Yan Ying

Yan Ying (Chinese: 晏嬰; pinyin: Yàn Yīng; Wade–Giles: Yen Ying), courtesy name Zhong (Chinese: ), or more widely known as Yan Zi (Chinese: 晏子; pinyin: Yàn Zǐ; Wade–Giles: Yen Tzu) c. 578–500 BC,[1] was born in present-day Gaomi county, Shandong province. He served as prime minister to the state of Qi during the Spring and Autumn period. An accomplished philosopher, statesman and politician, he was an elder contemporary of Confucius, described as "by far the most creative thinker of the Chunqiu age".[2]

Yan Ying
The Chinese characters are 晏平仲 (Yàn Píng Zhòng) in ancient form from right to left.
The Chinese characters are 晏平仲 (Yàn Píng Zhòng) in ancient form from right to left.
Born578 BC
Ancient Yiwei (modern day Gaomi, Shandong)
Died500 BC
Zibo, Shandong
OccupationPrime minister of the state of Qi
PeriodSpring and Autumn
SubjectPhilosopher, statesman, diplomat
Notable worksYanzi chunqiu
Yan Ying
Traditional Chinese晏嬰
Simplified Chinese晏婴
Alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese晏子
Simplified Chinese晏子
Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese

Because of his posthumous title of "Ping" (Chinese: ; pinyin: Píng), he is often known in sources as Ping Zhong (平仲).

The Warring States period philosophical and historical narrative Yanzi chunqiu is named for and traditionally attributed to Yan Zi.


Family and early lifeEdit

Yan Ying was the son of Yan Ruo (晏弱), a Qi minister of state, and succeeded to his father's post in 556 BC on his father's death. He was said to be short of stature and very ugly, but an able debater with a nimble mind. It was because of these skills that he was often dispatched to other states to serve as a diplomat, often defending the interests of Qi against other states.

Over a career spanning four decades, he served as minister and advisor to three dukes of Qi: Ling, Zhuang and Jing.

Death and burialEdit

Yan Ying was buried in Zibo, Shandong province. In his last illness, he had a letter sealed into a hole which was drilled in a pillar, and told his wife to have it read once his son was grown.

The letter, when it was retrieved, read: 'Do not exhaust the cloth and silk, for you will lack for clothes; do not exhaust the livestock, for you will lack for labour. Do not exhaust worthy men, for the government cannot be staffed; do not exhaust the state's resources, for the state cannot provide for its people.'


Death of Duke Zhuang of QiEdit

In the fifth month of 548 BC, Duke Zhuang was killed by Cui Zhu's men for having an adulterous relationship with his second wife Tang Jiang. The duke was shot in the back by an arrow while trying to escape by climbing a wall. Cui Zhu at the time was an extremely powerful minister of the state of Qi and detested Yan Ying. It was Cui who had installed Duke Zhuang onto the throne. As soon as Yan Ying heard of the news, he stormed into the premises of Cui Zhu by himself with no regard of his own safety in search for the Duke. He proceeded to take off his hat and started to beat his chest and stomp his feet while approaching the Duke's body. He wailed and cried and afterwards picked himself up and left the scene with little regard of his surrounding. The men surrounding Cui Zhu wanted to kill Yan Ying on the spot for trespassing but were stopped as Cui Zhu noted that the people look up to him and that killing him will only cause Cui to lose popularity. After killing the Duke, Cui coerced everyone to take an oath to be loyal and obedient to him. Any disobedience resulted in death. Yan Ying never complied but Cui Zhu was unable to kill him because of the voice of the people.

After Duke Zhuang's death, his half-brother Chujiu was installed to the throne to be known as Duke Jing of Qi by Cui Zhu. Duke Jing in return, appointed Cui Zhu as the right prime minister and Qing Feng as the left prime minister of Qi. In 545 BC, Cui Zhu and his wife committed suicide after being betrayed by Qing Feng. Cui tried to give over 60 households situated in Beidian and its vicinity to Yan Ying but he refused.[3]

Visiting the state of ChuEdit

Prior to visiting the state of Chu, its leader King Ling of Chu wanted to humiliate Yan Ying. Knowing that Yan Ying was short, the King instructed a smaller entrance to be made adjacent to the city gates. Upon arrival, Yan Ying was asked to use the smaller side entrance but he refused and said: "only when you are entering a city run by dogs would you use a dog door, I have arrived at the state of Chu so I should not use a dog door."

