THE ASSASSINATION OF THE TERRACOTTA EMPEROR (a fiction after the style of Jorge Luis Borges)

            Most famous of all the Emperors of China was Ying Zheng, King of the state of Qin, who united the Warring States and took the title Qin Shihuang-di, the First Emperor.  The thousands of life-sized terracotta warriors buried with him are described by tour guides as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Their sight proclaims China on tourist posters all over the world, and heads of state visit to have themselves photographed with China’s new rulers alongside the terracotta army. Qin Shihuang-di ended the anarchy of the feudal lords, bringing order out of chaos by imposing uniform laws, standardizing the writing scripts, unifying the currency, even regulating the length of cart axels so that the ruts of roads everywhere might be equally passable. He established the rule of centralized bureaucracy which became the stamp of Chinese civilization, and began the cycle of dynasties that fall only to rise again.  He built the Great Wall to keep out the Northern Barbarians, sending 700,000 workers whose bones were buried under the Wall to make it strong. His tomb took 38 years to build, the length of his entire reign, consuming another 700,000 workers. They surrounded it with underground caverns filled with terracotta warriors and battle chariots lifelike in every detail, and also with real horses and household servants who were buried with him, along with incalculable treasures in jade and gold. To deter grave-robbers, crossbows were cunningly set to kill any intruder in the underground passageways, and the craftsmen who knew the secrets of the tomb were buried inside it.  Qin Shihuang-di was a tyrant, but a great one.

            Even his enemy Jia Yi, writing in the Han Dynasty which overthrew the Qin after the death of Qin-Shihuang-di, extolled him.  According to the ancient text: “After this the First Emperor arose to carry on the glorious achievements of six generations. Cracking his long whip, he drove the universe before him, swallowing up the eastern and western Zhou and overthrowing the feudal lords. He ascended to the highest position and ruled the six directions, scourging the world with his rod, and his might shook the four seas. In the south he seized the land of Yüeh and made of it the Cassia Forest and Elephant commandaries, and the hundred lords of Yüeh bowed their heads, hung halters from their necks, and pleaded for their lives with the lowest officials of Qin. Then he caused General Meng Tian to build the Great Wall and defend the borders, driving back the Huns over seven hundred li so that the barbarians no longer dared to come south to pasture their horses and their men dared not take up their bows to avenge their hatred.

            “Thereupon he discarded the ways of the former kings and burned the writings of the hundred schools in order to make the people ignorant. He destroyed the fortifications of the states, assassinated their powerful leaders, collected all the arms of the empire, and had them brought to his capital where the spears and arrowheads were melted down to make twelve human statues, in order to weaken the people of the empire. He garrisoned the strategic points with skilled generals and expert bowmen and stationed trusted ministers and well-trained soldiers to guard the land with arms and question all who passed back and forth. When he had thus pacified the empire, the First Emperor believed in his heart that with the strength of his capital within the Pass and his walls of metal extending a thousand miles, he had established a rule that would be enjoyed by his descendants for ten thousand generations.”

            Nevertheless, the old chronicles tell us, the great Emperor came close to being assassinated before all this could be done.  None of this might have come about: China unified, cart axels, pottery soldiers and all. The Grand Historian, Sima Qian tells the story, which he verified from those who had talked to eyewitnesses at the scene. Qin had not yet destroyed the six remaining great feudal states, but pressure was growing. His generals inflicted defeated on the state of Zhao to the east, and buried alive the 400,000 soldiers who surrendered. The state of Yan, in the north, was the weakest of the states; its prince, Dan, knew that if the other states fell, Yan could not survive. At this time Fan Yuqi, a Qin general, knowing that his master Ying Zheng, King of Qin, was unforgiving of failure but jealous of success, fled to the protection of Yan. Knowing that receiving Fan Yuqi would provoke Qin even more, nevertheless Prince Dan took him in.

            His worries redoubled, Prince Dan sent for a famous assassin, Jing Ke, and asked him to eliminate the tyrant. But the King of Qin sat always in fear for his life; how would Jing Ke come armed into his presence? Only one way: the Prince must send a secret envoy, offering alliance; to assure good faith, he must carry the head of the traitor Fan Yuqi. He would also offer a map of the Yan fortresses, wrapped up in which would be the dagger Jing Ke would use to kill Ying Zheng.

