The life story of Duke Wen of Jin is every bit as dramatic as that of Duke Huan of Qi and just as deserving of an epic Netflix series. It combines a bitter brew of blood and betrayal mixed with the sweet taste of vindication and triumph — not to mention a wicked concubine and fraternal conflict.
Five brothers from five mothers
Like Duke Huan, Duke Wen was not in line to inherit his father’s throne. He was the second son of the ruler Duke Xian and his second wife Hu Ji and was given the personal name of Chonger (which literally means “double ears”) after his birth in 697 BCE. His elder brother Shensheng was the son of the duke’s first wife, Qi Jiang, and his younger brother Yiwu was the son of Hu Ji’s younger sister, Xiao Rongzi.
The duke’s favorite concubine plots and schemes
Chonger’s troubles began two decades later when his father decided to replace his number one wife Qi Jiang with his favorite concubine Li Ji and brought Li Ji’s younger sister Shao Ji into his warm embrace for good measure. Li Ji and Shao Ji went on to add two more sons the duke’s brood, Xiqi and Zhuozi.
As the duke’s new first wife, Li Ji was keen to see her son assume the throne. With the help of some officials that she had bribed, she persuaded her husband to send his three eldest sons away from the palace to lead the defense of the towns of Quwo, Pu, and Erqu against the alleged threat of the Rong and Di tribes.
The anointed heir takes his own life to protect his father’s heart
Not satisfied with just removing Shensheng, Chonger, and Yiwu from court, Li Ji set the next step of her cunning plan in motion. In 656 BCE, she persuaded the remarkably gullible Shensheng to hold ritual sacrifices in honor of his now-deceased mother Qi Jiang 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 that when the duke gave a piece of meat to his dog to try it the poor animal immediately died.
As soon as he heard that Duke Xian had sent a troop of soldiers and officials to Quwo to arrest Shensheng for his alleged crime, Chonger rushed over there to beg his elder half-brother to tell their father about Li Ji’s evil scheme. When Shensheng refused to do so out of fear of breaking his father’s heart, Chonger advised him to escape. But Shensheng chose to take his own life after telling his half-brother that he would look guilty of the crime he was accused of if he fled.
Two half-brothers flee into exile
Following Shensheng’s suicide, Li Ji pressed the pedal down even harder by accusing Chonger and Yiwu of planning to launch a rebellion against their father. When Duke Xian sent troops to apprehend his two sons in 655 BCE, Chonger fled to the Di tribe his mother came from and Yiwu escaped to the state of Liang — setting the stage for two tough decades of exile for Chonger and bitter conflict between the two half-brothers.
To be continued.
I took this image at the cemetery of Mencius near Qufu, China.