After entering the city the King met Yan Ying and asked in a conceited demeanour: "Is there no one else left in the state of Qi to send? They actually sent you as the envoy."

Yan Ying replied: "Our capital Linzi is full of people. Sleeves are raised to cover the sun; along with every wipe of sweat a small drizzle; pedestrians walk shoulder to shoulder; toe to heel. How can you state that Qi has no people?"

"If that is the case, then why did they send you?"

"Qi has a very particular way of selecting the places their envoys are sent: those that are bright and competent are sent to dignified and respectable places; those that are incompetent are designated to failed states. I am the most incompetent one which is why I have been sent here to Chu." A long silence ensued while the subjects of the King squinted at Yan Ying.[4]

The King and several of his ministers had also prepared another plan to humiliate Yan Ying. Subjects of the King were to deliberately pass in front of him with a tied up criminal they captured that is from the state of Qi, the same state Yan Ying was representing. The King invited Yan Ying to drink with him and as they were happily discussing matters, two officers brought forth the criminal, and the King asked: "What is the nature of this man being tied up, what did he do?"

One of the officers replied and said: "he is from Qi and has committed theft."

The King looked at Yan Ying and asked: "The people from Qi are inclined to stealing things?"

Yan Ying stood up from his seat and replied: "I have heard that the oranges to the south of the Huai River are large and sweet, however, when cultivated north of the River, they become shrunken and bitter, the same with its leaves, the taste of the fruit having changed in its entirely. All of this merely because the soil and surrounding environment is different. By the same analogy, the people of Qi, when in Qi, live in peace and work hard. In contrast, when in Chu, they have to resort to thievery. Is this to think that the conditions in Chu cause its citizens to steal?"

The King laughed and expressed that: "Sages are not to be joked with, I have made a fool of myself." The idiom nanjubeizhi (Chinese: 南橘北枳; pinyin: nán jú běi zhǐ), which has the literal meaning of ‘south oranges north bitter oranges’, is based on this story.[5]

Toward the end of Yan Ying's visit, the King had felt so ashamed of his actions that he personally accompanied him on his journey back home to Qi.

Subduing the enemy with a wine vesselEdit

Towards the middle of the Warring States period, the state of Jin, who at the time was one of the most powerful ones, was conspiring to attack the state of Qi. To better gauge the situation of the state of Qi, the duke of Jin sent one of his senior officials, Fan Zhao, on a diplomatic mission. The duke of Qi received and entertained Fan Zhao with a banquet. In the midst, Fan Zhao feigning to already be drunk, asked for another cup of wine as his cup was missing. Out of courtesy, the Duke of Qi who was drunk, immediately asked a server to pour wine into his own cup and let the guest drink from it. Zhao proceeded to drink from it and returned the cup to the Duke. The mannerisms at that time were that each drank from his own cup. Fan Zhao's use of the Duke's cup was a great disrespect to the state of Qi and it was a deliberate test to observe the reactions of his subjects. Yan Ying saw through this and immediately asked a servant to replace the Duke's cup.

Upon Fan Zhao's return to his state, he reported this incident to the duke of Jin and suggested that it was not the right time to invade Qi; that an attack would deem futile as the state of Qi has virtuous subjects. As such, the duke of Jin decided to not invade the state of Qi. The Chinese refrain of "subduing the enemy with a wine vessel" (Chinese: 折衝樽俎; pinyin: zhé chōng zūn zǔ) is based on this story and has the meaning of the importance of using diplomatic negotiations to avert war. Confucius praised Yan Ying of his actions and stated that "by upholding one’s own wine vessel (principles), enemies from thousands of miles away can be defeated."[citation needed]

Valuing birds over warriorsEdit

A picture stone 78 x 128 cm in size titled 晏子見齊景公 (literal translation: Yan Zi meeting with Duke Jing of Qi)

Duke Jing was an admirer of birds; from such, he employed Zhu Zou (Chinese: 烛邹; pinyin: zhú zōu) to raise birds for his enjoyment. On one occasion, Zhu lost the Duke's favorite bird. The Duke became annoyed and ordered Zhu to be put to death. Yan Ying heard of this and became worried; according to Qi's laws, the crime that Zhu committed was certainly not punishable by death; however, he knew that the duke was arrogant and stubborn. To preserve the integrity of the laws of the kingdom, Yan Ying decided to intervene. He went to the Duke's court and suggested that Zhu Zou committed three crimes and that he would like to recite them to Zhu face-to-face so that he understood in what ways he broke the law and for what reasons he was going to die. The duke approved. Two warriors brought Zhu to the palace before the Duke. Yan Ying knelt down to publicly denounced Zhu and said: "you were asked to take care of your majesty’s birds, but yet you let one escape, this is your first crime; because of one bird, you angered your majesty, this is your second crime; once the other six kingdoms hear about this they will think of our majesty as being outrageously unreasonable for valuing birds over warriors, this is your third crime." Yan Ying turned to the Duke and said: "your majesty, he may be killed now."

