In China during the 2nd century BCE, there lived an interesting fellow named Zhou Ren. He hailed from the region now known as Jining, Shandong, and through unknown means he managed to ingratiate himself into the imperial court of Emperor Wen (r. 180-157 BCE). While Emperor Wen was still alive, Zhou Ren became a palace counselor and joined the retinue of the imperial heir apparent, the future Emperor Jing. Before the ascendance to the throne of Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE), Zhou Ren became one of the new emperor’s closest and most intimate friends. Almost immediately after Jing became emperor, he appointed Zhou Ren to be the chief or chamberlain of all the palace attendants—a position Zhou Ren would hold for the remainder of the emperor’s reign.
Zhou Ren definitely was an oddball. He was described as something of an ascetic when it came to physical appearance and wealth. Even if a crowd of courtiers surrounded him, the peculiar figure of Zhou Ren could be immediately and easily identified from the rest of the masses. While other members of the court dressed in the latest fashions, Zhou Ren reportedly wore tattered robes that were barely kept intact by a network of sewn patches. His clothes were not only frayed and ripped, but also horribly dirty. Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE) described the striking visual and aromatic experience of meeting Zhou Ren: “He always went about in a worn and patched robe and urine-stained trousers, purposely presenting a dirty and unattractive appearance” (Shi Ji, 103).
Despite Zhou Ren’s monk-like asceticism in regards to clothing and wealth, he was allegedly far from restrained when it came to more sensual matters. Sima Qian categorized Zhou Ren as one of the “emperor’s male favorites” and, although the historian did not definitively state that Zhou Ren and Emperor Jing were more than friends, he did write that “it is not women alone who can use their looks to attract the eyes of the ruler” (Shi Ji, 125). Whatever the truth may be, Zhou Ren was evidently one of the emperor’s most favored and trusted courtiers. With trust came access to restricted quarters, and before long, Zhou Ren was able to wander in places where others could only dream of exploring. Sima Qian wrote, “Emperor Jing favored him and allowed him to go in and out of his private chambers; whenever there were secret revels in the women’s quarters Zhou Ren was always present” (Shi Ji, 103).
Despite rumors of Zhou Ren’s mysterious visits to Emperor Jing’s private chambers, women’s quarters and other such “dubious means to gain intimacy with the emperor” (Shi Ji, 103), Zhou Ren otherwise lived a virtuous and humble life in the imperial court. The reason he never was promoted from his position as chief of the palace attendants was apparently because Zhou Ren simply refused all offers of advancement. Similarly, he was said to never accept bribes, gifts or favors from courtiers or nobles. Zhou Ren’s reputation persisted even after the death of his patron, Emperor Jing, in 141 BCE. The new ruler, Emperor Wu, treated Zhou Ren with respect, but the aging chief palace attendant soon decided to retire. Although Zhou Ren never used his proximity to the emperors to ascend the social ladder, his children and grandchildren profited greatly from his intimacy with the imperial family. Sima Qian wrote that a majority of Zhou Ren’s descendants were given prominent positions in government.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration of a Daoist immortal by Zhang Lu (1464–1538), [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.