Duke Wen of Jin (晉文公) was one of the five hegemons of the Spring and Autumn Period. He famously turned his state into a major military, political, and economic power in less than a decade after spending many years in exile as a result of serious factionalism at the Jin court.
Born in 697 BCE with the name of Ji Chonger (姬重耳,) the duke was the second son of Duke Xian of Jin (晋献公). Chonger’s mother was Hu Ji (狐姬), the second of the duke’s six wives. His older half-brother and the crown prince, Shensheng (申生), was the son of the duke’s second wife, Qi Jiang (齊姜). Jia Jun (賈君), the first wife of the duke had no sons, while Xiao Rongzi (小戎子), the younger sister of Hu Ji, had a son called Yiwu (夷吾).
When Duke Xian decided to replace Qi Jiang as his primary wife with his favorite concubine Li Ji (驪姬), the oracle he consulted gave an unfavorable response the first time, so a second divination was required to provide the right answer that he could proceed with his plan. In 665 BCE, Li Ji gave birth to her son Xiqi (奚齊); subsequently her younger sister Shao Ji (少姬), whom the duke had married together with her, gave birth to his fifth and final son Zhuozi.
As the duke’s newly-installed primary wife, Li Ji was naturally keen to see her son assume the throne. With the assistance of two high officials, she persuaded the duke to dispatch his three eldest sons to the towns of Quwo, Pu, and Erqu under the pretext that they were required to defend them against frequent attacks from the Rong and Di tribes.
Not content with simply getting her husband’s three eldest sons away from court, Li Ji went in for the kill. In 656 BCE, she persuaded the remarkably gullible Shensheng to carry out sacrifices to his now-deceased mother Qi Jiang in his base at Quwo and send back portions of meat and wine from the ceremony to his father as a tribute. On the way, Li Ji had the victuals secretly spiked with poison, so when the duke gave a piece of meat to his dog to try it immediately died.
Outraged by what he saw as an assassination attempt by his eldest son, Duke Xian dispatched a troop of soldiers and officials to Quwo to arrest Shensheng. Before they arrived, Chonger visited his elder half-brother and urged him to tell their father about Li Ji’s nefarious scheme. When Shensheng refused to do this out of fear of breaking his father’s heart, Chonger advised him to escape. Shensheng chose, however, to take his own life after telling his half-brother that an escape attempt would make him look guilty of the crime he was accused of.
Following the suicide of Shensheng, Li Ji accused Chonger and Yiwu of rebelling against their father. In 655 BCE, Duke Xian sent troops to Pu and Erqu to capture his two sons and put a stop to their alleged activities. Chonger escaped to the Di tribe, where his mother came from, while Yiwu fled to the state of Liang.
Following the death of Duke Xian four years later in 651 BCE, Li Ji immediately placed her 15-year-old son Xiqi on the throne. A month later, Xiqi was murdered by a minister called Li Ke (里克). Li Ji then placed her young nephew Zhuozi on the throne, only for him to suffer the same fate as his cousin at the hand of the same man. Li Ji didn’t manage to escape Li Ke’s attentions either, also dying at his hands.
After Chonger declined an invitation from Li Ke to assume the throne, Yiwu accepted a similar request from the minister – only to reward Li for his kind invitation by ordering him to commit suicide to pay for his crimes! Yiwu reigned from 650 BCE – 637 BCE, becoming posthumously known as Duke Hui (晉惠公).
Concerned about the threat posed by Chonger to his position, Yiwu ordered a series of assassination attempts against his half-brother during his reign. To protect his safety, Chonger moved to the state of Qi in 644 BCE and remained there until a succession crisis gripped it in 639 BCE.
Chonger then fled first to the states of Cao, Song, Zheng, and Chu, before finally landing up in Qin. While living there, he built up a close relationship with its ruler Duke Mu that was no doubt inspired by their mutual enmity towards Yiwu.
In 646 BCE, Duke Mu had taken Yiwu captive in a war he had launched against Jin for refusing to provide promised assistance to his state during a famine. The duke only agreed to release him following frantic pleas from his wife Bo Ji (伯姬), who also happened to Yiwu’s half-sister, to spare his life.
In 643 BCE, Yiwu sent his eldest son Ji Yu (姬圉) as a hostage to Qin together with his wife Huai Ying (懷嬴) to guarantee peace between the two states. When the couple heard a couple of years later that Yiwu as seriously ill, they made their escape from Qin and Ji Yu succeeded his father after his death.
Ji Yu reigned for less than a year, however. In 636 BCE, Chonger returned to Jin supported by an army provided by Duke Mu, who was furious at the couple’s escape, and killed Ji Yu before seizing the throne. According to some sources Duke Mu was so fond of Chonger that he gave him five of his daughters in marriage.
After assuming power, the new duke and the team of loyal and capable ministers that he had built up during his exile implemented several major reforms of the state’s military and civil institutions to clean up the mess he had inherited. As the strength of his army and prestige grew, he greatly increased the size and power of Jin by absorbing many of the small states around Jin and turning others into vassals.
At the same time, the duke further enhanced his influence and prestige by forging a coalition of states to restore King Xiang of Zhou (周襄王) to the throne after he was deposed by his brother in 635 BCE. Some critics such as Confucius accuse him of becoming so arrogant in his dealings with the Zhou king, who was nominally his superior, that he broke the ritual conventions by summoning him to his court under the pretext of inviting him to a hunt in order to show that he was in charge. This is why the sage criticizes him as “crafty and improper” in 14.15.
Despite or perhaps because of his disregard for ritual niceties, the duke provided further evidence of the greatness of his statecraft when he stitched together another grand coalition, including troops from Qin, Qi, and Song, to defend Song against invasion by the rising power of Chu in the south.
The resounding victory he achieved over Chu forces at the Battle of Chengpu in 632 BCE not only put a stop to the plans of this rich and powerful southern state to take over the north; it also meant that he was confirmed as hegemon over his allied states at a conference that convened at Jiantu in 631 BCE.
Duke Wen of Jin died three years later in 628 BCE. He was succeeded by his son Duke Xiang of Jin (晋襄公).
Appearances in the Analects of Confucius
Book 14, Chapter 15
Confucius said: “Duke Wen of Jin was crafty and improper; Duke Huan of Qi was proper and not crafty.”