Countless advisors, philosophers, generals and statesmen of all kinds found fortune and destruction while serving the plentiful warring kings of ancient China. One particular statesman named Fan Ju definitely can be ranked as having one of the quirkiest and bizarre ascensions to power. As an added bonus, unlike many of his contemporaries, Fan Ju’s story actually had a pleasant ending.
Most of the information on this interesting figure was left to us by Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), a Grand Historian from the Han Dynasty who is often labeled as the father of Chinese history. According to the Grand Historian’s sources, Fan Ju was born in the kingdom of Wei. Even though his family had little wealth and influence, Fan Ju aspired to be an itinerate advisor to the kings of the age. Yet, despite his ambition, the young intellectual found that his low social status and his limited resources were obstacles barring him from entering the courts of the ancient Chinese kings. Facing reality, Fan Ju decided to start climbing the social ladder from the bottom, hoping to eventually reach the top.
Fan Ju began his long, rags-to-riches rise to power by joining the entourage of Xu Jia, a counselor to the king of Wei. During this time, Fan Ju followed his employer on a mission to the kingdom of Qi. Over the several months that the diplomats from Wei stayed in Qi, Fan Ju impressed the locals with lofty speeches filled with wisdom and wit. Even King Xiang, the ruler of Qi, was impressed with Fan Ju’s eloquence. To show his appreciation, the king bestowed on the young statesman a large gift of beef and wine, as well as a handsome payment of gold. Fan Ju refused the gifts and wanted everything to be sent back to the king of Qi. At this point, however, Xu Jia stepped in and seized the food and drink, but let the money be returned. Interestingly enough, this incident would lead to the lowest point of Fan Ju’s life, while also putting him on the path to greatness.
As the diplomats left Qi and returned to Wei, Xu Jia pondered over the reasons why the king of Qi had given Fan Ju such an extravagant gift. Was it really just a show of appreciation for eloquence, or could it have been a payment after a leak of state secrets? Xu Jia eventually convinced himself that the latter scenario was true and brought his suspicions of treason to the prime minister of Wei, a man named Wei Qi.
Not long afterward, the prime minister invited Xu Jia and Fan Ju to a party, where large quantities of alcohol would be provided.
When Fan Ju entered the party, his employer and the prime minister were both already distrustful of the young statesman. As drinks mixed with suspicions, something terrible was bound to happen. The prime minister, Wei Qi, proved to be an angry drunk—he eventually decided to have his stewards give Fan Ju a severe beating while the party was in full swing. The Grand Historian, Sima Qian, wrote a horrifyingly vivid account of the event, which was likely embellished for dramatic effect. During the beating, several of Fan Ju’s ribs were broken and multiple teeth were knocked loose or cracked. He only avoided worse injury by pretending to be dead. Wei Qi, thinking he had killed the man, rolled Fan Ju up into a reed mat and dumped him into the venue’s latrine. As if death was not enough, the partygoers were encouraged to urinate on the body. Unfortunately, Fan Ju was very much still conscious during this bizarre and unsettling situation.
According to Sima Qian’s account, our protagonist was eventually able to signal a lone guard who had the unfortunate job of watching the latrine. The excrement-soaked Fan Ju was able to convince the man to help him escape in exchange for a future reward. The guard miraculously agreed to help. By claiming to the prime minister that he was disposing of the body, the guard successfully removed Fan Ju from the premises. Now at rock bottom, the battered and smelly statesman was eventually saved by a resident of Wei named Zheng Anping. This sympathizer gave Fan Ju a place to hide and helped the downfallen advisor come up with a fake name—Zhang Lu.
As fate would have it, a recruiter from another kingdom had entered Wei around the same time that Fan Ju suffered his literal and figurative dark descent. The recruiter’s name was Wang Ji and he held the rank of master of guests for the powerful kingdom of Qin. Zheng Anping eventually contacted Wang Ji and told him that there was a brilliant intellectual currently in hiding and in need of new employment. To evade prying eyes, Wang Ji and the so-called Zhang Lu met at night for an interview. The recruiter was very impressed by the statesman-in-hiding and immediately smuggled him out of Wei.
Minister Of Qin
According to Sima Qian’s dates, Fan Ju (under the name Zhang Lu) likely entered the kingdom of Qin in the 270s BCE. The ruler of Qin at the time was King Zhaoxiang (r. 306-250 BCE), a significant leader whose reign was a vital step in the approaching unification of China under the Qin Dynasty in 221 BCE. Yet, unfortunately for Fan Ju, the king must have thought that he had no need for more advisors—he simply gave the new arrival a modest residence and a small stipend and did not contact Fan Ju for one or two years.
Eventually, Fan Ju lost his patience. He wrote a letter to his majesty, claiming that if he was allowed an audience with the king and his advise was afterwards still deemed worthless, then he would gladly face execution. The letter paid off—Fan Ju received his meeting with the king and, according to Sima Qian, he used wise words in profound ways to gain the admiration and trust of King Zhaoxiang. After their first meeting, Fan Ju/Zhang Lu was appointed as a guest minister (an official from another state) in charge of military affairs.
By 271 BCE, Fan Ju felt close enough to the king to suggest a major shakeup in the administration of Qin. He bluntly told Zhaoxiang that the monarchy had become too decentralized. In particular, Fan Ju singled out Empress Dowager Xuan and Prime Minister Wei Ran (the marquis of Rang) as having power that rivaled, or possibly even surpassed, the king of Qin. Fan Ju warned that the vassals of Qin were so powerful that many people suspected that King Zhaoxiang was a mere puppet, a perception that undermined the authority of the monarchy. The king needed to act before appearance became reality.