            Jing Ke agreed to the plan and called on Fan Yuqi.  The ex-general received the assassin courteously. He had been thinking, he said, of how he could contribute to revenge on the King of Qin. Now he understood; and with that, he cut his own throat, offering his head to Jing Ke.

            Jing Ke now journeyed to Qin, offering bribes and gifts to the appropriate officials to arrange an audience with King Ying Zheng. Ushered into the royal chamber, he took the head of Fan Yuqi from the box in which it was packed with salt, and brandished it before King Ying Zheng. The king beckoned Jing Ke forward to unroll the map of the Yan fortifications. Seizing the dagger that appeared at the end of the roll, Jing Ke sprang forward. Now the king, terrified of assassination, allowed no one armed to enter his inner hall; so the courtiers and attendants were unable to defend against Jing Ke.

            The king alone had a sword, but it was a ceremonial sword, longer than anyone else’s because he was the king; its scabbard was so long that he could not draw the blade as Jing Ke rushed at him. They darted around the pillars of the court chamber, Jing Ke giving chase with the dagger, King Ying Zheng fleeing and trying to draw his sword, while his courtiers watched in horror. Or perhaps indifference. No one gave orders to call armed soldiers from the outer halls, and since they had not been called, no one risked punishment by entering the upper hall.  Only the court physician, Xia Wuqie, battered at Jing Ke’s dagger with his medicine kit. At last the king unsheathed his sword and managed to cut down Jing Ke’s legs. Falling, Jing Ke hurled the dagger at the king, but missed him and struck a pillar. Thus King Ying Zheng of Qin escaped assassination. The assassin Jing Ke was hacked to pieces and his head displayed on the city walls. The king of Yan, hoping to appease the wrath of Qin, ordered the head of Prince Dan cut off and sent to Qin, but a massive Qin army destroyed Yan, and soon after unified the Middle Kingdom.

            Such is the story as reported by Sima Qian, Grand Historian of the Han dynasty, who lived 100 years ater Ying Zheng, the First Emperor. In truth, the story went differently. As the courtiers stood paralyzed, or indifferent, while Jing Ke brandished his dagger, only the court physician Xia Wuqie  attempted to protect the king. But as he moved forward to place his medical kit between the king and the assassin’s dagger, he was held back by a pull of the long sleeve of his gown by the Prime Minister, Li Si . The tyrant king Ying Zheng was unable to draw his sword from its scabbard, and as he dodged behind the pillars, Jing Ke’s dagger found its target. The tyrant was dead. Only then did the Prime Minister Li Si call the guards from the lower chamber, who rushed in and killed Jing Ke. At a sign from Li Si, they killed too all the courtiers who were close enough to see what had happened -- whether as punishment for not protecting their sovereign, or to eliminate witnesses of the deed, no one would ever know.

            Now Prime Minister Li Si and court physician Xia Wuqie held conference over the king’s corpse, out of sight behind a pillar.

            “The situation is thus,” observed Li Si. “King Ying Zheng was suspicious of everyone. That is why our most successful general, Fan Yuqi, fled to Yan. Ying Zheng has been king since he was twelve years old. As he has grown up, it has begun to dawn on him that we ministers, who flatter him as the great and tyrannical king, have always controlled the state of Qin. Soon he would have turned his suspicions on us. It is better we are rid of him.”

            “In that case,” remarked the physician Xia Wuqie, “are we not now superfluous? Or do you intend to make yourself king?”

            “Not at all,” said Prime Minister Li Si. “Who I am is known to everyone. It is preferable to remain Prime Minister, and replace the king.”

            “To replace a king is not easy,” replied Xia Wuqie.

