King Mu of Zhou

King Mu of Zhou (Chinese: 周穆王; pinyin: Zhōu Mù Wáng) was the fifth king of the Chinese zhou dynasty. The dates of his reign are 976-922 BC or 956-918 BC.


King Mu came into power after his father King Zhao's death during his tour to the South. King Mu was perhaps the most pivotal king of the zhou dynasty, reigning nearly 55 years, from ca. 976 BC to ca. 922 BC. He was reputed to have lived until the age of 105. He liked to travel, and in particular visited the Kunlun Mountains several times during his reign, and is said that he traveled 90,000 kilometers to the west. King Mu was more ambitious than wise, yet he was able to introduce reforms that changed the nature of the zhou dynasty government, transforming it from a hereditary system to one that was based on merit and knowledge of administrative skills.

During King Mu's reign, the zhou dynasty was at its peak, and King Mu tried to stamp out invaders in the western part of China and ultimately expand Zhou's influence to the east. In the height of his passion for conquests, he led an immense army against the Dog Rong, who inhabited the western part of China. His travels allowed him to contact many tribes and swayed them to either join under the Zhou banner or be conquered in war with his mighty army. This expedition may have been more of a failure than a success, judging by the fact that he brought back only four white wolves and four white deer. Unintentionally and inadvertently, he thus sowed the seeds of hatred which culminated in an invasion of China by the same tribes in 771 BC. In his thirteenth year the Xu Rong, probably the state of Xu in the southeast, raided near the eastern capital of Fenghao. The war seems to have ended in a truce in which the state of Xu gained land and power in return for nominal submission.

In Mythology

One Chinese myth tells a story about King Mu, who dreamed of being an immortal god. He was determined to visit the heavenly paradise and taste the peaches of immortality. A brave charioteer named Zaofu used his chariot to carry the king to his destination. The Mu Tianzi Zhuan, a fourth century BC romance, describes King Mu's visit to the Queen Mother of the West.


In the 3rd century BC text of the Lie Zi, there is a curious account on automata involving a much earlier encounter between King Mu of Zhou and a mechanical engineer known as Yan Shi (偃師), an 'artificer'. The latter proudly presented the king with a life-size, human-shaped figure of his mechanical 'handiwork' (Wade-Giles spelling):

The king stared at the figure in astonishment. It walked with rapid strides, moving its head up and down, so that anyone would have taken it for a live human being. The artificer touched its chin, and it began singing, perfectly in tune. He touched its hand, and it began posturing, keeping perfect time. . . As the performance was drawing to an end, the robot winked its eye and made advances to the ladies in attendance, whereupon the king became incensed and would have had Yen Shih (Yan Shi) executed on the spot had not the latter, in mortal fear, instantly taken the robot to pieces to let him see what it really was. And, indeed, it turned out to be only a construction of leather, wood, glue and lacquer, variously coloured white, black, red and blue. Examining it closely, the king found all the internal organs complete—liver, gall, heart, lungs, spleen, kidneys, stomach and intestines; and over these again, muscles, bones and limbs with their joints, skin, teeth and hair, all of them artificial. . . The king tried the effect of taking away the heart, and found that the mouth could no longer speak; he took away the liver and the eyes could no longer see; he took away the kidneys and the legs lost their power of locomotion. The king was delighted.

Last update 19-06-2012

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