Playing with Fire: Deceptive Flames Among Feudal Lords-烽火戏诸侯

In the year 781 B.C., following the death of King Xuan of Zhou, his son Gong Sheng ascended the throne as the last monarch of the Western Zhou Dynasty, known as King You of Zhou. This marked the beginning of King You’s reign in 782 B.C.

In the later years of King Xuan’s rule, the Western Zhou society faced acute social contradictions due to his militaristic and authoritarian governance. King You inherited a troubled kingdom, grappling with consecutive years of drought, earthquakes near the capital, and a populace suffering from famine and displacement. The social upheaval and political instability worsened as King You, instead of revitalizing the declining Zhou Dynasty, chose to intensify exploitation through the implementation of monopolies and the appointment of flatterers like Guo Shifu. This exacerbated class tensions, leading to growing resentment among the people.

King You’s extravagant and debauched lifestyle extended to the pursuit of beautiful women. Advised by the minister Yue Shu, who urged him to focus on state affairs, King You, blinded by his desires, dismissed Yue Shu from the royal court. Dissatisfied with this irrational decision, the minister Bao Zheng confronted King You, advising him to prioritize national affairs. In response, King You, consumed by anger and shame, ordered Bao Zheng’s imprisonment.

Bao Zheng spent three years in prison, during which time his fellow citizens of Bao rallied to secure his release. Hearing of King You’s fondness for beauty, Bao Zheng’s son searched for and found an exceptionally beautiful woman. Originally an abandoned infant adopted by a couple engaged in petty trade in Bao, she was raised in Bao and well-prepared by Bao Zheng’s son. She was given the name Bao Si and presented to King You.

Upon seeing Bao Si, King You was captivated and immediately appointed her as his concubine. Simultaneously, he released Bao Zheng from imprisonment. Bao Si’s presence in the royal court elevated her to a position of favor, and King You, indulging in a life of luxury and debauchery, disregarded state affairs even more.

However, despite Bao Si’s stunning beauty, she rarely smiled. King You, troubled by this absence of laughter, sought various ways to make her smile and, in desperation, offered a substantial reward of a thousand gold pieces to anyone who could achieve this feat.

One day, King You and Bao Si visited the nearby Li Mountain (modern-day southeast Lintong, Shaanxi). The area around Li Mountain had numerous beacon towers, over twenty in total. During the Western Zhou period, to guard against invasions by the Quanrong, beacon towers were established from the capital to the border fortresses. In case of a Quanrong invasion, the sentinels would light beacons, signaling to the feudal lords. Upon seeing these beacon towers, Guo Shifu devised a plan to please King You. He suggested lighting the beacons, causing the feudal lords to mobilize needlessly and entertaining Bao Si, leading her to laugh.

King You, easily influenced, agreed to this scheme. Accompanied by Guo Shifu and Bao Si, he ascended a beacon tower on Li Mountain. In the absence of any real threat, King You ordered the soldiers to light the beacons.

As the beacons were lit, smoke billowed during the day, and flames soared into the night sky. Feudal lords, seeing the signals, rushed to the capital with their troops, believing there was an imminent danger. Upon arriving at the capital, they learned that the king was at Li Mountain, and hastily proceeded to the location. However, upon reaching Li Mountain, they found no signs of an enemy. Bewildered, the feudal lords realized they had been deceived. King You, high on the tower, finally informed them, “There is no enemy. You have worked hard, and you may return.”

Playing with Fire and Deceiving the Lords: Amused by the bustling activities of the feudal lords below, Bao Si couldn’t contain her joy and burst into laughter. The Records of the Grand Historian states, “The feudal lords arrived, only to find no threat, and Bao Si burst into laughter.”

Witnessing Bao Si’s laughter, King You was overjoyed and immediately rewarded Guo Shifu with a thousand gold pieces. The deceived feudal lords, infuriated and humiliated, returned to their respective territories. To amuse Bao Si again, King You continued to light the beacons and play tricks on the feudal lords.

A year later, Bao Si gave birth to a son, bringing immense joy to King You. The child was named Bo Fu. King You, even more infatuated with Bao Si, went against ancestral norms, unreasonably deposed Queen Shen and her son Yi Ju from their positions. This allowed him to proclaim Bao Si as the new queen and Bo Fu as the crown prince. Bo Yang, the Royal Historian of Zhou, well-versed in historical records, sighed and remarked, “A great disaster is imminent for the Zhou royal family, and its downfall is inevitable.”

Queen Shen, originally from the state of Shen, returned to her homeland with her son Yi Ju after being deposed. She informed her father, the Marquis of Shen, of King You’s actions, enraging him. Upon learning that King You intended to strip him of his title, the Marquis of Shen decided to preemptively strike. In 772 B.C., he joined forces with the states of Zeng and the Western Rong, launching a military campaign against the Zhou Dynasty, advancing all the way to the capital, Haojing.

With the enemy forces reaching Haojing, King You, in a state of panic, ordered the lighting of the beacon towers, hoping for aid from the feudal lords. The beacons were indeed lit, emitting thick smoke during the day and flames reaching the sky at night. Yet, no reinforcements arrived. Unknown to King You, his repeated deceptions, especially the false alarms with the Li Mountain beacons, had eroded trust among the feudal lords. Believing that King You was once again attempting to entertain Bao Si, the feudal lords paid no attention.

As the capital fell under attack, King You, accompanied by Bao Si, Bo Fu, and the royal treasures, fled through the back gate of the palace towards Li Mountain. Discovered by the enemy, King You was killed, and Bao Si was captured. With the fall of Haojing, the Zhou Dynasty, which had ruled for approximately 250 years, came to an end.

Only when the Quanrong entered Haojing did the feudal lords realize the genuine threat. They quickly united and, with a massive army, rushed to the rescue. The Quanrong, having looted the accumulated treasures of the Zhou Dynasty, set them ablaze and retreated from Haojing.

The tale of “Playing with Fire: Deceptive Flames Among Feudal Lords” reflects the absurdity and profound lessons of King You’s foolish actions, ultimately leading to the demise of the Western Zhou Dynasty.