Spring and Autumn period elite family feuds: exile, fratricide, and regicide

The most obvious result of elite overproduction during the Spring and Autumn period was the network of huge noble families that ruled the many different states comprising the Zhou kingdom. With a patriarch at the head of each of them, these grand families featured an assortment of wives, consorts, sons, daughters, and other more distant relatives who lived together in a rich and complex web of relationships.

In theory a strict hierarchical structure determined the status and role of each member of the family, with the ruler and his primary wife at the apex of it and their eldest son the heir apparent. In practice, however, family dynamics were a lot more fluid and complicated as wives and sons fell out of favor with the ruler and brothers and half-brothers vied with each other for the succession.

Intrigues and infighting were inevitable in such a febrile atmosphere as affections and alliances between family members shifted. Wives and concubines battled it out for supremacy in pursuit of the grand prize for their sons, while brothers fought and even killed each other in the scramble for the throne. It is no exaggeration to say that more states in the Zhou kingdom collapsed as a result of internal family feuds than external invasions. The threat from within was much greater than the threat from without.

Duke Huan of Qi: exile and fratricide

By the standards of the time, Duke Huan of Qi grew up in a relatively small and ordered ruling family. His father, Duke Xi, had just one wife, Wei Ji, and one recorded concubine, the Lady of Lu. Wei Ji was the mother of Duke Huan and his eldest brother Zhuer, posthumously known as Duke Xian, while the Lady of Lu bore the duke’s middle son and the duke’s half-brother Prince Jiu.

But even the smooth succession of Zhuer was not enough to ensure the stability of the ruling family or indeed the state. Quite the opposite in fact. After taking over from his father, Zhuer became so depraved and violent that the tutors of his younger half-brother and brother whisked them away into exile in different states to prevent the possibility of him murdering them.

Ten years apart from each other did nothing to make the hearts of the two exiled princes grow fonder. Together with their difference in status, it probably added a certain piquancy to their race for the throne after Zhuer was murdered by a cousin. Though by no means unusual for the Spring and Autumn period, Duke Huan’s decision to have his half-brother Prince Jiu executed to remove any possible threat from him and his supporters showed that there was absolutely no love lost at all between the two siblings.

Duke Wen of Jin: exile and a triple regicide

Duke Wen of Jin ended up spending over twice the time in exile than Duke Huan Qi thanks to a vicious family feud that was ignited when his father Duke Xiang replaced his primary wife with his favorite concubine Li Ji and her sister Shao Ji.

As soon as she gave birth to her son Xiqi, Li Ji set her plans in motion to have the infant anointed as the successor to her husband’s throne. Not satisfied with persuading her husband to send his three eldest sons to live away from the court in cities outside the capital, she framed the oldest one, the crown prince Shensheng, for attempting to murder his father. After Shensheng committed suicide, Li Ji then accused Duke Wen and his younger half-brother Yiwu of plotting a rebellion against their father, forcing them to flee into exile.

Following the death of her husband, Li Ji appeared to have achieved her goal by having her son succeed his father at the tender age of fifteen. Too tender, it turned out, because the young duke was swiftly murdered by a minister called Li Ke who then went on to kill his younger brother Zhuozi and finally Li Ji to stop their usurpation of the throne.

Although Li Ke invited Duke Wen to return to Jin and take over as its ruler, the duke declined for reasons that have never been clear. After Yiwu accepted Li Ke’s request for him to take over as the ruler of Jin, the duke wandered around in exile for another fifteen years before finally returning home following the death of Yiwu and killing Yiwu’s eldest son Ji Yu to seize the throne.


I took this image in the ancient water town of Wuzhen, which is located just a couple of hours from Shanghai by High Speed Train. You can read more about Wuzhen here.

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