The last and by far most famous of assassins in Sima Qian’s chronicles is Jing Ke, the man who tried and nearly succeeded in killing the king of Qin, better known for his later role as the conqueror and first emperor of China.
In 230 BC, the Qin state began conquering other states as part of a unification plan.
Jing Ke originally came from the State of Wei. He was a scholar, proficient in the art of the sword. When his homeland of Wei was absorbed by Qin, Jing Ke fled to Yan.
Prince Dan was desperate, as were the remaining independent states. Maybe, just maybe, he thought, if the Qin state were stripped of its head, the whole regime, built on unquestioned fear and undying loyalty to its ruler, would falter or even collapse, saving Yan and other states from certain destruction.
A martial traveler named Tian Guang first introduced him to Prince Dan. There Jing Ke accepted the hospitality of Prince Dan, who as a last resort decided to send an assassin against the King of Qin. The plan involved either kidnapping the king and forcing him to release the territories from his control; or failing this, killing him. The expectation in either case was that Qin would be left disorganized, enabling the other six major states to unite against it.
In 228 BC, the Qin army was already at the Zhao capital of Handan, and was waiting to approach the state of Yan. Jing Ke agreed to go to Qin and pretend to be a nobleman begging for mercy.
According to events at the time, Dukang was the first part of the Yan state that the Qin wanted, by reason of its fertile farmland. The plan was to present as gifts the map of Dukang and the severed head of the traitorous Qin general Fan Wuji to the king of Qin, in order to approach him.
At the time, General Fan Wuji had lost favor with Qin and wanted revenge against it; whereas the Qin state put a bounty on capturing him of 1,000 gold pieces.
Jing Ke went to Fan himself to discuss the assassination plan. Fan Wuji believed that the plan would work, and agreed to commit suicide so that his head could be collected.
Prince Dan then obtained the sharpest possible dagger, refined it with poison, and gave it to Jing Ke. To accompany him, Prince Dan assigned Qin Wuyang as his assistant. Qin Wuyang was known to have successfully committed murder at age of 13.
In 227 BC, Prince Dan and other guests wore white clothing and white hats at the Yi River to send the pair of assassins off. Jing Ke reportedly sang a song “the wind blows, the river freezes. The hero fords, never to return!” The King of Qin received the message of visitors presenting a gift to him, and was willing to receive them at the city.
Concealing the dagger inside the map scroll, Jing Ke and Qin Wuyang represented the Yan and met with the King. Qin Wuyang reportedly became so nervous that he acted almost paralyzed when entering the presence of the King. Jing Ke explained that his partner had never set eyes on the Son of Heaven. Other sources suggest Jing Ke described Qin Wuyang as a rural boy from the countryside who had never seen the world.
When the King opened the map, Jing Ke immediately seized the revealed dagger and attacked the King, who managed to back away from the initial thrust, tearing off a sleeve in the process.
While the King fled from his attacker on foot, he attempted to draw his own sword hanging from his belt, but was unable to do so quickly enough, as it was a ceremonial sword that had deliberately been made very long.
None of the other Qin officials within the vicinity were armed and able to stop Jing Ke, and the guards stationed outside the palace were unable to reach the scene in time. In the confusion Jing Ke began to close in on the King, who struggled to get away from the assassin by circling behind a pillar.
Seeing the king in grave danger, a royal physician named Xia Wuju grabbed his medicine bag and threw it at Jing Ke. This slowed down the assassin just enough to allow the king to recover some distance. Reminded by cries from other officials, the King managed to shift the sword behind his back and unsheathe over his shoulder. He immediately struck Jing Ke in the thigh, effectively immobilizing him.
The injured Jing Ke, out of a desperate last attempt, threw his dagger towards the King, only to miss the target. The King then proceeded to stab Jing Ke eight more times, mortally wounding him. At this point, the guards arrived to finish off both Jing Ke and the fleeing Qin Wuyang.
The failure of Jing was the death knell for Yan and the other states that held out against Qin rule. Their leaders fooled, bribed, and divided, the six states had their heads buried in the sand until it was too late. In 221 B.C., Qin State conquered China and the King of Qin became Qin Shi Huang Di, the First Emperor of Qin.
Edited by staff