Sima Qian (Ssu-ma Ch’ien), whose father had been Grand Historian of China and who in 107 B.C. himself assumed that role, spent most of his life at the court of the Emperor Wu, the strong-willed emperor who brought the golden age of the Han dynasty to the peak of its power. Sima Qian’s father, Sima Tan, in transforming the role of Grand Historian from duties largely involving astrology and divination to that of a true chronicler of the past, planned to write a work of history and had begun to collect material for it; it was in accord with his dying father’s wish that Sima Qian assumed and expanded this task.
Sima Qian’s writings, especially in their terseness and reliance upon dramatic episodes in which the historian makes his characters speak aloud, have remained the model for many of the major historical works in later ages in China, Korea, and Japan. His principal work, the Shi Ji, or Records of the Grand Historian, in 130 chapters, is a collection of biographies that provides a history of the Chinese people and foreign peoples known to China from the earliest times to his own. It provides a comprehensive history of every society then known over a period of time reaching back over 2,000 years. Sima Qian was a meticulous researcher who traveled widely throughout China in search of historical information. He explains that his purpose is to “examine the deeds and events of the past and investigate the principles behind their success and failure, their rise and decay.” Yet although Sima Qian chronicles the rise and fall of multitudinous societies in a pattern typically beginning with the virtuous, wise ruler of a new house to its ultimate decline with an evil or inept ruler, the one thing he sees as approaching permanence in the midst of change is the lasting power of goodness: as Burton Watson describes Sima Qian’s view, “Evil destroys the doer, but good endures, through the sons of the father, the subjects of the ruler, the disciple of the teacher. It is the function of the historian to prolong the memory of goodness by preserving its record for all ages to see.”
The first selection presented here is a portion of the lengthy biography Sima Qian gives in the Records of the Grand Historian of the great Xiang Yu (Hsiang Yü), the powerful military leader of Chu who, seeking to become emperor, fought the Han for control of various states of China in a struggle called the Chu-Han Contention (206–202 B.C.) following the collapse of the Qin (Ch’in) Dynasty. Huge—Xiang Yu was over six feet tall—cunning, and ruthless, he was famed for his bravery and capacity for treachery. His main rival was Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Han Dynasty as Emperor Gaozu. Although he had defeated Liu Bang and the Han armies in battle on many occasions, Xiang Yu made a series of unwise military decisions that finally resulted in Liu’s troops surrounding him. The selection given here portrays Xiang Yu’s military decline: it opens as Xiang Yu, surrounded, hears the singing of Chu songs and thus knows that most of his own people have deserted him. Sima Qian closes the account of Xiang Yu’s suicide with his own commentary on both the greatness of Xiang Yu’s triumphs and the character flaws that led to his downfall.
The second selection, an account given both in the Zhan Guo Ce (Strategies of the Warring States), a near-contemporary historical work of unknown authorship, and in the Records of the Grand Historian, contrasts two suicides: that of the assassin Nie Zheng (Nieh Cheng, c. 375 B.C.), employed as a dog butcher, who in his excessive concern for loyalty to his patron Yan Zhongzi (Yan Sui) mutilates himself in his act of suicide so that he cannot be recognized after killing Yan Zhongzi’s enemy, the grand minister of Han, Xia Lei (Hsia Lei), so that through him his employer might not also be identified and the cycle of revenge might end. He is followed in death by his older sister Rong (Jung)—to whom Sima Qian gives a name even though she is a woman, because she, unlike her brother, chooses the right time to die: after she has revealed the identity of Nie Zheng’s corpse and thus assured the preservation of his name. Her suicide is an act of self-sacrifice to grant fame to another. (In fact, Rong says that her brother mutilated himself to protect her—presumably from potential vengeful harm to her for what he did or the infamy of being the sister of an assassin—not a self-centered act at all.)
