The last and by far most famous of assassins in Sima Qian’s chronicles is Jing Ke, the man who tried and nearly succeeded in killing the king of Qin, better known for his later role as the conqueror and first emperor of China.
The five centuries of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty ended with the Warring States Period, a time characterized by totalitarian statesmen and bloody military campaigns involving hundreds of thousands of men.
By the late third century B.C., the western Chinese state of Qin, led by its ruthless king Ying Zheng, had built up an unstoppable war machine and was in the process of leading it on a rapid series of victories that would crush the final obstacles standing between him and dominion over “all under heaven,” namely, the remaining six states that made up feudal China.
Prince Dan Enlists Jing Ke
One of these obstacles was the northeastern state of Yan, located roughly around today’s Beijing. Its ruler, Prince Dan of Yan, looked at the Qin jackboots heading his way and knew he needed a solution. He found that solution in the form of two men—the escaped Qin general, Fan Wuji, whose family had been executed for his disloyalty to the Qin king—and Jing.
Jing Ke was a scholar and swordsman who hailed from the state of Wei. Wei was just one of the countless lands swallowed up by Qin, and Jing had no choice but to flee to Yan State, which held on precariously in the face of impending invasion.
Prince Dan was desperate, as were the remaining independent states. Maybe, just maybe, he thought, if the Qin state were stripped of its head, the whole regime, built on unquestioned fear and undying loyalty to its ruler, would falter or even collapse, saving Yan and other states from certain destruction.
The prince of Yan enlisted the services of Jing Ke, who set out to plan his fateful mission.
General Fan Wuji Gives His Head for Jing Ke’s Mission
Jing Ke needed to find a way to get to the Qin king and put an end to him. Not only were guests and envoys thoroughly searched for any weapons before they were granted permission to enter the area surrounding Ying Zheng’s throne, but even the king’s own guards were under strict orders not to move into the space with arms of any sort.
Luckily, Ying was still open to seeing diplomats, especially when they came bearing gifts. Furthermore, he was also eager to see his enemies destroyed, be they residing within or beyond his borders. The defector Fan Wuji was no exception.
Ever since the death of his family, Gen. Fan was consumed by his hatred for the Qin tyrant; indeed it had surpassed his will to live. Thus, when Jing Ke suggested that Fan slit his own throat so that his head could be presented to Ying Zheng as tribute, thereby enabling Jing to approach and slay him, the general agreed almost immediately.
But just the head of a traitor would not suffice; where would Jing Ke hide his weapon? The prince of Yan helped out. He had a map scroll drafted showing a number of border territories ostensibly to be handed over to Qin as tribute in exchange for improved relations. When rolled up, the scroll was the perfect hiding place for a small dagger, so sharp that just sliding it lightly across skin would slice into the flesh. It was also coated in a potent poison.
Messengers were sent, and the Qin king was informed of the “news:” Prince Dan of Yan wanted to make peace, and was prepared to prove it by delivering the head of the traitorous Fan Wuji and conceding a tract of land.
King Ying Zheng accepted the proposal, and Jing Ke went forth to the west. As he went, he sang the words “winds blow, rivers freeze. The hero fords, never returns!”
Showdown in the Qin Court
At the Qin court, Jing Ke ascended to the stage on which stood Ying Zheng’s royal throne. So far so good: no weapon had been found on the assassin’s person. The king rose, and ascertained that the head Jing had brought was indeed that of the late general Fan.
Next came the map.
Jing unrolled the bamboo scroll, then suddenly, as he reached the end, grabbed the blade hidden within with one hand and, with the other, made a reach for the king’s arm to draw him into range.
Jing Ke clutched Ying Zheng’s silken sleeves. They ripped, and the king backed off, shaken.
The king, out of his wits, could not think to utter the commands that would allow his soldiers onto the stage. No one in the court dared make a move.
The assassin and the tyrant played a short, fateful game of cat and mouse that ended only when, disobeying orders, the king’s doctor threw a satchel of medicines at Jing Ke. As the assassin hesitated, a voice from below shrieked at the king, beckoning him to draw his sword, which until now had hung uselessly in its sheath while the ruler fled and ducked.
Sword drawn, Ying Zheng regained composure and struck Jing Ke, maiming him. Jing threw his dagger at the king, but to no avail. He chuckled and accepted his defeat.
Recoiling from the shock, the future emperor of China slashed at Jing Ke eight times before resheathing his weapon.
The failure of Jing was the death knell for Yan and the other states that held out against Qin rule. Their leaders fooled, bribed, and divided, the six states had their heads buried in the sand until it was too late. In 221 B.C., Qin State conquered China and the tyrant Ying Zheng became Qin Shi Huang Di, the First Emperor of Qin, from which the English name for China is derived.
Qin’s regime lasted only 15 years, before its disintegration and replacement by the glorious Han Dynasty. Later generations remember Jing Ke as a fearless stalwart who stood up to the tyrannical First Emperor while carrying out his duties.