This story took place during the Warring States (771 – 221BC) where China was divided into seven major states, with the State of Qin being the strongest and the weakest being the State of Zhao.
The ruler of Zhao, Emperor Huiwen, acquired a piece of invaluable jade which was known as the Jade of He. Emperor Zhaoxiang of Qin heard the news and wanted to take the jade for himself. Being a stronger state, Qin sent an envoy to deliver a letter to the Emperor of Zhao, expressing his wish to exchange fifteen cities for the Jade of He.
This put the Emperor of Zhao in a dilemma. He feared that the Emperor of Qin might break his promise if he went through with the Qin Emperor's wishes. However, should he refuse the deal, the Emperor of Qin might invade his country. Minister Miu suggested to the Zhou Emperor that he should consult with Lin Xiangru, his personal adviser.
Lin Xiangru said to the Emperor of Zhao, “The State of Qin is strong while our state is weak, so I think it is very difficult for us to refuse the deal.” The Zhao Emperor replied, “What if the Emperor of Qin takes my jade but won't give me the cities in return?”
Lin replied immediately, “The State of Qin wants to exchange its cities for the jade. If we refuse, it is our fault. But on the contrary, if the Emperor of Qin receives the jade without giving us the cities, the fault lies with him. So, I think we'd better send the jade to the State of Qin.”
The Zhao Emperor said, “What you just said is reasonable. Then whom shall we send to the Qin Emperor as an envoy?” Without any hesitation, Lin replied, “Your Great Majesty, if you have no better person at your service, I would like to go. If the Emperor of Qin keeps his promise and gives the cities to our state, I will give the jade to him. If he breaks his promise, I will see to it that the jade be brought back to you intact.”
Then the Zhao Emperor sent Lin on a journey to the west towards the State of Qin.
Upon meeting the Qin Emperor, Lin presented the jade to him. The Emperor was extremely pleased and he showed the jade to his concubines and everyone around him, all of whom exclaimed their praises to His Majesty. Lin saw that the Qin Emperor had no intention of giving the State of Zhao fifteen cities in exchange. He straightened himself, walked to the Emperor and said, “The Jade of He is the rarest treasure in the world but it has a minor flaw. Let me show it to you,” and Qin Emperor returned the jade to Lin.
Taking the jade from the King's hand, Lin immediately took a few steps backward and stopped in front of a large column. Anger made his hair stand up straight and prepared himself for what he was to say.
He said to the Emperor, “Your Majesty sent a message to the Emperor of Zhao that you wish to have this jade. When the Zhao ministers heard this, they all worried that the State of Qin is greedy and wants to have the jade without giving us the cities in exchange. I thought that even ordinary people would not cheat in a mutual exchange, let alone a powerful state. In addition, we do not want to make Qin unhappy over a piece jade.”
He continued, “The Emperor of Zhao fasted for five days, and then asked me to present the jade to you. Why did he do this? He respects the power of your state. Now I am here, but you have received me without ritual and with arrogance. You took the jade to show off to others. I see you have no intention to give Zhao the cities in return, so I have decided to take the jade back. If Your Majesty forces me to give the jade to you then I will smash my head with the jade on this column and break it into pieces.” Having said this, he posed himself ready to smash his head on the jade. Fearing that Lin would break the jade into pieces, the Qin Emperor immediately had a map fetched and marked out fifteen cities in Qin for the Kingdom of Zhao. By this time, Lin saw through the Qin Emperor's facade. Lin made up an excuse and told the Qin Emperor that he would be engaged in fasting for five days to show his sincerity and respect for the jade and by then, could he give the jade to the Qin Emperor.
The Emperor of Qin saw he could not obtain the jade by force. In order to obtain the jade, he promised to fast for five days as well. Lin made good use of this chance and arranged a disguised subordinate to take the jade secretly back to Zhao.
Five days later, the Qin emperor learned that Lin had returned the jade to the State of Zhao. He was very angry but understood that killing him would result in no gain and would injure the relationship with Zhao. He treated Lin with a proper ritual and sent him back to Zhao. Upon returning, Lin Xiangru was promoted to serve in the Zhao court.
Later on, the Chinese colloquial phrase, “return the jade intact to the state of Zhao” (wan bi gui zhao) came to be used to refer to the act of returning something to its original owner safe and sound.
Source: Sima Qian (6th century BCE), Records of the Grand Historian (Shi Ji).