On Fan Ju’s advice, King Zhaoxiang diligently moved to reassert his authority. He stripped Empress Dowager Xuan of much of her influence and removed the marquis of Rang from the office of prime minister. In turn, he appointed Fan Ju (still calling himself Zhang Lu) as the new prime minister and simultaneously had the marquis of Rang and other lords leave the capital and return to their respective fiefdoms. In 266 BCE, Fan Ju was rewarded even further with land and given the noble title, marquis of Ying.
The Marquis of Ying
At this point, Fan Ju started to become a bit bloodthirsty and, due to their friendship, King Zhaoxiang was happy to oblige his prime minister. This violent phase may have been triggered by a blast from the past who happened to arrive in Qin on a diplomatic mission. According to Sima Qian, the kingdom of Wei sent Xu Jia—Fan Ju’s first employer—to Qin in hopes of keeping peace between the two countries. As far as Xu Jia knew, he was going to meet with a certain Lord Zhang, the new prime minister of Qin. He had no idea that this high official of the kingdom of Qin would be the very same man he had silently watched get beaten and thrown into a used latrine.
In a likely embellished scene, Sima Qian claimed that when Fan Ju learned the identity of the Wei diplomat, he hurriedly exchanged his rich garments for shabby rags and went to the lodge where the party from Wei was staying. When Xu Jia saw Fan Ju, the Wei official was understandably surprised to see that his old employee was still alive. The diplomat, looking at Fan Ju’s ragged clothing, handed the man a silk robe and offered him food and drink. As they caught up on old, awkward times, Xu Jia jokingly asked if he had come to Qin in order to advise the king. Fan Ju cryptically responded that he had, indeed, found employment in the kingdom, but did not elaborate. Xu Jia then steered the conversation to his diplomatic mission. He asked Fan Ju if he knew Lord Zhang, the prime minister of Qin who was greatly respected by King Zhaoxiang. In the same manner as before, Fan Ju commented that his employer knew Lord Zhang very well. During the ensuing conversation, Fan Ju promised that he could help Xu Jia obtain a meeting with Lord Zhang.
Fan Ju acquired a carriage that was pulled by a team of four horses and escorted Xu Jia to the residence of the prime minister. Once they arrived, Fan Ju slipped into the building, claiming that he would notify the prime minister of the diplomat’s arrival. After waiting a while, Xu Jia asked a nearby guard when Fan Ju was expected to return. The guard, confused, responded that he did not know of anyone named Fan Ju. When the diplomat from Wei argued that Fan Ju had been the last person to walk into the building, the guard clarified that, in fact, it was none other than Lord Zhang, the prime minister of Qin, who had entered the premises. And with that, the horror sank in.
Xu Jia apologized to Fan Ju and offered his life as compensation for his past actions. The prime minister, recounting that Xu Jia had recently fed and clothed him, decided to spare the diplomat. He even threw a banquet for Xu Jia—yet, it was not a pleasant feast. According to Sima Qian’s salacious account, while the rest of the court was given culinary masterpieces, Xu Jia was forced to eat hay and beans as if he were a horse. At the end of the meal, Fan Ju gave Xu Jia an ultimatum for the king of Wei. He stated that while he forgave Xu Jia, he did not have the same mercy for Wei Qi, the prime minister of Wei who had orchestrated the attempted murder at the party so many years ago. Simply put, he wanted Wei Qi executed and his head sent to Qin. If the request was not met, Fan Ju promised that he would personally lead an army of Qin soldiers to massacre every living human in the Wei capital city of Daliang.
When Xu Jia returned home and delivered the ultimatum, Wei Qi understandably went into hiding. Fan Ju kept up the pressure, and after years chasing his prey, Wei Qi was finally captured in the state of Zhao and his head was sent back to Qin. While he was still fixated on the past, Fan Ju decided to help the people who had smuggled him out of Wei when he was young. He managed to obtain a high military position for Zheng Anping, the man who had hidden Fan Ju right after he had escaped from his beating. He also succeeded in convincing the king to make Wang Ji (the man who had recruited Fan Ju for Qin) the governor of Hedong.
While it was kind for Fan Ju to help out his friends, it also consequently sealed his political downfall. Law in ancient Qin made Fan Ju responsible for the people he recommended to the king. Therefore, when Zheng Anping eventually surrendered his military command to a Zhao army and Wang Ji was later condemned to death for treason, Fan Ju’s own position was made unstable. Yet, for now, the prime minister’s close friendship with the king spared him from severe punishment.
With good timing, Fan Ju was saved by a fellow itinerate advisor named Cai Ze. When the marquis of Ying was finally beginning to feel the weight of the disgraces committed by his friends, Cai Ze entered the kingdom of Qin, determined to become the next prime minister. He had already unsuccessfully attempted to gain power in the states of Zhao, Han and Wei, but he believed that Fan Ju’s unstable position in Qin was a promising situation.
Cai Ze had a simple plan that he hoped would let him usurp control of Qin from the current prime minister. According to Sima Qian, the up and coming statesman, Cai Ze, organized a meeting with Fan Ju and bluntly laid out the danger that the prime minister was in. The men Fan Ju had vouched for had become embarrassments to the king and the prime minister was only spared by the king’s good graces. Cai Ze pointed out that loftier people than the marquis of Ying had been put to death for even more mediocre reasons in the past. He suggested that Fan Ju should retire while he still had wealth and power to hand down to future descendants. To continue operating precariously as prime minister, argued Cai Ze, would only lead to the eventual execution of the marquis and his family. Showing his wisdom, Fan Ju heeded the newcomer’s advice and respectfully resigned from the office of prime minister. After proposing that Cai Ze should be the next man to take up high office, Fan Ju retired to his fief in Ying and, unlike most of his powerful contemporaries, lived out the rest of his days in peace.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Painting of a Buddhist sage, by Wang Zhen, c. 1928, [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.