In the 2nd century BCE, a man named Yi Zong led a gang of thieves and racketeers in the Hedong region of China. He ran a fine-tuned operation, pushing out competitors and collecting a steady stream of ill-gotten money, all with few enough casualties so that he did not overly draw the attention of the law. While he devoted himself to this disreputable path, Zong’s sister, Yi Xu, contrastingly pursued a career in medicine. She became a healer of some renown and was therefore invited to join the imperial court by Empress Dowager Wang—the mother of Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE). One way or another, Yi Zong’s name began entering conversations in the imperial inner circles, and the empress dowager and her son openly wondered if the highly-organized criminal could be turned into a law official. Yi Xu apparently was hesitant to recommend her unruly brother, but an invitation was ultimately sent to Hedong, offering Yi Zong a chance to begin a new phase of life. Yi Zong accepted the proposal, agreeing to use his experience in rackets and turf wars to be a tax collector and crime fighter for the Han Dynasty.
Emperor Wu and his officials brought Yi Zong into the government for a trial period as a palace attendant. After they got to know the peculiar recruit—and carefully made sure no items were stolen from the palace—the emperor began gradually promoting Yi Zong to higher positions. He was assigned as a magistrate successively in Shangdang, Changling and Chang’an. When he carried out this role with distinction (and collected a great amount of taxes), he was promoted to chief commandant of Henei. In that capacity, he oversaw a campaign to undermine the power of the criminal Rong family. This impressed the emperor, who then promoted Yi Zong again, now naming him the governor of Nanyang. There, he continued his no-nonsense tax-collection and launched more law enforcement campaigns against powerful criminal or corrupt families. Those targeted by Yi Zong in the region included the Kong, Bao, and Ning clans. Members of the first two families were said to have fled the region, but the Ning family, due to the prominence of Chief Commandant Ning Cheng, was able to hold out against Yi Zong’s inquiries, but not unscathed.
Emperor Wu soon repositioned Yi Zong away from Nanyang and instead appointed him as governor of Dingxiang. There, Yi Zong’s reputation for bloodthirstiness increased. The most infamous of his actions from his term as governor of the region was a mass execution of over 400 individuals that he pulled from a local prison. Yi Zong’s heavy-handed tactics, and his by now long record of disrupting crime wherever he was sent continued to impress Emperor Wu. Therefore, when the emperor found himself in need of someone to fight counterfeiters and other market crimes after changes were made to imperial coins around 120 BCE, his choice was Yi Zong. Removed from his post as governor of Dingxiang, Zong was brought back to the capital and given the title of right prefect. In the capital city, Yi Zong was forced to work with the military commander, Wang Wenshu, and they did not get along. In their rivalry, the two competed to catch the most counterfeiters, and, as told by Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), “Between them they executed an extraordinary number of people, but the effect of such measures was only temporary, and the offenders continued to increase until it became impossible to deal with them all” (Shi Ji 122). This inability of Yi Zong to curtail crimes against the unpopular and exploitable new imperial coins made Emperor Wu start to reconsider his impression of Yi Zong. Additionally, Zong’s turf wars and rivalries with other law officials began to turn government opinion against him. He finally crossed the line when he arrested the agents of a rival tax collecting official. When this news was brought to Emperor Wu, the ruler reacted viciously. According to Grand Historian Sima Qian, “Yi Zong was convicted of disobeying an imperial edict and impeding the business of the government and was executed and his corpse exposed in the market place” (Shi Ji 122). The execution was said to have occurred around the year 117 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Print of Chinese general Lin Ch’ung, created by Hankotei Atonari, Morinoya Nakanuki and Yashima Gakutei around 1827, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.