According to the Grand Historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), and the various sources he had access to, a truly great musician lived in the kingdom of Yan during the decades leading up to the creation of the Qin Dynasty, founded in 221 BCE by Qin Shihuangdi, the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty. The musician’s name was Gao Jianli and his instrument of choice was the lute. In the city of Ji, the capital of Yan, Gao Jianli could frequently be found in the city’s marketplace, drinking with his friends. Once the wine was flowing, the musician would take out his lute and strum whatever notes or tunes came to mind. One of Gao Jianli’s friends, a wandering swordsman named Jing Ke, would often join in by singing along with the music.
Sometime around 227 BCE, Jing Ke no longer showed up in the market to sing along with the sounds of the lute. Unfortunately, Crown Prince Dan, the heir to the Kingdom of Yan, had sent the swordsman on an ill-fated mission. Armed with the sharpest blade in the realm, and poison to coat its deadly edge, Jing Ke left Yan in order to assassinate King Zheng of Qin, the future First Emperor. Gao Jianli may have had an inkling of what had been put in motion. He was a loyal man of the kingdom of Yan, and he was even said to have been at the city’s gate, playing encouraging music on his lute, as Jing Ke departed the capital.
As King Zheng would eventually become the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty, Jing Ke’s mission obviously failed. After supposedly chasing the king for a few laps around his throne room, Jing Ke was eventually disarmed and executed. When King Zheng found out that the Crown Prince of Yan had organized the attack, Qin retaliated and, by 226 BCE, captured the Yan capital of Ji. In the next few years, Yan and all of the other rival kingdoms of ancient China were systematically subjugated by King Zheng, who ended his conquests in 221 BCE, marking the beginning of the Qin Dynasty.
After his homeland was defeated, Gao Jianli went into hiding. He was a known associate of Jing Ke and rightly suspected that the emperor would show little mercy to an assassin’s acquaintance. Therefore, Gao Jianli stopped playing the lute and became a laborer and a servant in the city of Songzi. Though he strictly did not play his lute in public, the musician could not stop from openly critiquing the music played by other people. Impressed by the knowledgeable criticisms, many of Gao Jiangli’s coworkers began to suspect that he had a background in music.
The mumblings of the workers eventually reached the owner of the house in which Gao Jianli was employed. One day, when the master of the house was entertaining guests, he summoned the musician to where everyone had congregated. Handing the man a spare lute, he asked Gao Jianli to play for the crowd. Unable to resist the temptation of strumming a few chords, Gao Jianli hesitantly plucked at the strings. Even though it was his first public performance in years, the musician impressed the audience. Praising Gao Jianli’s ability, the crowd cheered and poured him rounds of wine. The musician, touched by their applause, went back to his trunk, took out his personal lute and donned garments left over from his heyday in the kingdom of Yan. When he returned to the guests in his fashionable clothes and his well-used lute, he put on a masterful encore, which was moving enough to leave tears in eyes of every listener.
After that performance, Gao Jianli’s fame grew exponentially. He toured from house to house in Songzi, playing concerts for wealthy patrons who wanted to hear his music. Each successful recital increased the musician’s renown, causing Gao Jiangli’s popularity to overflow out of the city and into the surrounding provinces. Eventually, word of the musician’s skill even reached Xianyang, the capital city of the Qin Dynasty.
Impressed by the rumors, the First Emperor summoned the mysterious musician to play before the imperial court. Instead of withdrawing back into hiding, Gao Jianli decided to try his luck, hoping that his past life was either forgotten or forgiven. There is also the possibility that he was tired after years of living in the shadows and decided to stop running. Whatever the motivation, Gao Jianli packed his belongings and traveled to meet with the emperor. Unfortunately, the musician was immediately recognized by one of the emperor’s courtiers. When the First Emperor heard that the man was an associate of the assassin, Jing Ke, he ordered that Gao Jianli’s eyes be removed as punishment. The musician’s life, however, was spared because the emperor still wanted to hear the man perform.
The emperor was apparently very fond of Gao Jianli’s music and was said to have let the musician come remarkably close when he played. Although Gao Jianli had been blinded, he still could sense how near the emperor let him approach. Still bitter about the downfall of his homeland—not to mention the loss of his eyes—the blind lutist began planning his revenge. The musician was able to scavenge a heavy piece of lead and secretly attached it to the inside of his lute. With the cumbersome instrument in hand, Gao Jianli approached the emperor and, listening intently, tried to pinpoint the monarch’s exact location. When he thought the emperor was near, the blind musician swung the heavy lute with all of his might, hoping to bludgeon the tyrant to death. Unfortunately, Gao Jainli misjudged the distance and hit nothing but air. Outraged by the incident, the First Emperor had the bold musician immediately executed.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Musician statue from a Matsuoka Museum of Art in front of a 3rd-century depiction of Jing Ke’s attack on King Zheng, both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.