Lü Buwei was a native of the state of Wei who became a successful travelling merchant and earned “thousands of measures of gold.”
The Strategies of the Warring States has a story about Lü deciding to change careers from commerce to government.
On returning home, he said to his father, “What is the profit on investment that one can expect from plowing fields?”
“Ten times the investment,” replied his father.
“And the return on investment in pearls and jades is how much?”
“And the return on investment from establishing a ruler and securing the state would be how much?”
“It would be incalculable.”
“Now if I devoted my energies to laboring in the fields, I would hardly get enough to clothe and feed myself; yet if I secure a state and establish its lord, the benefits can be passed on to future generations. I propose to go serve Prince Yiren of Ts’in who is now a political hostage in Chao.”
Using Machiavellian bribes and machinations, Lü set prince Yiren free and arranged for him to return to his own state Ts’in. The Records of the Grand Historian says Lü had a beautiful “dancing girl” in his household, at the time she was pregnant, with whom Prince Yiren became so infatuated that he asked for her. Lü reluctantly presented his courtesan to the prince, and they returned to the capital of Ts’in, Handan. This “dancing girl” had a son named Zheng, who was enthroned when he was 13 year old. The young king reappointed Lü as Chancellor and called him “Uncle”. This king Zheng eventually unified China and became the first Emperor of Ts’in.
Lü assembled many scholars to compile and encyclopedic book called Mr. Lü’s Annals. On completion this book, Lü pû-wei suspended 1000 pieces of gold at the gate of his palace, which he offered as a reward to anyone who could suggest an improvement of it by adding or expunging a single character. Of course no one was able to claim the rewards.
The Records of the Grand Historian says the Queen Dowager pursued many illicit sexual activities, and Lü, fearing that discovery would cause disaster to befall him, secretly sought a man with a large penis, Lao Ai, whom he made his retainer. Sometimes he would have music performed and order Lao Ai to put his penis through a wheel of wood and walk about, making certain that the queen dowager would hear about it to entice her. The queen dowager did hear about it and consequently secretly desired to obtain him. Lü Buwei thereupon introduced Lao Ai to her. Deviously ordering someone to accuse Lao Ai of a crime punishable by castration, Lü also privately told the queen dowager, “If we can fake the castration, we can make him a servant in the harem.” The queen dowager therewith covertly gave a generous bribe to the officer charged with castrations to falsely sentence him and to pluck out his eyebrows and beard to make him appear a eunuch. As a result, he was made a servant of the queen dowager.
The queen fell in love with Lao and had him appointed Marquis of Shanyang. After she became pregnant, he recklessly took control of the Qin government. The Garden of Stories says, Lao Ai had sole power over the affairs of state and grew increasingly arrogant and extravagant. The high officials and honored ministers of government all drank and gambled with him. Once when he got drunk, he began to speak belligerently. In a provocative fashion, eyes glaring with anger, he bellowed, “I am the stepfather of the emperor. How dare some wretch oppose me!” One of those with whom he had quarreled ran to report this to the emperor, who was outraged.
The emperor learned that Lao Ai was not really a eunuch, and had plotted with the queen to make their illegitimate son become successor. After an attempted revolt failed, the queen was exiled and Lao Ai was executed, along with three generations of his relatives, including their two sons who were put into sacks and beaten to death. Rather than execute the influential Lü, the emperor demoted and banished him to Shu. Lü feared eventual execution and “drank poison”.