Heroic Talent in Turbulent Times: Zhao Dun-乱世雄才赵盾

The Zhao clan originated from the mid-Western Zhou period, with ancestors named Zao Fu. Historical records state that Zao Fu assisted King Mu of Zhou in resisting the Western Rong, pacifying the turmoil in the state of Xu. In gratitude, King Mu granted him the city of Zhao, leading the Zao Fu clan to adopt the surname Zhao. Zao Fu’s descendants served as ministers in the Zhou royal court, passing down to Uncle Dai during the reign of King You.

During the later years of King Mu, Zhao Su bravely defended against the Western Rong, significantly expanding the territory and earning the title of Lord of Geng. This marked the resurgence of the Zhao clan. However, the true rise of the Zhao clan began with Zhao Shuai, the grandson of Zhao Su.

In the later years of King Xian of Jin, chaos ensued due to the misrule of Queen Li Ji. Crown Prince Shen Sheng committed suicide, and the princes Chong Er and Yi Wu went into exile. Zhao Shuai, then young Zhao Shuai, followed Prince Chong Er and spent twelve years in the state of Zhai, seeking refuge. During a conflict with the Rong tribe, Prince Chong Er captured the two sisters, Ji Kui and Shu Kui, and gave Shu Kui to his strategist Zhao Shuai as a wife. Shu Kui bore a son, who would become a prominent statesman and influential figure in Jin’s destiny—Zhao Dun.

After twelve years in Zhai, Prince Chong Er returned to Jin with Zhao Dun, but due to the persecution by Duke Hui of Jin, Prince Chong Er and Zhao Shuai had to leave their families in Zhai and continue their exile. Young Zhao Dun was separated from his father during this time.

Later, with the assistance of Duke Mu of Qin, Prince Chong Er finally returned to Jin, killed Duke Huai of Jin, and ascended to the throne as Duke Wen of Jin. After restoring the country, Duke Wen appointed Zhao Shuai as a high-ranking official and gave his daughter Meng Ji in marriage to him. They had three sons—Zhao Tong, Zhao Kuo, and Zhao Yingqi. Since Meng Ji belonged to the Ji family but married into the Zhao family, she became known as Zhao Ji. Due to her virtuous character, Zhao Ji, upon learning of Zhao Shuai’s surviving relatives in Zhai, brought back Zhao Dun and his mother to Jin, sacrificing her own status and accepting a position as a concubine to elevate Shu Kui as the principal wife. Later, due to Zhao Ji’s recognition of Zhao Dun’s talent and his status as the elder legitimate son, she advocated for him to inherit the Zhao clan.

Zhao Shuai served as Duke Wen and Duke Xiang of Jin, earning trust and high regard. After Zhao Shuai’s death, the young Zhao Dun inherited the position of chief minister. Subsequently, he also took on the role of Grand Marshal, consolidating both military and political power, becoming the chief minister under Duke Xiang of Jin, subordinate only to the sovereign.

During his tenure, Zhao Dun implemented a series of laws and regulations, restored the social hierarchy, reinstated abolished official positions, clarified criminal laws, resolved legal disputes, pursued fugitive criminals, established contracts, rectified political issues, and appointed talented officials overlooked by previous administrations. Duke Xiang approved of Zhao Dun’s governance plan, and for over 20 years of Zhao Dun’s rule, this plan underwent continuous revisions.

Soon after Zhao Dun assumed the position of chief minister, Duke Xiang of Jin passed away. Crown Prince Yi Gao ascended the throne as Duke Ling of Jin. Duke Ling, being young and inexperienced, relied on Zhao Dun as the chief minister to stabilize the chaotic situation in Jin that persisted since Duke Wen’s death, marking the beginning of Zhao Dun’s two decades of dominance in Jin.

