Lu Tian (226-141BC): Surviving the Chaotic Qin-Han Transition

The End of the Zhou Dynasty is where this tale begins. During the time of King Zheng (260-210), Qin’s ruling court mobilized and invaded the other states in 230 B.C.E. It was at the start of this conquest when the parents of our protagonist, whose name will be told later on, meet one another. The actual names and origins of his parents are unknown to the world. It was assumed, based on the protagonist’s features that his father was a foreigner from the region between Tibet and Myanmar. His mother was Chinese, based on the clothing that the protagonist wore when he was found. Yes, found. During this period of conquest, any state that didn’t submit to Qin were targeted. Due to this, the infant protagonist was abandoned by his parents and left in a basket that floated on the Yellow River. He drifted for several hours until he woke up and began to cry. A caravan that was passing by heard this and picked him up. The specific person heard and brought him to safety was Zuan Ji, who was the wife of a devout follower of Legalism named Lu Qian. They found him in the Summer of 226 B.C.E.

Lu Qian didn’t want to adopt the child, but thanks to the persistency of his wife and their five-year-old son, he favored the idea. They named this infant Lu Tian and decided to raise him as their own. No question was asked about his legitimacy because a month prior Zuan Ji had a miscarriage. Although everyone knew about her pregnancy, only the midwife, who was a close friend of Zuan Ji, and Lu Qian knew about the miscarriage. Through this, the Tian Family were able to pass Lu Tian as their son. Also Zuan Ji family was from the same region Lu Tian’s biological mother was from, which meant his facial feature and tan close to the same.

Once a student of Hanfeizi, current minister of Legalism, Lu Qian had an important role with advocating the abolishment of all privileges of the nobles.1 Born during the Warring States period, Lu Qian experienced firsthand the privileges of the aristocratic class and the labor class. It was after the unification of China, beginning of the Qin Dynasty 221 B.C.E. that Lu Qian began to develop prejudices towards merchants as they were ranked at the bottom of society, underneath scholars, peasants, and artisans. He believed merchants manufactured nothing and contributed little value to the economy.2 It was through this ideology that influenced Lu Qian to want his two sons, Lu Tian and his older brother Lu Kang, to follow Legalism like himself.

The home of the Lu family is located in a large village near Hanzhong, which is south of the capital Xianyang. Lu Tian enrolled in the same school with his brother in the year 220 B.C.E. and they were one the wealthier children. Other students knew their status based on their style of clothing. Students from registered merchants would usually wear white-colored clothes, to indicate their low family status. While students from itinerant merchant families and legalist families would wear fine silk. At the age of ten, against the advice of his brother and mother, Lu Tian would often hang around children from merchant families. He knew this would upset his father, but he was interested in the life of a merchant based on the stories his friends would tell him. One friend’s father in charge of the distribution and cost of farm animals and vegetables. Another’s father had traveled the silk road and traded goods with foreigners.

This sparked Lu Tian’s interest in becoming a merchant instead of following Legalism. Lu Tian didn’t think people were naturally wicked, and thought strict laws were too harsh for the common people. His father, on the other hand, thought differently and therefore Lu Tian did not inform his father until he completed his studies at the age of sixteen, in the year 210 B.C.E. Lu Qian was upset with the idea and decided to inform his friend, whom he knew since early childhood about this situation. Lu Qian’s friend was from another legalist family that had close ties with the Lu Family. His friend’s name is Wang Buwei who completed the path that Lu Tian is seeking to set foot in; to become a merchant from a legalist family.

Right after meeting with Wang Buwei, Zuan Ji suggests Lu Tian to seek out a fortune teller to decide on whether or not he should pursue the path of becoming a merchant. He decides to go alone and learns that his ‘future is split in three directions, yet walk in one path’. Lu Tian interprets this that he should become a merchant but is aware that he won’t stay as one in the future. After telling his family and Wang Buwei, he learns that his fortune actually means he will hold three position during his lifetime. With this thought in mind, Lu Tian decides to hold off on becoming a merchant.

