Chinese Legend about Jing Ke

“This is an actual—I won’t say it’s history—it’s history-legend.

“Basically, during the Spring and Autumn period in China, around the time of—I think it was 250 to 300 BC, China was under a period of war. There was about a century of—just constant war and chaos. The country was divided into a lot of little states; in fact, there were so many of them that we barely have record of all of them. Slowly, these states started combining—conquering each other—and there were seven states left at the end of the spring and autumn period. And we call them the warring states; they were the seven warring states. Out of the seven, the strongest was called Qin, and it later became the Qin Dynasty, which had the world’s first emperor. But, since he was an emperor in an age where everybody was more or less free, people didn’t like him very much. So, there were numerous assassinating attempts at him, and one of the most famous ones was by this person called Jing Ke, who was a—he was a sort of a brave man, that’s how they describe him, but he didn’t have a position in the government. So, some of the officials in one of the seven states decided that we really needed to get rid of Qin, the Emperor Qin. So, one went to Jing Ke and said that ‘We need you to go and assassinate him.’ And he said, ‘Okay, but you have to provide for me.’ So, for three years, Jing Ke stayed in this official’s house, in his palace, they treated him well, they gave him whatever he wanted, they covered him with gold if he wanted it. And after three years, he said, ‘Okay, it’s time for me to fulfill my promise.’ But in order to get close to the emperor of Qin, who was very suspicious, I need something as a gift to give to him.” And, there was a defect general from the state of Qin who went to this country, and they went up to the general and said, ‘We need your head as an offering to the emperor of Qin to prove our loyalty, so we can get close to him.’ So, the general actually said, ‘Sure.’ I know it sounds very improbable, but he cut off his own head and put it in his own two hands and gave it to Jing Ke so he could bring it to the emperor. In addition to that, he brought with him a scroll with a map on it. And the map was of a certain part of the states he was in, and he was supposed to give the Qin Dynasty that state as a show of loyalty, basically. So Jing Ke went, he took the scroll and the head, he went up to the emperor of Qin, who was very happy—he didn’t like that defect general very much—and he wanted the man. So, he allowed him a reception, and he was allowed to see the emperor of Qin, which back then was a very difficult thing to do; he kept everybody away from him, even his most trusted generals and people. And, he presented the head, and then he unrolled the scroll, and as the scroll unrolled, the emperor became happier and happier because he saw the part of the land that he was supposed to get—it’s a very fat piece of land that he’s been wanting for a very long while. But, once he finished unrolling the scroll, at the end of the scroll was a dagger, and he picked up the dagger and attempted to stab the emperor Qin. But the emperor was a—he was himself a fighting man, so he managed to dodge the strike, and he tried to draw his sword, but he couldn’t, because it was stuck. And all of his people—his units, I guess, at that time—weren’t allowed to carry weapons in front of the emperor Qin. So, all of them were unarmed, and they can’t help the emperor, so the emperor had to be chased around the palace by an assassin with a dagger, until Jing Ke accidentally got his dagger stuck in one of the pillars. Back in those days the pillars were wooden and they were heavy. You know those Californian redwoods? They sort of looked like that, and they were painted bright red. And he got his dagger stuck in it, and he tried to grab onto the emperor of Qin, but the emperor of Qin let his sleeve get ripped off—to run away from him—and at last, when he managed to draw his sword, Jing Ke looked at him and said, ‘I failed. I’m going to give this one last ditch attempt,’ and he threw his dagger at him, which got stuck on the pillar behind the emperor of Qin, and didn’t kill him. And it is said that all of the strength of the emperor of Qin could not pull the dagger out of the pillar because he was that powerful. But, in any case, the assassination failed, but what we’re supposed to learn from this story is loyalty—you’re supposed to be loyal to your lord, even if it’s a death mission, a suicidal mission. You have to carry it out, and you have to live your last moment trying to carry it out. And if you make a promise, you always have to keep it. He spent three years being lavished in wealth, and he could have just run away, but since the lord put trust in him, he has to honor that trust. So that’s the story of Jing Ke, which is pretty famous, I think it’s actually recorded in the records of the Grand Historian, which is like the history book of ancient China.

“Within families with children, I know this is a story that parents often tell their children. So, I think most people heard it from word of mouth. I wouldn’t say a lot of people have read the records of the Grand Historian. It’s a dry book; basically, it’s written in ancient Chinese, which you can read, but it’s in nearly incomprehensible prose. You need, like, a translation on the other side. It’s even worse than reading Shakespeare. So, most people haven’t actually read it. I’ve actually read it, when I was in high school, but I would still consider it folklore because most people haven’t.

“The thing about the record of the Grand Historian is that it’s not only dedicated to kings and generals, as most historical books are—he had a specific section called “The Annals of Assassins,” which just talks about normal people who had done extraordinary, brave acts. And most of them were assassins, and Jing Ke was in it. So whether it’s history or legendary-history, well—we’re not quite sure.”

Q. Why do you think this story is so famous, as opposed to other stories?

A. Well, since China was an imperial state for three thousand—well, two thousand five hundred—years, you are always encouraged to be loyal to lords, governments, and royalty. Betrayal is something that you don’t want to instill in your general population. So, that’s probably one of the reasons why it was spread in the first place. And so, even though we’re no longer in an imperial state—I’m from Taiwan, which is a democracy—it’s still a story that people find to be very brave and heroic, and worth telling. Another fun thing about it is that it shows that kings and emperors aren’t supposed to treat their subjects badly. If their subjects do something for them, they’re supposed to reward them equally. If your subject gives you his life, you’re supposed to shower them with wealth and treat them well for the time they have to live. And I think all the common people—they like that kind of thinking. They want their kings and emperors, their people higher up, to respect them if they do something extraordinary.

Analysis: This story reflects the history of civil war in China; it makes sense that emperors and nobility would promulgate such a tale, as it encourages people to serve them wholeheartedly and zealously. Glorified long after his death, Jing Ke has become a folklorized historical figure. Viewed in a different light, however, the story could also be a double-edged sword, teaching people not to trust war lords—Jing Ke is basically sent on a death mission, so this story testifies to the reality that war lords tended not to place a very high value upon human life.