Wu Qi — A Strategist with Great Achievements and Controversial Reputation

Wu Qi (440 BC — 381 BC), respected as Wuzi, was one of the brightest and most controversial people in the Warring State Period (403 BC — 221 BC) in the history of China.

He was an ever-victorious militarist, an aggressive reformer, and an ambitious politician; however, he had been widely criticized for his unkindness and infidelity. 

He brought victory and prosperity to every state that he had served, but had been framed every time, and ended up being assassinated. However, he smartly finished vengeance by himself before he passed away. 

His masterpiece "Wuzi", together with Sun Zi (or Sun Tzu)'s "Art of War", made them two of the most exceptional military strategists in Chinese culture. 

Jade Mythical Animal of the Warring States Period — Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

Rich Man with Strong Political Ambition 

Wu Qi was born into a wealthy family; but in ancient Chinese culture, businessmen obtained low social status.

After he has grown up, he spent lots of money trying to get a political position, but he was fooled by some people, who took his money and didn’t get him anything that he expected.

Some gossips recorded that Wu Qi got angry and killed around 30 people who abused or laughed at him. 

Afterward, he left his parents and came to State Lu, the hometown of Confucius, to study Confucianism, the philosophy that considers respecting one's parents as one of the most important morals.

However, he was cut off by his teacher for being unfilial, when Wu Qi didn't go home after hearing his mother passed away. 

Ritual Jade (Yu Bi) of State Lu During the Warring States Period — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

A Possible Wife Killer and An Exceptional General 

Then Wu started to learn the military strategy and finally got a position in an army of the State Lu.

When another kingdom invaded Lu, Wu Qi thought it was a great opportunity to show his military talent and get promotions. 

However, he didn't gain trust from the king of Lu, because his wife was from the invasive kingdom.

To become a powerful commander in the army and eliminate the king’s distrust, Wu Qi left his wife. Some said that he divorced his wife and asked her to leave, while in other documentations, he killed his wife to show his loyalty to State Lu. 

Afterward, Wu Qi finally became a general of Lu’s army, who successfully defeated the invasive troop. 

But soon, the king of Lu was informed about Wu Qi being an indecent person and decided to expel him. 

Wu Qi's Special Force in the State Wei

Then, Wu Qi came to State Wei, whose king was trying to hire intelligent people and expand territory. 

He exhibited his exceptional talent in politics and the military and impressed the king of Wei, who immediately nominated Wu Qi to command the Wei's army.

Later, Wu Qi implemented a reform in military recruitment and training and built a strong special force that was consisted of professional, aggressive warriors.

As the most powerful general, Wu Qi was quite humble and thoughtful; he ate normal food and rest on the field with his ordinary soldiers, always took care of them, and never treated himself differently.

Bronze Inlaying Silver Ware of the Warring States Period that was used to Place Bows — Art Institute of Chicago (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Once, he even risked his own life to save an ordinary soldier. Though he was not a good son and husband, he indeed was a great and caring marshal. 

Leading this strong troop, Wu Qi defeated State Qin for several times. As an invincible general that always used the few to defeat the many, he assisted Wei obtained hegemony and largely extended territory.  

Again, Wu Qi's exceptional achievements caused more jealousy. 

A few years later, the king of Wei passed away.

Under the instigation from Wu Qi's jealous political enemies, the new king started to suspect Wu's loyalty.

Sensing the new king's estrangement, Wu Qi left State Wei, the kingdom that he had protected and prospered.

Exquisite Cart Decoration of the State Wei Inlaid with Gold and Silver — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Wu Qi's Great Reform in State Chu

Then, Wu Qi came to State Chu, the kingdom in the south that kept losing in wars and shirking in the last decades. He obtained respect and full support from Chu's ambitious monarch, the King Dao of Chu. 

Wu Qi was nominated as the most powerful minister and then implemented an unprecedented reform, after which the State Chu became very powerful and kept expanding.

He put an end to the aristocratic hereditary system and most of their privileges, by regulating that the noble titles and lands could only be inherited for three generations, and commanding nobles with little contributions to migrate to remote areas to open up virgin lands.

Gold Currency (Ying Yuan) of the State Chu — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

This reform made Chu's government and the army more efficient, also severely jeopardized nearly all the nobles’ benefits.

But with the King Dao of Chu's full support, all nobles had to obey.

After his reform achieved great success and made the State Chu strong and rich, Wu  Qi immediately led Chu's special troops that he trained, attacked nearby regimes. He kept winning and largely expanded Chu’s territory.  

Within about 6 years, Wu Qi made the Chu from a weak, decreasing state, to the strongest and biggest kingdom in China at that time. 

Painted Lacquer Shield of State Chu During the Warring States Period — Jingzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Assassination and Vengeance of Wu Qi

However, the supportive King Dao of Chu departed, many nobles took this opportunity and attacked Wu Qi.

Wu Qi fought back bravely, but he could not win over so many assassins. Soon, he got shot several times. 

He ran toward the place that King Dao of Chu's body was placed,  pulled out one arrow, and inserted it into the late king’s body, saying those nobles were initiating a rebel and trying to seek vengeance from the dead king.

Therefore, the new king sentenced those nobles to death, which included over 70 clans.

Wu Qi finished his vengeance by himself, right before his death. 

A large number of nobles, and his reform, all buried with Wu Qi.

Bronze Spears Unearthed from Tomb of Zeng Hou Yi — Hubei Museum

Achievements and Flaws of Wu Qi

Wu Qi was widely criticized for his disrespectful behavior to his mother and possibly murdering of his wife in exchange for political ambition, sometimes also include wars and slaughters that he was responsible for, though, in some documentations, those crimes were fabricated by his political enemies that tried everything to defame Wu's reputation.  

He was extremely obsessed with power and had tried everything to realize his political dreams. His flaws, indeed, were quite obvious and critical. 

In many people’s opinions, he was not a good person.

On the other side, he was intelligent and insightful, as a successful reformer and an invincible general, whose accomplishments were quite glorious. 

Wherever he was serving, the kingdom had obtained hegemony. Among about 76 wars that he participated in his entire life, he won 64, tied 12, and had never lost.

Wu Qi's masterpiece "Wuzi" was equally important as the Art of War in Chinese culture. 

In this book, he presented his ideas of harmonizing the benevolence and the training of the army. He believed that cultivation, education, morals, and political administration were all as important as the military power and expansion of the territory. 

Jade Pendent of Warring States Period, With the Shape of Deity Training Dragons — Jingzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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