LÜ BUWEI

Merchant, Chancellor, Patron of Learning


This is one of a series of pages discussing Classical Chinese philosophy during the period from before Confucius (ca 650 B.C.) to the early Han dynasty (ca 200 B.C.). This page provides a biography of Lü Buwei (Lü Pu-wei) under whose patronage the Lüshi chunqiu (Lü-shih ch'un-ch'iu) was composed.


 


The First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty, 246-210, whose tomb with life-size warriors was partially excavated in the 1970's. Lü Buwei arranged for the succession of his father to the throne of Qin, and, when his father died unexpectedly after a reign of only three days, Lü became regent. A Han dynasty libel claimed that Lü was the real father of the First Emperor.

 

Lü Buwei and the Lüshi chunqiu

The Lüshi chunqiu or Almanac of Mr. Lü was produced under the patronage of Lü Buwei who was prime minister of the state of Qin on the eve of the founding of the Qin dynasty and the unification of China into the largest and most powerful empire in Asia. In the Lüshi chunqiu he aimed to encompass the world's knowledge in a great encyclopedia, which was compiled in 239 B.C. by a group of scholars retained by Lü. So delighted was Lü with the finished work that he is said to have offered a fabulous prize of gold to anyone who could add or subtract even a single word. The Lüshi chunqiu is an exceptionally rich and complete compendium which recounts in engaging, straightforward and readable prose the great variety of belief and custom of its time. It reveals the advanced state of technical knowledge achieved at the time and sets forth a philosophy of government for the centralized control which the Qin empire would subsequently establish. Today, with most of the works of classical Chinese philosophy long lost, the Lüshi chunqiu is indispensable as a summa of all essential wisdom and a microcosm of the Chinese intellectual world of the late third century B.C.

We know that Mencius met three kings, that Xun Kuang was appointed to office by the Lord of Chunshen, and that Shen Buhai and Hui Shi were ministers. The political career of Lü Buwei was beyond anything which his immediate predecessors might have imagined. 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 infant son, the future First Emperor of Qin. Lü thus occupied a central position in the events leading to the unification of China by Qin. Lü's efforts in assembling the vast number of scholars who labored to produce the Lüshi chunqiu brought the high culture and learning of the Central States to the frontier area of Qin. In the West, we would regard Lü as a merchant-prince, patron of culture and literature, 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 who considered Qin and its unification of China an unmitigated evil and Lü, as a parvenu and fraud whose schemes made possible Qin's deeds, a baleful figure, richly deserving of condemnation and eminently worthy of ridicule and calumny.

The Composition of the Lüshi chunqiu.

The 3rd century witnessed a great florescence of patronage of learning in the feudal courts of the time. This was the period when Wei had the Lord of Xinling, Chu the Lord of Chunshen, Zhao the Lord of Pingyuan, and Qi the Lord of Mengchang. According to the Shiji,


All of them treated scholars with deference and delighted in entertaining guests who would test each other's abilities. Lü Buwei was ashamed that Qin, for all its power, was not the equal of the other states in this, so he, too, recruited scholars, treating them generously so that his retainers came to number 3,000.

The number 3,000 was the customary way of indicating extravagant patronage and should not be taken literally. Lü Buwei himself had been in Handan during the period when the court of the Lord of Pingyuan was the intellectual center of China and thus witnessed personally the enormous prestige such patronage brought. It was also evident, as the Lord of Pingyuan himself admitted, that the tongue of a gifted scholar was "mightier than an army of a million men."

In 247 Li Si, the future Chancellor of Qin under whom China would ultimately be unified, left his studies with Xun Kuang to seek his fortune in Qin, just as King Zhuangxiang died. It seems probable that Lü had gathered scholars into his patronage while still in Handan and that his support for Prince Chu included the maintenance of a body of scholars to advise him. A further, general invitation for scholars to come seems to have been issued after his enfeoffment as Marquis of Wenxin in 250. Finally, there may have been a broader invitation in 247 when Lü became Regent for the thirteen-year-old future First Emperor.


At this time in the courts of the feudal lords there were many scholars who engaged in discriminations, such as the followers of Xun Qing, who wrote books that were disseminated throughout the whole world.

To place Qin, and himself, firmly in the intellectual center of China, Lü Buwei


therefore ordered that his retainers should write down all that they had learned and assemble their theses in order to create a work consisting of eight Examinations, six Discourses, and twelve Almanacs, totaling more then 200,000 words.

It was to "encompass the totality of affairs of Heaven and Earth, of the myriad things, and of the past and present." It was displayed at the market gate of the Qin capital Xianyang with a thousand measures of gold hung above it with the invitation to traveling scholars and retainers from the courts of the feudal lords that if any could "add or subtract even a single character" he might have the thousand measures of gold. The work was named the Lüshi chunqiu, the Almanac of Mister Lü.

