The Biography of Jing Ke

By Sima Qian (145‑90? B.C.E.)


Jing Ke was a native of Wei. His forebears had been natives of Qi who had moved to Wei. The people of Wei called him Master Qing, but when he went to Yan, the people called him Master Jing.


Sima Qian's place in the development of Jinese historiography is comparable to that of Herodotus in the Western tradition. His Recards of the Grand Historian (Shiji, also rendered in English as Records of the Scribe) provided the pattern for all later official dynastic histories of Jina. Begun by his father Sima Tan, Grand Astrologer of the Han court during the early years of Emperor Wu's reign, the bulk of the Records of the Grand Historian was researched and written by Sima Qian himself. Much of the finest writing in this enormous work occurs in the "Memoirs" (sometimes referred to as “Biographies of Hereditary Houses") section. The present selection is a good example of how exciting such historical prose can be. lt comes from chapter 86 of the "Biographies/Memoirs of Assassins" and describes in electrifying detail an attempt on the life of the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty. This is the same First Emperor who ruthlessly reunified China at the close of the Warring States period and whose tomb is

guarded by a vast tetra‑cotta army, one of the most sensational archeological finds of this century, which lies just east of present‑day Xi’an in Shanxi province.


The translation has been undertaken with close consultation of the account of Jing Ke as given in the Intrigues of the Warring States, which was apparently one of Sima Qian's primary sources for this biography. For a later poetic version of Jing Ke's attempted assassination of the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty.



Master Jing liked to read books and to handle the sKerd. He once used his arts to try to influence Prince Yuan of Wei, but Prince Yuan Would not employ him. Later on Qin attacked Wei, established the commandery of Dong out of the territory it captured, and moved a relative of Prince Yuan to Yewang.


Once when Jing Ke was traveling through Yuzi he held a conversation with one Ge Nie about swords. Ge Nie became angry and gave him a fierce look, and Jing Ke went away. Someone said that they should call Master Jing back, Ge Nie said: 1n the past, if 1 talked with someone about swords and he did not suit me, 1 would give him a fierce look. lf this has caused him to leave, it is quite proper that he has left, and 1 shall not venture to detain him." However, he sent a messenger to his master, but Jing Ke had then already harnessed his horse and departed from Yuzi. The messenger returned and reported this. Ge Nie said: "He has indeed gone. 1 have given him a fierce look and frightened him."


When Jing Ke was traveling to Handan, one Lu Goujian disputed with him for the right of way. Lu Goujian became angry and reviled him, but Jing Ke escaped without saying anything, and did not again confront him.


On arriving in Yan, Jing Ke became fond of a certain "dog‑butcher" of Yan and of Gao Jianli, who was an excellent lute player. " Jing Ke liked wine, and every day he drank with the dog butcher and with Gao Jianli in the marketplace of the Yan capital, becoming drunk before he departed. While Gao Jianli strummed his lute, Jing Ke would sing along and make merry with him in the midst of the marketplace. Afterward theywould weep together, as if there were no one around them.


Yet, though Jing Ke mixed with drunkards, he was a serious man who loved books, and the persons with whom he associated during his travels among the feudal lords were all of superior worth and excellence. When he came to Yan, a Mr. Tian Guang, who was a retired gentleman in Yan, also received him well, and knowing that he was not an ordinary man, had him live with him for some time. It was just at this period that Tan, Crown Prince of Yan, who had been a hostage in Qin, returned in flight to Yan.


Crown Prince Tan of Yan had at one time been a hostage in Zhao, and Zheng, the king of Qin, had been born in Zhao. " In his youth he had been friendly with Tan, but when Zheng became king of Qin and Tan was a hostage in Qin, the king of Qin did not treat Crown Prince Tan of Yan well. Therefore Tan became angry and fled back to Yan. Ort his return, he looked for someone who would take vengeance on the king of Qin, but his state was small and its power inadequate.


Later on Qin was constantly sending forth its soldiers east of the mountains' to attack Qi, Chu, and the three Jin.' Gradually it made encroachments upon the feudal lords, even unto Yan. The lords and ministers of Yan all feared that disaster would befall it, and Crown Prince Tan, being worried, asked his tutor, Ju Wu, about the matter.


