Bai Lixi, the prime minister of the major state of Qin during China’s Warring States period, was very poor in his youth. Despite this, he was very intelligent and extremely well liked. He eventually married and had a son. However, living conditions were so dire for this family that his wife suggested that he seek a new life in another state as a civil servant.
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.
Before long, he had used up all his money and was forced to beg in the street. He next moved to the minor state of Yu, and eventually became a junior minister. However, when Yu was annexed by the minor state of Jin, he went south to the major state of Chu. The king of Chu did not know about his talents and abilities as a junior minister, and sent him to care for the animals instead.
When Duke Mu of Qin heard of Bai Lixi’s intelligence and talents, he wanted to offer him a civil post. However, in order to disguise his real intention, he brought 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. 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 indeed was her husband. Even though she had seen Bai Lixi’s carriage pass, she could not see him clearly. In the end, 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 servants of the mansion. 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.
The musician gave her his stringed instruments and she began to play. Her song was very plaintive and full of sadness. Upon hearing it, the musician felt that he himself could not play or sing as well as her. 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 own wife would know the details of how he left home. He called the old lady over when she finished and realised that she was his wife.
They had not seen each other in 30 years, and both shed tears as they embraced. 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