Deng Tong was an interesting man from the 2nd century BCE who ostensibly grew up in a family of little means and influence in Han Dynasty China. Little is known about his early life, except that he allegedly had some experience as a boat ferryman and that he worked near paths used by members of the imperial court. Although Deng Tong in those early years was in close proximity to the affluence of the court, he reportedly began his career without much wealth at his disposal. In fact, he originally lived on such a tight budget that he had to wear ripped and damaged clothes in public. Nevertheless, Deng Tong’s circumstances of wearing torn clothes and being familiar with boats would suddenly and strangely one day lead him to the highest levels of ancient Chinese society.
As the story goes, Deng Tong’s unlikely rise up the social ladder came about because an emperor experienced a strange but memorable dream. According to a legend floating around the Han court, Emperor Wen (r. 180-157 BCE) had a vision of himself being aided on a quest to heaven by a torn-robed boatman. Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE) recorded the tale, writing, “Once Emperor Wen dreamed that he was trying to climb to Heaven but could not seem to make his way up. Just then a yellow-capped boatman boosted him from behind and he was able to reach Heaven” (Sima Qian, Shi ji 125). After this dream, Emperor Wen allegedly kept an eye out for anyone who resembled the figure from his vision, and it was while the emperor had this mindset that he allegedly had his first encounter with Deng Tong. As soon as the emperor saw the man’s torn robe, he reportedly became convinced that this was the fellow from his dream. This peculiar encounter started an interesting friendship between Emperor Wen and Deng Tong that lasted a lifetime.
Although Emperor Wen allegedly became obsessed with Deng Tong after the aforementioned dream, the emperor at first did not quite know what to do with his new friend. Starting slowly, Emperor Wen allegedly gave Deng Tong a role that resembled the dream that led to their friendship. As told by Sima Qian, “he was made a yellow-capped boatman in the grounds of the imperial palace” (Shi ji 125). Deng Tong, however, quickly advanced from his peculiar position of palace boatman to become a man of great position and wealth. Continuing to describe the man’s meteoric rise, Sima Qian wrote, “the emperor showered him with gifts until his fortunes mounted to tens of billions of cash and he had been promoted to the post of superior lord. The emperor from time to time even paid visits to Deng Tong’s home to amuse himself there…he presented Deng Tong with the rights to a range of copper-bearing mountains in Yandao in Shu province and allowed him to mint copper coins for himself until the so-called Deng family cash were circulating all over the empire” (Sima Qian, Shi ji 125). Deng Tong’s tale was truly a rags to riches story.
Unfortunately, Deng Tong’s bizarre life story did not end happily ever after. His prominence and fortunes, after all, depended on the good will and generosity of aging Emperor Wen. Therefore, when the emperor eventually died, Deng Tong not only lost a friend; he also lost the defender of his social and financial security. As a result, when Emperor Wen was gone, Deng Tong was left defenseless against nobles and courtiers who did not think he belonged. Worst of all, Deng Tong’s greatest detractor was allegedly Emperor Wen’s son and heir, Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE).
Sensing his time of influence in court had passed, Deng Tong quickly withdrew from public life during the reign of Emperor Jing. The new emperor, however, was said to have eventually made moves to ruthlessly seize back the wealth that his father had heaped on Deng Tong. Crucial to Emperor Jing’s maneuvers were the mountain ranges and coin minting operations that had been granted to Deng Tong by Emperor Wen. The wide-spread Deng cash coins (which apparently were all over the empire) eventually made their way to ‘barbarian’ peoples, and Emperor Jing’s government decided to hold Deng Tong responsible for the barbarian acquisition of the coins by accusing Deng Tong of smuggling. Additionally, the government also claimed that Deng Tong owed the court an exorbitant amount of money in debt. On all of these developments, Sima Qian stated:
“After Emperor Wen passed away and the heir apparent, Emperor Jing, came to the throne, Deng Tong retired from court and returned to his home. He had not been there any time, however, when someone reported to the throne that he was guilty of smuggling cash which he had minted across the border to the barbarians…In the end he was condemned and all of his fortune was confiscated by the government. Even so, it was claimed that his wealth was insufficient to cover the damages and that he still owed the government several hundred million more cash…Deng Tong was not left with so much as a pin to hold on his cap” (Sima Qian, Shi ji 125).
Despite his dramatic and complete fall from influence and wealth, Deng Tong still had friends who tried to look after him. Most interestingly, whereas Emperor Jing did not care in the least about Deng Tong, Emperor Jing’s sister, the Elder Princess Liu Piao, apparently remained quite fond of him. While Emperor Jing was trying to siphon away all of Deng Tong’s land and money, the Elder Princess was said to have been simultaneously trying to send him care packages and supplies. Most of what she sent, however, was seized by Emperor Jing’s debt collectors, but the persistent princess constantly adapted her methods in her attempts to provide some relief to Deng Tong. On this, Sima Qian wrote, “the Elder Princess provided him with food and clothing in the form of a loan so that it could not be confiscated. In the end Deng Tong did not have a single copper cash to call his own, and died as a dependent in someone else’s home” (Sima Qian, Shi ji 125). Such was the remarkable rags to riches to rags life of Deng Tong.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Artwork labeled Spring Pictures, by an unidentified Qing Dynasty artist (between (1644–1911), [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.