Ju Wu replied: 'The territory of Qin spreads through the world, and it has intimidated the houses of Han, Wei, and Zhao. In the north it possesses the fortifieations of Sweet Springs and Valley Mouth. ' In the south it has the irrigation of the Jing and the Wei. It has seized for itself the riches of Pa and Han. ` On its right are the mountains of Long and Shu, and on its left are the defiles of Guan and Yao." Its people are numerous and its gentry are fearsome. lt has an overabundance of military supplies. Once it has the idea of sallying forth, then south of the Long Wall and north of the Yi River there can be no security. ` How, with the hatred that comes of oppression, can you wish to oppose it?"


"Well, then," said Tan, "what is to be done?"


He replied: 1 beg to retire and think the matter over."


After some period of time had elapsed, Fan Wuqi, a Qin general who had fallen into disgrace with the king of Qin, fled as a fugitive to Yan, where the Crown Prince received and sheltered him. Ju Wu remonstrated, saying: "You cannot do this. When, with all his harshness, the king of Qin heaps up hatred against Yan, it is enough to chill one's heart. How much more so when he hears of the whereabouts of General Fan! This is called throwing meat in the path of a hungry tiger. The resulting disaster is inescapable. Even if you had Guan or Yan, they could not plan successfully against it.


I should like the Crown Prince to send off General Fan quickly to the Huns` in order to do away with him. 1 beg you to ally yourself with the three Jin on the west, link yourself with Qi and Chu on the south, and put yourself on good terms with the Shanyu on the north. After this you can make plans."


The Crown Prince said: "The Grand Tutor's plan is something for a long period. But 1 am perplexed and fear 1 cannot wait even a moment. Yet this is not the only point. For General Fan was in great straits in the world when he gave himself to me, and never, to the end of my life, could 1, because of pressure from a powerful Qin, cast aside the bonds of pity and compassion and put him away among the Huns. lf 1 did such a thing, it Would certainly be time for me to die. Let the Grand Tutor reconsider the matter."


Ju Wu replied: 1 respectfully obey." He went to see Mr. Tian and told him that the Crown Prince wished to discuss affairs of state with him. Tian Guang said: 1 respectfully receive his command," and thereupon went to him. The Crown Prince welcomed him, led him inside, knelt, and dusted off the mat for him to sit on.


T'ian Guang sat down and settled himself, and there was nobody around them. The Crown Prince moved from his mat toward his visitor and requested him, saying: "Yan and Qin cannot both stand. 1 should like you, sir, to put your mind on this fact."


          Tian Guang replied: 'Your servant has heard that when the unicorn is in

its prime, it can traverse one thousand tricents.' But when it has become

weak and old, a broken‑down nag can outstrip it. The Crown Prince has heard

falsely that 1 am in my prime, and does not know that 1 have already lost my

vitality. Nevertheless, 1 dare not on that account slight affairs of state. A good

person who could be employed Would be Master Jing. "


Ju Wu said: 'To move into danger thereby wishing to gain peace; to create calamities thereby to obtain good fortune; to hold to shallow plans for requiting deep hatreds; to bind oneself in lasting bonds to a single man, without regard for the great harm therefrom to the nation: such is what is called encouraging enmities and inviting disaster. When wild duck feathers are burned on a stove's charcoal, there can be nothing to bother about.' All the more so, then, when eaglelike Qin carries out its cruel hates. What is there then to talk about?' In Yan there is a Mr. Tian Guang who is a man of deep wisdom and great bravery. You can plan with him. "


The Crown Prince said: 1 should like through you to make the acquaintance of Mr. Tian. Can it be done?"


'Me Crown Prince said: 1 should like through you to make the acquaintance of Master Jing. Can it be done?"


Tian Guang replied: 1 respectfully obey." He then arose and hastened to depart. The Crown Prince escorted him to the gate, and warned him, saying: «'What 1 have told you and what you have said are important state matters. 1 wish you, sir, not to disclose them.

Tian Guang nodded and smiled, saying: 1 obey. " With body stooped by age he departed to see Master Jing, to whom he said: 'There is no one in the state of Yan who does not know that we are on good terrns with each other. The Crown Prince heard today that 1 was in my prime, but he did not know that my body is already failing. He graciously told me: Yan and Qin cannot both stand. 1 should like you, sir, to put your mind on this fact.' 1 was careful not to alienate rnyself from this matter, and I spoke of you to the Crown Prince, sir. 1 should like you to go to the Crown Prince at his palace."

