The Ancient Royal Blunder Of Crown Prince Dan of Yan



In 227 BCE, the Kingdom of Qin was well on its way to becoming the sole ruling power in ancient China. In fact, the Qin leader at that time, King Zheng (r. 246-210 BCE), was only about six years away from decisively subjugating all of his rival kings and declaring himself the First Emperor of China. Consequently, King Zheng would have been seen by his contemporaries as the most threatening king, in charge of the most powerful state of the age. As such, the kings who had not already submitted to Qin rule were desperate to remove King Zheng from power.

Crown Prince Dan, son of the King of Yan, decided to take matters into his own hands and sent an assassin by the name of Jing Ke to kill the powerful monarch of Qin. Nevertheless, King Zheng was a paranoid man who benefitted from a tough network of personal security. Jing Ke, like several future assassins, did not accomplish his mission and was instead captured by the Qin. According to the first major historian of China, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), Jing Ke was gruesomely executed by being pulled apart, his limbs torn from his body. Yet, before the execution was over, King Zheng learned that it was none other than the Crown Prince of Yan who had hired the assassin.

King Zheng of Qin, like the vast majority of kings from the Warring States Period in which he lived and would eventually end, was a wrathful king who rarely forgave insults or attacks. Therefore, before the year (227 BCE) was over, King Zheng placed two of his most accomplished generals, Wang Jiang and Xia Sheng, in charge of an army meant to invade the Kingdom of Yan. When the king of Yan heard of the approaching army, he mobilized his forces and marched out to meet the approaching Qin. The state of Dai also contributed its forces to the Yan army, as the Dai also felt threatened by the ever-expanding Qin. In the end, King Zheng’s forces clashed with the armies of Yan and Dai near the Yi River and won a decisive victory.

The next year, in 226 BCE, the Qin forces were free to move about in the Kingdom of Yan. They besieged the kingdom’s capital of Ji, and once reinforcements arrived, they stormed the city. During or after the battle for the capital, the Qin general, Wang Jiang, captured Crown Prince Dan and executed him by beheading. And so, while the earlier assassin sent by the Crown Prince had failed in his mission, the army dispatched by King Zheng proved more than capable of seeking vengeance against the Kingdom of Yan.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Rubbing of a 3rd century stone thought to depict Jin Ke’s attempted assassination of Emperor Shihuangdi, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


  • The Basic Annals of Qin in the Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

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