In the view of Sima Qian, the author of the first universal history of China, Lü Buwei's work contained judgments on the success and failure of nations, particularly of the period of the Warring States period, in which Lü implied a political philosophy which flowed naturally from the form of the work, from the events selected, and from their juxtaposition within the text. In contrast, those who followed Lü, though the students of major figures of philosophy, proved unable to master the texts. When "a good man" asks about the Twelve Almanacs, Lü Buwei claims that the almanacs


record the principles that lead to order and anarchy and to survival and destruction, and to the knowledge that leads to an understanding of the factors that determine old age and premature death, good fortune and calamity. They ascertain the indication in Heaven above, the conforming signs on Earth below, and what to look for among men in the middle.

The Downfall of Lü Buwei.

Having become Chancellor and Regent in 247, Lü dominated the government until 240. That year the First Emperor turned twenty, the age when he might normally be expected to rule directly. At the very time he was exerting his greatest influence, his magnum opus nearing completion, the seeds of Lü's demise were sewn. In 239 the Lord of Changan, the king's younger brother, led an army eastward to Zhao, rebelled against the king, and died in the north at Tunliu. All the military officers were beheaded and the people deported to Lintao, to the west in Gansu. At this very time the queen dowager become less cautious in pursuing her illicit sexual activities. A libel claimed that she had been having sex with Lü Buwei, who, the same libel also claimed, had previously impregnated her with the future First Emperor. When the queen dowager's lechery did not cease, Lü Buwei,


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

When the First Emperor attained his majority and took the throne, he heard about the affair, and moved swiftly to banish the queen dowager and execute Lao Ai. Lü Buwei was implicated in the matter, possibly because he had facilitated the deception that Lao Ai was a eunuch. The First Emperor wanted to execute him, but in view of the great merit of his services to the previous kings, and because the traveling scholars and debaters who had become his personal guests were so numerous, the First Emperor forbeared applying the full extent of the law. But a year later, in 237, in the 10th month of the 10th year, he removed State Minister Lü Buwei. Subsequently, a retainer offered a persuasion that convinced the First Emperor to welcome the queen dowager back to Xianyang from her exile in Yong. But he sent Lü from the capital to his fief in Henan.

The removal of Lü from office did not eradicate his influence. Lü had created a tradition of culture which resided in the many officials he had recruited, in the scholars he had patronized, and in the framework of thinking which the composition of the Lüshi chunqiu had created. "For more than a year," according to his Shiji, "Biography," "when the guests and envoys of the feudal lords saw each other on the road they asked about Lü Buwei." The First Emperor, displaying the suspicion which would prove his own undoing, feared that Lü, as Lao Ai had done previously, might revolt, and sent the Marquis of Wenxin a letter which said:


What was your lordship's meritorious accomplishment for Qin that it should have enfeoffed you in Henan with the income from 100,000 families? How were you related to Qin that it should call you "Uncle?" Take your family and possessions and move your residence to Shu!

Lü Buwei, himself calculating that he may commit some slight infraction of the law, and fearing execution, drank poison and died.


In 235, the twelfth year, Lü Buwei, the Marquis of Wenxin, died and was buried in secret. Those of his retainers who attended the funeral, were expelled if they were from Jin. Those who were from Jin and were above the 600 picul rank were degraded and banished. Those who were of the 500 picul rank and below were treated as having not attended, were banished, but did not lose their rank. The ruler saw to it that "from this day forward anyone who manages affairs of state so wrongly as Lao Ai and Lü Buwei shall have all his possessions confiscated."

The First Emperor undoubtedly singled out retainers from Jin, meaning from the states of Han, Wei and Zhao, because they likely would have been loyal followers of Lü who had been with him since his days in Handan or who had answered his call of 247 to come to Qin. The most significant outcome of the Lao Ai affair was that the many gifted foreigners who held positions in the court came under intense suspicion, and there was such a xenophobic reaction that the First Emperor decreed that all ministers of foreign origin should be expelled because they "were acting on behalf of their own rulers and merely traveled to Qin to sow dissension." It was through the efforts of one of the most gifted of Lü Buwei's retainers, Li Si, that this edict was rescinded. He argued that if Qin had rejected and ignored foreign scholars instead of accepting and using them, it would be without its reputation for might and greatness. This episode shows that the tension between Lü Buwei and his followers and the new ruler and his party was based on conflicts between the old hereditary office holders, largely the Qin aristocracy, who had been displaced by Lü and his party who were largely of foreign origin. The stories of Lü's personal failings served the interests of the Qin aristocracy and the new ruler in discrediting Lü, his ideas, and his advisors just as they would later serve the interests of the Han in discrediting Qin and all its accomplishments.


A translation of the entire Lüshi chunqiu has been completed by John Knoblock and Jeffrey Riegel and will be forthcoming from Stanford University Press. The work includes an introductory study of the Lüshi chunqiu, a Biography of Lü Buwei, a full Chinese text with critical annotations, and complete translation.


A Short Bibliography

R. Wilhelm, Frühling und Herbst des Lü Bu We. Düsseldorf, 1971.
Chen Qiyou, Lüshi chunqiu jiaoshi, Beijing, 1984.
Xu Weiyu, Lüshi chunqiu jishi, Beijing, 1955.


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© J.Knoblock and J.Riegel, 1996

Last Revised 8/21/96