The Partition of Jin into Three Families-三家分晋


After Duke Wen and Duke Xiang of Jin, the royal power of the Jin state declined, and the state affairs were controlled by some ministers and nobles. By the late Spring and Autumn Period, the political power of Jin was controlled by six powerful families, namely Zhao, Wei, Han, Fan, Zhi, and Zhonghang, known as the “Six Ministers”. Later, the Fan and Zhonghang families were annihilated, leaving only the lords of Zhi, Zhao, Han, and Wei to control the government, with the Zhi family being the strongest among them.

Duke Chu of Jin was unwilling to be a puppet ruler and secretly sought military assistance from the states of Qi and Lu, attempting to eliminate the four lords. Unexpectedly, Qi and Lu not only refused to provide assistance but also informed Lord Zhi Yao of this plan. Consequently, Lord Zhi Yao, along with the other three lords, united their forces to attack Duke Chu. Duke Chu was forced to flee and eventually died of illness on the way. Following Duke Chu’s death, on the advice of Lord Zhi Yao, Princess Jiao of the royal family was enthroned as the ruler, known historically as Duke Ai of Jin.

Having a personal relationship with Duke Ai’s father, Lord Zhi Yao used this connection to influence and manipulate Duke Ai, thus controlling the overall situation of Jin. Lord Zhi Yao gradually consolidated his power, becoming increasingly arrogant and ambitious, unwilling to share power with the other three families and aiming to dominate Jin alone. His advisors suggested that he use Duke Ai’s name to demand territory from the other three families, claiming it was for competing with the increasingly powerful state of Yue for hegemony. This way, if they agreed to cede territory, he could gradually consume their power. If they refused, he could justify attacking them. Lord Zhi Yao found this plan appealing and promptly put it into action.

The Han, Zhao, and Wei families received notices of territorial requisition from Lord Zhi Yao, realizing his malicious intentions. While Han Lord Kang initially intended to refuse outright, his minister Duan Gui suggested a more strategic approach, anticipating that Lord Zhi Yao would resort to military action if his demands were not met. Moreover, considering Lord Zhi Yao’s insatiable greed, it was likely that he would extend his demands beyond Han. Duan Gui proposed accepting some losses initially and seizing opportunities later. Lord Kang found this approach feasible and decided to yield some territory, awaiting an opportunity to strike back, thus sending envoys to offer ten thousand households to Lord Zhi.

Seeing Han Lord Kang’s seemingly easy surrender of territory, Lord Zhi Yao eagerly awaited the same from Lord Wei. However, Lord Wei Huanzi was reluctant to part with territory. His advisor Ren Zhang analyzed that if Lord Zhi Yao easily obtained territory, he would become even more arrogant and reckless, likely underestimating his enemies and eventually losing support. Therefore, Ren Zhang suggested that Lord Wei Huanzi refrain from cherishing territory for the time being, waiting for the situation to change in their favor. Consequently, Lord Wei Huanzi also offered ten thousand households to Lord Zhi Yao.

Lord Zhi Yao effortlessly obtained two ten-thousand-household territories, feeling triumphant as he demanded the Cai and Gaolang lands from Lord Zhao Xiangzi. Lord Zhao Xiangzi had long held a grudge against Lord Zhi Yao. When Lord Zhi Yao led troops to attack Zheng, Lord Zhao Xiangzi was still the heir to the Zhao family. Upon entering the capital, he was insulted by Lord Zhi Yao, leading to enduring resentment. Furthermore, Lord Zhi Yao had previously interfered in the Zhao family’s internal affairs, attempting to undermine Lord Zhao Xiangzi’s heir status. Lord Zhao Xiangzi’s refusal was immediate. Lord Zhi Yao then united with the Han and Wei families, intending to jointly eliminate the Zhao family with their combined military might.

Realizing the unfavorable situation, Lord Zhao Xiangzi convened a meeting to discuss a defensive retreat to avoid direct confrontation. Eventually, they decided to retreat to Jinyang. The Zhao family had invested heavily in fortifying Jinyang over the years. When the city of Handan rebelled with the support of the Fan and Zhonghang families, Lord Jianzi had previously retreated to Jinyang. He specifically instructed his successor, Lord Zhao Xiangzi, to retreat to Jinyang in times of crisis. After succeeding to the throne, Lord Zhao Xiangzi reduced taxes in the Jinyang region, benefiting the local populace and earning their support. For the Zhao family, Jinyang was the most reliable stronghold.

Upon retreating to Jinyang, Lord Zhao Xiangzi found the city to be well-fortified and well-stocked, but the army had insufficient weapons for defense due to the hasty retreat. Strategist Zhang Mengtan suggested utilizing the materials used in constructing the palace, such as bronze pillars, to manufacture arrows and spears, thus ensuring an adequate supply of weapons. Now, they were prepared to face the combined forces of the three lords.

In 454 BCE, Lord Zhi Yao led the forces of Han and Wei to attack Jinyang, but despite three months of intense fighting, they failed to capture the city. Subsequently, they besieged the city for over a year but still couldn’t conquer it. Seeing the prolonged stalemate, Lord Zhi Yao grew increasingly anxious. One day, while inspecting the terrain outside the city, he conceived a plan upon noticing the Jin River flowing northeast of Jinyang. Suddenly, he had an idea: What if they diverted the Jin River’s course to the southwest to flood Jinyang? With this plan in mind, he immediately ordered his soldiers to dig a canal alongside the Jin River leading to Jinyang and constructed dams upstream to block the water.

Soon, the rainy season arrived, and with additional dams upstream, the Jin River accumulated water, causing the water level to rise rapidly. Sensing the opportune moment, Lord Zhi Yao ordered the dams to be opened, unleashing a torrent of water toward Jinyang. The city quickly turned into a vast expanse of water. The houses of the common people were washed away, and frogs were seen jumping in and out of cooking stoves where people tried to prepare food. Eventually, food supplies within the city were exhausted, and people resorted to desperate measures. Despite the hardships, the people continued to support Lord Zhao Xiangzi and refused to surrender.

Thinking that the capture of Jinyang was imminent, Lord Zhi Yao was delighted and boasted, “Now I understand that water can also destroy a country.” This statement alarmed Lord Wei and Lord Han, who immediately realized the vulnerability of their own cities: Anyi was the stronghold of the Wei family, surrounded by the Fen River, while Pingyang was the fief of the Han family, encircled by the Ji River. If Lord Zhi Yao could flood Jinyang, he could also flood Anyi and Pingyang. The two lords exchanged subtle signals of agreement, silently acknowledging their intent to turn against Lord Zhi Yao.

Lord Zhi Yao, oblivious to the concerns of Lord Wei and Lord Han, was still blissfully unaware as he anticipated the imminent fall of Jinyang. The following night, Lord Zhao Xiangzi secretly dispatched soldiers to quietly kill the guards stationed at the dam and breach the western side of the dam, causing the Jin River