As the chief minister of Duke Huan of Qi (齊桓公), Guan Zhong (管仲) was the driving force behind the transformation of the state into an economic, military, and political superpower in the first half of the seventh century BCE.
Born in 720 BCE, Guan Zhong managed to work his way out of an impoverished family background thanks in large part to his close friendship with the much wealthier and more influential Bao Shuya (鮑叔牙). The two men grew up in the same town of Yingshang in modern-day Anhui province, and became business partners. Guan Zhong reportedly took most of the profits from these, though Bao Shuya didn’t seem to mind because he sympathized with his friend’s poor background and was hugely impressed with his talents.
The two men’s prominence rose further when they were appointed as counselors of Prince Jiu and Prince Xiaobai, the second and third sons of Duke Xi of Qi (齊僖公). Guan Zhong was responsible for the education of the older Prince Jiu together with another counselor called Shao Hu (召忽), while Bao Shuya looked after the younger Prince Xiaobai.
When the princes’ father was killed in a palace coup 698 BCE, their oldest brother Zhuer (諸兒) assumed power and ruled until 686 BCE as Duke Xiang (齊襄公). Guan Zhong and Bao Shuya were so worried about the safety of their two charges that they whisked them off to the states of Lu and Ju respectively.
In 686 BCE, Duke Xiang was murdered by his cousin Wuzhi (無知), who assumed control of Qi himself for a few months before being killed by a minister called Yong Lin (雍廩) in the spring of 685 BCE. Afraid that his younger brother would seize the throne before him, Prince Jiu instructed Guan Zhong and Shao Hu to stop Prince Xiaobai from returning to their homeland.
When the two men encountered Prince Xiaobai, Guan Zhong fired an arrow at the younger prince. Believing that he was dead, Guan Zhong and Shao Hu returned to Prince Jiu and informed him of the success of their mission.
Thinking that his younger brother was no longer a threat to him, Prince Jiu took his time on the journey back to Qi – only to find out upon his arrival outside the capital that Prince Xiaobai was already installed on the throne. Following a failed attempt to defeat his brother, the prince and his two retainers fled back to the state of Lu. Although Duke Zhuang of Lu (魯莊公) was a supporter of Prince Jiu, he was forced to execute him after Xiaobai sent an army to attack his state. As part of the peace agreement, the duke was also compelled to send Guan Zhong and Shao Hu back to Qi.
The grief-stricken Shao Hu refused to go and killed himself out of loyalty to his deceased prince. Guan Zhong, however, declined to follow his example and returned to Qi as a prisoner to face the man he had attempted to kill. Even though the new ruler of Qi had originally intended to execute Guan Zhong upon his return, Bao Shuya stepped in to support his friend and somehow managed to persuade the duke to appoint him as his chief minister.
After taking up his new position in 685 BCE, Guan Zhong lost no time in encouraging Duke Huan to implement a raft of political, administrative, and economic reforms that ultimately made Qi one of the most powerful and wealthiest states during the Spring and Autumn period (771-476 BCE).
One of the most important steps Guan Zhong took was to replace members of the hereditary aristocracy in the government bureaucracy with talented individuals drawn from a much wider cross-section of society. To increase control of the economy and boost revenues, he also unified the tax code and placed the salt and iron industries under government supervision. Some scholars go as far as to argue that Guan Zhong’s reforms sowed the seeds for the emergence of Legalism, the philosophy that ultimately powered the unification of China under the Qin Emperor.
As the power and wealth of Qi grew, Guan Zhong worked together with Duke Huan to pursue an even more ambitious goal of restoring the unity of the weak and fragmented Zhou dynasty. In 667 BCE, the two men arranged a conference with the rulers of the smaller and more fragile states of Lu, Song, Chen, and Zheng that elected Duke Huan as their leader.
King Hui of Zhou, the nominal ruler of the Zhou kingdom (周惠王), recognized this reality by authorizing the duke to conduct military affairs in his name as hegemon (霸主) – effectively giving him and Guan Zhong carte blanche to get involved with the affairs of other states and resolve issues and disputes to their own advantage.
In 671 BCE, they significantly weakened the state of Wei by carrying out a punitive expedition against it for allegedly defying the authority of King Hui. They also took the opportunity to interfere in a power struggle in Lu to put their favored contender on the throne.
The two men’s activities also extended into foreign affairs. As well as carrying successful campaigns to protect the states of Wei, Yan, and Xing against invasion from northern and western peoples, they also took aggressive steps to halt the expansion of the increasingly powerful southern state of Chu.
In 656 BCE, Qi headed an alliance of eight states against Cai, a close ally of Chu. After defeating it, the alliance launched an invasion of Chu itself, which was only halted after a treaty was signed that required Chu to bring an end to its campaigns against northern states. The treaty failed to achieve its intended purpose, however, as Chu simply switched its attention from the north to the east and took control of several allies of Qi as well as the strategically important Huai River. Duke Huan’s final attempt to stop Chu’s relentless advances ended in defeat at the Battle of Loulin in 645 BCE – the same year as Guan Zhong’s death.
Despite his huge success as a chief minister and a statesman, Guan Zhong had been unable to put a stop the growing struggles between Duke Huan’s six sons over his succession. When the duke died two years later in 643 BCE, the state descended into chaos and was never able to regain the preeminent position that it rose to under the great leadership of Duke Huan and Guan Zhong.
Confucius had mixed feelings about Guan Zhong. Even though he strongly defends him in Book 14 of the Analects, his sharp criticism in 3.22 suggests that he also blamed him for undermining traditional Zhou dynasty culture and ritual with his technocratic reforms.
Guan Zhong lived from 720 BCE to 645 BCE. His personal name was Yiwu (夷吾).
Confucius said: “Guan Zhong had his limitations.” Someone objected: “Do you mean that Guan Zhong wasn’t frugal?” Confucius replied: “Guan Zhong had three households, each one staffed by a huge retinue. How could he be called frugal?” “But didn’t he know ritual?” “Even though only the ruler of a state can place a screen to mask the view of his gate, he also had one installed. Even though only the ruler of a state can use a special stand to place his inverted cup on when meeting with another ruler, Guan Zhong had one too. If you say Guan Zhong knew ritual, then who doesn’t know it?”
Someone asked about Zichan. Confucius said: “He was a generous man.” “And what about Zixi?” “Don’t even mention his name!” “And what about Guan Zhong?” “What a man! He seized over three hundred households in Pian from the head of the Bo family. But even though he was reduced to eating coarse food until the end of his days, the poor man could never bring himself to utter a single word of complaint against him.”
Zilu said: “When Duke Huan had Prince Jiu put to death, Shao Hu took his own life but Guan Zhong chose to keep his. Should we say that Guan Zhong was a man without goodness?” Confucius said: “Duke Huan was able to bring the rulers of all the states together nine times without having to resort to military force because of the power of Guan Zhong. Such was his goodness! Such was his goodness!”
Zigong said: “Guan Zhong wasn’t a good person, was he? After Duke Huan had Prince Jiu put to death, he not only chose to live but also served as the duke’s chief minister.” Confucius said: “By serving as Duke Huan’s chief minister, Guan Zhong imposed his authority over all the states and brought order to the world; the people still reap the benefits of his actions until this day. Without Guan Zhong, we would still be wearing our hair loose and folding our robes on the wrong side. Or would you prefer it if he had drowned himself in a ditch like some wretched husband or wife in their petty fidelity and died with nobody knowing about it?”