Bu Shi was said to have been a man from Henan who lived during the 2nd and 1st century BCE, coming to prominence during the reign of Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE). Bu Shi was a curious character—his life story often seemed more fairytale than reality, or perhaps his tale was embellished or invented to become an ideal example of a model citizen. Yet, the Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), a contemporary of Bu Shi, presented the man in his Records of the Grand Historian as not a mythological, literary, or propagandic figure, but as a real and historical person. On the other hand, of the 130 lengthy and often overlapping chapters of Sima Qian’s history, the mysterious figure of Bu Shi was only mentioned in chapter 30, which was devoted to discussing (often with criticism) Emperor Wu’s currencies, economy and government monopolies. As such, it is tempting to think of the generous and selfless Bu Shi as a foil against the growing tyranny of Emperor Wu and his greedy ministers. Nevertheless, it must be stressed again that Sima Qian (Emperor Wu’s Grand Historian and palace secretary) described Bu Shi as a real historical figure who lived during his own lifetime. Furthermore, as Bu Shi reportedly ascended to great political heights in the empire, he would have been an awkward character to invent or embellish. Here, therefore, we will simply record the remarkable story of Bu Shi, and leave readers to assess for themselves the historical authenticity of the person whom Sima Qian documented.
The Life of Bu Shi
Bu Shi was said to have come from a family of farmers in Henan. His parents died of unknown causes, and Bu Shi became the head of the family. Although the family lands and wealth fell into Bu Shi’s hands, he relinquished control of everything except a flock of 100 sheep to a younger brother. Bu Shi, now voluntarily destitute, herded his sheep over to a mountain, where he presumably lived in the wild, or in some makeshift hut. Despite giving away his inherited wealth and withdrawing to the mountainside, Bu Shi in no way lived an idle life—he devoted himself to expertly caring for and expanding his flock. Through his tenacity the sheep flourished, which, in turn, made the business-savvy Bu Shi an extremely wealthy man. Before long, Bu Shi had raised enough money to buy new land and build a house. All the while, his flock continued to grow, and, in ten years time, the sheep in his pastures expanded from the original one hundred to over a thousand strong.
While Bu Shi was growing his flock and wealth in exponential leaps and bounds, his younger brother was simultaneously running their ancestral farm into bankruptcy. Whenever his brother’s finances were about to collapse, Bu Shi would always send over a donation to keep the old family farmstead afloat. These events presumably took place during the 120s BCE, for Emperor Wu, by this point in the story, was sending his generals on frequent invasions of Xiongnu territory. These war efforts were drying up the empire’s coffers, and the emperor’s ministers were launching all sorts of fundraising schemes to replenish the treasury. In response to the empire’s needs, the generous and selfless Bu Shi sent a letter to the capital in which he offered half of his wealth to the government for use in defending the borders. As to his reasoning, Bu Shi patriotically claimed, “In my humble opinion, every worthy man should be willing to fight to the death to defend the borders, and every person with wealth ought to contribute to the expense” (Sima Qian, Shi Ji 30). According to Sima Qian, the emperor’s advisors were not sure of what to do with the offer—it was reportedly lost in the bureaucracy, and years later the donation was declined.
Although the central government refused to accept Bu Shi’s money, the shepherd still wanted to contribute to the empire’s defense. Around 121 BCE, when the Hunye king surrendered to the Han, Bu Shi made another donation (this time successfully) of 200,000 ‘cash’ coins to the governor of Henan. The central government learned of this and reportedly sent him back more than half of his donation. Yet, the stubborn Bu Shi re-donated the returned money once more to the government. In response to this generosity, Emperor Wu reportedly invited Bu Shi to become a palace attendant, gave him some land, and had the tales of Bu Shi’s charity (and subsequent rewards) disseminated throughout the empire.
When Bu Shi arrived in the capital city, wearing a simple robe and straw sandals, there was only one job he would accept—shepherd for the emperor’s sheep in Shanglin Park. He worked a year in that position, greatly impressing the emperor by increasing the flock’s numbers and plumpness. Yet, the emperor and the ministers were more interested in Bu Shi’s logistical and planning skills than his talent for shepherding. He was given a position as a magistrate of Goushi, then of Chenggao, and, finally, he was appointed as the tutor of Emperor Wu’s son, Liu Hong, the king of Qi.
By 114 BCE, Bu Shi was reportedly promoted from tutor to the position of prime minister of Qi. In 112 BCE, when another wave of rebellions and war broke out, Bu Shi received a new promotion when he sent the emperor a letter, reportedly stating, “I beg that my sons and I be allowed to join the men of Qi who are skilled in naval warfare to go and die in battle” (Sima Qian, Shi Ji 30). Once again, Emperor Wu published an edict, citing the words and actions of Bu Shi for propaganda purposes. In addition to public praise, the emperor reportedly awarded Bu Shi with gold, land, and the noble title of marquis. A short while later, he was also promoted to imperial secretary. Bu Shi, however, was reportedly removed from the post of imperial secretary in 110 BCE after criticizing the emperor’s economic and tax policies. He was instead named Grand Tutor to the heir apparent. Unfortunately, the account of Bu Shi’s life ends here. Presumably, this means he outlived Sima Qian, who died around 90 BCE, and that Bu Shi caused no scandals or made any more edict-worthy donations for the rest of his life.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (“Qing Court Version” of Along the River During the Qingming Festival, by the Painting Academy of the Qing court, c. 18th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji 30) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson (pages 72-83 of his translation). New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.