An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

The Regional State of Wei 魏

Nov 1, 2018 © Ulrich Theobald
Distinguish Wei 魏 from Wei 衛!
Don't confound this regional state of the Zhou period with the Wei dynasty 曹魏 (220-265) of the Three Empires period 三國 (220-280) or the Northern Wei empire 北魏 (386-534), one of the Northern Dynasties 北朝 (386-581).

Wei 魏 was a regional state of the Zhou period 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE). It emerged as a separate state when lateral branches of the house of Jin 晉 extinguished the main branch and divided its territory into three, namely Wei, Han 韓 and Zhao 趙. Wei played an important role during the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) as one of the large regional states fighting against the state of Qin 秦. The territory of Wei covered part of modern Shanxi province (called Hedong 河東, Hequ 河曲) and the southeastern parts of Shaanxi (called Hexi 河西). The first capital was Huo 霍 (modern Huoxian 霍縣, Shanxi), later Anyi 安邑 (modern Xiaxian 夏縣, Shanxi). Wei later expanded to the east and covered the western parts of the modern province of Shandong and the northern and western central of Henan (called Henei 河内).

Map 1. The regional state of Wei 魏 (403 - 230 BCE)
Map according to Tan Qixiang 谭其骧 (1987), Zhongguo lishi ditu ji 中国历史地图集. Wei was located in the centre of Zhou-period China and was thus exposed to pressure from all sides. In addition to that, its territory was dispersed over a large area difficult to control. It nevertheless survived for relatively long before it was conquered by the expanding kingdom of Qin. Click to enlarge.

The ruling house of Wei was founded by Ji Gao 姬高, Duke of Bi 畢 (Gao, Duke of Bi 畢公高), a son of King Wen 周文王, the founder of the Zhou dynasty. When King Wen's son, King Wu 周武王, destroyed the Shang dynasty 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) , Ji Gao was made regional ruler of Bi (close to modern Chang'an 長安, Shaanxi) and was granted to use Bi as his family name. His descendants lost their noble status.

One descendant was called Bi Wan 畢萬. He served Duke Xian of Jin 晉獻公 (r. 677-651) and participated with Zhao Su 趙夙, ancestor of the house of Zhao, in the campaign against the lords of the statelets of Huo 霍, Geng 耿 and Wei 魏. For his merits Wan Bi was given the territory of Wei and was allowed to bear the title of grand master (dafu 大夫). A diviner prognosticated to him a brilliant future. After the death of Duke Xian, Bi Wan adopted the family name Wei. His son, who is known as Viscount Wu of Wei 魏武子, served Prince Chong'er 重耳 (the eventual Duke Wen of Jin 晉文公, r. 637-628) of Jin and accompanied the latter during his long years in exile.

His grandson Wei Jiang 魏絳 (posthumous title Viscount Zhao of Wei 魏昭子) was appointed chief minister of Duke Dao of Jin 晉悼公 (r. 573-558) and was able to pacify the Rong 戎 and Di 翟 tribes. Wei Jiang moved his seat to Anyi 安邑. Viscount Wei's grandson Wei Ying 魏嬴 (posthumous title Viscount Xian 魏獻子) was one of the six ministers-commander (liuqing 六卿) appointed by Duke Zhao of Jin 晉昭公 (r. 532-526). He was chief minister of Duke Qing of Jin 晉頃公 (r. 526-512) and participated in the annihilation of the noble houses of Qi 祁 and Yangshe 羊舌.

Viscount Wei was succeeded by his son Wei Chi 魏侈, who is known as Viscount Xiang 魏襄子. He allied with Zhao Yang 趙鞅 (Zhao Jianzi 趙簡子) and attacked the houses of Fan 范 and Zhonghang 中行 who also belonged to the six ministers-commander. His son and successor Viscount Huan 魏桓子 (Wei Ju 魏駒) sided with Viscount Kang of Han 韓康子 and Viscount Xiang of Zhao 趙襄子 to kill Zhi Yao 智瑤, the Earl of Zhi 知伯. From 453 on, there were only three ministers commander left that became ever stronger and threatened the ducal house of Jin.

