The Hypocritical Benevolence and Righteousness of Duke Xiang of Song-假仁假义的宋襄公

In 643 BCE, after more than thirty years of dominance in the Central Plains, Duke Huan of Qi passed away. His sons, in their struggle for the throne, attacked each other, plunging Qi into chaos. Yi Ya, Shu Diao, and Kai Fang, three individuals, deposed the crown prince appointed by Duke Huan and installed another prince as the new ruler. The ousted crown prince fled to the state of Song.

During Duke Huan’s reign, Duke Xiang of Song actively supported Qi’s hegemony, maintaining a strong relationship with Qi. Concerned about the potential power struggle among his sons after his death, Duke Huan entrusted the displaced crown prince to Duke Xiang of Song. Duke Xiang, known for his professed benevolence and righteousness, honored his commitment and sheltered the exiled crown prince.

Duke Xiang of Song, the second son of Duke Huan of Song, initially governed with the assistance of capable ministers such as Zi Yu and Gong Sun Gu, leading to a period of prosperity in Song. Encouraged by the growth of Song’s influence, Duke Xiang saw an opportunity to expand further by supporting the exiled crown prince in reclaiming Qi’s throne and continuing Qi’s hegemonic legacy.

Notifying various states to escort the exiled crown prince back to Qi, Duke Xiang received minimal support, mainly from smaller states like Wei, Cao, and Zhu. Undeterred, Duke Xiang led this coalition against Qi, where local nobles, already sympathetic to the exiled crown prince, joined forces. Together, they ousted the newly appointed ruler, defeated rivals, and welcomed the exiled crown prince, who became Duke Xiao of Qi.

Believing that stabilizing Qi would earn him respect among the states, Duke Xiang aimed to solidify his position as a hegemon. However, tensions arose with the state of Teng (modern Tengzhou) as Duke Xiang detained Teng Xuan, the ruler of Teng. Subsequently, Duke Xiang convened a meeting with the states of Cao, Zhu, and Zeng in the southern part of Cao, using force to detain the ruler of Zeng as a sacrificial offering. In the autumn, discontented with Cao for not sending tribute, Duke Xiang besieged Cao.

Duke Xiang’s tyrannical actions led to dissatisfaction among the feudal lords, prompting Chen Mu, the ruler of Chen, to propose restoring the goodwill established during Duke Huan’s reign. Chen Mu, along with the states of Lu, Cai, Chu, and Zheng, formed an alliance against Duke Xiang’s expansionist ambitions. This resulted in two major factions: Chu, Qi, Zheng, Chen, Cai, and the ambitious Song, allied with smaller states like Wei, Zhu, Cao, and Hua.

Facing the challenge of consolidating support, Duke Xiang sought the backing of Chu and Qi, hoping to subdue other feudal lords. Sending envoys to Chu and Qi, Duke Xiang proposed a meeting to discuss their hegemonic plans. Although Chu’s King Cheng inwardly mocked Duke Xiang’s ambitions, his advisor Cheng Dechen suggested taking advantage of the situation to advance into the Central Plains and vie for the position of hegemon. King Cheng agreed to attend the meeting.

In 639 BCE, Duke Xiang arranged a gathering with King Cheng of Chu and Duke Xiao of Qi in the Ludi region of Qi to discuss the alliance among the feudal lords. Believing that securing acknowledgment from Chu and Qi would establish him as a hegemon, Duke Xiang, assuming a superior position, unilaterally drafted a proclamation emphasizing the alliance, support for the Zhou dynasty, and a scheduled meeting in the Yudi region (modern Sui County, Henan) during autumn. While King Cheng and Duke Xiao harbored dissatisfaction with Duke Xiang’s approach, they reluctantly agreed to the terms.

When the appointed time arrived in autumn, only Duke Xiao and the rulers of Lu were present, with Chu and Zheng forces conspicuously absent. Duke Xiang, angered by this betrayal, planned to march on Chu and Qi, intending to coerce the feudal lords. Duke Xiang dispatched messengers to Chu and Qi, inviting them to discuss the alliance. King Cheng of Chu agreed to attend the meeting as planned.

In the year 638 BCE, despite opposition from his brother Duke Xiang, General Gong Sun Gu, and others, an infuriated Duke Xiang, along with small states like Wei, Xu, and Teng, launched a military campaign against Zheng. Seeking assistance, Duke Wen of Zheng sought aid from Chu, which dispatched troops, albeit not directly against Duke Xiang’s army but toward vulnerable areas within Song.

Unable to manage both fronts, Duke Xiang hurriedly returned to confront the invading Chu forces. Facing a significant military disadvantage against Chu, Duke Xiang remained determined to uphold his principles of benevolence and righteousness. However, his actions drew criticism from his advisers, particularly Gong Sun Gu, who argued for a strategic attack during Chu’s river crossing and later during the chaotic assembly on the riverbank. Duke Xiang rejected this approach, citing its lack of righteousness.

Chu’s army successfully crossed the river, and as they disarrayed along the bank, Duke Xiang finally ordered an attack. The Song forces fell into disarray, and Duke Xiang found himself in the enemy lines, sustaining an arrow wound to his thigh. Protected by his loyal soldiers, Duke Xiang managed to escape, returning to Song. The banner bearing the words “Benevolence and Righteousness” was trampled and torn on the battlefield.

Following the defeat at the Battle of Hong Water, the people bitterly criticized Duke Xiang for his ineptitude. Despite this, Duke Xiang maintained that he had adhered to benevolence and righteousness during the war. Subsequently, his arrow wound reopened, leading to his eventual death.

Duke Xiang of Song’s inability to adapt to the circumstances, obstinately adhering to ancient principles of warfare, resulted in a humiliating defeat and severe losses. He could not fulfill his ambition to become a true hegemon, and his aspirations became a mockery in history.