qun and Baipu to revolt, preparing to attack the capital Yingedu.

During these three years, urgent reports from various regions arrived at Yingdu like snowflakes. The internal and external situation deteriorated step by step, but life in the royal palace of Chu was still lively. In his three years of reign, the young and weak King Zhuang issued no edicts, neglected state affairs, and indulged in revelry in the harem. He even hung a large sign at the palace gate, stating, “Anyone daring to advise will face unforgiving death!”

On one side, Jin, under the leadership of Zhao Dun, dominated the Central Plains; on the other side, King Zhuang remained secluded in the deep palace, immersed in extravagance and unconcerned with governance. Chu was on the verge of collapse, and the ministers who relied on the king were deeply anxious. Eventually, Duke Wu Ju could no longer endure it and went to meet King Zhuang. With concubines on both sides and a drunken expression on his face, King Zhuang, while watching a performance, asked Wu Ju in a drunken state, “Is the Duke here to drink or to watch the dance?” Wu Ju said that he had heard a riddle today but couldn’t solve it, so he came to seek advice. King Zhuang, interested in riddles, asked him to speak quickly. Wu Ju spoke with hidden meanings, saying, “There is a colorful big bird that flew to the mountains of Chu, but for three years, it neither sang loudly nor soared with its wings. What kind of bird do you think this is?” After hearing this, King Zhuang, realizing the subtle mockery, laughed and said, “I know what bird it is. Do not underestimate it. After three years of not flying, once it takes off, it will soar straight into the clouds. After three years of not singing, once it chirps, it will be a stunning performance.” Wu Ju, relieved by King Zhuang’s response, happily returned.

However, a few months later, King Zhuang continued to spend his days in drinking and hunting, indulging in pleasure. The minister Su Cong decided to risk his life to remonstrate. Upon entering the palace, he burst into tears upon seeing King Zhuang. Perplexed, King Zhuang asked, “What has made you so sad, sir?” Su Cong replied, “I am on the verge of death, and indeed, I am saddened. But what saddens me even more is that Chu is also on the verge of destruction!” Surprised, King Zhuang asked, “How do you know you are going to die? What does it have to do with Chu’s destruction?” Su Cong said, “I came to advise you to attend to state affairs diligently. If you kill me for offering sincere advice, loyal ministers who dare to speak will be killed, and you will be left with no one to advise you. In such a scenario, the demise of Chu is inevitable!” Enraged, King Zhuang said, “If you know you are going to die, why did you come here to seek death?” Su Cong replied, “If you kill me, I will be praised for offering advice to the sovereign, while you will be responsible for the downfall of the country, becoming a king of a ruined state.”

Deeply moved, King Zhuang immediately ordered the dismissal of female entertainers, expressing his willingness to heed Su Cong’s remonstrance. From then on, King Zhuang truly distanced himself from indulgence, focusing on state affairs. During these three years, he secretly observed and discerned between loyal and treacherous ministers. After assuming power, he executed hundreds and promoted hundreds, entrusting important responsibilities to figures like Wu Ju and Su Cong. The people of Chu were greatly relieved.

The immediate priority for King Zhuang’s rule was to suppress the rebellion in Yong. Therefore, he, along with Qin and Ba, personally commanded the army for a vigorous campaign against Yong. Various tribes were subdued by Chu’s formidable forces, one after another pledging allegiance to King Zhuang and withdrawing their troops. King Zhuang seized the opportunity to eliminate Yong, achieving his first victory since assuming power. This victory in subduing Yong showcased King Zhuang’s outstanding abilities, strengthened Chu’s rear, and enhanced its connections with Ba and Qin. Subsequently, King Zhuang’s rule became more stable, and he planned to follow his father’s will by marching north to dominate the Central Plains.

The most formidable opponent for Chu’s hegemony in the Central Plains was Jin. It restrained Qin to the west and controlled Qi to the east. Although Qin and Qi were strong, they were not a match for Jin. However, at this time, Jin Linggong gradually matured and began to rule independently. While Zhao Dun still held actual power, conflicts between Linggong and Zhao Dun became increasingly apparent, limiting Zhao Dun’s actions in external expansion. This provided King Zhuang with an opportunity.

With Chu’s stability and growing strength, some Central Plains states reconsidered their relationship with Chu. In 608 B.C., Zheng, originally aligned with Jin, proactively formed an alliance with Chu at Chenling. However, Zheng, vacillating between alliances, soon favored Jin again. Chu was furious with Zheng’s double-dealing. In the spring of the following year, King Zhuang sent a large army to besiege the capital of Zheng. Zheng sought help from Jin, but Jin’s reinforcements were delayed. Zheng defended for three months but was eventually conquered by Chu. Duke Xiang of Zheng surrendered, exchanged hostages with Chu, and signed a covenant, pledging wholehearted allegiance to Chu.

After Zheng’s surrender, Jin finally dispatched reinforcements, but upon reaching the Yellow River, they received news that Zheng had surrendered to Chu. The main generals of Jin’s army, including Xun Linfu and Shi Hui, intended to withdraw to Jin. Xun Linfu, newly appointed and lacking influence in the army, faced insubordination from Deputy Commander Xian Hu and others, who defied the orders to withdraw and crossed the Yellow River without authorization. Xun Linfu, helpless, led the Jin army hastily across the river.

At that time, King Zhuang stationed his army at Ni, knowing that the Jin army had crossed the Yellow River but still attempted to negotiate for peace. After crossing the river, Jin’s army camped around Ao and Hao, with conflicting opinions internally on whether to engage in war or seek peace. Later, Xun Linfu sent envoys to negotiate a ceasefire with Chu, but the envoys were all advocates of war and challenged Chu’s forces against orders.

The Jin army was not prepared for actual combat, and when the two armies clashed, Chu’s large forces swiftly arrived. Panicking, Xun Linfu hastily commanded a retreat, and Shi Hui was shot and killed with an arrow. The rebellious army dispersed instantly. King Zhuang, not wishing to annihilate the Jin army, refrained from pursuing them further. This marked the second major battle between Jin and Chu after the Battle of Chengpu – the Battle of Bi.

This military campaign showcased the political stability of Chu at that time, with the entire country united and strong. Jin, recognizing Chu’s strength, dared not confront Chu again. From then on, Chu’s influence soared, fulfilling its long-standing aspirations and establishing hegemony in the Central Plains.

King Zhuang’s hegemony in the Central Plains not only elevated the reputation of Chu but also integrated Chu into Central Plains culture. It played a role in the unification of Huaxia and the formation of national spirit, leaving a profound and highly praised legacy for future generations.