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Zhou Yafu (simplified Chinese: 周亚夫; traditional Chinese: 周亞夫; pinyin: Zhōu Yǎfū) (died 143 BC) was a renowned Han Dynasty general who put down the Rebellion of the Seven States, but whose honesty and integrity eventually cost him the favor of Emperor Jing and his life. Zhou is viewed in Chinese history as the epitome of proper military discipline.
Zhou's father, Zhou Bo (周勃), was one of the key generals for Liu Bang during the Chu Han Contention who would continue to play important roles in government and who was instrumental in the ascension to the throne by Emperor Jing's father Emperor Wen. For his accomplishments, Zhou Bo was created the Marquess of Jiang. After Zhou Bo died in 169 BC, his son and Zhou Yafu's older brother Zhou Shengzhi (周勝之) inherited the march, but after one year he was accused of murder and executed. In his stead, Zhou Yafu was created a marquess, but of a different march (Tiao). Later made the governor of the Commandery of Taiyuan (modern Taiyuan, Shanxi), Zhou quickly gained the reputation of being a capable administrator and military commander.
In 158 BC, when Xiongnu made a major incursion into the Commanderies of Shang (上, modern northern Shaanxi) and Yunzhong (雲中, modern western Inner Mongolia, centering Hohhot), Emperor Wen made a visit to the camps of armies preparing to defend the capital Chang'an against a potential Xiongnu attack. It was on this occasion when he became impressed with Zhou as a military commander -- compared to the other generals, who, upon the emperor's arrival, dropped all things and did what they could to make the emperor feel welcome, Zhou remained on military alert and required the imperial guards to submit to proper military order before he would allow the imperial train to enter. Later, Emperor Wen would leave instructions for Crown Prince Liu Qi that if military emergencies arose, he should make Zhou his commander of armed forces.
Actions during the Rebellion of the Seven States
After Crown Prince Qi became emperor (as Emperor Jing) in 157 BC, a military emergency would in fact arise. Afraid of the princes of collateral lines of the imperial clan becoming overly powerful, Emperor Jing, under the advice of Chao Cuo, attempted to reduce the size of the principalities, and seven principalities, led by the powerful Principalities of Wu (modern southern Jiangsu, northern Zhejiang, southern Anhui, and northern Jiangxi) and Chu (modern northern Jiangsu and northern Anhui) rebelled in a war later known as the Rebellion of the Seven States. In accordance with Emperor Wen's instructions, Emperor Jing made Zhou the commander of the armed forces. At that time, the Wu and Chu forces were fiercely attacking the Principality of Liang (modern eastern Henan), whose prince Liu Wu was Emperor Jing's beloved younger brother, and Emperor Jing ordered Zhou to immediately head to Liang to save it. Zhou refused, reasoning that the proper strategy would involve first cutting off the Wu and Chu supply lines, thus starving them, so he headed to the northeast side of Liang and around the Wu and Chu forces to cut off their supplies. The strategy was effective. Wu and Chu, unable to capture Liang quickly and realizing that their supplies were dwindling, headed northeast to attack Zhou. After being unable to get a decisive victory against Zhou, the Wu and Chu forces collapsed from starvation. Liu Pi fled to Donghai, which killed him and sought peace with Han. Liu Wu, the prince of Chu, committed suicide. The other principalities involved were all eventually defeated as well. Zhou's effective strategy was praised and admired by the other generals, but not by the wealthy Prince Wu or his powerful mother, the empress dowager Dou, who would bear a grudge against Zhou for the rest of their lives for Zhou's refusal to save him first.
In the aftermaths of the war, Zhou was made prime minister and became well-trusted by Emperor Jing. After Zhou unsuccessfully tried to persuade Emperor Jing not to depose his crown prince Liu Rong in 150 BC, however, Zhou lost the favor of the emperor. Prince Wu and Empress Dowager Dou, still bearing grudges, also attacked him incessantly whenever they could. Emperor Jing's empress Wang Zhi joined their ranks when he stood in the way of a promotion of her brother Wang Xin. The Empress Dowager wanted to create him a marquess for his intercession with the emperor after the Prince of Liang was involved in the assassination of nearly a dozen ministers (including Yuan Ang) as part of a dispute over the imperial succession. Zhou repeatedly rebuffed his candidacy as insufficiently meritorious. After a further disagreement over policy with Xiongnu defectors—Emperor Jing wanted to bestow them with honors to encourage future Xiongnu defectors while Zhou, opining that they were traitors, wanted to simply let them live in obscurity—Emperor Jing removed Zhou as prime minister in 147 BC.
In 143 BC, on one occasion, Zhou was summoned to dinner with the emperor, knowing that he still has great influence within the military, Zhou arrived late, when the emperor had a large piece of meat placed before him, but no chopsticks were provided to him. Zhou requested chopsticks from the Imperial attendants. Emperor Jing looked at him smiling and said, "Are you not satisfied?" Zhou saw that this was a setup, and immediately apologized and withdrew. After he left, Emperor Jing made the comment, "This complainer is no subject for my son when he becomes emperor!"
Later that year, when Zhou's son, in anticipation of his death, purchased retired armor and weapons from the imperial armory to serve as burial decorations. Zhou's son refused to pay the delivery workers, and the delivery workers, in retaliation, accused Zhou of treason because at the time unauthorized purchase of weapons was treated as treason and punishable by death. Emperor Jing sent investigators to interrogate Zhou, he refused to talk to them. Offended, Emperor Jing had Zhou Yafu arrested and interrogated in prison, and the interrogator, when told by Zhou that the armor and weapons were for burial purposes, accused him of "underground treason" -- i.e., ready to commit treason against the spirits of the emperors after he himself dies. Zhou, who initially wanted to commit suicide when he was arrested but was persuaded not to by his wife, eventually committed suicide in prison by starvation.
Impact on Chinese history
Zhou's legacy in history is mixed. He is greatly admired for his military strategies, but even more so for his style of military discipline. He also is admired for his honesty and integrity. Those same characteristics, however, would eventually lead to his terrible fate, for they caused him to offend powerful individuals that he could not afford to offend -- including, eventually, the emperor himself. His death was also one black mark on the otherwise highly regarded reign of Emperor Jing.