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Illustration by Xinmei Liu

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.6, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.1, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.3, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.10, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Time, Continuity, and Change • People, Places, and Environments • Power, Authority, and Governance

FLASHBACK

Ancient China

The Emperor and the Assassin

The epic true story of a ruler hungry for power, the young swordsman sent to stop him, and the rise of an empire

As You Read, Think About: What events helped China become a unified nation?

Come, said the king’s assistant. His Majesty would see him now. At that moment, Jing Ke must have wondered whether he could really go through with it. After all, he had arrived with a terrible task—to kill the ruler. Jing knew the king wasn’t the only one who might die. With guards protecting the king, the scholar and swordsman had almost no chance of getting out alive. Was he prepared to die?

Yes, he told himself, he was. He had already come this far, and for this exact purpose. 

Time must have slowed to a crawl for Jing as he was brought before King Zheng, the leader of the ancient state of Qin (chin), located in what is now China (see map, below). The ruler was rumored to be a ruthless tyrant. Jing watched as King Zheng slowly descended from his throne. The palace guards stood at a distance, unarmed. They were not allowed to carry weapons in the king’s presence. That was Jing’s only hope for carrying out his mission.

The year was 227 B.C. Jing had been sent as a messenger by Prince Dan of the state of Yan, nearly 500 miles away. At the time, King Zheng’s kingdom of Qin was preparing to conquer Yan. It was Jing’s job to stop that.

The king was naturally suspicious of the messenger. So Jing had come bearing two very special gifts to try to earn his trust. 

The first gift was the severed head of Fan Wuji, one of King Zheng’s former generals, who had fled to Yan. The king considered him a traitor and was delighted to receive this present.

The second gift was a rolled-up map. It detailed a valuable piece of territory that Prince Dan was offering King Zheng in exchange for Yan’s independence. But this gift was a trick. Concealed inside the map was a third item: Jing’s secret weapon, a poisoned dagger.

Jing began to unroll the map—setting into motion a fight to the death between the two men. Their battle would become the source of an ancient legend, a moment of truth that led to the founding of present-day China.

Come, said the king’s assistant. His Majesty would see him now. At that moment, Jing Ke must have wondered whether he could really go through with it. After all, he had arrived with a terrible task. He was to kill the ruler. Jing knew the king was not the only one who might die. Guards were protecting the king. So Jing, a scholar and swordsman, had almost no chance of getting out alive. Was he prepared to die?

Yes, he told himself. He was. He had already come this far. And he had come for this exact purpose.

Time must have slowed to a crawl for Jing as he was brought before King Zheng. The king was the leader of the ancient state of Qin (chin). Qin was located in what is now China (see map, below). The ruler was rumored to be a ruthless tyrant. Jing watched as King Zheng slowly stepped down from his throne. The palace guards stood at a distance. They were unarmed. They were not allowed to carry weapons in the king’s presence. That was Jing’s only hope for carrying out his mission.

The year was 227 B.C. Jing had been sent as a messenger by Prince Dan of the state of Yan. Yan was nearly 500 miles away. At the time, King Zheng’s kingdom of Qin was preparing to conquer Yan. It was Jing’s job to stop that.

The king was naturally suspicious of the messenger. So Jing had come carrying two very special gifts to try to earn his trust.

The first gift was the cut-off head of Fan Wuji. One of King Zheng’s former generals, he had fled to Yan. The king, who considered him a traitor, was delighted to receive this present.

The second gift was a rolled-up map. It showed a valuable piece of territory that Prince Dan was offering King Zheng. He was offering it in exchange for Yan’s independence. But this gift was a trick. Hidden inside the map was a third item. It was Jing’s secret weapon, a poisoned dagger.

Jing began to unroll the map. That set into motion a fight to the death between the two men. Their battle would become the source of an ancient legend. It was a moment of truth that led to the founding of present-day China.

Illustration by Xinmei Liu

Millions of people were forced to build the Great Wall of China during the Qin Dynasty.

A Desperate Plan

By the time of that historic confrontation, Chinese civilization was already centuries old. But China was not yet a nation. Much of the area it now occupies was divided into seven kingdoms. For more than two centuries, they had been fighting one another for supremacy. Today, this time is known as the Warring States Period (475 B.C.-221 B.C.). 

