The Reunion of a Prime Minister and His Ragged Wife

Military gate at Jianmen Pass.

Due to their dire living conditions, Bai Lixi's wife encouraged him to leave home to seek a better life in another state as a civil servant. (Image: Zhitao Li via Dreamstime)

Bai Lixi, the prime minister of the significant state of Qin during China’s Warring States period, was very poor in his youth. Despite this, he was knowledgeable and extremely well-liked. He eventually married and had a son. However, living conditions were so dire for this family that his wife suggested he seek a new life as a civil servant in another state.

Because they were too poor to afford a decent meal, his wife killed their only hen and chopped up their door to use as firewood to cook his farewell meal. When Bai Lixi arrived in the major state of Qi, he found that the government was riddled with corruption, and he had no money to bribe the officials.

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Before long, he had used up all his money and was forced to beg in the street. He moved to the minor state of Yu and eventually became a junior minister. However, when the petty state of Jin annexed Yu, he went south to the state of Chu. The king of Chu did not know his talents and abilities as a junior minister and sent him to care for the animals instead.

A herd of goats being driven down a mountain road.
The king of Chu did not know his talents and abilities as a junior minister and sent him to care for the animals instead. (Image: John Grummitt via Dreamstime)

Bai Lixi becomes prime minister

When Duke Mu of Qin heard of Bai Lixi’s intelligence and talents, he wanted to offer him a civil post. However, to disguise his real intention, he bought Bai Lixi for the ransom of five pieces of black sheepskin. He eventually gave Bai Lixi the title of prime minister.

It took Bai 30 years to realize success, so when he came to be the prime minister of Qin, he was already in his seventies. Nevertheless, when he was appointed as the prime minister of Qin, the story of him being bought for five pieces of black sheepskin spread far and wide. Even his wife, who had lost all contact with him, heard the story.

She wandered to Qin, where she heard that the prime minister was named Bai Lixi. However, she was not sure whether he was indeed her husband. Even though she had seen Bai Lixi’s carriage pass, she could not see him. Ultimately, she found a job as the laundrywoman in Bai Lixi’s mansion. Bai Lixi’s wife used the name Du and was humorous and a very diligent lady.

She was a talented singer and made friends with the mansion’s servants. One day, Bai Lixi held a banquet and invited many distinguished guests to his home. Du introduced herself to the musician and asked if she could sing for the prime minister at the banquet.

Du was a talented singer and asked if she could sing for Bai Lixi at a banquet.
Du was a talented singer and asked if she could sing for Bai Lixi at a banquet. (Image: Maocheng via Dreamstime)

The musician gave her his stringed instruments, and she began to play. Her song was very melancholy and full of sadness. Upon hearing it, the musician felt he could not play or sing as well as she did. The song was about a prime minister who was worth five pieces of sheepskin:

“Do you still remember the tears that I shed when you left home? Do you remember that we were so poor that I chopped the latch of our door and cooked the only hen of our family? Do you know that you are now the prime minister of Qin and dressed in brocade, while I am doing the laundry for others? Do you still remember your poor wife now that you are wealthy?”

Bai Lixi was shocked when he heard this woman’s heartfelt song during the banquet. No one except his wife would know the details of how he left home. He called the old lady over when she finished and realized she was his wife.

They had not seen each other in 30 years, and both shed tears as they embraced. Then, Bai Lixi asked about his son, and his wife said that he was there, and they were all soon united and remained together as a family.

Once Duke Mu heard this story, he was so moved that he rewarded Bai Lixi and his family with money and appointed his son as a minister of Qin. This is a famous story in Chinese history, known as “The Reunion of a Prime Minister and His Ragged Wife.”

Translated by Yingma

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