Niu Xianke (牛仙客) (675 – September 2, 742), formally Duke Zhenjian of Bin (豳貞簡公), was a general and official of the Chinese dynasty Tang Dynasty, serving as a chancellor during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong. He took an unconventional rise to the chancellor position—by starting as a low-level bureaucrat and gradually getting promoted, rather than going through the imperial examinations -- and was known for being careful and obedient to fellow chancellor Li Linfu.
Niu Xianke was born in 675, during the reign of Emperor Gaozong. He was from Jing Prefecture (涇州, roughly modern Pingliang, Gansu). His family traced its ancestry to the Han Dynasty military official Niu Han (牛邯), whose descendants later settled in the region that became Jing Prefecture, and clearly was not prominent in political circles, as, unlike most other chancellors of the time, there were no records of any other ancestors of his serving as officials. All that were recorded about his great-grandfather Niu Tong (牛通), grandfather Niu Hui (牛會), and father Niu Yi (牛意) were their names.
Niu Xianke himself initially served as a minor bureaucrat at his home county of Chungu (鶉觚, in modern Pingliang), and he was respected by the county magistrate Fu Wenjing (傅文靜). Fu later became in charge of farming/military outposts in the Longyou (隴右, modern eastern Gansu) region, and he engaged Niu to be part of the endeavor. For Niu's contributions in military matters, he was eventually promoted to be the military advisor to the prefect of Tao Prefecture (洮州, roughly modern Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu).
During Emperor Xuanzong's reign
Early in the Kaiyuan era (613-641) of Emperor Gaozong's grandson Emperor Xuanzong, the general Wang Junchuo (王君㚟) served as the military governor (jiedushi) of Hexi Circuit (河西, headquartered in Wuwei, Gansu). Niu Xianke and Song Zhen (宋貞) served as his assistants and were his close associates. In 727, when Wang and Song were killed in an ambush by the Huige tribal leader Yaoluoge Hushu (藥羅葛護輸), Niu escaped death. Subsequently, when Emperor Xuanzong made the general Xiao Song the military governor of Hexi to replace Wang, Niu and Pei Kuan (裴寬) served under Xiao. Xiao entrusted much responsibility to Niu, and Niu was said to be honest and hard-working, and he began to impress the prominent people of the region despite his humble origins. After Xiao became chancellor in 728, at Xiao's recommendation, Niu was made the secretary general of Liang Prefecture (涼州, roughly modern Wuwei) and acting military governor of Hexi. Xiao continued to recommend him, and eventually, Niu was made the military governor. While serving as military governor, Niu was frugal and saved a large amount of surplus for the governmental treasury, and also had good armor and weapons made.
In 736, Niu replaced Emperor Xuanzong's second cousin Li Hui (李褘) the Prince of Xin'an as the military governor of Shuofang Circuit (朔方, centering modern Yinchuan, Ningxia), and the official Cui Xiyi (崔希逸) replaced Niu as the military governor of Hexi. Once Cui arrived at Hexi, he was impressed with the amount of treasury surplus as well as the supply of armor and weapons, and he reported this to Emperor Xuanzong. Emperor Xuanzong sent the official Zhang Lizhen (張利貞) to verify this, and once the claim was verified, was exceedingly pleased. He wanted to promote Niu to be the minister of defense (兵部尚書, Bingbu Shangshu) and wanted to create him a title—both actions opposed by the chancellor Zhang Jiuling, on the basis that Niu, not learned, was unsuitable to be a minister of a major ministry, and that being honest and frugal were part of his responsibility, not something that should be awarded with a title. This drew Emperor Xuanzong's displeasure, and another chancellor, Li Linfu, seeing this, advocated for Niu's creation as a duke. Emperor Xuanzong agreed and created Niu the Duke of Longxi. Later that year, when Zhang offended Emperor Xuanzong further, Emperor Xuanzong removed him and his friend and fellow chancellor Pei Yaoqing. He made Niu the minister of public works (工部尚書, Gongbu Shangshu) and gave him the designation Tong Zhongshu Menxia Sanpin (同中書門下三品), making him a chancellor de facto, to serve alongside Li Linfu, while still letting him keep the military governorship of Shuofang. As chancellor, it was said that Niu was careful and frugal, and did not dare to make any key decisions, deferring all of them to Li Linfu.
In 737, the imperial censor Zhou Ziliang (周子諒) submitted an indictment against Niu, arguing that he did not have qualifications to be chancellor, and further cited a prophecy that indicated that a person named Niu would harm the empire. Emperor Xuanzong, in anger, had Zhou caned and then exiled, and Zhou died on the way. (As Zhou had been recommended by Zhang, Li Linfu used this opportunity to attack Zhang, and Zhang was demoted out of the capital.) Later that year, the deputy chief judge of the supreme court, Xu Jiao (徐嶠) submitted a flattering report to Emperor Xuanzong, pointing out that capital punishment had become almost unnecessary due to the peacefulness of his reign. Emperor Xuanzong was pleased, and credited the chancellors. He thus created Li Linfu the Duke of Jin and Niu the Duke of Bin. It was also around this time that a revision of the laws, led by Li Linfu, Niu, and the officials in charge of the justice system, was completed.
In 738, Niu was made Shizhong (侍中) -- the head of the examination bureau of government (門下省, Menxia Sheng) and a post considered one for a chancellor; he was also made the deputy military governor of Hedong Circuit (河東, headquartered in modern Taiyuan, Shanxi), but remained at the capital Chang'an to serve as chancellor. He was further given the additional post as the minister of defense in 739 and was responsible for selecting military officers, just as Li Linfu was made the minister of civil service affairs and was responsible for selecting officials. In 740, he was stripped of his commands of Shuofang and Hedong, but remained chancellor.
In 742, Niu was gravely ill. His former assistant while at Shuofang, Yao Hong (姚閎), a grandson of the deceased chancellor Yao Chong, had been favored by him due to Yao Hong's dabbling in supernatural matters and claim to know how to avoid misfortune, and he had recommended Yao to serve as imperial censor. Now that he was ill, he asked Yao to pray for him—and Yao did so but forced Niu to recommend Yao's uncle Yao Yi (姚弈) and the official Lu Huan (盧奐) to replace Niu himself as chancellor. Yao Hong went as far as writing out the petition and forcing Niu to sign, but Niu was so ill that he was unable to sign properly. Niu died in fall 742, and after his death, his wife, when imperial messengers came to mourn him, showed the imperial messengers the petition to accuse Yao Hong of extortion. In anger, Emperor Xuanzong forced Yao Hong to commit suicide and demoted Yao Yi and Lu. He awarded Niu posthumous honors.
Notes and references
- New Book of Tang, vol. 75.
- That Zhou actually submitted an indictment against Niu per the Zizhi Tongjian, which relied on biographies of Zhang and Li Linfu. According to Niu's biography in the Book of Tang, Zhou never submitted an indictment but had merely criticized Niu in private in a conversation with his colleague Li Shizhi, which Li Shizhi then reported to Emperor Xuanzong. Compare Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 214 with Book of Tang, vol. 103.