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Lü Buwei, Marquess Wenxin

In office
251 BC – 235 BC
Monarch King Zhuangxiang
Emperor Shi
Succeeded by Li Si
Personal details
Born 290 BC
Died 235 (aged -56–-55) BC (aged 54-55)

Lü Buwei (Lü Pu-wei; simplified Chinese: 吕不韦; traditional Chinese: 呂不韋; pinyin: Lǚ Bùwéi; Wade–Giles: 3 Pu4-wei2, 291?–235 BCE), Marquis Wenxin (文信侯), was a Warring States period merchant who schemed his way into governing the State of Qin. He served as Chancellor of China for King Zhuangxiang of Qin, and as regent and Chancellor for the king's (or, some claim, Lü's) young son Zheng, who became Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China.[1] Lü Buwei committed suicide after being implicated in plotting with the Queen Dowager and her imposter eunuch lover, Lao Ai. Lü notably sponsored an encyclopedic compendium of Hundred Schools of Thought philosophies, the 239 BCE Lüshi Chunqiu ("Lü's Annals").

History[]

The primary sources of information about Lü Buwei date from the first century BCE: Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian and Liu Xiang's Zhan Guo Ce ("Strategies of the Warring States") and Shuoyuan (說苑, "Garden of Stories"). Since these three Han Dynasty texts openly criticize both Lü and the Qin Dynasty, some alleged stories (for example, Lü's private thoughts and conversations) can be discounted. Note: the following English translations come from John Knoblock and Jeffrey Riegel's scholarly study of the Lüshi chunqiu.[2]

The Shiji biography of Lü Buwei says he was a native of the state of Wei (衛) who became a successful travelling merchant and earned "thousands of measures of gold." In 267 BCE, the first son of King Zhaoxiang of Qin died, and he made his second son, the Lord of Anguo (安国), crown prince. Anguo promoted his concubine Lady Huayang (華陽), who was childless, as his primary wife. Anguo had more than 20 sons, and Prince Yiren (異人), one of the middle-ranking ones, was sent as a Qin political hostage to the state of Zhao. When Lü was trading in the Zhao capital Handan, he met Yiren and said, "This is a rare piece of merchandise that should be saved for later."[3]

The Zhanguoce has a story about Lü deciding to change careers from commerce to government.

On returning home, he said to his father, "What is the profit on investment that one can expect from plowing fields?"

"Ten times the investment," replied his father.
"And the return on investment in pearls and jades is how much?"
"A hundredfold."
"And the return on investment from establishing a ruler and securing the state would be how much?"
"It would be incalculable."

"Now if I devoted my energies to laboring in the fields, I would hardly get enough to clothe and feed myself; yet if I secure a state and establish its lord, the benefits can be passed on to future generations. I propose to go serve Prince Yiren of Qin who is hostage in Zhao and resides in the city of Jiao."[4]

Using Machiavellian bribes and machinations, Lü arranged for Yiren to return home and be adopted as the son and heir of Lady Huayang. She changed his name to Prince Chu (子楚) because she was from the southern state of Chu.

The Shiji says Lü had a beautiful "dancing girl" in his household, with whom Chu became so infatuated that he asked for her. Lü reluctantly presented his courtesan to the prince, and they returned to Handan. In 259 BCE, she had a son named Zheng (政), who eventually unified China and became the first Emperor Qin Shi Huang. The Shiji alleges that the biological father was Lü not Chu. After the death of King Zhaoxiang, Anguo was enthroned as King Xiaowen of Qin, but he died after a reign of only three months (the Shiji mentions the possibility of Lü poisoning him). His widow Huayang became Queen Dowager, and her adopted son, Prince Chu became King Zhuangxiang of Qin in 250. He appointed Lü Buwei as Prime Minister or Chancellor of China and enfeoffed him with "an income of 100,000 households in Luoyang." Lü consolidated power in Qin and oversaw several military conquests of neighboring states. When King Zhuangxiang died in 247 BCE, the 13-year-old Prince Zheng was enthroned. He reappointed Lü as Chancellor and called him "Uncle".

As chancellor and regent, Lü dominated the Qin government and military. He invited famous scholars from all over China to the Qin capital Xianyang, and they compiled an encyclopedic compendium of early Chinese philosophical systems, the Lüshi Chunqiu ("Mr. Lü's Spring and Autumn [Annals]").

The Shiji says the Queen Dowager pursued many illicit sexual activities, and Lü,

fearing that discovery would cause disaster to befall him, secretly sought a man with a large penis, Lao Ai [嫪毐], whom he made his retainer. Sometimes he would have music performed and order Lao Ai to put his penis through a wheel of paulownia wood and walk about, making certain that the queen dowager would hear about it to entice her. The queen dowager did hear about it and consequently secretly desired to obtain him. Lü Buwei thereupon introduced Lao Ai to her. Deviously ordering someone to accuse Lao Ai of a crime punishable by castration, Lü also privately told the queen dowager, "If we can fake the castration, we can make him a servant in the harem." The queen dowager therewith covertly gave a generous bribe to the officer charged with castrations to falsely sentence him and to pluck out his eyebrows and beard to make him appear a eunuch. As a result, he was made a servant of the queen dowager.[5]

The queen fell in love with Lao and had him appointed Marquis of Shanyang. After she became pregnant, he recklessly took control of the Qin government.

