The Scandalous Downfall of King Li of Qi


Around 133 or 132 BCE, King Yi of Qi died and his son by Queen Ji succeeded to the throne. Queen Dowager Ji quickly started to pressure her newly crowned son, King Li (also known as Liu Cijing), to bring more members of the Ji family to prominence. One of the first steps the queen dowager took to further her goal was to arrange for her niece to become King Li’s consort. The king, however, did not favor the woman, so the niece was given no more prominence than any of the other concubines in the palace. In an attempt to remedy the issue, Queen Dowager Ji sent her eldest daughter, known as Princess Ji, into the palace to become head of the women’s quarters. Princess Ji’s job was to sabotage the other concubines in the palace and to give only the queen dowager’s niece access to the emperor. Yet, the plan went horribly awry—in fact, the introduction of the princess into the palace led to the downfall of the king.

According to Grand Historian Sima Qian (r. 145-90), Princess Ji utterly failed in her mission; instead of making King Li fall for the queen dowager’s niece, the king instead fell in love with Princess Ji, who was his own sister (Shi Ji 52). The affection was apparently mutual, for brother and sister began having an affair that was reportedly noticed by several members of the court of Qi. This may have been mere rumor and gossip, but even so, such charges could be deadly—a certain King Liu Dingguo of Yan was executed in 128 BCE because of similar accusations of immorality.

Around the time that Liu Dingguo was being investigated and executed, Empress Dowager Wang (mother of Emperor Wu, r. 141-87 BCE) was attempting to arrange a marriage between her granddaughter and King Li of Qi. The empress dowager sent a eunuch named Xu Jia to negotiate the marriage with the king. Before Xu Jia reached the palace of Qi, he was pulled aside by a man named Zhufu Yan, a rising star in Han Dynasty politics who was in Qi at the time. The two worked out some kind of agreement, and Xu Jia reportedly promised to help Zhufu Yan’s daughter enter the palace of Qi as a lady-in-waiting to the empress dowager’s granddaughter if she succeeded in becoming the queen of Qi.

According to Sima Qian, Xu Jia was intercepted by Queen Dowager Ji before he could speak to the king of Qi. The queen dowager was still trying to arrange for her niece to become the queen of Qi, so she was felt threatened and outraged by Empress Dowager Wang’s offer. Queen Dowager Ji dryly told the eunuch that the king already had a consort and that his household was full. Later, however, Xu Jia was finally able to obtain an audience with King Li and the ruler of Qi was less hasty to send the eunuch away. To the dismay of Queen Dowager Ji, the king voiced a willingness to marry the empress dowager’s granddaughter. Despite the king’s interest in the arrangement, King Li’s mother was relentless in sabotaging the negotiations. In the end, Xu Jia left from Qi with no definitive answer on the marriage of King Li to the empress dowager’s granddaughter and he had even less luck on possibly introducing Zhufu Yan’s daughter to the king’s palace.

Even though Xu Jia could not accomplish his missions, he did not leave Qi empty handed—he had heard the troubling rumors concerning King Li and Princess Ji. When the eunuch reported the gossip to Empress Dowager Wang, she decided to immediately cease any further negotiations for the arranged marriage. Interestingly, the empress dowager also supposedly decided to keep secret the gossip that she received from the eunuch, for if the tales reached the wrong ears, there would be dire consequences.

Even though the empress dowager chose to take no action on the gossip, another person who knew about the affair decided to talk. It was none other than Zhufu Yan—even though he failed to have his daughter become a lady-in-waiting within the palace of Qi, he had found other ways to advance in social circles. He eventually became an associate of Emperor Wu. While in that role, Zhufu Yan had not forgotten or forgiven King Li for not accepting his daughter into the palace. Zhufu Yan went to the emperor and made a formal complaint that King Li of Qi was having immoral relations with his sister, Princess Ji. The emperor responded to the claim by appointing Zhufu Yan as the prime minister of Qi and tasked him with investigating the matter.

When Zhufu Yan arrived in Qi, he began bringing everyone in for questioning. Concubines and eunuchs from the palace were interrogated and the prime minister made sure that their testimony all incriminated King Li. Even the Grand Historian, Sima Qian, assessed that Zhufu Yan was more interested in destroying the king of Qi than in determining the truth of the gossip. In the end, it all became too much for King Li—he committed suicide by drinking poison. Interestingly, he did not die too long after the earlier execution of Liu Dingguo in 128 BCE. King Li committed suicide in only his fifth year on the throne.

Emperor Wu profited greatly from the death of the king of Qi and likely cared little about the truth of the rumors. When King Li committed suicide, he had no legitimate heirs. As there was no one to succeed him, the kingdom of Qi was disbanded and came under the direct control of Emperor Wu’s central government.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (painting by Liu Jun (Chinese, active c. 1475–1505) Ming dynasty (1368–1644), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and


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