Duke Jing appearing as if he had just awoken from a dream and said: "no need to kill him anymore, I have understood the words of wisdom." The Duke proceeded to approach Zhu Zou and personally untied him.

Killing three warriors with two peachesEdit

The affair of Yan Ying 'Killing three warriors with two peaches' (Chinese: 二桃殺三士; pinyin: èr taó shā sān shì) comes from the Yanzi chunqiu. Duke Jing of Qi had three generals, Gongsun Jie, Tian Kaijiang and Gu Yezi, in his employ; while the three were all capable and accomplished warriors, their arrogance towards other ministers convinced Yan Ying that they would have to be removed.

He therefore devised a ruse where two peaches were presented, purportedly as a reward, to the three generals; the two with the greatest accomplishments would get a peach each. Gongsun Jie and Tian Kaijiang promptly reported their accomplishments and each took a peach, but Gu Yezi angrily rebuked them, and then listed his own accomplishments. The first two agreed that Gu's accomplishments were the most notable and, out of shame at having taken gifts they did not deserve, returned the peaches and killed themselves. Gu Yezi, shamed at having killed two colleagues by his boasting, then killed himself too, removing three major threats to the stability of the Qi court.

The story has in turn become a Chinese saying, denoting the use of ruses and stratagems to remove opponents.

Works and legacyEdit

During the Warring States period (roughly 475–221 BC), a book was published called Yanzi chunqiu (Chinese: 晏子春秋; pinyin: yàn zi chūn qiū), with stories of his advices to three Dukes of Qi, his life and times.[6] A chapter of Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian is devoted to him and Guan Zhong.

Confucius was mentioned in the Annals as an admirer of Yanzi; when asked to comment on Yanzi, he said: 'To rescue the ordinary people and not boast, to advise three rulers and not be arrogant – Yanzi is truly a gentleman.'

Sima Qian was also an admirer, showing his esteem in grouping Yan Ying with Guan Zhong, another highly influential minister of the State of Qi. His evaluation of Yan Ying's statesmanship was: 'never shaming his missions, he excelled in debate throughout the world'.


  1. ^ Yuri Pines, Foundations of Confucian Thought, 2002:330
  2. ^ Yuri Pines, Foundations of Confucian Thought, 2002:160
  3. ^ Chunqiu Zuo Zhuan, Chapter Duke Xiang of Lu, 28th year, 11th month
  4. ^ Translated from Yanzi chunqiu, Chapter 9. 《晏子春秋》九卷 晏子使楚,以晏子短,楚人為小門於大門之側而延晏子。晏子不入,曰:"使狗國者,從狗門入;今臣使楚,不當從此門入。"儐者更道從大門入,見楚王。王曰:"齊無人耶?"晏子對曰:"臨淄三百閭,張袂成陰,揮汗成雨,比肩繼踵而在,何為無人?"王曰:"然则子何为使乎?"晏子對曰:"齐命使,各有所主,其贤者使使贤王,不肖者使使不肖王。嬰最不肖,故直使楚矣。"
  5. ^ Translated from Yanzi chunqiu, Chapter 9 《晏子春秋》九卷 晏子將至楚,楚聞之,謂左右曰:"晏嬰,齊之習辭者也,今方來,吾欲辱之,何以也?"左右對曰:"為其來也,臣請縛一人,過王而行,王曰:‘何為者也?’對曰:‘齊人也。’王曰:‘何坐?’曰:‘坐盜。’"晏子至,楚王賜晏子酒,酒酣,吏二縛一人詣王,王曰:"縛者曷為者也?"對曰:"齊人也,坐盜。"王視晏子曰:"齊人固善盜乎?"晏子避席對曰:"嬰聞之,橘生淮南則為橘,生於淮北則為枳,葉徒相似,其實味不同。所以然者何?水土異也。今民生長於齊不盜,入楚則盜,得無楚之水土使民善盜耶?"王笑曰:"聖人非所與熙也,寡人反取病焉。"
  6. ^ Theobald, Ulrich, Chinaknowledge.de, retrieved 7 May 2011