Tian Fen was not a man to be trifled with—as the younger brother of Empress Wang, Tian Fen was the brother-in-law of Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE) and also the uncle of Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE). Furthermore, he was the marquis of Wuan, a chancellor of China and, in 135 BCE, he took a lead role in the regency council that advised Emperor Wu.
Many officials in the empire were afraid of Tian Fen’s power and would not dare to speak out against him. Yet, Marquis Dou Ying, and his friend Guan Fu, were not among the timid ranks. Instead, Dou Ying and Guan Fu seemed to clash with Tian Fen every chance they could. From property disputes to personal feuds and political arguments, the two sides rarely aligned. Only in their efforts to increase the role of Confucianism in Emperor Wu’s government could Tian Fen and Dou Ying find common ground. Yet, this common interest did little to stop the two ambitious marquises from descending into an ever more bitter rivalry.
The feud between Tian Fen and Dou Ying was exacerbated by the latter’s relationship with Guan Fu, whom the historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE) described as “a very stubborn and outspoken man, especially when he had something to drink” (Shi Ji 107). As Sima Qian hinted, Guan Fu could be quite the belligerent drunk. After a few drinks, he was known to become argumentative, and, on particularly bad days, it was not unheard of for Guan Fu to end up in drunken brawls. Unsurprisingly, it was a drinking party which would eventually seal Guan Fu’s downfall.
In 131 BCE, Tian Fen became a married man. His sister, the Empress Dowager Wang, encouraged the nobles and officials of the realm to pay Tian Fen a visit and congratulate him on his marriage. These visits were basically drinking parties, where containers of alcohol would be passed around and attendees were expected to give toasts and speeches in honor of Tian Fen. Guan Fu, for his part, realized the potential danger he faced by attending such a party, and therefore initially declined his invitation. Dou Ying, however, was able to make his friend reconsider. In the end, they attended Tian Fen’s wedding party together—unfortunately, the event would not have a pleasant outcome.
Dou Ying was on his best behavior during the party, and Guan Fu also contained himself for a time. Nevertheless, as his cup continued to be refilled, Guan Fu’s control weakened, making him argumentative and less cautious about his wording. To Dou Ying’s dismay, Guan Fu eventually began making a scene. By the end of the festivities, Guan Fu had sneered at most of the high officials present at the party and had even insulted Tain Fen, despite it being his wedding feast. At this point, Dou Ying tried to drag his friend out of the party, but Tian Fen was now completely outraged—before Guan Fu could be ushered away by friends, Tian Fen had the man arrested, right then and there, at the party.
Tragically, repercussions for perceived crimes in ancient China often affected more than just the accused criminal. The case of Guan Fu was no different; instead of being content with imprisoning the belligerent drunk, Tian Fen put out warrants for the arrest of the entire Guan clan. Fortunately for the Guan family, Dou Ying and other sympathetic men of means were able to forewarn the family, allowing them to go into hiding before the authorities arrived.
With the Guan family safe, Dou Ying devoted himself to the cause of freeing his imprisoned friend. Utilizing all of his political skills and connections, Dou Ying set out to clear his pal’s name while also attempting to discredit Tian Fen. If Dou Ying had solely focused on lessening the punishment of Guan Fu and his family, he may have made progress, yet by bundling a political campaign against the feared and respected Tian Fen into this mission, Dou Ying lost many of his allies among the officials. In the end, the plan backfired—instead of freeing Guan Fu or harming Tian Fen, the result of Dou Ying’s protests was his own imprisonment. Both Guan Fu and Dou Ying were executed in 130 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (A reproduction of an earlier Tang Dynasty (618-907) work of art, the reproduction is attributed to Emperor Huizong of Song (r. 1100–1125 AD), [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.