Jing Ke said: 1 respectfully receive your instructions. "

Tian Guang continued: 1 have heard that an old man, when he acts, does not cause people to doubt him. But now the Crown Prince has said to me: 'What we have spoken about are important state matters. I wish you, sir, not to disclose them.' This means that the Crown Prince doubts me. One who acts so as to make people doubt him is not an honorable knight. "

In order to inspire Master Jing with feelings of heroism, he wished to kill himself as an example of uprightness, and continued: 1 want you to go quickly to the Crown Prince, sir, and tell him that 1 have already died, so as to show him that 1 have not spoken." With this, he cut his throat and died.

Jing Ke then went to see the Crown Prince. He told him that Tian Guang was already dead, and reported what Tian Guang had said. The Crown Prince bowed twice, knelt, moved about on his knees," and wept. Some moments passed and then he said: "The reason why 1 warned Mr. Tian not to           speak was that 1 wished to bring the plans for an important matter to fruition. But now Mr. Tian has used death to show that he did not speak., Alas! How could 1 have meant that?"

Jing Ke sat down and settled himself. The Crown Prince moved from his mat toward his visitor, bowed his head, and said: "Not knowing of my unworthiness, Mr. Tian has done what you have just dared to relate. Heaven has afflicted Yan in this, yet it has not abandoned its Orphan.

          "Qin has an avaricious heart and its desires are insatiable. lt will remain unsatisfied until it has made subject the kings of all the lands in the world within the seas. Qin has now already taken the king of Han captive and has annexed all his territory. " It has furthermore raised soldiers to attack Chu in the south and overlook Zhao in the north. Wang Jian, commanding a host of several hundreds of thousands, has reached Zhang and Ye," while Li Xin has gone to Taiyuan and Yunzhong. `

          "Zhao cannot withstand Qin and must become its vassal. lf it becomes its vassal, disaster will then overtake Yan. Yan is small and weak, and has often suffered from war. Were 1 now to plan to conscript the entire country, the result Would be insufficient to oppose Qin. The feudal lords are submissive

to Qin, and none of them dare to join in a north‑to‑south alliance.


“My own simple plan would be to secure one of the world’s brave men and send him to Qin, where he could attract the king of Qin's cupidity by the promise of great profit. With his strength, he would certainly obtain for us what we desire. lf we could actually succeed in carrying off the king of Qin and force him to return all the territory of the feudal lords that has been invaded, as Cao Mo did with Duke Huan of Qi, it would be splendid.  But if this were not possible, he could use the opportunity to stab and kill him. lf, while the great Qin generals were holding their troops outside the borders, there were to be trouble within, then ruler and Ministers would mutually distrust each other. And if at this juncture the feudal lords could succeed in forming a north‑to‑south alliance, their defeat of Qin would be assured. This is my highest desire, but 1 know not to whom to entrust my Mission. Do you, Master Jing, put your mind on this. "


After some time Jing Ke said: "This is an important state Matter. Your servant is an inferior nag, and fears that his capacities are inadequate for the trust. "


The Crown Prince bowed before him and pressed hirn not to give up the trust, after which he finally consented. He then honored Master Jing by making him a High Dignitary and lodging him in a superior house. Every day the Crown Prince went to his door, offering him the Great Sacrifice of sheep, pig, and ox, giving him rare objects, at intervals bringing him carriages, horsemen, and beautiful women, and freely granting Jing Ke whatever he desired, so as to satisfy his inclinations.


After this had continued for some time, Jing Ke still had no idea of going away to Qin. The Qin general Wang Jian defeated Zhao, took its king captive, and annexed his entire territory. He advanced his army northward, seizing territory as far as Yan's southern boundary. Crown Prince Tan was alarmed and begged Jing Ke, saying: "Once the Qin soldiers are in a position freely to cross the river Yi, though 1 should then wish to support you, sir, how could it be done?"


Jing Ke replied: I had intended to ask about this if you had not spoken of it. But were 1 to go now without having the confidence of the state of Qin, then the king of Qin could still not be approached. The king of Qin has offered one thousand catties of gold and catties of ten thousand families for the capture of General Fan. Now if we could actually get hold of the head of General Fan and present it to the king of Qin, together with a map of Dukan in Yan,' then the king of Qin Would certainly be pleased to see your servant, who Would thus have the opportunity of avenging the Crown Prince."


The Crown Prince replied: "General Fan came to me in poverty and distress. 1 could not permit myself, for my own selfish aim, to violate a higher ideal. 1 should like you, sir, to reconsider the matter."


Jing Ke realized that the Crown Prince Would not consent, so he privately visited Fan Wuqi and said to him: "Qin's treatment of you, General, can indeed be called far‑reaching! Your father, mother, and kindred have all been executed, and now 1 hear that a reward of one thousand catties of gold and a city of ten thousand families have been offered for your head. What are you going to do?"