            “On the contrary,” said Li Si, “this very king, Ying Zheng, was just such a replacement. You may recall my predecessor, the Prime Minister Lü Buwei. He was once a common man, merely a wealthy merchant. But he befriended one of the grandsons of a previous king of Qin; standing nearly lowest out of more than 20 sons of the royal concubines, Prince Zichu had little chance of receiving the succession on his own. By distributing bribes and gifts at court, Lü Buwei had the king’s favorite concubine, who was childless, adopt this prince as her own son, and by her wiles prevail upon the old king to put aside his first son and name Prince Zichu as his heir. Then Lü Buwei, promoted to Prime Minister, gave one of his own beautiful concubines to Prince Zichu; in fact she was already pregnant by Lü Buwei, but Prince Zichu believed he himself quickly impregnated her with a son. It was this son, Ying Zheng, who succeeded his father as king of Qin.

            “Being only twelve years old when he ascended the throne, Ying Zheng was naturally under the advice of Prime Minister Lü Buwei. As we know, for six generations the state of Qin has followed a policy of expansion. Ministers have come from every state, offering their clever plans, and the shrewdest have been given office here in Qin. Our generals have built the most massive armies, scouring territories of the outlying marchlands west of the Pass and south into Sichuan to build up our population. Our ministers have established laws regulating the people, concentrating power in the tentacles of the court, while the other feudal states have allowed a free hand to their unruly barons. Our policy has worked well, as long as no ruler was allowed to interfere with it. Therefore, in order to occupy the attention of young King Ying Zheng, Prime Minister Lü Buwei encouraged him to take an interest in magic, and flattered him to believe himself a cruel tyrant. As soon as Ying Zheng took the throne, the Prime Minister set before him plans to build his tomb, greater than any predecessor. Three hundred years before, King Jingsong of Qin buried hundreds of horses and attendants in his tomb; King Ying Zheng of Qin would have thousands more. Lü Buwei sent to him alchemists and sorcerers, filling his ears with tales of magic potions bringing immortality. Thus the King of Qin thought more of his tomb than of anything else; he would have an army underground to accompany him in the afterlife -- and protect him too, since already in his young life his cruelty surrounded him with enemies, and the world of immortality in the grave is in this respect no different than our mortal life.

            “Thus young King Ying Zheng enjoyed his cruelties and took pleasure in building his huge underground toy. But Lü Buwei let himself become too grand. He began secretly to take back his beautiful concubine, aged though she was.  Finding her insatiable, he arranged other lovers for her, choosing a man with a giant penis who they secretly passed into the women’s quarters as a eunuch. On reaching the age of twenty-two, King Ying Zheng grew suspicious; he had his mother imprisoned, and her suspected lovers killed, along with their relatives through the third degree of kinship. Lü Buwei, realizing he had overreached himself, offered to retire. But even on his vast country estate, King Ying Zheng suspected Lü Buwei of being too grand; taking a hint, Lü Buwei killed himself. It is thus that I, Li Si, became Prime Minister.

            “I have guarded King Ying Zheng since he was twenty-two. I have changed nothing suddenly, only extended previous precedents. King Ying Zheng I have kept occupied with filling his vast tomb with precious objects and building his army of terracotta warriors, while I have continued plans of previous Prime Ministers to build the state of Qin and unify the Middle Kingdom.  Our armies grow steadily stronger than any of the feudal states. They are stronger, too, even off the battlefield, since they are drawn from a population where everyone is harnessed to the will of the state. Elsewhere the feudal nobles do what they wish, following their honor codes of loyalty to friends and sworn vengeance to enemies. Here in Qin no one stands above the law. Only one, the king appears to stand above. But he too does not escape the law; he is merely the name in which all others are leveled.

           "The king of Qin is at the center of this circle we are constructing, because we need one point on which all eyes are focused. But the king does this for Qin only as long as I control him, I the Prime Minister, just as another Prime Minister did before, and another Prime Minister will after me. At times I have considered: if this child ever realizes what we are doing, he will ruin everything.

            “Of late, it has come close to that. Ying Zheng’s suspicions were growing. His cruelties were striking everywhere, ever closer at hand. It was time to replace him. Heaven has sent this assassin at the right time. Truly, Heaven looks down on the state of Qin, and on its destiny to unify the Middle Kingdom.”

            Court physician Xia Wuqie bowed his head to Prime Minister Li Si in the kowtow.  “You are truly wise, Prime Minister.  But what shall we do with the corpse of Ying Zheng?  And who shall we put in its place?”

