Desperate Measures in Ancient China: Assassins of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (Part 1)

February 5, 2015 Updated: February 10, 2015

The tales of Chinese assassins are of men whose extreme resolve and loyalty earned them a unique and influential place in Chinese history. Carrying out their fateful missions like one-man armies, these hardened fighters of the Middle Kingdom served a variety of masters with differing motivations.

In his compilations of over 2,000 years of Chinese history, the Han Dynasty scholar Sima Qian, also known simply as “the Grand Historian,” included a section called “The Assassins’ Chronicles” in his monumental work.

Presented below are the stories of three such individuals—a momma’s boy, a midget traitor, and an assassin so good he could kill without killing.

Nothing could be done to convince the usurper to step down voluntarily, so something more drastic had to be done.

Zhuan Zhu Eliminates a Usurper

In the sixth century B.C., China consisted of several kingdoms that struggled for dominance. There lived a man in the kingdom of Wu called Zhuan Zhu. He was built like an ox and had a strong sense of justice. But though he often got in street fights over various wrongdoings, such was the respect Zhuan had for his mother that just one word of hers was enough to stop him in midaction.

Around this time, Wu was in a crisis of succession. Prince Guang had been cheated out of his rightful throne by the pretender King Liao, and he wanted his crown back. Nothing could be done to convince the usurper to step down voluntarily, so something more drastic had to be done.

Prince Guang’s minister and Gen. Wu Zixu knew the right man for the job. That was Zhuan Zhu, whose story is detailed in the Ming Dynasty-era historical novel “Romance of the States in Eastern Zhou.”

At first Zhuan was skeptical, but soon he realized that King Liao was a man who would give in to nothing but force. In addition, Prince Guang gave his word that were Zhuan to succeed in killing the king, his mother would live like a queen for the rest of her days. Zhuan gladly accepted Wu’s request.

As Zhuan prepared for his mission, his mother bade him farewell and then, while he was distracted, hanged herself. She believed that her son’s mission could only succeed if he had complete focus. If she was still on his mind, would that not endanger his chances? Zhuan, seeing the devotion his mother had for him, now knew he could not fail.

But King Liao was cautious. Wherever he went, he went with his army, and was constantly under the direct protection of a hundred skilled bodyguards. At all times he donned a three-layered armored suit. Even a giant of a man like Zhuan Zhu could never hope to so much as land a blow on him.

Zhuan knew he had to do the unexpected. He transformed himself into a chef and mastered a fish dish so delicious that King Liao would not be able to resist.

Sure enough, the usurper soon held a grand banquet. In the presence of the guards, Zhuan changed into all new clothing and was searched thoroughly. Nothing was out of place. As he knelt before the king and presented the savory meal, two armed soldiers stood directly behind him.

As King Liao took in the mouthwatering aroma, Zhuan leapt up from his knees, thrust an arm into the fish, and withdrew from its gut a gleaming dagger. In the blink of an eye and with all his might he plunged the blade through all three layers of the king’s armor into his heart. All that protection did little good after all.

Dozens of guards instantly descended upon Zhuan, turning him into mincemeat. But it was too late. King Liao was dead and soon troops loyal to the rightful heir Prince Guang took control of the royal court.

The Sacrifice of Yao Li

The record of Yao Li, another assassin of the Wu kingdom, is not included in Sima Qian’s chronicles, but appears in the third century B.C. text “Stratagems of the Warring States.”

Shortly after the death of King Liao, Prince Guang, now crowned as King Helu of Wu, was worried that Liao’s son, Qing Ji, might try to take revenge. He once again turned to Wu for assistance.

When Helu saw who Wu recommended, however, he was dismayed. Before him, standing barely 4 feet tall, was the weak and ugly Yao Li.

Nevertheless, Wu assured the king that despite his physique, Yao was perfect, as he possessed an absolutely stoic character even in the face of extreme danger and hardship.

At this time, Qing Ji was building up his forces and manpower to take on King Helu. Seeing this, Yao had a plan.

Yao Li asked Wu Zixu to chop off his hand and kill his entire family. After these drastic acts had been committed, Yao escaped Wu and fled to Qing’s camp, feigning a wish to serve him against King Helu and Wu.

Qing was unsure at first, but soon his informants came back from Wu and confirmed Yao’s story. Qing was convinced that Yao could have no loyalties to Wu after such atrocities, and Yao was hired.

Some time later, Qing Ji who had teamed up with the state of Wei, was ready to retake the kingdom of Wu. As he and his fleet crossed the mighty Yangtze River, Yao Li stood by his side aboard his flagship, a spear in his one remaining hand.

It was a windy day, and as Qing closed his eyes against the gale, Yao didn’t waste any time. In one swift action he drove his spear into Qing’s back.

When the general opened his eyes again, he knew it was over. Calmly, he congratulated Yao for his daring, and ordered his troops not to punish him. Then he pulled the spear out of his flesh and died.

Yao Li, for his part, knew the weight of what he had done to carry out his mission. He listed three mortal transgressions: he had violated the principle of loyalty, since he had declared his allegiance to Qing Ji only to betray him; he had caused his own family to be killed, which was to be unfilial, and he had let himself be mutilated, which in ancient Chinese culture was seen as a grave insult against one’s parents.

With this, and with his mission complete, Yao threw himself overboard and vanished into the depths of the Yangtze.

Lu State, Cao Mo demanded, ought to be returned its ancestral territories before any kind of deal could be reached.

Cao Mo ‘Persuades’ Duke Huan

Almost 200 years before the time of Zhuan Zhu and Yao Li, at the beginning of the seventh century B.C., Duke Huan, ruler of Qi State and the first of the “Five Hegemons,” was making many other territories bend to his ambition. Together with his skilled minister Guan Zhong, Huan crafted a string of alliances in which the state of Qi was the unquestioned leader.

The state of Lu, birthplace of Confucius, was located right next to Qi. A series of conflicts with Qi led to Lu losing several cities and a large tract of territory, a fact that its ruler Duke Zhuang resented. Adding insult to injury, Huan of Qi now wanted Lu to enter his alliance and be further subordinated to his wishes.

Zhuang had in his service a general called Cao Mo. This soldier had lost three wars against Qi, but he was still fiercely loyal to Lu State.

The two dukes met at a town called Ke to attend an “alliance convention,” known in Chinese as a “huimeng,” where negotiations between feudal leaders were held. Zhuang brought Cao with him.

Over food and drink, the rulers of Qi and Lu discussed terms, which of course were skewed in Huan’s favor.

But as the leaders prepared to swear the oath of alliance, Cao rushed up, grabbed Huan, and held a sword to his throat. Holding this powerful man hostage, the general explained to all present that Lu had been bullied into submission and that the terms of the alliance were unfair.

Lu State, Cao demanded, ought to be returned its ancestral territories before any kind of deal could be reached. Huan had little choice but to accept. Amazingly, Cao threw down his sword, Zhuang swore the oath, and festivities continued as though nothing had happened.

Afterward, Huan was understandably enraged by his humiliation. He planned to go back on his promise and punish Lu for its insolence, but his minister Guan stopped him. Though Qi State was indeed a military aggressor at times, the basis of its power lay in the integrity and social values it had delicately cultivated.

Huan listened to Guan and quenched his anger. He indeed returned the conquered territory back to Zhuang of Lu.

Sun Zi, author of the famous “Art of War,” regarded victory without fighting as the highest form of warfare. By this principle, though Cao did not actually assassinate the duke of Qi, it is fitting that his story comes first in Sima’s chronicles of great assassins.

For Part 2 of this series, click here. 

*Image of “ninja” via Shutterstock