An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Zhou Yi 周顗

Jun 30, 2018 © Ulrich Theobald

Zhou Yi 周顗 (269-322), courtesy name Boren 伯仁, was a high minister of the Eastern Jin period 東晉 (317-420). He hailed from Ancheng 安城 in the commandery of Runan 汝南 (today in Henan) and was a son of general Zhou Jun 周浚 (d. 289), who was Marquis of Wucheng 武城侯. Zhou Yi was befriended with Ben Song 賁嵩, who was 司徒掾, and Dai Yuan 戴淵 (271-322).

When his father died, Zhou Yi was appointed assistant in the Palace Library (bishulang 祕書郎), later head of the Section of Personnel of the Imperial Secretariat (shangshu libu lang 尚書吏部郎). Zhou later came as administrator of the guard (zhenjun changshi 鎮軍長史) into the staff of Prince Sima Pi 司馬毗, a son of Sima Yue 司馬越 (d. 311), the Prince of Donghai.

When northern China was disturbed by the Rebellion of the Eight Princes and the uprisings of various non-Chinese groups, Sima Rui 司馬睿 (276-323), Prince of Langya 琅琊, built up a southeastern stronghold in Jiankang 建康, today's Nanjing, Jiangsu. His followers included Wang Dao 王導 (276-339), who invited Zhou Yi to take over the post of *libationer-advisor of the army (junzi jijiu 軍諮祭酒, i.e. junshi jijiu 軍師祭酒). Zhou accepted was was in 311 promoted to the post of regional inspector (cishi 刺史) of Jingzhou 荊州 in central China, holding the title of General appeasing the far-away territories (ningyuan jiangjun 寧遠將軍). At the same time, he was 假節and responsible for the control over the native tribes of the Southern Man 南蠻.

Just in this situation, a widespread uprising under Du Tao 杜弢 shook southern China. The rebellion was so successful that Zhou Yi only survived with the support of Wu Ji 吳寄, a military commander under general Tao Kan 陶侃 (259-334). Humiliated by this occurrence, Zhou Yi could not but subordinate himself to the new commander-in-chief of central China, Wang Dun 王敦 (266-324), a cousin of Wang Dao.

Shortly after, Sima Rui transferred Zhou Yi to the post of regional inspector of Yanzhou 兗州, with the title of General wielding authority (yangwei jiangjun 揚威將軍). Yet right after he was given his patent, Zhou was ordered to remain in the capital and take over his ancient post of 軍諮祭酒,後轉左長史.

In 317, when north China fell into the hands of non-Chinese tribes, Sima Rui adopted the title of Prince of Jin. Zhou Yi was promoted to the post of head of the Personnel Section of the Imperial Secretariat (libu shangshu 吏部尚書), but he was soon demoted because one of his retainers had killed someone. A year later, Sima Rui took over the throne of the Jin dynasty (known as Emperor Yuan 晉元帝, r. 317-322) and made Zhou Yi Junior Mentor of the Heir Apparent (taizi shaofu 太子少傅). Not long thereafter, he returned to the Section for Personnel, and was then promoted to the post of Left Vice Director of the Imperial Secretariat (shangshu zuo puye 尚書左僕射).

Zhou Yi then took over the command over the metropolitan guard as General of the Guard (hujun jiangjun 護軍將軍). In 322, Wang Dun rose weapons against the dynasty and threatened to conquer the capital in order to punish Liu Wei 劉隗 (273-333) for alleged misdoings. Emperor Yuan personally took over the command over the metropolitan army and awaited the rebel in the suburbs of the capital, yet the commander of Shitoucheng 石頭城, Zhou Zha 周札, opened the city gates and surrendered to the enemy. The emperor withdrew and ordered Zhou Yi, Wang Dao, Diao Xie 刁協 (d. 322) and Liu Wei to engage Wang Dun, but they were defeated.

The court went to the headquarters of Wang Dun to declare submission. At that occasion, Wang Dun reminded Zhou Yi of his obligation from the Du Tao rebellion, but Zhou Yi answered that it was his duty to defend the emperor – an obligation which was more important. Zhou's aide Hao Gu 郝嘏 warned him to flee, but Zhou refused, only knowing his duty towards the dynasty. Wang Dun finally arrested Zhou Yi and Dai Yuan and had them killed.

For his loyalty, Zhou Yi was posthumously conferred the title of Left Grand Master for Splendid Happiness (zuo guanglu dafu 左光祿大夫), with the epithet "unequaled in honour" (yitong sansi 儀同三司). His posthumous honorific title was Marquis Kang 康侯 "The Strong".

Zhou Yi was famous for his fondness of wine as well as for his personal austerity. History goes that Wang Dao was in great distress when his cousin turned against the dynasty, and feared execution. He and his family were spared the death penalty after Zhou Yi submitted a secret memorial to the emperor, praising Wang Dao's loyalty. Only after Zhou Yi was killed, Wang Dao learnt from his savior, and broke out in tears.