The Chinese Emperor Who Built A Lake of Wine and a Forest of Meat
The last ruler of China’s Shang Dynasty knew how to relax. When he and his Queen wanted to unwind, they would head to his pleasure palace and take a dip in their lake of wine.
That wasn’t just a cute name. King Zhou Xin’s lake of wine, it’s said, stretched more than two kilometers across in each direction. It was big enough that the emperor could take a canoe out and paddle his way around a sea of liquor.
In the center of the pool was a man-made island with a forest of meat. Its trees were made out meat skewers, and thick chunks of roast chicken, beef, and pork hung off the branches. The king could pass his time in his canoe, scooping wine out of the lake below him and plucking meat from the branches that hung overhead.
It was a pleasure palace unlike any the world had ever seen, and the parties he held there were completely unhinged festivals of debauchery. As many as 3,000 people would crowd his palace, all of them naked as a rule. On his order, they would drink from the wine lake like animals, or dive in it and swim, or else chase each other around in obscene orgies. And the king and queen would sit in the middle of all of it, delighting in the drunken pleasures of power.
Emperor Zhou would cruise on his lake, scooping wine out of the lake below him. ( quasuo / flickr )
It’s said that King Zhou Xin was actually a good king – at least, in his early years. He had a reputation for being intelligent and calm. He was, in essence, almost the exact opposite of the person you’d imagine paddling a boat atop a lake of wine.
As he got older, though, the power seems to have gone to his head. It’s difficult to say for sure what happened, but the ancient Chinese writers blamed it on his wife, Daji. She was the most beautiful woman in China, it was said, and from the second he met her he became so obsessed with impressing her that he forgot every duty he had.
Daji was a partier. She drank heavily and talked openly about sex, and King Zhou did everything he could to impress her. After they met, King Zhou started ordering his musicians to write the rudest songs imaginable. And, at her request, he spent most of his kingdom’s budget on a massive lake of wine.
“You must have this Wine Pool and Meat Forest,” she told him, “to show that you are above all the nobles in the kingdom!”
Zhou Xin had been a good king, until he met his wife ( Kevin Poh / flickr )
The Snake Pit
At least, that’s how the story goes. It’s difficult to separate the facts from the fiction. Some of the stories about Daji are outright absurd. One version of the legend even claims that she was a shape-shifting nine-tailed fox spirit who had their party guests ground up into a pulp and poured into a trough so that she could eat their flesh.
The people demonized her – literally, in this case. They made her out to seem like a monster, perhaps in a struggle to come to terms with why their king had turned his back on them.
To them, his lake of wine was more than just a pleasure palace. It was a financial burden that was crushing their entire kingdom. He paid for his parties on the backs of his people, heavily taxing every person under his command. And other than to take the people’s money, he barely showed up at the court.
The Cannon Burning Punishment
The people were starting to get angry, and some had the courage to tell him. The king, though, never took the criticism well.
When the king’s uncle complained about Daji’s influence and the parties at the lake of wine, King Zhou had him dissected alive and his still-beating heart pulled out of his body. At the time, it was said that great men’s hearts had seven chambers, and the king joked that he wanted to see if his uncle was a great man.
The king and queen started to get creative. First, they had a pit of snakes built to throw dissidents inside. Then they came up with something they called the Cannon Burning Punishment. It was a massive brass cannon filled with burning charcoal, designed to burn victims alive.
The first to die was counselor named Mei Bo, executed for the crime of warning the king against killing his own men. Mei Bo was brought into the throne room, stripped naked, and tied to the cannon. Then the charcoal was poured in and set alight.
The whole court was forced to watch him die. “Anyone who dares to say anything unforgivable will be treated like Mei Bo,” the king told them. “So hear you all!”
Any murmurs that passed through the crowd were soon drowned out by Mei Bo’s screams of agony. Not a man was allowed to leave until it was done, even when the stench of burning flesh had filled every inch of the room.
One of the punishments handed out by Zhou Xin was to be thrown in a snake pit (public domain)
King Wu of Zhou
After Mei Bo’s death, the people were too afraid to say anything to the king. He and his queen were left in peace to relax by their lake of wine, dreaming up new and strange debaucheries to pass the time.
King Zhou Xin didn’t realize, though, that he was being watched. King Wu, of the neighboring Zhou Kingdom , had been plotting to invade him for some time and was waiting for the right moment. When his spies reported back that the people had turned against their king, Wu attacked.
He only sent a hundred men to attack the city, but it was all he needed. Most of the Zhou Xin’s men threw their weapons down and surrendered on the spot, while some even joined the attacking army. In short time, the capital fell and the last of Zhou Xin’s soldiers had turned against him.
Zhou Xin retreated to his pleasure palace and stood by his lake of wine one last time. While he waited for the enemy army to come, he set the palace on fire. He didn’t run. He just sat by the lake and let the first consume him.
It was the end of dynasty that had lasted more than 550 years. With King Zhou Xin’s death, the Shang Dynasty fell and a new era in Chinese history began.
His wine lake would be immortalized, though, as an idea. To this day, 3,000 years later, the phrase “ Wine Pool and Meat Forest ” are used across the country as a symbol of corruption, named for the king who took it further than anyone ever had before.
Top image: Chinese temple on a lake (public domain)
By Mark Oliver
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