In the curious scene displayed above, an artist (whose name remains unknown) re-created an assassination attempt that was carried out against King Zheng of Qin (r. 246-210 BCE)—the man who would eventually become the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty in China. The assassin, located on the left side of the artwork, was a man named Jing Ke. He had been hired by Crown Prince Dan of Yan to carry out the assassination of King Zheng of Qin. Jing Ke gained access to his target by arriving with a box that carried the head of a man that the king of Qin wanted dead. Additionally, the assassin carried a map that would be profitable for future military campaigns that the king of Qin was planning. With these gifts in hand, Jing Ke was allowed to have an audience with the king. Yet, the map had an extra surprise; folded within it was the dagger Jing Ke planned to use in his attack. Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE) recorded the odd drama that ensued once the assassin reached his target and presented his gifts:
“The king opened the container, and when he had removed the map, the dagger appeared. At that moment Jing Ke seized the king’s sleeve with his left hand, while with his right he snatched up the dagger and held it pointed at the king’s breast, but he did not stab him. The king jerked back in alarm and leapt from his seat, tearing the sleeve off his robe. He tried to draw his sword, but it was long and clung to the scabbard…Jing Ke ran after the king, who dashed around the pillar of the room. All the courtiers, utterly dumbfounded by so unexpected an occurrence, milled about in disorder….Having nothing with which to strike at Jing Ke, the king in panic-stricken confusion merely flailed at him with his hands. At the same time the physician Xia Wuju, who was in attendance, battered Jing Ke with the medicine bag he was carrying. The king continued to circle the pillar, unable in his confusion to think of anything else to do. ‘Push the scabbard around behind you!’ shouted the king’s attendants, and when he did this, he was at last able to draw his sword and strike at Jing Ke, slashing him across the left thigh. Jing Ke, staggering to the ground, raised the dagger and hurled it at the king, but it missed and struck the bronze pillar. The king attacked Jing Ke again” (Records of the Grand Historian, Shi Ji 86).
Whoever created the artwork above followed the story closely. Included in the artist’s re-creation of the scene were the panicking courtiers, the gift boxes with the head and the map, the bronze pillar around which the assassin and the king ran in circles, as well as the dagger that became stuck in the post after the assassin made his inaccurate throw. As can be guessed from King Zheng of Qin’s future history as the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, the assassination attempt failed and it was instead Jing Ke who was captured and killed after the chaotic brawl. For information on King Zheng’s revenge against Crown Prince Dan of Yan, read our article, HERE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- 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.