Under the rule of Marquis Wen of Wei 魏文侯 (r. 424-387, marquis since 403), war erupted with the state of Qin in the west and Zheng 鄭 in the east. Wei therefore began erecting fortification walls along critical parts of its border. Marquis Wen was open to education and was instructed by disciples of Confucius 孔子 like Zixia 子夏, Tian Zifang 田子方 and Duangan Mu 段干木, yet he was also advised by the legalist thinker Li Kui 李悝 and by Di Huang 翟璜 and his own younger brother Wei Cheng 魏成, who is known posthumously as Wei Chengzi 魏成子. General Yue Yang 樂羊 commanded the successful campaign against the semi-barbarian state of Zhongshan 中山. The famous military strategist Wu Qi 吳起, author of the book Wuzi 吳子, was governor (taishou 太守) of the commandery of Hexi, Ximen Bao 西門豹 magistrate of Ye 鄴, and Qu Hou Fu 屈侯鮒, was mentor (fu 傅) of Wei.

Most important are probably the reforms by Li Kui, who introduced household registers and a new tax system to increase government revenues. His lost book Fajing 法經 "The Book of Standards (Laws)" was the oldest legalist treatise. Between 413 and 409, Wei conquered several towns owned by the state of Qin and repelled this western state to the western banks of the River Luo 洛水. It 408, Wei waged a campaign against Zhongshan. From 405 to 401, an alliance (meng 盟) of Zhao, Wei and Han was able to occupy the outskirts of the state of Qi. The three states also defeated Chu 楚 two times, namely in 400, and 391. Wei became one of the strongest states of these decades. Yet Qin would be able to regain its former strength and then gradually encroached on the territory of Hexi.

Marquis Wen was succeeded by his son Prince Ji 擊, who is known as Marquis Wu 魏武侯 (r. 387-371). At the beginning of his reign, the throne succession crisis in Zhao caused Marquis Wu to side with Prince Shuo 朔, who instigated Wei to attack the capital of Zhao, Handan 邯鄲, yet the troops of Wei were defeated. War with Qi continued. In 376, the states of Zhao, Han and Wei divided the territory of their former lord, the dynasty of Jin, among themselves. Marquis Wu was at that time so powerful that he even dared attacking the state of Chu in the south, and conquered the town of Luyang 魯陽. Marquis Wu was succeeded by his son Prince Ying 罃, who is known as King Hui of Wei 魏惠王 (r. 371-335, the title of king was adopted in 344).

Yet Prince Ying had to defend the right of succession against Prince Gongzhong Huan 公中緩 (also called Gongzi Huan 公子緩). Prince Gongsun Xin 公孫頎 tried to solve the question by involving Marquis Yi of Han 韓懿侯 (r. 371-359) into the conflict who joined with Marquis Cheng of Zhao 趙成侯 (r. 375-350) to destroy the state of Wei. In the battle of Zhuoze 濁澤, the troops of Wei were defeated. The survival of the state of Wei was only possible because of a quarrel between Zhao and Han which deliberated whether to divide up Wei as a whole or to claim just some territory from it. A year later, the marquis of Wei was even able to beat the troops of Han at Maling 馬陵 and those of Zhao at Huai 懷. In 362, Wei was defeated by Qin in the battle of Shaoliang 少梁, and the general of Wei, Prince Gongsun Cuo 公孫痤, was captured.

In 354, the troops of Wei besieged Handan, capital of Zhao. Zhao therefore sent for help to the state of Qi, whose troops defeated Wei at Guiling 桂陵. A further attack by various regional rulers (zhuhou 諸侯) caused the marquis of Wei to build a fortification wall. The game was repeated in 341, and Qi this time used the famous general Sunzi 孫子 (i.e. Sun Bin 孫臏) to defend the ally Zhao. Wei entrusted the army to general Pang Juan 龐涓 and Prince Shen 申, yet their troops were defeated at Maling; the Prince was captured and Pang Juan died. This defeat offered the chance for Qin, Zhao and Qi to jointly attack Wei. The armies were commanded by Shang Yang 商鞅, the legalist reformer of Qin. Prince Gongzi Ang 公子卬 of Wei was defeated. The marquis of Wei thereupon decided to move the capital to Daliang 大梁 that was not as closely located to the border of Qin as the original capital Anyi.

