Lü Buwei was a prominent minister of Qin during the decades before the kings of Qin formally became emperors. He began his career as a simple merchant, and, because of his keen mind for strategy and administration, his business was extremely profitable. Nevertheless, his career trajectory would dramatically change after a trip to the city of Handan, the capital of the state of Zhao.
While in Handan, Lü Buwei encountered a Qin nobleman being held there as a diplomatic hostage—the man’s name was Zichu. He was one of more than twenty sons fathered by Lord Anguo, who had become the crown prince of Qin around 267 BCE. As such, Zichu was a member of the Qin royal family, but he was still considered low enough in the succession to be given away by his king as a hostage to assure peace between Qin and Zhao. Nevertheless, with a potential heir to the kingdom of Qin at his fingertips, Lü Buwei decided to give up the life of a merchant for that of a politician.
Lü Buwei offered his services to Zichu, promising to help the prince rise through the ranks of the royal family to ultimate power. His only demand was that the prosperity be reciprocated—if Zichu became wealthy and powerful, Lü Buwei wanted his fair share of the rewards. Zichu agreed to the proposal and his new advisor immediately set to work, organizing the political ascendance of his patron.
After traveling back to Qin, Lü Buwei impressively managed to get Zichu elevated above his many brothers and named as Lord Anguo’s heir.
Lü Buwei then enjoyed the benefits of his patron’s rise to prominence. His wealth grew and he lived with an extremely beautiful concubine. Her beauty was such that it made other people envious—even the crown prince was enamored. After one particular bout of drinking, Zichu proclaimed that he wanted the concubine for himself. Lü Buwei, obviously, was deeply offended, but could not refuse a request from a crown prince of Qin. The concubine joined the prince’s household, but, according to rumor, she was already pregnant before this move occurred.
The concubine gave birth to a son named Zheng around 259 BCE, shortly after she left Lü Buwei for Zichu. At the end of that decade, King Zhaoxiang of Qin died (in 251 BCE) and Lord Anguo succeeded to the throne as King Xiaowen, making Zichu the new heir apparent. King Xiaowen did not live long, causing Zichu to quickly ascend to the throne around 250 BCE, under the name King Zhuangxiang. During this time, the concubine who gave birth to Prince Zheng was elevated to the rank of queen and Lü Buwei was rewarded with the title of marquis of Wenxin. King Zhuangziang, like his father, also had a short reign—he died around 247 BCE, leaving his twelve or thirteen-year-old son as the next king of Qin. With the death of King Zhuangziang and the ascendance of King Zheng (the future First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty), the former concubine-turned-queen’s title became that of queen dowager.
(19th century copy of a 1609 Chinese portrait of Qin Shihuangdi, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
The new child-king appointed Lü Buwei as prime minister of Qin and basically let his chief advisors rule the kingdom in his stead for the first few years of his reign. During this period of little oversight, Lü Buwei and the queen dowager (his former concubine) were said to have reignited their old passion for each other. At first, Lü Buwei did not fear the consequences of discovery—the king, he thought, was too young to notice the affair and Zheng affectionately thought of Lü Buwei as something of an uncle. Yet, as King Zheng (the future First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty) began to grow into a competent ruler, Lü Buwei began to rethink the situation.
According to the Grand Historian, Sima Qian (145-90 BCE), Lü Buwei pieced together an outrageous plan to end his affair with the king’s mother. The account of the odd debacle is so bizarre and tabloidesque that it was likely embellished for dramatic effect, or at least based on a heavy dose of folklore and rumor. Nevertheless, some of the core elements of the story must have been true.
As the story goes, Lü Buwei decided to divert the queen dowager’s affections to another man. To ensure that the plan worked, he scoured the land for a man of…ahem…great size. The winner of this contest of manhood was a certain Lao Ai. Following Lü Buwei’s advice, Lao Ai put on one of the most ridiculous displays of courtship ever recorded. He supposedly stuck his member through the hole of a wooden carriage wheel as if his appendage were its axel and, accompanied by seductive music, he carried (or possibly rolled) the wheel around a stage. The unique performance was supposedly done purposely in front of a crowd filled with the queen dowager’s informants, so that she would inevitably hear of Lao Ai’s impressive abilities.
As Lü Buwei had hoped, the queen dowager was captivated by what she heard from her spies. The prime minister encouraged her interest and arranged a way for the queen dowager and Lao Ai to be together. According to the story, Lü Buwei falsified a criminal charge against Lao Ai and put the man through a pretend castration. Now, as a fake eunuch, Lao Ai could freely spend time with the queen dowager.
Lü Buwei’s plan worked perfectly—the queen dowager never had a second thought about her former partner and supposedly fell deeply in love with her imposter eunuch. Yet, the plan soon backfired. Lao Ai became extremely powerful, gaining the rank of marquis of Changxin. Around 238 BCE, two rumors reached the ear of the maturing King Zheng. The first was whisperings of Lao Ai not being a real eunuch. The second, more dangerous, rumor was that Lao Ai was planning a rebellion against the king. With this information, King Zheng mobilized his forces and crushed Lao Ai’s unprepared rebel army at Xianyang. Lao Ai survived the battle and fled, but he was quickly captured and executed. Lao Ai’s family was also punished—one version of the story claimed that three generations of his kin were executed, another simply stated that his clan was massacred.
With Lao Ai discovered, it did not take long for King Zheng to learn of Lü Buwei’s involvement in the rebel’s rise to power. In 237 BCE, Lü Buwei was removed from the office of prime minister and ejected from the capital city. In 235 BCE, after the king’s suspicions and anger showed no signs of subsiding, Lü Buwei drank poison so as to spare his family from the increasing possibility of a mass execution like that done to the clan of Lao Ai.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top Picture Attribution: (Career of Xu Xianqing Huanji Tu 18, c. 1590s, [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.