The Shuoyuan says,

Lao Ai had sole power over the affairs of state and grew increasingly arrogant and extravagant. The high officials and honored ministers of government all drank and gambled with him. Once when he got drunk, he began to speak belligerently. In a provocative fashion, eyes glaring with anger, he bellowed" "I am the stepfather of the emperor. How dare some wretch oppose me!" One of those with whom he had quarreled ran to report this to the emperor, who was outraged.[6]

The emperor learned that Lao Ai was not really a eunuch, and had plotted with the queen to make their illegitimate son become successor. After an attempted 238 BCE revolt failed, the queen was exiled and Lao Ai was executed, along with three generations of his relatives, including their two sons who were put into sacks and beaten to death. Rather than execute the influential Lü, the emperor demoted and banished him to Shu. Lü feared eventual execution and "drank poison" in 235 BCE. As a result of the Lao Ai affair, the emperor removed power from most of Lü Buwei's foreign scholars (excepting Li Si) and restored it to the hereditary Qin aristocracy. After his death, the Lüshi Chunqiu fell out of favor with the Qin Empire, but was resurrected by the Qin's long-lived successor, the Han Dynasty.

Knoblock and Riegel describe the Western and Chinese historical perspectives of Lü Buwei.

Lü engineered the succession of a minor prince to the throne of Qin; and when that prince died after a few months on the throne, Lü became regent for his young son, the future First Emperor of Qin. In the West, we would regard Lü as a merchant-prince, a patron of culture and literature, an eminent statesman and wise counselor, a kind of Medici prince who influenced not merely Florence and Italy, but all of European civilization. But in China the facts of Lü's life, together with the fact that he was from the despised merchant class, condemned Lü in the eyes of the Han literati. They considered Qin and its unification of China an unmitigated evil. So Lü was in their eyes a parvenu and a fraud whose schemes had made possible Qin's evil. He was a baleful figure, richly deserving of condemnation and eminently worthy of ridicule and calumny.[7]

Fiction[]

  • Lü Buwei is a major character in the 1999 movie The Emperor and the Assassin, which focuses on the events just before the unification of China by Qin Shi Huang. The true nature of the relationship between the future Emperor and Lü Buwei is a major plot point in the story.
  • Lü Buwei is played by Kwok Fung in the 2001 TVB television series A Step into the Past, which is based on a Wuxia novel by Huang Yi. In the series, Ying Zheng is Lü's biological son, but the revelation is that Zheng had already died in his youth. A young man called Zhao Pan takes the dead man's identity, with the help of Hong Siu Lung (a 21st-century Hong Kong cop who travelled back in time) and together they defeat the menacing Lü. Zhao Pan reveals his true identity to a shocked Lü in the finale episode and kills him.
  • Lü Buwei is a major character in the popular historical fiction series The Jade Disk by French author José Frèches.
  • The story is retold in graphic form, partly framed as a romance comic, in the second volume of The Cartoon History of the Universe.
  • Herman Hesse mentions Lü Buwei in his book The Glass Bead Game as a character that mentions that the quality of the music is directly related to the sense of life that one has.
  • Lü Buwei is a character and one of primary antagonists in the Japanese Manga Kingdom. The manga and its anime adaption does not deviate heavily from the classical historical portrayal of Lü Buwei, depicting him as a malevolent schemer who aligns himself with his former lover the queen dowager in order to eventually usurp the throne of Qin.

Footnotes[]

  1. Sellman, James D. "The Spring and Autumn Annals of Master Lu", in Great Thinkers of the Eastern World, Ian McGreal, ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1995:39.
  2. Knoblock, John and Jeffrey Riegel. The Annals of Lü Buwei: A Complete Translation and Study. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2000.
  3. 85.2506, tr. Knoblock and Riegel 2000:4.
  4. 109, 7.272, tr. Knoblock and Riegel 2000:4
  5. Tr. Knoblock and Riegel 2000:21.
  6. 9.280, tr. Knoblock and Riegel 2000:23-4.
  7. Knoblock and Riegel, 2000:2

References[]

  • Yap, Joseph P. (2009). Wars With The Xiongnu, A Translation from Zizhi tongjian. AuthorHouse, Bloomington, Indiana, U.S.A. ISBN 978-1-4490-0604-4.
Preceded by
Zhang Yi
Prime Minister of Qin
Succeeded by
Li Si

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