The meeting with Wang Buwei and the fortune teller occurred during the autumn of 210 B.C.E. Lu Tian’s mother suggests that he follow his father’s footstep and join the Qin Army. With this in mind and a week before heading out to the battle field, he went to his father and asked him about his time as a soldier. Lu Qian told his goal for joining was to gain merit, he was aware that rank and honors were to be given only for merit in battle.3 He also inform Lu Tian that he was a part of Meng Tian’s 300,000 warriors that drove out Xiongnu to the borderlands.4 Lu Tian actually experience two of his largest losses during his time in the Qin Army. These included the Dazexiang Uprising (July 209 B.C.E. – December 209 B.C.E.) and the Battle of Julu in (207 B.C.E.).

The Dazexiang Uprising, also known as the Uprising of Chen Sheng and Wu Guang, was an ethical battle for some, including Lu Tian. He was forced to fight his fellow men, simply because they were late for a government job due to nature; a rainstorm. The rebellion force grew as high as ten thousand, which included discontented peasants. The sheer number at the opposing end overwhelmed not only Lu Tian but many others. But after battle commence it was quite clear that the highly skilled tactics of the Qin soldiers were victorious.

A couple of years later, the Battle of Julu begins and Lu Tian becomes anxious once more. After the defeat of Zhang Han and his army, the moral of the Qin soldiers decreased. Lu Tian was a part of Sima Xin army and they were ordered by Zhang Han, after his defeat to ask for reinforcements and supplies. Assassins were sent my Zhao Gao to kill Sima Xin on his journey. His army would eventually retreat and surrender along with Dong Yi and his 200,000 men, in the summer of 207 B.C.E.

Lu Tian learns that Qin soldiers were being buried alive by Xiang Yu and his army for surrendering.5 Xiang Yu thought of their actions as disloyal, might lead to a mutiny, and waste the army’s food supplies. Lu Tian and a hundred others learned of this plan early on and decided to escape. Many were caught, but a few were successful with the escape plan. Lu Tian was with the group that used to be farmers and used a long boat to float west on the Wei River. One ex-farmer informed Lu Tian that he joined the army so his family can be given land and have their food supplies increased.6 Their overall destination was the capital Xianyang, but they made many stops at villages near the river. It was due to this that their journey lasted until the summer of 203 B.C.E. One of the stops Lu Tian and a couple of his friends, who were also in the army but whose names were forgotten, went into one of the villages in search for a fortune teller. Once they found one, they asked similar questions. Lu Tian’s first friend inquired about the state of Qin and whether or not it will collapse because of the rebellion. The next friend wanted to know if they were all going to live to have their own grandchildren. Lu Tian concern lied with the same question he asked the previous fortune teller. He wanted to know on the path he should take. Stay with the military and risk getting killed by foreigners and even by his own men, pursue Legalism like his brother, father, and his paternal grandfather. Or should he follow the same route that Wang Buwei walked in. The fortune teller decides to answer all of their questions at the same time. He informed them that the path they are walking on is the path that heaven has set for them, once that changes, so will their paths. They didn’t know what to make of this, so they went on their way to Xianyang.

Unbeknownst to them, Xianyang had changed and adopted the philosophical teachings of Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism. The Han dynasty had succeeded the Qin dynasty. Perceived as just farmers from the crowds of passersby in Xianyang, Lu Tian decides to ask random strangers if ‘they heard the name Li Kang’, his brother. To his surprise, the first person he asked happen to be in the same class as him. This stranger and Lu Tian’s brother, Lu Kang, were both devout followers of Legalism. This stranger bring Lu Tian to him after he told the stranger about his relationship with Lu Kang. The excitement that Lu Tian has to see his older brother is above and beyond. He is told by the stranger that he must wait until nightfall to meet him because Lu Kang’s busy schedule. Lu Tian was aware of that, but he still persists on seeing his older brother earlier.

