Nanzi (南子) was the consort or wife of Duke Ling of Wei (衛靈公) and took part in the most scandalous incident of Confucius’s life. She gained an unsavory reputation for political scheming and loose morals and was widely believed to have been the real power behind the throne during the tumultuous later years of the duke’s reign (543 – 493 BCE).
Nanzi was at the height of her powers when Confucius arrived in Wei after leaving his home state of Lu for exile in 496 BCE. She was anxious to meet the famous sage but had to send multiple invitations before he finally agreed to attend an audience with her.
Although no records exist of what Nanzi and Confucius discussed, their meeting generated a flurry of rumors about the couple’s intentions. Some even suggested that Confucius and Nanzi were interested in becoming romantically involved with each other, while others posited that Confucius was attempting to enlist her help in securing a position in the government of Wei.
Even if the meeting was an entirely innocent affair, it certainly didn’t help Confucius’s reputation. His faithful follower and friend Zilu was so angry about it that he famously upbraided his master in Chapter 28 of Book 6 of the Analects for meeting with her.
Nanzi was born in the state of Song in around 480 BCE. After becoming a wife or consort of Duke Ling of Wei, she was rumored to have conducted a scandalous affair with a minister of the court called Song Chao (宋朝). Some of these rumors suggested that she was attracted by Song’s good looks, but others go as far as to say that he was her brother or half-brother and Nanzi had summoned him to join her in the Wei court with the specific aim of having an affair with him.
Not surprisingly, this scandal greatly upset the heir-apparent to the Wei throne Ji Kuaikui (姬蒯瞶), who threatened or, according to some accounts, attempted to assassinate her in 492 BCE. When Nanzi told her husband that his son wanted to kill her, Kuaikui fled into exile in the states of Song and then Jin to escape his wrath.
As he approached his death, Duke Ling of Wei hoped that his son Zicheng 子郢 would succeed him, but the young man declined and suggested making Kuaikui’s son Ji Zhe (姬輒) the duke’s successor. During his reign as Duke Chu of Wei (衛出公) from 492 to 481 BCE, Zhe refused to allow his father to return to the state out of fear that he would seize the throne from him. Fortunately for Nanzi, Zhe didn’t share Kuaikui’s animosity towards her and she was thus able to live in relative safety during his reign.
However, the situation changed in 480 BCE when Kuaikui heard that his eldest sister, Boji (伯姬), had taken Hun Liangfu (渾良夫), the former bond servant of her deceased husband, as her lover.
After Kuaikui promised to pardon Liangfu and marry his sister if they helped him to overthrow his son from the throne, the two men went back together to Wei and hid in the orchard of his sister’s mansion while she persuaded her son, Kong Kui (孔悝), who served as the chief minister of Zhe, to join the plot at spearpoint.
When he was informed of the threat during a palace banquet, Zhe rather ingloriously made his escape to the state of Lu – enabling Kong Kui to proclaim Kuaikui as the rightful ruler of Wei. While fighting to protect Zhe from Kuaikui’s men, Confucius’s follower Zilu was killed.
After taking power, Kuaikui soon had Nanzi executed. However, he only managed to rule as Duke Zhuang of Wei (衛莊公) for a paltry two years from 480 – 478 BCE, before he was forced to flee once more when the Earl of Zhao (趙), who had hosted him while he was in exile in the state of Jin, sent an army to Wei after Kuaikui had criticized him for using barbarian prisoners to build a city wall.
When it was safe for him to return to Wei, Kuaikui took up the reins of power for another twenty years (476 to 456 BCE), but no longer had his elder Boji around to support him, because she was murdered by a noble just before his return.
Even though they were on different sides of this rather complicated power struggle, Nanzi and Boji were jointly deemed responsible for having “caused the disorder of five generations” as well as their own destruction because of their venal behavior. Such was their notoriety that the biographies of the two women were included together in a chapter entitled “The Two Depraved Women of Wei” of the Lienü zhuan (列女傳), or Categorized Biographies of Exemplary Women, compiled by the Han Dynasty official and scholar Liu Xiang (劉向), who lived from 79 – 8 BCE.
The poetic verdict that the book gives them is not a forgiving one:
Nanzi was deluded and lustful.
It was Song Zichao with whom she had intimate relations;
The one she slandered was Kuaikui,
And she caused them to flee.
Kong Kui’s mother was also favored.
She caused the flight and reentry of two rulers.
The two disorders were intertwined
And worked together to destroy two lives. (1)
(1) Exemplary Women of Early China: The Lienü zhuan of Liu Xiang (Translations from the Asian Classics)
Appearances in the Analects of Confucius
Book 6, Chapter 28
Confucius went to see Nanzi (the consort of Duke Ling of Wei). Zilu was not happy. Confucius swore: “If I have done wrong, may Heaven punish me! May Heaven punish me!”