The Tragic Success Of The Han Diplomat, Master Li Yiji


Around the year 204 BCE, King Liu Bang of Han (the founder of the Han Dynasty) sent Master Li Yiji into the kingdom of Qi to see if they would peacefully submit to Han rule. Li Yiji, however, was not the only person Liu Bang set on course to Qi. If negotiations fell through, the brilliant general, Han Xin, was waiting with an army on the other side of the Yellow River, ready to invade Qi and subjugate the region by force.

Master Li Yiji successfully obtained an audience with Prime Minister Tian Heng and King Tian Guang, the rulers of Qi. Li Yiji’s task would not be easy. Han was definitely one of the greatest Chinese kingdoms at that time, but its power was far from undisputed. Only a year prior, Liu Bang had suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of his most powerful rival, King Xiang Yu of Chu, in a battle at the Sui River. Nevertheless, the kingdom of Han had regained its momentum quickly after the battle, and much of their recovery was due to Han Xin, the very general who was at that moment leering at Qi from the other side of the Yellow River. In 204 alone, he had toppled the kingdoms of Wei, Zhao and Dai, capturing all of their kings in battle.

With Liu Bang offering a peaceful transition and Han Xin positioned threateningly on the border, the king and prime minister of Qi were eventually won over by the arguments of Master Li Yiji. Records of the exact terms of their agreement were vague, with their deal amounting to either a complete submittal or possibly a military alliance against Xiang Yu. Whatever the case, the king and prime minister of Qi agreed to disband or relocate the forces they currently had on the Yellow River and redeploy their army against Chu.

Civil wars, however, can bring about the worst in people. Although Master Li Yiji and the leadership of Qi were happy with their bloodless agreement, there was one other powerful player in the region who did not want a peaceful solution. Conquering Qi by force, as Han Xin had been prepared to do, could bring the conqueror fame, wealth and power. Now that Qi was submitting freely, Han Xin was cut off from these opportunities. Even worse—Master Li Yiji, not Han Xin, would get all of the credit for bringing the kingdom of Qi over to the Han side of the war.

Suffice it to say, Han Xin began to eye the newly lowered defenses of Qi greedily. Disregarding Li Yiji’s successful diplomacy, Han Xin crossed the Yellow River and quashed a startled Qi army at Lixia and seized the city of Linzi.

When news of this invasion reached the king and prime minister of Qi, they quickly arrested Master Li Yiji, thinking that the diplomat had been complicit in the treacherous attack. In the end, Master Li Yiji met the grisly end of being boiled alive. Han Xin, on the other hand, captured King Tian Guang and forced Tian Heng into hiding, finally completing his conquest of Qi by 203 BCE, when he proclaimed himself to be king of the region.

Written by C. Keith Hanley.

Picture Attribution: (Depiction of Zhang Qian, Mogao caves 618-712 CE, [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.

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