Zhou Yafu was the son of Marquis Zhou Bo of Jiang (d. 169 BCE). If he was the type of man who wanted to surpass his father, he had a tough act to follow. Zhou Bo was instrumental in bringing Emperor Wen (r. 180-157 BCE) to power, and, although Zhou Bo and the emperor had the occasional tiff, he was generally a well-respected figure in the court of the Han Dynasty until his dying day.
Upon the death of Zhou Bo in 169 BCE, it was not Zhou Yafu who succeeded to the marquisate. Instead, his brother Shengzhi became the new Marquis of Jiang. Zhou Yafu, for his own part, was granted an appointment as the governor of Henei not long after his brother became a marquis. Like many second sons of noble families, he probably felt that his path up the social hierarchy would not come from inheritance, but from showing merit in government and military spheres.
Zhou Yafu was still governor of Henei when Xiongnu nomads entered the provinces of Shang and Yunzhong in 158 BCE, invading both regions with separate armies, reportedly numbering 30,000 men each. In response to the Xiongnu invasion, the emperor ordered several officials to mobilize Chinese forces and had them set up camps at certain regions in the empire. Zhou Yafu was one of the military leaders, and he was ordered to gather his forces at Xiliu.
It was at the time of the Xiongnu invasion of 158 BCE that Zhou Yafu caught the attention of Emperor Wen—and he reportedly did so in a bizarre and bold way. Emperor Wen was said to have toured the various military camps during the months-long showdown between the Xiongnu and the Chinese forces. As no major battles were reported during the conflict, the visits of Emperor Wen to his camped troops were often the most dramatic events of the invasion. According to the historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), Emperor Wen personally visited at least three of the military encampments set up during 158 BCE, and, by far, the emperor’s visit to Zhou Yafu’s camp at Xiliu was the most peculiar.
Channeling his inner Sun Tzu, Zhou Yafu reportedly adopted the persona of a strict, no-nonsense general when the emperor came to visit. Whereas the other camps toured by the emperor had immediately opened their gates and welcomed their ruler with great pomp and celebration, Zhou Yafu’s camp was on complete lockdown. The emperor’s caravan was alleged to have been awkwardly halted before a heavily guarded gateway, and the entrance of the Xiliu camp was reportedly not opened until Emperor Wen sent a messenger to display his imperial credentials to Zhou Yafu. Yet, that was only the beginning to the general’s display of extreme military by-the-book discipline. Sima Qian described the scene: “After the guards had opened the gates one of them told the cavalry and carriage drivers accompanying the emperor, ‘The general says there is to be no galloping within the camp!’ The emperor accordingly reined in the horses of his carriage and proceeded at a slow pace to the headquarters. General Zhou Yafu appeared bearing his arms and bowed curtly” (Shi ji, 57).
Emperor Wen’s companions were said to have been outraged at Zhou Yafu’s treatment of his sovereign. The emperor, however, was immensely impressed, appraising Zhou Yafu as one of his toughest generals, as well as the military leader least likely to be tricked by Xiongnu warriors attempting to impersonate the emperor. In his assessment of Zhou Yafu, Emperor Wen was likely thinking of sayings of Sun Tzu, such as “Have a capable general, Unhampered by his sovereign” and “The general is the prop of the nation. When the prop is solid, the nation is strong. When the prop is flawed, the nation is weak” (The Art of War, chapter 3).
The Xiongnu withdrew only a few months after the invasion of 158 BCE and the Chinese armies sent to defend against the invaders were recalled from their camps. Emperor Wen soon made Zhou Yafu a palace military commander and also appointed him as Marquis of Tiao. Yet, the old emperor was at the end of his reign. When Emperor Wen was on his deathbed in 157 BCE, he reportedly advised his son, Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE), to put Zhou Yafu in charge of the empire’s military. Emperor Jing did, indeed, put great trust in Zhou Yafu, making him his general of carriage and cavalry, palace military commander, grand commandant, and finally chancellor. Yet, he and Emperor Jing had a falling-out over what to do with Xiongnu defectors in 147 BCE, at which point he resigned as chancellor. A few years later, Zhou Yafu was arrested under suspicion of rebellion and he eventually committed suicide through a hunger strike.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (19th or early 20th century depiction of Zhuge Liang (諸葛亮), styled Kongming (孔明), on top of a city wall. [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.
- The Art of War by Sun Tzu, translated by John Minford. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.