A scholar who would become known as Master Shen Pei was born in the region of Lu (approximately modern Qufu, in Shandong, China) in the 3rd century BCE. During the reign of Emperor Gaozu (r. 206/202-195 BCE) and the heyday of Empress Dowager Lü (r. 195/188-180 BCE), he studied the teachings of Confucius, and specialized in the Shijing, an ancient collection of poetry called The Book of Songs or The Book of Odes. As a student, Master Shen Pei became acquainted with the branch of the imperial family that ruled the kingdom or princedom of Chu. In particular, he gained the admiration of Emperor Gaozu’s young brother, Liu Jiao (who became King/Prince Yuan of Chu), and was similarly respected by Jiao’s son, Liu Yingke (who succeeded his father under the name, King/Prince Yi of Chu). Encouraged by this noble father-and-son pair, Master Shen Pei was convinced to move to Chu, where he became an advisor to Liu Yingke, and eventually tutored Yingke’s son, Liu Wu.
Although Master Shen Pei got along quite well with the first two generations of the family that ruled Chu, the appreciation of the scholar’s presence in the court was not guaranteed to continue into a third generation. As they say, all good things come to an end, and that end was Liu Wu. Master Shen Pei and the young heir that he tutored never got along. By the time Liu Wu succeeded to the throne in Chu, the only emotion that connected student and teacher was mutual dislike. In the end, Liu Wu stripped Master Shen Pei of his post and sentenced him to forced labor. The scorned educator either served out his sentence or fled from the region. Whatever the case, Master Shen Pei retired to his birthland of Lu, where he became a recluse in his home. Curiously, it turned out to be a fortunate exit for the scholar, as Liu Wu eventually committed suicide in disgrace after pulling his realm into a failed rebellion against Emperor Jing in 154 BCE.
Master Shen Pei, by this point, had a reputation for being a wise man. Even though he rarely left his home in Lu, the reclusive teacher was not short on students. People reportedly traveled great distances to Master Shen Pei’s estate to hear his lectures on the Book of Songs. Although, he personally was not eager to rejoin government and politics, many of Master Shen Pei’s students did become officials in the Han government.
Two of these former students, Wang Zang and Zhao Wan, managed to get Master Shen Pei (by this time an old man) a position at court in the early reign of Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE). Yet, this move unfortunately occurred while the emperor’s grandmother, Empress Dowager Dou, was still alive. She was a devout champion of Daoism and she was known to use intrigue to fight back against the rising influence of Confucianism in the Han court. Unfortunately, she launched one of her attacks just around the time that Master Shen Pei was arriving in the capital. Wang Zang and Zhao Wan, the two students who had arranged for their teacher to return to government, were targeted by an investigation that had been set up by the empress dowager. As a result of the inquisition, Wang Zang and Zhao Wan committed suicide, leaving Master Shen Pei alone in a hostile environment. When the old teacher became aware of what happened, he promptly went into retirement again, returning once more to his home in Lu. He died not long after, living to well over the age of eighty.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (14th-century Chinese artwork, housed in the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam, [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.