            “There is a servant in my household,” said Li Si.  “Low-born, lacking confidence in himself, he will do what I suggest. His face and body match the late King Ying Zheng well.  He is superstitious too, a halfwit. He is also a coward, fearful of enemies, so we can easily make him Ying Zheng, fearful of assassins. I have detected in him signs of cruelty, and that too we can encourage, giving him petty victims to begin with. Let him start by executing his fellow servants of my household, who might recognize him, and the former servants of Ying Zheng. They can be executed for treason, for failing to fend off the assassin. After that, let him move on to bigger cruelties. We can use him to cut off any rivals who might appear at court, who have designs on our own offices.”

            So it was done. The young halfwit was dressed in the robes of the king, and taught to brag how he killed the assassin with his own sword while his cowardly courtiers watched. To get him in the right spirit, Li Si and the physician Xia Wuqie had him hack at the body of the dead king Ying Zheng, after it had been stripped of its clothes, until it was mutilated beyond recognition. This they represented as a henchman of the assassin; and its head too was displayed on the city wall.

            And so the halfwit was set on the throne. Qin’s armies resumed their task of reducing the state of Zhao in the northwest and Yan in the north, Han and Wei in the center, Chu in the south, and finally the mighty king of Chi in the east.  In 221 B.C. the halfwit was named emperor of all the Middle Kingdom.  On the advice of his ministers (Li Si standing in the front row not too far forward, showing due humility as no more than foremost among the ranks below the emperor), he took the title of Qin Shihuang-di. Being told repeatedly by everyone of his great achievements, he came to believe in them himself.

            For Li Si, there remained one chief problem. Only the court physician, Xia Wuqie, knew the secret.  The thought began to trouble Li Si’s mind: had he told anyone? The scholars too seemed to have an air of knowing something, both Li Si’s old schoolmates in the School of Rigidly Enforced Laws, as well as the advocates of the other systems, the followers of Confucius and Modi and Laozi, the theorists of the Yin-Yang and of the Five Processes, the debaters and the School of Names. The solution was simple. Li Si insinuated to the emperor that the scholars were plotting against him, using their books (which he could not read) as evil portents against his rule. The emperor obligingly ordered all books collected and burned. When the scholars protested, 460 of them were buried alive.

            The emperor became steadily more cruel, and more concerned with magic. The Prime Minister, extending old policy, suggested connecting all the walls of the older states of the north into one Great Wall to keep the Huns beyond the borders. The Emperor accepted the suggestion, but believed the magicians who told him that the wall would be strong only if thousands of living persons were buried alive beneath the wall. His tomb became a maze of caverns beneath an enormous mound. The emperor began to meld in his halfwit mind the idea of immortality in the grave and immortality above the ground, through magic potions that would enable him to mount to the sky as equal of the gods. He sent expeditions into the Eastern Sea, toward the Land of the Rising Sun, where alchemists told him the potion of immortality would be found, if only the ships were manned by 4000 beautiful boys and girls. These were taken from their wailing parents and sent off, but the ships always wrecked and never came back successfully.

            The two old conspirators, Li Si and the court physician Xia Wuqie, grew increasingly suspicious of each other.  Xia Wuqie acted first; in his straightforward way, he decided to explain to the emperor the true circumstances of how Li Si had put him on the throne. Affronted by a dim recollection that no longer fit his sense of himself as the great Qin Shihuang-di, the emperor had Xia Wuqie struck down.  But the thought lingered in his mind; perhaps Li Si was plotting against him. Others, quick to see how the wind was blowing, began to spread rumours about Li Si. The burning of the books and execution of the scholars had increased the numbers of his enemies. It ws not difficult, with a distribution of gifts and bribes, to have stories circulate that would reach the emperor behind the back of Li Si.  One day Li Si found himself on the execution ground, the emperor watching from one tower, the new Prime Minister (a hitherto unnoticed court official) from the other, while the relatives of Li Si through three degrees of kinship were lined up to be executed, and Li Si was sentenced to be cut in half.

