The reign of King Wu of Qin was unlike any of those that had come before him. King Wu was the second ruler of the state of Qin to hold the lofty title of “king,” the first being his father, King Huiwen. Upon the death of his father around 310 BCE, King Wu ascended to the throne of a kingdom that had been continuously gaining influence and strength. The feats of this interesting king were thankfully recorded for us by the father of Chinese history, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE).
King Wu was described as a particularly strong and fit man of impressive size and stature. As you might expect, he favored people who shared his enthusiasm for fitness, bringing some of the mightiest people of Qin into his inner circle. King Wu and his muscular followers made impressive gains in the first years of the king’s rule. Some government reforms were introduced, such as exchanging the preexisting office of prime minister (xiang) with that of a chancellor (chengxiang). And, as can be expected from the Warring States Period, King Wu led the forces of Qin to victory in numerous wars against several rival states. In keeping with the ruthlessness of the time, King Wu (according to Sima Qian) gruesomely had tens-of-thousands of heads decapitated during those wars, with 60,000 men supposedly losing their heads during a campaign in the region of Yiyang.
When the king had free time between going to war and decapitating his enemies, King Wu allegedly enjoyed competing in tests of strength with his well-built companions. Around 307 or 306 BCE, King Wu was said to have challenged one particular bodybuilder named Meng Yue to a cauldron-lifting contest. It is unknown who went first in the contest, but Meng Yue faced no difficulty in the task. When King Wu stepped up to the heavy cauldron, his promising reign came to a crushing end—while lifting the weighty container, one of King Wu’s legs gave way and his knee-cap completely broke under the force.
Sima Qian wrote that King Wu died eight months after the odd incident, but did not state clearly if the king’s death was directly a consequence of the ill-fated contest. Nevertheless, it is telling that when the king died, the strongman Meng Yue was immediately put to death, along with his whole family.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture attribution: (King Wu lifting cauldron (aka rubbing of Shihuangdi, Han Dynasty gentlemen and photograph of a Chinese cauldron, in front of a scene by Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145)), all [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.