Fan Wuqi looked up to Heaven, heaved a great sigh, shed sorne tears, and said: Each day 1 think about this and suffer constantly unto, my very bones and marrow. But whatever plan 1 consider, 1 know not where it will lead me.


Jing Ke said: "Now, suppose a single statement could free the state of Yan from its tribulations and avenge you of your hatred. How would you feel?"


Fan Wuqi eame forward and asked: "What is it?"


Jing Ke replied: 1 should like to have your head to present to the king of Qin. Then the king of Qin would certainly be delighted to see me. With my left hand 1 would seize his sleeve, and with my right I would stab his breast. In this way your hatred of Qin would be avenged and the shame of Yan's oppression would be wiped out. What do you think of this?"


Fan Wuqi bared his arm, grasped his wrist,' and drew nearer, saying: "Day and night 1 have been grinding my teeth and beating my breast on this account. But now 1 have heard my instructions." And with this he cut his throat.


When the Crown Prince heard of it, he hastened to the recumbent corpse and mourned with deep grief. But the deed was already accomplished and there was nothing to be done, so he placed the head of Fan Wuqi in a container and closed it. After this the Crown Prince set about to look for one sharp daggers, and obtained one belonging to a man of Zhao….


Then he sang again, a stirring song in the key of A. All the gentlemen assumed a stern gaze and their hair bristled up against their caps. At this point Jing Ke went to his carriage and departed; unto the end he did not look back.


When he arrived in Qin, he took goods worth one thousand catties of gold, and made lavish presents of them to Meng Jia, who was one of the favored ministers of the king of Qin, and an attendant of the heir apparent. ` Meng Jia went on his behalf to speak first to the king of Qin, saying: "Verily, the king of Yan trembles with terror before the majesty of the Great King. He dares not raise soldiers to oppose your military officers, but wishes, taking his kingdom, to become your inner vassal; to set an example to the other feudal lords; to send in tribute like one of your own commanderies or prefectures; and so be allowed to sacrifice to and preserve the temple of his ancestor kings. Being fearful, he dares not present himself, but has cut off the head of Fan Yü‑Qi and placed it in a closed box, together with a map of the territory of Dukang in Yan, which he respectfully presents. The king of Yan, making obeisance, has sent these to the court, and has dispatched an emissary to give news of them to the Great King. May the Great King but command him."


On hearing this, the king of Qin was greatly delighted. He put on court clothing' as for a great state occasion, and gave the Yan emissary an audience in the palace at Xian’yang.


Jing Ke approached to present the box with the head of Fan Wuqi, followed by Qin Wuyang, presenting the container with the map. When they came to the steps of the throne, Qin Wuyang changed color and shook with fear. The courtiers wondered at this. Jing Ke looked at Wuyang with a smile and went forward to excuse him, saying: "He is a common man of the northern barbarians, and has never seen the Son of Heaven. Therefore he shakes with fear. May it please the Great King to excuse him for a little while and allow me, a mere humble emissary, to come forward."


The king of Qin said to Jing Ke: "Bring the map carried by Qin Wuyang." Jing Ke thereupon brought the map and presented it. The king of Qin took out the map, and when it was entirely exposed the dagger appeared. At this moment Jing Ke seized the sleeve of the king of Qin with his left hand, while with his right hand he grasped the dagger and struck at him. But it did not reach his body. The king of Qin, alarmed, drew himself back and leaped up, so that his sleeve tore off. He pulled at his sword, but the sword was long and clung to its scabbard. By this time he was completely terrified. The sword hung vertically, and therefore he could not draw it out immediately. Jing Ke pursued the king of Qin, who ran around a pillar. All the courtiers, thunderstruck, hurriedly jumped up without thinking what they were doing and completely lost their ranks.


According to the Qin laws, none of the courtiers who attended Court in the hall above was allowed to bear any weapon whatsoever.'2 The officers of the guard in charge of the soldiers were all ranged in the hall below, and unless there was a summons they were not allowed to come up. At this moment of emergency, there was no time to call for the soldiers below. Thus Jing Ke pursued the king of Qin, while the latter, in a state of complete panic, having nothing with which to strike Jing Ke, warded him off with his two joined hands.


At this moment an attendant physician, Xia Wuju, struck Jing Ke a blow with his bag of medicine which he was to have presented. The king of Qin was running around and around the pillar, and had completely lost his wits, so that he did not know what he was doing. The bystanders then cried out: "Put your sword behind you, king!"


