Jian Xuan was a government official who served during the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (r. 141-87 BCE). He had an interesting career path, starting out as a minor district secretary and then a provincial office staffer. He was later recruited to an intriguing job as a horse procurer for the renowned general, Wei Qing (died c. 106/105 BCE), and, on a similar note, was eventually appointed as an aid to the imperial stables. After this climb up the ladder, Jian Xuan finally got his big break as a government law official, first being appointed as left prefect of the capital, and then repositioned to supervisor of the right district of the capital city. Jian Xuan had by this time gone from a start in clerking and procurement to a laudable position in the capital city of the Han Dynasty. His future was looking bright, but fate and fortune can take unpredicted twists and turns, especially for those in the service of ruthless emperors. Unfortunately for Jian Xuan, he would be an example of just how quickly and bizarrely one’s destiny could change.
As the story goes, Jian Xuan became embroiled in a workplace feud during his time as a supervisor of the right district of the capital. The rivalry was with an ambitious official named Cheng Xin, who was, at that time, in a subordinate role serving underneath Jian Xuan. During their feud, Jian Xuan uncovered (or manufactured) a crime that Cheng Xin was alleged to have committed. With that leverage on his side, Jian Xuan called for his rival to be arrested. Law enforcers were indeed sent to arrest the subordinate official, and Cheng Xin felt threatened enough to run away. The arresting force had apparently been given orders to take Cheng Xin dead or alive, so they started launching arrows at him as they chased their prey through the capital. During this deadly race, Cheng Xin reached the imperial park and neared a gated garden that Emperor Wu was quite fond of. Cheng Xin was apparently cornered at the gate of this garden, pinned in by bloodthirsty archers. The bowmen launched a volley of arrows at their target, but here is where they made a great mistake. It is unknown how many arrows hit Cheng Xin, or if he lived or died, but the volley of arrows did indeed strike an object. Along with, or instead of, hitting Cheng Xin, several of the arrows that were launched that fateful day happened to slam and embed themselves into the gate of Emperor Wu’s garden. The arrows stuck in the gate did not go unnoticed, and the bizarre occurrence would have deadly consequences for Jian Xuan.
When Emperor Wu was informed of damage done to his garden gate (and the possible killing that occurred in front of it), he was evidently furious. The emperor directed his officials to throw every penalty and punishment at Jian Xuan in consequence of the incident at the gate. Emperor Wu’s court historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), recorded the emperor’s revenge, writing, “Jian Xuan was charged with the responsibility for the incident and was handed over to the law officials for trial. He was convicted of treason and was sentenced to die along with members of his family, but he anticipated the sentence by taking his own life” (Shi Ji 122). Such was the bizarre downfall of Jian Xuan.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scenes from festivals of the twelve months, by an unidentified Chinese artist from the late 18th or early 19th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.