The move to Daliang was the reason why King Hui of Wei is also known as King Hui of Liang. In his new position as a king, King Hui assembled the regional rulers at Fengze 逢澤 and ordered them to pay homage to the old and venerated house of the kings of Zhou. He can therefore be seen as the last hegemonial lord of the Zhou period. Prince Gongzi He 公子赫 was made Heir Apparent of Wei, to make good for the loss of Prince Shen. When Duke Xiao of Qin 秦孝公 (r. 362-338) died, Shang Yang tried to escape to Wei, but the borders were closed, so that Shang Yang was eventually arrested and was executed by the new ruler of Qin.

King Hui of Liang is known as a patron of scholars and philosophers. He hosted the Yin-Yang 陰陽 thinker Zou Yan 鄒衍, the coalition advisor Chunyu Kun 淳于髡, and, most important, the Confucian philosopher Meng Ke 孟軻 (Mengzi 孟子). The most famous discussion between Mengzi and King Hui was about "profit" (li 利) that the King interpreted militarily and financially, while Mengzi argued that the "profit" to be aspired for by a ruler was nothing else than a people made happy by royal humankindness (ren 仁) and righteousness (yi 義)

King Hui was succeeded by Prince Si 嗣, who is known as King Xiang 魏襄王 (r. 335-319). It might be that King Xiang was the first ruler of Wei who adopted the title of king, while King Hui is only called so posthumously. The downward trend of the power of Wei had begun in the second battle at Maling in which Qi defeated the troops of Wei. After the battle at Diaoyin 雕陰 (also written 彫陰) with Qin, Wei had to give up the territory of Hexi, which opened to Qin the corridor to the Yellow River plain. In the next years the territories of Jiao 焦 and Quwo 曲沃 several times changed the owner, often depending on coalitions. In 329, Wei attacked Chu and defeated its troops at Xingshan 陘山. Six years later, Chu triumphed after the battle of Xiangling 襄陵. The famous coalition advisor Zhang Yi 張儀, formerly counsellor of Qin, was for a short time counsellor of Wei. He returned to Qin when King Xiang died and was succeeded by King Ai 魏哀王 (r. 319-296).

A joint attack of the five states of Wei, Zhao, Han, Yan and Chu against Qin which had been initiated by counsellor Gongsun Yan 公孫衍 failed, and in return Qin sent out Prince Chulizi 樗里子 (Chuli Ji 樗里疾), who conquered Quwo. In 311, when the armies of Wei 魏 threatened to destroy the state of Wei 衛, grand master Ru'er 如耳 and the Lord of Changling 成陵君 pursued King Ai not to conquer this ancient state. Wei often changed sides and sometimes fought at the side of Qin against Chu, and sometimes on the side of Qi and Han against Qin.

King Ai was succeeded by King Zhao 魏昭王 (r. 296-277). Under his reign Qin grew stronger and stonger. It occupied a large tract of land of Wei east of the great Yellow River bend. A force of the allies Qi, Han and Wei was able to enter the Hangu Pass 函谷關 and repelled Qin to the west, yet in 293, Qin defeated Wei and Han at Yique 伊闕. Three years later, Wei had to cede to Qin a large part of the region of Hedong. The coalition advisors Su Qin 蘇秦 and Li Dui 李兌 created a joint army of troops from Zhao, Qi, Chu, Wei and Han which planned to attack Qin, yet the army dissolved at Chenggao 成皋, and Wei soon lost the town of Anyi again. In 286, Wei participated in the coalition against the state of Qi in the east that was almost wholly occupied by inimical forces. Two times, in 283 and in 275, the troops of Qin advanced into the vicinity of Daliang, and the only chance to have them withdrawn was to offer the town of Wen 溫 to Qin.