Lu Kang informs his younger brother about his aspirations to hold a public office and his new knowledge of Confucius. Lu Tian learned how some officials were arrested and treated like commoners. For those who were pardoned from execution, they were given a chance to commit suicide as alternative that would dignify their status.7 Lu Kang also told his brother about the whereabouts of their parents; they now live near the border of the city of Xianyang. Once reunited with his parents, Lu Tian decides to let his father know about his decision to pursue Legalism. Lu Qian was proud and thought Lu Tian left his goals of becoming a merchant on the battlefield. Little did he know, Lu Tian’s real reason was the first fortune that was told to him. Lu Tian knew he wanted to be a merchant in the end so he kept that to be his third and final position in life.

Lu Qian told his son that the reason the Lu family weren’t prosecuted for Lu Tian’s abandonment of the army was because of his, Lu Qian’s connection with the founder of the Han emperor. There was a point in time that Lu Qian along with Wang Buwei were above, in social status, Emperor Liu Bang. They were the ones that influenced Liu Bang to become a patrol officer in his early years The current emperor was one of only two emperors born into a commoner family. 8 Lu Tian learns that it was Wang Buwei and his father that suggested the emperor change the harsh laws of Qin. He told his father that he wanted to pursue Legalism because of his relationship with the soldiers who were farmers. Lu Tian goal is to advocate a society of only soldiers, farmers, and Daoists and have them live in self-sufficient villages without commercial interests. 9

Lu Tian worked on that goal until for a year until he gave in and quit in the spring of 197 B.C.E. Lost and nowhere to go, he was ashamed to go to his parents and brother and have them see him as a failure, Lu Tian was approached by Wang Buwei. After all of these years, Lu Tian still looked at Wang Buwei as a mentor that wouldn’t judge a soul of their action. Wang Buwei suggests to Lu Tian to visit a fortune teller one last time with him. Wang Buwei wanted to find out if he would live to see the next winter as he was at an old age of 72, it was currently spring of 197 B.C.E. While Lu Tian wanted to know if he should stick with the legalist lifestyle or finally pursue the life of a merchant.

Wang Buwei’s fortune described how his death was fast approaching. He would later die a couple of years later. His Father’s death followed a year later, and five years after that his mother dies. Lu Tian and his brother grieved from the years 195 – 188 B.C.E. At that point in time both brothers had their own families. Lu Tian had a daughter and son. He named his daughter Lu Jiangnu after the legendary Chinese heroine Meng Jiangnu. He named his son Lu Bang after the founder of the Han Dynasty, Liu Bang. Lu Tian eventually pursued his role and became a merchant, just as his last fortune predicted. He was the lead in commercial exchanges between the Xiongnu and Han merchants. The Xiongnu would trade horse and furs for Han’s agriculture and luxury items like silk. Lu Tian was influence to trade horse and furs from his time of war10. One of his favorite simple tasks was to take care of the military horses. The soldiers that used to be farmers suggested that Lu Tian ask his brother for some funds to build a rice, wheat and potato farm. They would teach Lu Tian how to cultivate it and in return they receive a small portion of the earning Lu Tian makes from it for a year. Lu Tian thought this was a humorous idea and decided and went along with it. Eventually he would trade these agricultural goods in exchange for horses and furs.  Lu Tian had a successful life his truths of fortune came true as a he held three different positions. He had three different options yet he walked all of them in a straight path. Lu Tian would die happily in the autumn of 141 and leave all of his fortune to his family, just before the fifteen-year-old Emperor Wu took the crown.


1 Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. New York: Norton, 2000. Print. Page 91.

2 Hansen, 93.

3 Wills, John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1994. Print. Page 39.

4 Willis, 46.

5 Willis 49.

6 Willis, 42.

7 Ch’ü, T’ung-tsu. Han Dynasty China: Volume 1: Han Social Structure. Edited by Jack L. Dull. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1972. Pages 96-97.

8 Hansen, 106.

9 Barbieri-Low, Anthony J. Artisans in Early Imperial China. Seattle & London: University of Washington Press, 2007. Page 40.

10 Liu, Xinru, Ancient India and Ancient China: Trade and Religious Exchanges: AD 1–600, Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Page 14.

Mohamed Abdukadir is from Rochester, NY. He is currently a Junior at the University of Rochester who is pursuing a double major in Mechanical Engineering and East Asian Studies. Hobbies include engineering design (AutoCad) and creative writing. He also enjoyed the three projects that were set for this course.