In 14.15 of the Analects Confucius favorably compares Duke Huan of Qi with his fellow hegemon Duke Wen of Jin, describing the former as “proper and not crafty” and the latter as “crafty and improper”.
Given that Duke Huan seized the crown ahead of his older brother and had him executed, this is a generous verdict from the sage to put it mildly. Just about the only more serious violation of the rules of propriety the duke could have committed would have been to knock off his father to acquire the throne.
Confucius’s justification for his judgment appears to be based on the duke’s loyalty to the Zhou dynasty. Even though Duke Huan possessed more than enough military might to overthrow the tottering dynasty, he chose to position Qi as the top dog among the fragmented central and northern Zhou states and the champion of the smaller and weaker ones against threats from their neighbors and foreign invaders.
With the able assistance of his chief minister Guan Zhong, Duke Huan pursued a strategy of building a series of alliances with other states while continuing to respect the sovereignty of the Zhou king. This approach worked extremely effectively, enabling him to impose control over other states without having to conquer them.
After being authorized by King Hui of Zhou, the nominal ruler of the Zhou kingdom, to conduct military affairs in his name as hegemon, Duke Huan pretty much had carte blanche to interfere in the affairs of other states as he wanted. Despite Confucius’s claim that he was “proper” in his conduct, the duke got deeply involved in a power struggle in Lu, traditionally a close rival of Qi, and even carried out a military expedition against Wei, purportedly to punish it for defying the authority of the Zhou king.
Fealty to the Zhou, therefore, provided Duke Huan with the legitimacy he needed to aggressively assert the dominance of Qi while claiming he was acting in the interests of the whole kingdom. Why risk breaking the existing system when he could manipulate it to his own advantage? So much for Confucius’s assertion that the duke was “not crafty”!
Even as he stamped his authority over neighboring states, Duke Huan faced more serious external threats. While he was successful in rallying his allies to beat back invaders from the north-west, the duke was unable to stop the aggressive expansion of the southern state of Chu despite multiple attempts to bring a halt to it. Following a crushing defeat at the Battle of Loulin in 645 BCE, the duke’s painstakingly constructed network of alliances was ripped asunder and his own state of Qi descended into chaos soon afterwards as his sons fought each other for his crown.
Even if there is some truth to Confucius’s assessment that Duke Huan was “proper and not crafty”, it does not go anywhere near capturing the complexity of this brilliant but flawed man who bestrode the Zhou kingdom like a colossus only for his corpse to be left to rot untended while everything he had built fell apart around it.