Duke Ling of Wei (衛靈公) was one of the most decadent rulers of the Autumn and Spring period and perhaps in all of Chinese history. As the son of a lowly concubine of Duke Xiang of Wei, he wasn’t even first in line for the throne. But when his father died in 535 BCE without anointing a successor, the chief minister Kong Zhengchi put him in power after consulting the oracles of the Book of Changes and Kang Shufeng (康叔封), the founder of the state of Wei.
Duke Ling had little interest in the affairs of government, preferring to spend his time carousing in his palaces and embarking on occasional military adventures. In 522 BCE he was forced to flee from Wei following a rebellion led by his retainer Qi Bao, who had been angered by the humiliating treatment given to him by the duke’s brother. It was only after Qi was assassinated that the duke was able to return to his homeland.
Given the duke’s indifference to state affairs, it is hardly surprising that his wife Nanzi (南子) took over the reins of government and appointed a strong team of ministers to make sure it operated effectively, including Kong Wenzi, Zhu Tuo, and Wangsun Jia.
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 sage but had to send multiple invitations before he finally agreed to attend an audience with her. No records exist of what Nanzi and Confucius discussed, but 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.
Nanzi’s great power aroused the envy of her stepson and the heir-apparent Kuaikui (蒯聵). Their conflict came to a head when Kuaikui hatched a plot to murder Nanzi for allegedly conducting an illicit relationship with her brother Song Chao (宋朝). After the assassination attempt was botched, Kuaikui had to flee to the state of Jin to escape the wrath of his father.
Following the forced departure of Kuaikui, Duke Ling failed to anoint a successor. When he died in 493 BCE. Nanzi wanted the duke’s son Zicheng (子郢) to assume the throne, but the young man declined and suggested that Kuaikui’s son Ji Zhe (姬輒) take the reins of power. Ji Zhe subsequently ascended to the throne, becoming known as Duke Chu of Wei (衛出公) – only to be deposed by his father thirteen years later in 480 BCE, restored to power three years afterwards, and overthrown once more by an uncle in 470 BCE!
According to the great Legalist text, the Han Feizi (韓非子), Duke Ling was so entranced by a handsome courtier named Mizi Xia (彌子瑕) that he him allowed to get away with using one of his carriages without permission because he had purportedly needed to go and see his ailing mother. In an even more famous episode, the besotted duke accepted the remaining part of an especially luscious peach Mizi offered to him after already biting into it. Unfortunately for Mizi, however, the duke grew tired of him after his looks had faded and accused him of stealing the carriage and insulting him by offering him the half-eaten peach.
Given that this story is only recorded in the Han Feizi, which was written over two centuries after the death of the Duke Ling, it is unlikely that it’s true – but it does provide a fitting portrait of the fecklessness and fickleness of this man-child who somehow managed to stay on the throne of Wei for over forty years.
Duke Ling of Wei ruled from 534 BCE to 492 BCE. His date of birth is unknown. His name was Ji Yuan (姬元).
Appearances in the Analects of Confucius
Book 14, Chapter 19
Confucius said that Duke Ling of Wei didn’t follow the way. Ji Kangzi said: “If this is the case, how come he hasn’t lost his state?” Confucius said: “He has Kong Wenzi looking after guests and foreign delegations, Zhu Tuo taking care of the ancestral temple, and Wangsun Jia in charge of defense. With such officials as these, how could he possibly lose his state?”