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            Does the story end here? Like a cycle that is the history of China (and the pattern of the world, according to some sects of the scholars), events turn on a wheel. Sometimes faster:  after ten years of the reign that was to last ten thousand generations, the First Emperor died, poisoned by mercury which was the principal ingredient of the immortality potions he was taking. After his death, revolt broke out.  Peasants exhausted by work on the Great Wall and on the enormous tomb with its terracotta warriors, flocked to join rebel armies. The court at the emperor’s magnificent city of  Xianyang broke into factions; no one gathered in his fist all the reins of power like the Prime Ministers Li Si, Lü Buwei, or their predecessors; each turned on each, betraying them to the rebels. The city of Xianyang and its palace were destroyed. The underground caverns of terracotta warriors were broken into, their weapons stolen to arm the rebels, the statues smashed into shards, not to be reassembled until archeologists twenty-two centuries later began to reconstruct their own myth.

            The empire of the great tyrant was shattered. On its ashes, the leaders of the peasant revolt built a new empire and a new city, Changan (which later generations would call Xi’an), a few kilometers east of the city of Xianyang. The glorious Han dynasty arose, taking over the laws of the Qin -- its mutilations and punishments, its conscript armies, its people condemned as criminals and sent as slave labor to build new walls, or march in ranks like live terracotta warriors to extend the frontiers of the Middle Kingdom in every direction. Sima Qian, who preserved the stories of the the evil Qin emperor and his would-be assassin, himself lived under a newer and greater Emperor, Wudi.  Angering the emperor for some offense -- could it have been protesting against repeating the policy of the tyrannical First Emperor, when the Han emperor Wudi conscripted new millions to build walls and extend even further the Middle Kingdom?  However that may be, Sima Qian offended the emperor enough to be sentenced to castration -- not to death by being cut in two, nor to having his head displayed on the city walls, since the Han dynasty was a more progressive time, and laws were adjusted to circumstances. Thus Sima Qian survived, to give us the records of the Grand Historian, and to hide from us (although, we believe, with guarded omissions and hints), the truth of the assassination of the First Emperor, Qin Shihuang-di.

            Sometimes the wheel turns slower: more than twenty centuries later, another period of Warring States returned, followed by yet another unification.  Some date it to the time of the Opium Wars with the Western Barbarians, some to the rebellion of the Taiping tian-guo, the Kingdom of Great Heavenly Peace, some to the warlords of the 1920s and the invasion of the Japanese from the Land of the Rising Sun. After this came another turn of the wheel, the unification of the Middle Kingdom. Righteous and militant, its leaders proposed a rule of rigorously enforced laws, with all people in equality beneath the state. Here again ministers struggled at court over who should be the point on which all eyes are focused, the picture on the front of the Imperial Palace in the capital city. In the struggle, one minister in emulation of Li Si launched another burning of the books. This too, like all burnings of books, flared up unstoppably and then burned itself out. During a period of twelve years (the length of the Qin dynasty itself, from 221 B.C. to the death of the First Emperor in 209 B.C.), the book burners buried in peasant villages those who wrote books and those who read them. And since books are written not only on strips of bamboo and on paper, but also on stone steles and inscribed on walls and in very shape of the statues and the tile roofs of temples and all the monuments of culture, there was a formidable task of destruction to be done, too much for the book burners to carry it all out before they themselves burned out.

            Fortunately -- or not, since in the great turnings of the wheel nothing happens by chance -- in 1974 A.D., exactly twenty-two hundred years after the assassin threw his dagger at the First Emperor, peasants digging a well in the countryside near the old imperial cities of Xianyang and Changan, came across the underground caverns and Qin Shihuang-di’s armies of terracotta warriors. The book burners were flickering, their leader aging and about to die. The new regime, eager to divert attention from the emblem of the leader whose picture looked down from every wall, seized on the new discovery of the old emblem.  An army of archeologists reconstructed and reassembled the terracotta army, and in 1979 -- the year China opened a new policy and pierced its own walls to the world -- the Eighth Wonder of the World was announced. Foreign heads of state, and tourists bringing money for development and admiration to rebuild the prestige of China’s ancient  culture, were invited to Xi’an and photographed in front of the terracotta warriors of Qin Shihuang-di. The First Emperor, great builder and great tyrant, who was himself but another terracotta warrior, now took the place of the great leader, great picture on the wall of the Imperial Palace in the capital city.  The wheel turned.

“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

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