The Tale Of Ning Cheng’s Dramatic Downfall And Resurgence In Ancient China

Ning Cheng was an ancient Chinese government official who began his career during the reign of Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE). He steadily ascended the bureaucratic ranks, becoming a palace attendant and a master of guests. Emperor Jing soon appointed Ning Cheng as commandant of Ji’nan, but eventually recalled him to the imperial seat at the city of Chang’an, where Ning Cheng was promoted to the prestigious rank of military commander of the capital. Ning Cheng was still present in the imperial court when Emperor Jing died and was succeeded by Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE). The new emperor and his advisors kept Ning Cheng on the job, appointing him as a prefect of the capital. This promising start to the new reign, however, did not last for Ning Cheng. He soon fell out with Emperor Wu’s closest confidants and allies. Unfortunately, this turn of events for Ning Cheng would prove to have painful consequences. Emperor Wu’s court historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE) reported Ning Cheng’s dramatic fall:

“The emperor’s in-laws, however, were assiduous in pointing out Ning Cheng’s faults and finally managed to have him convicted of some crime. His head was shaved and he was forced to wear a convict’s collar about his neck. At this time it was customary for any of the high officials who had been accused of a capital offence to commit suicide; very few of them would ever submit to actual punishment. Ning Cheng, however, allowed himself to be subjected to the severest punishment [likely castration]. Considering that he would never again be able to hold public office, he contrived to free himself from his convict’s collar, forged the credentials needed to get him through the Pass, and escaped to his home in the east” (Sima Qian, Shi ji 122).

Despite being possibly turned into a eunuch, and forced to flee from the capital as a fugitive, Ning Cheng’s story was far from over. As can be seen from his ability to forge documents and escape from Chang’an undetected, Ning Cheng was a competent and crafty individual. Now that he had been so ungracefully ejected from government, Ning Cheng decided to use his honed talents and administrative experience for his own benefit. Interestingly, Ning Cheng succeeded in rebuilding his life and ultimately set himself up as a figure of great power.

In his homeland of Rang, Ning Cheng managed to obtain for himself a piece of land, and from that new base of operations, he set to work on orchestrating an impressive resurgence. Masterfully using his knowledge of law, crime, organization and intimidation, Ning Cheng somehow managed to set himself up as the unofficial ruler of his homeland. The aforementioned historian, Sima Qian, followed Ning Cheng’s progress with interest:

“He bought 1,000 or so qing of hillside farm land on credit and hired several thousand poor families to work it for him. After a few years a general amnesty was issued, absolving him from his former offences. By this time he had accumulated a fortune of several thousand pieces of gold. He did any sort of daring feat that took his fancy, since he knew all the faults of the officials in the area. Whenever he went out he was accompanied by twenty or thirty mounted attendants, and he ordered the people of the area about with greater authority than the governor of the province” (Sima Qian, Shi ji 122).

As Ning Cheng was obviously a highly competent man and—due to the amnesty—also no longer a fugitive, his name began to come up again in the imperial court for possible government appointment. Interestingly, Emperor Wu and Ning Cheng apparently left the alleged awkward castration incident in the past and began working together again, and as a result, Ning Cheng was appointed as the chief commandant of the Hengu Pass. Yet, although Ning Cheng agreed to work for the government, that did not mean that he was willing to relinquish the personal power that he had gained over his homeland. This became evident in a curious incident, when Governor Yi Zong of Nanyang waged a war of litigations and investigations against Chief Commandant Ning Cheng. Although the Ning family was harassed and some of their properties were burned, Ning Cheng seemingly survived the ordeal. Unfortunately, the aforementioned historian, Sima Qian, did not report how or when Ning Cheng died, and like much else in Ning Cheng’s life, the story of his final years are an enigma.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute-The Story of Lady Wenji, by an unidentified Chinese artist (c. 15th century), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).



  • The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

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