Unlike the present day, businesspeople such as Elon Musk (pictured), Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates were held in contempt in ancient Chinese society. Photo: AFP
by Wee Kek Koon
by Wee Kek Koon

Rich men like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos were looked down on in ancient China. All except one

  • Merchants were placed near the society’s bottom in the Confucian world view, below scholar-officials, farmers and artisans, but above entertainers and criminals
  • A famous exception was Lü Buwei, whose decision that a minor prince was a good investment paid off magnificently

The rich seem to be everywhere these days, their goings-on and every pronouncement crowding our newsfeeds, social media and conversations.

Elon Musk is the most ubiquitous – and annoying – but there are others like him: Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and so on.

Their actions and words have a power and influence that is usually the preserve of the leader of an important country.

In fact, they behave like one, meeting with heads of government and sending markets and exchange rates into a frenzy with a single word.

Money talks. When Musk, Gates and their ilk speak, the rest of us had better listen.

Unlike the present day, businesspeople were held in contempt in Chinese society. Merchants were placed near the bottom of society in the Confucian world view, below scholar-officials, farmers and artisans, but above entertainers, criminals, slaves and other forms of low-life.

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They fared better before China “turned Confucian”, a process that started in the early Han period (202BC-AD220), though they had no access to political power.

A famous exception was Lü Buwei (292BC-235BC).

Lü was already a wealthy merchant when he appeared in records as a friend and patron to an exiled prince of the state of Qin. He decided that the minor prince was a good investment, and began helping the impoverished royal.

Lü even offered the beautiful Lady Zhao, most likely an entertainer in Lü’s household or even his concubine, to the prince as the latter’s wife.

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After years of cultivating this relationship, Lü’s investment hit pay dirt in 250BC, when the prince became king, and rewarded his friend and patron by appointing him counsellor-in-chief of the state.

The new king reigned for only three years and died. He was succeeded by the 13-year-old Ying Zheng, his son with Lady Zhao. Lü was appointed regent.

Over the next 10 years, Lü implemented policies that strengthened the state militarily and economically. He also engaged in an illicit affair with Lady Zhao and then introduced her to a man who became the father of her illegitimate children.

In 237BC, Ying found out what his mother had been up to. He placed her under house arrest, executed her lover and their children, and stripped Lü of his positions.

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Even in exile, however, Lü remained influential, hosting streams of important visitors at his residence. In 235BC, Ying ordered Lü to be banished to what is present-day Sichuan, then a wild and remote region.

Realising that Ying would not spare him, Lü took his own life.

Ying, the son of the destitute prince whom Lü had helped all those years before, eventually unified the Chinese nation and became the first emperor of the Qin dynasty in 221BC, ushering in the imperial period that would last for the next 2,000 years.