King Zhao's successor was his son King Anxi 魏安釐王 (r. 277-243). Facing the loss of more and more towns to Qin, King Anxi requested the help of the coalition advisor Su Dai 蘇代, a brother of Su Qin. Su Dai suggested that it was not the correct method to pacify Qin by granting land. In 273, Qin defeated Zhao and Han in the battle of Huayang 華陽 and executed 150,000 prisoners of war. The siege of Daliang could only be avoided by offering the town of Nanyang 南陽.

When Qi and Chu attacked Wei, the king of Qin refused to send help. Tang Ju 唐雎 therefore offered traveling to Qin to pursue the ruler of Qin to support Wei because the territory of Wei was an important shield for Qin against the states of Qi and Chu. King Anxi later decided to ask the king of Qin for support in a campaign against of the state of Han, yet Lord Xinling 信陵君 warned him to trust a king with the "heart of a tiger or a wolf" (hu lang zhi xin 虎狼之心). The ever-active state of Qin (fei wu shi zhi guo 非無事之國) was preying on Wei because Wei was for Qin to conquer easiest of all regional states.

Lord Xinling thereupon took over command over the army of five allies against Qin, found a willing supporter in Lord Chunshen 春申君 of Chu, and was able to force the Qin general Meng Ao 蒙驁 to give up the siege of Handan, capital of Zhao. The king of Qin thereupon threw Prince Ceng 增, the Heir Apparent of Wei, who dwelled in Qin as a hostage, into jail, but he was pursued not to kill him. In 254, Wei conquered the old state of Wei 衛.

In 243, Prince Ceng succeeded to the throne. He is known as King Jingmin 魏景湣王 (r. 243-228). During his reign, Qin occupied more and more towns of Wei. The last ruler of Wei was King Jia 假 (r. 228-225), who was not given a posthumous title because already in his third reign year the troops of Qin under general Wang Ben 王賁 inundated the capital Daliang and captured King Jia. Wei was transformed into a commandery of the empire of Qin.

The name of Wei that had dominated the south of modern Shanxi province was later not only used for imperial princedoms, but for several mighty empires that dominated north China, like the Cao-Wei Dynasty 曹魏 of the Three Empires (Sanguo) 三國 and the Northern Wei (Beiwei) 北魏 empire of the Tuoba 拓跋.

Table 1. Rulers of the regional state of Wei 魏
Capitals: Wei 魏 (modern Ruicheng 芮城, Shanxi), Anyi 安邑 (near modern Xiaxian 夏縣, Shanxi), Daliang 大梁 (near modern Kaifeng 開封, Henan)
dynastic title personal name time
Wan, Duke of Bi 畢公萬 Ji Wan 姬萬, a relative to the House of Zhou
Wei Wuzi 魏武子 Ji Chou 姬犨
Wei Daozi 魏悼子
Wei Zhaozi 魏昭子 or Zhuangzi 莊子 Ji Jiang 姬絳
Wei Xianzi 魏獻子 Ji Shu 姬舒 (Wei Shu 魏舒)
Wei Huanzi 魏桓子 Ji Ju 姬駒
Marquis Wen of Wei
(Wei Wenhou 魏文侯)
Ji Si 姬斯 424-387
Marquis Wu of Wei
(Wei Wuhou 魏武侯)
Ji Ji 姬擊 387-371
King Hui of Liang of Wei
(Wei Huiwang 魏惠王, Liang Huiwang 梁惠王)
Ji Ying 姬罃 371-335
King Xiang of Wei
(Wei Xiangwang 魏襄王)
Ji He 姬赫 335-319
King Ai of Wei
(Wei Aiwang 魏哀王)
Ji Yu 姬于 319-296
King Zhao of Wei
(Wei Zhaowang 魏昭王)
Ji Chi 姬遫 296-277
King Anxi of Wei
(Wei Anxiwang 魏安釐王)
Ji Yu 姬圉 277-243
King Jingmin of Wei
(Wei Jingminwang 魏景湣王)
Ji Zeng 姬增 243-228
Jia, King of Wei 魏王假 Ji Jia 姬假 228-225
225 Wei conquered by Qin
Shiji 史記, 44, Wei shijia 魏世家.
Li Ling 李零 (1992). "Wei 魏", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 3, 1208.