Analects Book 14: the vertiginous fall of Duke Huan of Qi

A hunch, a hope, and a boyhood friend

Perhaps Guan Zhong’s willingness to return to face what to many must have seen as certain death was based on the hunch or the hope that Bao Shuya, who happened to be both his best boyhood friend and Duke Huan’s closest advisor, would get him out of the pickle he was in.

Even though the duke was sorely tempted to have Guan Zhong executed, Bao somehow managed to persuade his ruler that he would be better off allowing Guan not just to live but also to become his chief minister. How is that for the powers of persuasion?

A dynamic duo, a powerful state, and a greater goal

Not to mention foresight. For the duke’s decision to welcome his would-be-assassin back into the fold was swiftly vindicated by the amazing partnership 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 Qi grew more powerful, the dynamic duo turned their energies towards achieving the even greater goal of restoring the unity of the weak and fragmented Zhou dynasty. At least that was how they dressed up their motives when they convened a conference in 667 BCE with the rulers of the smaller and more fragile states of Lu, Song, Chen, and Zheng that elected Duke Huan as their leader.

After King Hui of Zhou, the nominal ruler of the Zhou kingdom, recognized this new reality by authorizing the duke to conduct military affairs in his name as hegemon, the pair further extended their influence in other states such as Wei and carrying out a series of aggressive military campaigns to combat the powerful southern state of Chu.

A great victory, a meaningless treaty, and a devastating defeat

Just over ten years later in 656 BCE, Duke Huan achieved his greatest victory by leading an alliance of eight states in a crushing defeat of the state of Chen, a close ally of Chu. This triumph, however, marked the beginning of the end for the two men and the primacy of Qi.

Although Chu agreed to end its incursions against Qi and its northern allies in a treaty that it signed after Duke Huan led an invasion of the state, it simply switched its attention to other targets in the east of China. The duke and the ailing Guan Zhong could do nothing to stop Chu from seizing control of their allies and the strategically important Huai River. Duke Huan’s final attempt to stop Chu’s relentless advance ended in a devastating defeat at the Battle of Loulin in 645 BCE – the same year as Guan Zhong’s death.

Family feuds, a lonely deathbed, and a rotting corpse

The old and frail duke was facing even more serious troubles at home as six sons of six concubines descended into open warfare with each other over who should succeed him. When he died in late 643 BCE, the conflicts among them became so vicious and violent that Duke Huan’s corpse was left to rot in his bedchamber for months before his remains were finally rescued and interred.

For all his brilliance and boldness, Duke Huan left Qi in a far weaker and more chaotic state than when he took it over. Like a shooting star that lights up the firmament only to explode into millions of fragments, the duke’s meteoric rise was followed by a vertiginous fall to earth that reduced his former splendor and greatness into little more than particles of dust on the ground.

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