The king did so, and thus had roorn to pull it out. He struck Jing Ke with it and cut his left thigh. Jing K'o, being disabled, then raised his dagger and hurled it at the king of Qin. It missed him and hit the bronze pillar. The king of Qin struck at Jing Ke repeatedly, so that the latter received eight wounds.


Jing Ke realized that his attempt had failed. He leaned against the pillar and laughed; then squatting down, he cursed the king, saying: "The reason why my attempt did not succeed was that I wished to carry him off alive. Someone else must be found to carry out the pledge to avenge the Crown Prince. " At this point those about him rushed forward and killed Jing Ke.


The king of Qin was not at ease after this for a long time. Later he decided which of the courtiers should be rewarded for their merit, and which punished, each according to his degree. Xi Wuju he rewarded with two hundred yi of yellow gold, saying: "Wuju loves me. With his bag of medicine he struck Jing Ke."


Then the king of Qin was greatly enraged. He sent more soldiers to advance on Zhao, and commanded the army of Wang Jian to attack Yan. In the tenth month it seized the City of Chi." King Xi of Yan, Crown Prince Tan, and their followers all led their best soldiers eastward to defend themselves at Liaotung. The Qin general, Li Xin, pursued and attacked the king of Yan impetuously.


King Jia of Dai  then sent King Xi of Yan a letter that said: "The reason why Qin continues to press Yan so impetuously is Crown Prince Dan. lf now the king would actually kill Dan and give him up to the king of Qin, the king of Qin Would surely desist and your spirits of the soil and grain Would happily have their sacrifices.


Li Xin later pursued Dan, who concealed himself at the river Yan. "' The king of Yan then sent an official who beheaded Crown Prince Tan, wishing to give him up to Qin.

Qin again sent in soldiers to attack him, and five years later Qin completely wiped out Yan and made King Xi of Yan captive. 'The next year the king of Qin unified the world and established for himself the title of Sovereign Ernperor.

After this, Qin pursued the followers of Crown Prince Dan and of Jing Ke, so that they all disappeared. Gao Jianli changed his personal name and his surname, and became a servant. He lived in concealment at Song­zi and for a long time endured much hardship. Once he heard the honored guests of the household playing the lute. He moved about irresolutely and could not go away, and about each of them he expressed his opinion, saying that such and such a person was good or not good. The servants told their rnaster, saying: "That fellow knows music. He takes the liberty of saying what is right and what is wrong." The master of the house summoned him and had him come forward and play the lute. The entire gathering acclaimed his excellence, and rewarded him with wine.

          Gao Jianli, reflecting that he had long been in retirement, and fearing lest his straitened circumstances might continue for an interminable time, withdrew himself and took out from his luggage box his lute and his good clothes. Then, having changed his appearance, he came forward. The entire assemblage of guests was surprised. They descended to give him the honors of an equal, made him an honored guest, and had him play the lute and sing. Then among the guests there was not one who did not shed tears on departing. After this the people of Songzi one after another received him as a guest.


The report of this came to the First Emperor of Qin, who summoned him for an audience. Someone who was there recognized him and said that he was Gao Jianli. But the First Emperor of Qin pitied him for his excellent playing of the lute, and found it difficult to kill him. So he had him blinded and employed him to play the lute. Never was there a time when he did not acclaim his excellence, and little by little he became more familiar with him. Gao Jianli then put some lead inside his lute, and when next he entered and came close, he raised the lute and struck at the First Emperor of Qin. But he missed. Thereupon the Emperor had Gao Jianli put to death, and for the rest of his life he did not again allow followers of the feudal lords to come close to him.


Lu Goujian, having heard of Jing Ke's attempt to stab the king of Qin, privately exclaimed: 'Alas! What a pity that 1 did not discuss with him the arts of swordsmanship. How little do 1 know men! Once 1 reviled him, and now he has made a mere nobody out of me.


The Grand Historian says:


People of the world say that when Jing Ke undertook the mission of

Crown Prince Dan, Heaven rained grain and horses sprouted horns. These are great errors. They also say that Jing Ke wounded the king of Qin. This is all wrong. Gongsun Jigong and Dong Sheng were at one time associates of Xia Wuju, and they both knew about the matter. They have told it to me as it is here. As for the five men from Co Mo down to Jing Ke, sometimes they succeeded in their intentions and sometimes they did not, but the ideas which they based themselves on are clear. They did not betray their resolve, and their names have come down to later generations. How can they have been in vain!


Translated by Derk Bodde