Jin Midi

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  • Chinese: 日磾 (Jīn Mìdī)

Jin Midi was a prominent Han Dynasty official, born of the steppe nomad Xiongnu people, but an example of how even a foreigner/barbarian could rise to very nearly the highest posts in the Han government.

Born the prince of a king of one group among the Xiongnu people, Jin Midi was captured by the Han at the age of 14 and enslaved. This came as part of a series of wars between the Han and the Xiongnu. Jin's father, the Xiutu king, along with the Hun'ye king (lord of another group of Xiongnu), suffered terrible losses in this war, and in 121 BCE even lost one of their most sacred idols, the Golden Man of Heaven, to the Han. Angry at these losses, the Chanyu (the overlord, or king of all Xiongnu) summoned the two kings before him, and planned to have them executed. In defiance of the Chanyu, the two kings then agreed that they and their peoples would surrender to the Han. However, Jin's father changed his mind, and relented; he was then killed by the Hun'ye king, who wished to go ahead with the plan, and then surrendered both his and the Xiutu people to the Han. Thus it was that Jin Midi, his mother, and his younger brother Lun became enslaved. Jin was made keeper of the horses of the Yellow Gate. Rather than their barbarian names, they were given the name "Jin" (金), meaning "gold," after the golden statue their people worshiped.

A considerable time later, one day the Emperor came to review his horses, and was impressed with Jin Midi. The Emperor had brought a number of ladies of the palace along with him, and Jin Midi was the only horse groom who did not steal a glance at the women, but maintained his professional deference; further, his horses were very well-groomed and well cared for. The Emperor immediately raised him up in rank, granting him a cap and robe, and naming him superintendent of horses. Jin later rose to attendant in the inner palace, commandant of the imperial horses, and counselor to the keeper of the palace gate.

He is said to have served diligently and loyally, without error or oversight, and came to be constantly in attendance at the palace, and frequently directly at the emperor's side when traveling. In response to others' criticism that, as a barbarian, Jin Midi didn't deserve such a position, the emperor showed him even greater favor. Because of the emperor's favor, Jin Midi's mother was granted a portrait in a privileged place in the palace, and Jin's children were treated quite kindly by the emperor, playing freely in the palace, and even the emperor himself playing with them on occasion. Some years later, when Jin's children were a bit older, and one began to behave with great indiscretion in interacting with some of the ladies-in-waiting, his behavior eventually grew so bad that Jin had him killed, earning initially the ire, but then also the continued or deepened respect of the emperor.

In 88 BCE, Jin happened to find himself just outside Emperor Wu's bedroom when another official, Ma Ho-luo, snuck in with the intention of assassinating the emperor; Jin tackled Ma, and stopped him, saving the emperor's life.

The Emperor fell ill in 74 BCE, and asked Huo Guang to serve as regent and caretaker for his successor; Huo initially demurred, suggesting Jin Midi take the position. Jin deferred, however, claiming that as a foreigner it wouldn't be appropriate, and so Huo Guang took the position. Jin's son Jin Shang was married to Huo's daughter, however, and Jin Midi came to serve as Huo Guang's assistant, as Huo rose to become, de facto, the most powerful official in the entire government. Following Emperor Wu's death, it was discovered that the emperor had left instructions to enfeoff Huo and Jin as a reward for their service in putting down Ma Huo-lo's rebellion; Huo accepted the enfeoffment, while Jin deferred, being named Marquis only at the encouragement of Huo Guang.

Jin's two sons were roughly the same age as the young Emperor Zhao. They served as inner palace attendants, and spent much time with the young emperor. Eventually, they were named chief commandant in charge of the imperial carriage, and commandant of the imperial horses, respectively, with Jin Shang later succeeding Jin Midi as Marquis.

When Emperor Xuan came to the throne, he named Jin Shang master of carriage. By this time, Huo Guang had died, and rumors began to swirl that the Huo family was plotting against the throne. Jin Shang renounced his wife (Huo Guang's daughter), and in the end, when the Huo and a great many of their relatives and associates were exterminated, the Jin were permitted to live, and to retain their rank and title.

In the end, Jin's sons saw some success but their line died out before too long. Jin's younger brother Lun died young, but not before having a son; his descendants went on to recover Jin Midi's title and lands, and to continue the family name.


  • Burton Watson (trans.), Courtiers and Commoners in Ancient China: Selections from the History of the Former Han by Pan Ku, Columbia University Press (1974), 151-157.