Under King Zheng, the kingdom of Qin was steadily conquering the other states. Prince Dan knew that his could be next. So he hatched a desperate plan to assassinate the king. If the attempt was successful, he believed, it could throw the kingdom of Qin into chaos and allow the other states to fight back.

But who could possibly perform such a heroic act? One of the prince’s advisers recommended a man named Jing Ke.

By the time of that historic clash, Chinese civilization was already centuries old. But China was not yet a nation. Much of the area it now occupies was divided into seven kingdoms. For more than two centuries, they had been fighting one another for control. Today, this time is known as the Warring States Period (475 B.C.-221 B.C.).

Under King Zheng, the kingdom of Qin was steadily conquering the other states. Prince Dan knew that his state could be next. So he came up with a desperate plan to assassinate the king. If the attempt was successful, he believed, it could throw the kingdom of Qin into chaos. It could allow the other states to fight back.

But who could possibly perform such a heroic act? One of the prince’s advisers recommended a man named Jing Ke.

Jing Receives His Mission

Experts know very little about Jing. Ancient China’s first historian wrote that Jing was a scholar and skilled swordsman who had been seeking a position in Prince Dan’s court. When he was tasked with this difficult mission from the prince himself, Jing couldn’t possibly say no. Accepting the challenge was a matter of honor. 

Could Jing pull off the plan? It wouldn’t be easy. First, he needed to convince King Zheng’s former general Fan Wuji to make the ultimate sacrifice and take his own life. That would allow Jing to win the king’s favor with the gift of a traitor’s head. It was a difficult thing to ask. But after the general deserted Qin’s army, his relatives had been killed on King Zheng’s orders. The general was willing to die for a chance at revenge.

And so, with the map, dagger, and head in hand, Jing prepared to face King Zheng. On the banks of the River Yi, Prince Dan and the people of his court gathered to bid Jing farewell. Everyone wore white as a sign of mourning, as if for someone who had already died. 

“Brave men, once gone, never come back!” Jing sang. With that, he set off to meet his fate.

Experts know very little about Jing. Ancient China’s first historian wrote that Jing was a scholar and skilled swordsman. He had been seeking a position in Prince Dan’s court. He was given this difficult mission by the prince himself. So Jing could not possibly say no. Accepting the challenge was a matter of honor.

Could Jing pull off the plan? It would not be easy. First, he needed to convince King Zheng’s former general Fan Wuji to make the ultimate sacrifice and take his own life. That would allow Jing to win the king’s favor with the gift of a traitor’s head. It was a difficult thing to ask. But after the general deserted Qin’s army, his relatives had been killed on King Zheng’s orders. The general was willing to die for a chance at revenge.

And so, with the map, dagger, and head in hand, Jing prepared to face King Zheng. On the banks of the River Yi, Prince Dan and the people of his court gathered to bid Jing farewell. Everyone wore white as a sign of mourning, as if for someone who had already died.

“Brave men, once gone, never come back!” Jing sang. With that, he set off to meet his fate.

A Fight To The Death

Almost as soon as Jing approached his foe, his plan started to unravel. As he unrolled the map, King Zheng spied the dagger—and backed away. The king reached for the sword at his side, but it was so long it got caught in his robes. So he ran. Jing grabbed the dagger and chased after him.

Almost as soon as Jing approached his foe, his plan started to unravel. As he unrolled the map, King Zheng saw the dagger. The king backed away. He reached for the sword at his side. But it was so long it got caught in his robes. So he ran. Jing grabbed the dagger and chased after him.

The fight to the death between the two men became an ancient legend.

In a panic, the king ducked behind a pillar. Then his doctor, standing nearby, took the medicine bag he was carrying and threw it at Jing, briefly stunning the attacker. This gave the king enough time to draw his sword and strike Jing in the leg, wounding him. Jing threw the dagger, but missed. The knife knocked uselessly against the pillar. King Zheng closed in for the kill, stabbing Jing to death. 

The plan had failed. Prince Dan’s last hope had died with Jing.

In a panic, the king ducked behind a pillar. His doctor was standing nearby. The doctor took the medicine bag he was carrying and threw it at Jing. This briefly stunned the attacker. That gave the king enough time to draw his sword. He struck Jing in the leg, wounding him. Jing threw the dagger, but missed. The knife knocked uselessly against the pillar. King Zheng closed in for the kill, stabbing Jing to death.

