Duke Huan of Qi (齊桓公) was the ruler of Qi from 685 to 643 BCE. Together with his long-time chief minister Guan Zhong, he transformed the state into a military, economic, and political superpower that dominated China and fought off invasions from peoples living outside it. Towards the end of his long reign, however, the duke’s power declined as he grew ill and the court became embroiled in factional strife. Following his death in 643 BCE, Qi lost its dominance even more quickly than the duke and Guan Zhong had established it.
The duke was a son of Duke Xi of Qi (齊僖公) and was known by the personal name of Xiaobai (小白). Since he had at least two older brothers, he was not in line to succeed his father to the throne.
When Duke Xi died in 698 BCE, Xiaobai’s oldest brother Zhuer (諸兒) assumed the throne, ruling until 686 BCE. The reign of Duke Xiang of Qi (齊襄公), as he was named after his death, was riddled with scandals and internecine struggles, most notably the incestuous affair he had with his younger half-sister Wen Jiang (文姜).
Even though Wen Jiang married Duke Huan of Lu (魯桓公) in 709 BCE, she renewed her relationship with her half-brother when she and her husband visited Qi in 694 BCE. When he learned that Duke Huan had found out about the affair, Duke Xiang ordered his half-brother Prince Pengsheng to murder the duke.
After Pengsheng seized the opportunity to murder Duke Huan when he found him drunk in his carriage, the outrage from Lu at this barbarous act forced Duke Xiang to thank his half-brother for his assistance by having him executed for his crime. But it did nothing to stop him from continuing his incestuous relationship with Wen Jiang despite the scandal and outrage it caused.
Worried that Duke Xiang’s depravity was a risk to his pupil’s life, Xiaobai’s tutor Bao Shuya (鲍叔牙) whisked the young prince away to the state of Ju to live in exile. Xiaobai’s elder brother Jiu (糾) also fled Qi, taking refuge in the state of Lu together with his tutors Shao Hu (召忽) and Guan Zhong (管仲).
In 686 BCE Duke Xiang was killed by his cousin Wuzhi (無知), who bore a long-time grudge against him for reducing his status in court. After murdering Duke Xiang, Wuzhi naturally decided that he was the right man to take charge but was killed by a minister called Yong Lin (雍廩) just a few months later in the spring of 685 BCE.
The assassination of Wuzhi set off a bitter struggle between Jiu and Xiaobai for the throne. As soon as Jiu heard the news of the murder, he ordered Guan Zhong and Shao Hu to stop Xiaobai and kill him on the way to back to his homeland to prevent his younger brother from arriving there before him.
When they encountered Xiaobai, Guan Zhong shot him on the buckle of his girdle with an arrow. Unaware that his target had only pretended to die, he and Shao Hu headed back to Jiu and reported the successful accomplishment of the mission to Jiu.
No longer concerned that his younger brother would get back home before him, Jiu took his time returning to Qi. Imagine his shock and dismay then when he found out that his younger brother was already installed on the throne when he finally arrived there!
Following a failed attempt to seize power, Jiu and his two retainers fled back to the state of Lu. Although the ruler, Duke Zhuang (魯莊公), supported Jiu’s claim to the Qi throne, he was forced to execute him after Duke Huan sent an army to attack his state under the command of Bao Shuya. As part of the settlement terms, Duke Zhuang was also required to send Guan Zhong and Shao Hu back to Qi as well.
Out of loyalty to his dead master, the grief-stricken Shao Hu committed suicide. Guan Zhong, however, refused to follow his fellow aide’s example and was returned to his homeland to face the very same man he had attempted to kill with an arrow!
Although his rule was now secure, Duke Huan was faced with the difficult decision of how to deal with the man who had been such a strong supporter of his older brother. Even though he was planning to execute him, Bao Shuya stepped in and begged him to reconsider his decision.
A close childhood friend and a great admirer of Guan Zhong’s talent (presumably except for his archery skills), Bao Shuya managed to persuade the duke not only to spare his life but also to appoint him as his chief minister.
Duke Huan’s decision to welcome his would-be-assassin back into the fold was vindicated by the close partnership that the two men forged in implementing a hugely successful program of political and economic reforms that made Qi one of the most powerful states during the entire Spring and Autumn period.
As the strength and wealth of the state grew, Duke Huan and Guan Zhong worked towards an even greater goal of restoring the unity of the weak and fragmented Zhou dynasty under, of course, the leadership of Qi. In 667 BCE, they convened a conference with the rulers of the smaller and more fragile states of Lu, Song, Chen, and Zheng. After Duke Huan was duly elected as their leader, King Hui of Zhou (周惠王), the nominal ruler of the Zhou kingdom, recognized reality by authorizing him to conduct military affairs in his name as hegemon (霸主).
This no-doubt entirely voluntary royal seal of approval gave Duke Huan 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 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. In addition to conducting 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, the duke 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 refocused 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.
Old, frail, and without his must trusted advisor, Duke Huan soon lost control of the internal affairs of Qi and his influence over other states. His six sons, all of whom were the offspring of different concubines of the duke, engaged in increasingly rancorous struggles with each other over the succession.
When Duke Huan died in late 643 BCE, the state descended into chaos as his sons and their supporter fought each other to seize the throne. Amid the violence, their father’s corpse was left to rot in his bedchamber for as long as three months before the remains were finally rescued. Although the duke’s intended successor Zhao (昭) finally managed to assume the throne, becoming known as Duke Xiao (齊孝公), the damage caused by the vicious infighting meant that Qi was never again able to regain the preeminent position that it rose to under the great leadership of Duke Huan and Guan Zhong.
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?”