After a decidedly unpromising start to his reign, Duke Jing of Qi (齊景公) restored the wealth and power of the state while working in tandem with his great prime minister Yan Ying (晏嬰) – only to send it spinning back into rapid decline after succumbing to the manifold temptations of a life of lavish luxury and unbridled pleasure.
As the son of a concubine, the duke would have had little chance of assuming the throne of Qi if the hand of fate hadn’t intervened. This came in the form of a powerful minister called Cuizi (崔子), who murdered the duke’s half-brother and then-ruler of state, Duke Zhuang (齊莊公), in 547 BCE after discovering that his sovereign was conducting an affair with his wife Tang Jiang (棠姜).
Although Cuizi had Duke Jing hastily installed on the throne the day after the death of his half-brother, the duke was little more than a figurehead during the first couple of years of his reign. He was forced to sit on the sidelines while Cuizi and Qing Feng (慶封), his co-prime minister and alleged collaborator in the assassination of Duke Zhuang, vied with each other for control of the state.
After about a year, Cuizi made the fatal mistake of asking Qing Feng for assistance after his two sons from his deceased first wife murdered the son of his second wife in a bitter fight over who would succeed their father as head of the family. Qing Feng leapt at this unexpected opportunity to destroy his rival, not only killing the two sons but the rest of the family as well – leaving the grief-stricken Cuizi and his wife no choice but to commit suicide in 546 BCE.
The dust had barely settled on the Cui family’s graves when Qing Feng began to experience family problems of his own, and became the target of other aristocratic families in Qi after falling out with his son. With his dreams of grabbing power for himself shattered by the attacks on him, Qing Feng was forced to flee first to Confucius’s home state of Lu and then on the state of Wu to spend the rest of his life in exile. At least he didn’t have to kill himself like Cuizi.
The departure of Qing Feng enabled Duke Jing to assert his control over the state with the appointment of the brilliant statesman and philosopher Yan Ying as his prime minister. For a time the partnership between the two men succeeded brilliantly, and they built Qi into a formidable economic and military power that was part feared and part admired by the rulers of other states.
By the time Confucius went to Qi in 517 BCE, however, the duke had stopped listening to the counsel of his prime minister in favor of indulging in more worldly pleasures. His constant imposition of heavy taxes on the common people to fund his lavish lifestyle and growing conflicts within his family about who should succeed him plunged the state into chaos. Power struggles between ministers, officials, and the heads of the richest and strongest noble families in Qi also intensified as the state went into rapid decline.
These problems came to a head in the summer of 490 BCE when the crown prince died. Instead of designating one the four sons of his principal wife Yan Ji (燕姬) as his successor, the ailing duke chose the son of his favorite concubine Yu Si (鬻姒).
To protect the newly-appointed Crown Prince Tu (太子荼), the duke ordered his top ministers to send his other sons into exile but died very soon afterwards. Although Crown Prince Tu assumed the throne, he was toppled from this precarious spot the following year following a revolt led by Duke Jing’s former prime minister Chen Qi, who brought back one of the duke’s middle sons, Lu Yangsheng (呂陽生), from exile in the state of Lu and installed him as the ruler of the Qi. Yangsheng reigned from 488 – 485 BCE, and is known by the posthumous name of Duke Dao of Qi (齊悼公).
In perhaps the most fitting epitaph to the duke’s tumultuous reign, Confucius remarks in 16.12: “Duke Jing of Qi had a thousand war chariots. On the day of his death, the common people could find no virtue to praise him for.”
(1) As was the custom in ancient China, Duke Jing of Qi (齊景公) was the duke’s posthumous title. His personal name was Lu Chujiu (呂杵臼), and his ancestral name was Jiang Chujiu (姜杵臼). The duke reigned from 547–490 BCE his date of birth is unknown.
Appearances in the Analects of Confucius
Analects of Confucius Book 12, Chapter 11
Analects of Confucius Book 16, Chapter 12
Analects of Confucius Book 18, Chapter 3
Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about governance. Confucius replied: “Let lords be lords; ministers be ministers; fathers be fathers; and sons be sons.” The duke said: “Excellent! If lords are not lords, ministers are not ministers, fathers are not fathers, and sons are not sons, would I be able to eat even if I had food?”
Duke Jing of Qi had a thousand war chariots. On the day of his death, the common people could find no virtue to praise him for. Boyi and Shuqi starved to death in the wilderness around Mount Shouyang. To this very day, the common people still praise them. Does this not prove my point?”
Duke Jing of Qi was preparing to receive Confucius and said: “I cannot accord him the same level treatment as the Ji family receives. I shall treat him at a level between the Ji family and the Meng family.” Then he said: “I am too old. I cannot employ him.” Confucius left.