The plan had failed. Prince Dan’s last hope had died with Jing.

The First Emperor

Within a year, King Zheng conquered Yan. By 221 B.C., he had seized all of the warring states, uniting a massive area that would later become known as China. Triumphant, he gave himself the title Qin Shi Huangdi (First Emperor of Qin). 

Declaring that his dynasty would last 10,000 generations, the new emperor quickly strengthened control over his empire. He stripped the old royal families of power and appointed loyal supporters to oversee distant regions. To protect his kingdom from invaders, he ordered that some sections of wall at the empire’s northern border be joined together—the origin of the Great Wall of China. 

At the same time, the First Emperor laid the foundations of a unified society from his capital near the present-day city of Xi’an. He established a code of law and built a vast network of roads. He also ordered his scholars to develop a standardized method of writing that became a model for modern Chinese characters.  

But the emperor remained a tyrant who trusted no one. Over time, he grew more and more isolated and paranoid. He ordered the burning of all books by scholars and historians, hoping to erase the memory of past rulers. He was also superstitious and traveled to distant parts of his kingdom looking for the secret to everlasting life. 

Yet the First Emperor didn’t live long as a ruler. He died in 210 B.C. Historians believe he may have unintentionally poisoned himself by taking pills he hoped would help him live forever. He was buried in a massive tomb, guarded by thousands of clay statues known today as the terra-cotta warriors. 

Within a year, King Zheng conquered Yan. By 221 B.C., he had seized all of the warring states. That united a massive area that would later become known as China. He was triumphant. So he gave himself the title Qin Shi Huangdi (First Emperor of Qin).

The new emperor declared that his dynasty would last 10,000 generations. He quickly strengthened control over his empire. He stripped the old royal families of power. And he appointed loyal supporters to oversee distant regions. To protect his kingdom from invaders, he ordered that some sections of wall at the empire’s northern border be joined together. That was the origin of the Great Wall of China.

At the same time, the First Emperor laid the foundations of a unified society. He did that from his capital near the present-day city of Xi’an. He established a code of law. He built a vast network of roads. He also ordered his scholars to develop a standardized method of writing. That became a model for modern Chinese characters.

But the emperor remained a tyrant. He trusted no one. Over time, he grew more and more isolated and paranoid. He ordered the burning of all books by scholars and historians, hoping to erase the memory of past rulers. He was also superstitious. He traveled to distant parts of his kingdom looking for the secret to everlasting life.

Yet the First Emperor did not live long as a ruler. He died in 210 B.C. Historians believe he may have unintentionally poisoned himself by taking pills that he hoped would help him live forever. He was buried in a huge tomb, guarded by thousands of clay statues known today as the terra-cotta warriors.

A New Kind of Empire

Without the ruthless control of its former leader, the empire was quickly torn apart by warring groups. But in 202 B.C., it was reunited by the Han Dynasty, which would rule for 400 years. Like the other dynasties that followed, it based its strong central government on the First Emperor’s. 

Indeed, for thousands of years, “the power in China was controlled by just one or a few rulers. Common people had no rights,” says Jinmei Yuan, a professor of philosophy and Chinese literature. Whether people lived comfortably or suffered depended greatly on the emperor at the time, she explains. 

Although the First Emperor was cruel, he “created order out of chaos,” says historian Yuri Pines, an expert on ancient China. That so many dynasties modeled their governments on his makes him “one of the most powerful individuals in Chinese, and perhaps in all human history,” Pines writes.

Without the ruthless control of its former leader, the empire was quickly torn apart by warring groups. But in 202 B.C., it was reunited by the Han Dynasty, which would rule for 400 years. Like the other dynasties that followed, it based its strong central government on the First Emperor’s.

Indeed, for thousands of years, “the power in China was controlled by just one or a few rulers. Common people had no rights,” says Jinmei Yuan. She is a professor of philosophy and Chinese literature. Whether people lived comfortably or suffered depended greatly on the emperor at the time, she explains.

Although the First Emperor was cruel, he “created order out of chaos,” says historian Yuri Pines, an expert on ancient China. That so many dynasties modeled their governments on his makes him “one of the most powerful individuals in Chinese, and perhaps in all human history,” Pines writes.