In 621 BCE, at Hudi in the state of Zheng, Zhao Dun, representing Duke Ling of Jin, participated in an alliance conference with the states of Qi, Song, Lu, Wei, Chen, Zheng, Cao, and Xu. During this alliance, Zhao Dun introduced the new ruler of Jin, wielding authority usually reserved for hegemons. This marked Zhao Dun’s first appearance as a minister among the feudal lords, paving the way for vassals to sit in a position of power while the rulers took a subordinate role. From then on, the relationship between ministers and rulers shifted, becoming a trend during the Spring and Autumn period.

During the Hudi alliance, Lu Wengong of Lu arrived late. In the following year, Zhao Dun ordered an attack on Lu in retaliation for Lu Wengong’s disrespect. Zhao Dun’s firm leadership prompted Lu Wengong to send emissaries with rich gifts, seeking forgiveness. In a meeting at Hengyong, Lu Wengong formed an alliance with Zhao Dun, pledging continued allegiance to Jin. Zhao Dun then withdrew his troops.

At this point, Jin stood as the hegemon, creating dissatisfaction in Chu, which had long desired to expand into the Central Plains. King Mu of Chu, newly enthroned and ambitious for hegemony, sought alliances to launch a northern expedition against the Jin army in revenge for the Battle of Chengpu. However, Chu faced difficulties since Jin, during Duke Xiang’s rule, was prosperous while Chu struggled. After Duke Xiang’s death, Jin faced internal turmoil until Zhao Dun took charge and stabilized the situation. Chu took advantage of this moment to attack the Jin-affiliated state of Zheng, which sought Jin’s aid. Despite Zhao Dun’s busy handling of internal strife, he dispatched troops to rescue Zheng. In the face of Jin’s intervention, Chu retreated, making King Mu realize Zhao Dun’s vulnerability. In the summer of that year, Chu further challenged Jin by attacking Chen, a state allied with Jin. Chen, relying on Jin’s support, found itself helpless as Chu prevailed.

Subsequently, King Mu of Chu sought alliances with Lu and Qin, convincing them to join forces against Jin. The next year, King Mu and the rulers of Zheng, Chen, and Wei officially formed an alliance, agreeing to jointly resist Jin. From this point on, Jin’s hegemony in the south crumbled, and Zhao Dun found himself in a predicament. Soon after, Chu launched another campaign, capturing the city of Sui from Song, causing Song to submit to Chu. However, Chu, preoccupied with continuous military expeditions, faced internal unrest, providing Zhao Dun with an opportunity to catch his breath. After several years of effort, Zhao Dun finally stabilized Jin’s situation and decided to reaffirm the slogan “Respect the King and Repel the Barbarians,” rallying the vassals to resist Chu and reassert Jin’s hegemony.

During this period, King Mu of Chu died, and the young King Zhuang ascended the throne. Faced with the expansion of the influential aristocracy, King Zhuang neglected governance for three years, feigning indulgence in wine and women, biding his time. The moment for Jin’s counterattack had come, as Chu faced internal turmoil. Zhao Dun, through diplomatic efforts, managed to bring together the vassals to resist King Zhuang’s northern expedition, while Chu received support only from the state of Chen. Through Zhao Dun’s efforts, Jin regained the initiative in the power struggle with Chu.

Zhao Dun, the most formidable opponent encountered by King Zhuang of Chu throughout his life, rallied the Central States to resist King Zhuang’s northward advances. Chu only managed to gain the support of Chen, while Zhao Dun’s influence spread. With the call to arms against Chu, the vassals united against King Zhuang’s ambitions, and Chu found itself isolated. Through Zhao Dun’s efforts, Jin once again held the initiative in the power struggle with Chu.

Zhao Dun, the first prominent minister in Jin after Duke Wen, consolidated military and political power, perpetuating Jin’s hegemonic status and effectively restraining the growing strength of King Zhuang of Chu. Serving three rulers, Zhao Dun dominated the political landscape, weakening royal authority, and establishing the Zhao clan as the dominant force in Jin. Zhao Dun successfully harnessed the nation’s strength to contend with Chu, earning him the title of a capable minister in peacetime and a heroic figure in turbulent times.