Duke Huan of Qi Uniting the Nine States-齐桓公九合诸侯

During Duke Huan of Qi’s campaign for hegemony, the Battle of Changshao was a rare setback, leading him to rely more on Guan Zhong and abandon autocratic rule. Guan Zhong suggested that Duke Huan dispatch people to mine iron ore, enabling the mass production of weapons and agricultural tools. This initiative aimed to enrich the country and its people, along with developing agriculture and the fishing and salt industries along the Qi coastline. Simultaneously, policies were implemented to lighten the burden on various social classes, all of which Duke Huan adopted.

With Guan Zhong’s assistance, Qi quickly became prosperous and socially stable. As Qi’s power grew, Duke Huan harbored ambitions to command various vassal states. He asked Guan Zhong, “Now that our country is rich and strong, can we dominate among the vassal states?” Guan Zhong, considering the formidable Chu in the south and Qin and Jin in the west, advised against claiming hegemony over all states, emphasizing that the Zhou dynasty, despite its decline, still held a prominent position in the eyes of vassal states. He suggested rallying the states under the banner of “honoring the king and repelling the barbarians,” urging respect for the Zhou dynasty and joint defense against external threats.

Duke Huan appreciated this strategy and sought advice on where to start. Following Zhou’s recent succession (King Li of Zhou), Guan Zhong proposed sending envoys to congratulate the new king and report turmoil in the Song state, citing the newly enthroned Duke Huan of Song. Since Song’s situation was unstable, Duke Huan could use this to gain the king’s command and summon vassals to establish a dominant position. Duke Huan agreed, and envoys were dispatched to congratulate King Li of Zhou.

At this time, the Zhou royal house was already weak, and vassal states rarely visited the king. King Li of Zhou, delighted by Qi’s envoy, readily granted Duke Huan the authority to summon vassals and acknowledge Duke Huan’s support for Duke Huan of Song as the legitimate ruler. In 681 BC, Duke Huan, acting on the king’s behalf, called vassals to North Xing for a covenant to confirm Duke Huan of Song’s status. However, only four states—Song, Chen, Zhu, and Cai—attended, while others, including Lu, Wei, Zheng, and Cao, remained cautious.

Duke Huan, contemplating cancellation due to insufficient attendance, was persuaded by Guan Zhong, who argued that breaking the covenant would harm Qi’s reputation. With Song, there were already four states present. Duke Huan agreed, and in the covenant, he was elected as the leader, establishing an initial hegemonic position.

In 679 BC, Duke Huan convened another covenant at Juandi, solidifying his hegemonic status further. In 662 BC, internal strife in Lu led to a chaotic situation. Duke Huan intervened, executing Lu’s Queen Jiang and stabilizing the situation. This event elevated Duke Huan’s reputation, strengthening his hegemonic position.

Simultaneously, the distant Dí and Shāngróng ethnic groups posed threats to the stability and development of the Central Plains. In 663 BC, Yan sought Qi’s aid against Shāngróng, leading Duke Huan to dispatch troops to rescue Yan.

Duke Huan’s army reached Yan, but Shāngróng had already fled. Guan Zhong suggested pursuing them to eradicate the threat and stabilize the north. Duke Huan accepted the advice, and they discovered that Shāngróng’s leader had sought refuge in Guzhu. The Qi army surrounded Guzhu, and with a deceptive maneuver from Guzhu’s general Huang Hua, Shāngróng’s leader was captured and presented to Qi.

With victories over Shāngróng, Lìngzhī, and Guzhu, Duke Huan gained recognition and respect among vassals. While helping Yan, Lu had promised military support but did not act. Instead of punishing Lu, Duke Huan followed Guan Zhong’s counsel, sent them some of the war spoils, and garnered their appreciation.

Continuing his efforts, Duke Huan assisted Wèi and Xíng against invading Shāngróng and Xīdí. He also aided Wèi in building palaces and Xíng in re-establishing its state, moving to a new capital. These actions earned him acclaim and support from various vassals.

While consolidating his dominance in the Central Plains, Duke Huan faced challenges from the northern Dí and Shāngróng, as well as southern Chu. Chu, a powerful state in the south, had ambitions to expand northward. In response, Duke Huan, having subdued northern threats, turned his attention to Chu.

In 656 BC, Duke Huan, with the support of Qi, Sòng, Lǔ, Wèi, Zhèng, Xǔ, and Cáo, formed an alliance against Chu and its ally Cài. The coalition marched towards Chu, prompting a military response from King Cheng of Chu. Chu demanded an explanation, pointing out the distance between the two states. Qi accused Chu of not paying homage to the Zhou king, and after heated exchanges, war seemed imminent.

Considering the potential mutual destruction of both sides, Duke Huan chose to end the campaign. A truce was reached at the Meeting of Kuíqiū, where Chu agreed to resume tribute to the Zhou king. Vassal states, recognizing Duke Huan’s hegemonic position, returned home, temporarily halting Chu’s northern expansion.

In 651 BC, Duke Huan, seizing an opportunity during internal turmoil in the Zhou royal house, cooperated with other vassals to ensure the rightful heir, Crown Prince Zheng, succeeded to the throne as King Xiang of Zhou. Expressing gratitude, Zhou sent offerings from the royal temple to Duke Huan.

Capitalizing on this situation, Duke Huan invited vassals to a grand reception for the Zhou envoy at Sòng’s Kuíqiū. In 651 BC, Qi, Lǔ, Sòng, Wèi, Zhèng, Xǔ, and Cáo gathered for the last time at Kuíqiū. The Zhou envoy announced the king’s decree that Duke Huan could receive offerings without bowing.

The Meeting of Kuíqiū marked Duke Huan’s ninth and final gathering of vassals. Through this grand event, Duke Huan finally achieved his goal of uniting vassal states and establishing hegemony in the Central Plains. This process is historically referred to as the “Nine Unifications of Vassal States.