If Netflix is looking for a successor to The Crown, it should consider commissioning a dramatization of the rise and fall of the great hegemon Duke Huan of Qi. His story features all the elements of a gripping historical epic on a scale that makes the affairs of the House of the Windsor seem almost quotidian in comparison. It would also have the potential to provide global audiences with a better understanding of the powerful and unpredictable forces that drove the Zhou dynasty on its path to destruction and ultimately led to the unification of China under the Qin dynasty.
Heirs, Spares, and Exiles
As the third son of Duke Xi of Qi, Prince Xiaobai, as Duke Huan was the known when he was growing up, was not originally in line for the throne of the state. His chances of taking the crown dimmed even further when his oldest brother Zhuer took over following the death of their father.
The tutors of Prince Xiaobai and his elder brother Prince Jiu were so worried that their sibling would have them murdered that they whisked the two of them away from his clutches to live in exile in the states of Lu and Ju respectively. While this decision probably saved the lives of the two brothers, it also set up an epic struggle for power between them following the murder of their older sibling twelve years later.
Scandal, Murder, and Execution
Even by Spring and Autumn period standards, the reign of Zhuer (posthumously called Duke Xiang of Qi) was riddled with intrigue and scandal. Topping the list was the incestuous affair Zhuer had with his younger half-sister Wen Jiang. Even after Wen Jiang married Duke Huan of Lu in 709 BCE, the couple still carried a candle for each other. The flame of this was reignited with such reckless abandon during a visit to Qi by Duke Huan in 694 BCE that the cuckolded husband soon found out about what was happening between them.
When Zhuer heard that Duke Huan had learned about the liaison, he ordered his half-brother Prince Pengsheng to murder his fellow ruler. Pengsheng duly followed his lord’s command, brutally killing Duke Huan while he lay drunk in a carriage after a banquet. Such was the outrage from Lu at this barbarous act that Zhuer was forced to have the hapless Pengsheng executed for his crime — though it was not strong enough to persuade him to put an end to his dalliance with his half-sister.
Fecklessness, Revenge, and Death
Zhuer indulged in his feckless ways for another eight years until he was assassinated in 686 BCE by his cousin Wuzhi, who bore a long-time grudge against him for reducing his status in court. Naturally, Wuzhi decided that he was just the man to take over the throne — only to be killed by a minister called Yong Lin just a few months later in the spring of 685 BCE.
A frantic race, a shot heard throughout the kingdom, and the buckle of a girdle
The murder of Wuzhi set off a frantic race between the two brothers, Prince Xiaobai and Prince Jiu, to return to their home and take over the throne. In their case, absence most certainly did not make the heart grow fonder but pulled them further apart.
As soon as Prince Jiu heard the news, he ordered his two tutors Guan Zhong and Shao Hu to kill his younger brother on his journey back to Qi to prevent from arriving there before him. In a shot that was heard throughout the entire Zhou kingdom, Guan Zhong hit Prince Xiaobai in the midriff with an arrow and rode off in triumph after seeing him fall off his horse blissfully unaware that it had failed to pierce the buckle of the girdle it had struck.
No longer concerned about the threat posed by his younger brother, Prince Jiu took his time returning to Qi — only to discover upon on his arrival there that Prince Xiaobai was already installed on the throne having survived the attempt on his life thanks to the buckle of his girdle.
Execution, suicide, and betrayal
After a failed attempt to seize power from his younger brother, Prince Jiu fled back to what he hoped would be the safety the state of Lu with Guan Zhong and Shao Hu. Although the ruler, Duke Zhuang, the successor of the cuckolded Duke Huan, supported the prince’s claim to the Qi throne, he was forced to execute him after his vengeful younger brother sent an army to attack his state under the command of Bao Shuya.
As part of the settlement terms, Duke Zhuang was required to send Shao Hu and Guan Zhong back to Qi as well. When the grief-stricken Shao Hu committed suicide out of loyalty to his dead master, Guan Zhong refused to follow his example and was returned to his homeland to face the very same man he had attempted to kill with an arrow!
To be continued.
This image was taken in the tomb of the mother of Mencius just outside Qufu.