The third selection provided here is Sima Qian’s famous letter to Ren Shaoqing (Jen Shao-ch’ing), in which he tries to justify his own failure to commit suicide, even though the circumstances were such as to invite or even require it. Sima Qian had been condemned to imprisonment and castration by Emperor Wu for speaking out in defense of Li Ling, a general who had finally surrendered to the enemy when only a fraction of his army remained; the emperor had expected Li Ling to die with his men—as, indeed, such heroes as Xiang Yu had done. Sima Qian’s letter, written after the punishment of castration had been imposed, gives his reasons for not killing himself, even though it was customary under such circumstances for men of honor to commit suicide and even though he sees himself as “a mutilated being who dwells in degradation” (the letter uses the word “shame” 19 times). Many of the heroes Sima Qian had described so vividly in his Records of the Grand Historian had committed suicide in dramatic ways—not only Xiang Yu, but Li Guang and General Fan, who like Xiang Yu slit their own throats for reasons of honor and service to the state. But Sima Qian himself does not do so; he chooses instead to bear his disgrace in order to complete his manuscript and justify himself in the eyes of posterity.
After the castration, and after Emperor Wu had realized his own role in Li Ling’s defeat by failing to send him reinforcements, Sima Qian became Palace Secretary and enjoyed considerable honor and favor. Sima Qian’s letter itself was preserved in The Book of Han, a history written and compiled by Ban Biao, Ban Gu, and finally finished by Ban Zhao in 111 A.D..
“The Basic Annals of Xiang Yu” in Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty I, Han Dynasty II, trans. Burton Watson. Hong Kong and New York: Columbia University Press, rev. ed. 1993, Vol. 1, pp. 17-18, 43-48, quoted and paraphrased in biographical note from introductions to both volumes; story of the assassin and his sister from Szuma Chien, Selections from Records of the Grand Historian, tr. Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang, Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1979; “Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s Letter in Reply to Jen Shao-ch’ing” in Burton Watson, Ssu-ma Ch’ien. Grand Historian of China. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958, pp. 57-67. See also Stephen W. Durrant, The Cloudy Mirror: Tension and Conflict in the Writings of Sima Qian, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995, pp. 9, 105-109.
from RECORDS OF THE GRAND HISTORIAN
THE BASIC ANNALS OF XIANG YU
Xiang Ji, whose polite name was Yu, was a native of XiaXiang. He was twenty-four when he first took up arms. His father’s youngest brother was Xiang Liang. Xiang Liang’s father, Xiang Yan, was a general ofChu who was driven to suicide by Qin general Wang Qian. The Xiang family for generations were generals of Chu and were enfeoffed in Xiang; hence they took the family name Xiang.
When Xiang Yu was a boy he studied the art of writing. Failing to master this, he abandoned it and took up swordsmanship. When he failed at this also, his uncle, Xiang Liang, grew angry with him, but Xiang Yu declared, “Writing is good only for keeping records of people’s names. Swordsmanship is useful only for attacking a single enemy and is likewise not worth studying. What I want to learn is the art of attacking 10,000 enemies!” With this, Xiang Liang began to teach his nephew the art of warfare, which pleased Yu greatly. On the whole Yu understood the essentials of the art, but here again he was unwilling to pursue the study in detail.
Xiang Yu was over eight feet tall and so strong that with his two hands he could lift a bronze cauldron. In ability and spirit he far surpassed others, so that all the young men of the region of Wu were afraid of him.
In the first year of the Second Emperor of Qin [209 BC], during the seventh month, Chen She and his band began their uprising ins the region of Daze. In the ninth month Tong, the governor of Kuaiji, announced to Xiang Liang, “All the region west of the Yangtze is in revolt. The time has come when Heaven will destroy the house of Qin. I have heard it said that he who takes the lead may rule others, but he who lags behind will be ruled by other. I would like to dispatch an army with you and Huan Chu at the head.” (Huan Chu was at this time in hiding in the swamps.)
Xiang Liang replied, “Huan Chu is in hiding and no one knows where he is. Only Xiang Yu knows the place,” Xiang Liang left the room and went to give instructions to Xiang Yu, telling him to hold his sword in readiness and wait outside. Then he returned and sat down again with the governor. “I beg leave to call in my nephew Yu, so that he may receive your order to summon Huan Chu,” said Xiang Liang. The governor consented, and Xiang Liang sent for Xiang Yu to come in. After some time, Xiang Liang winked at his nephew and said. “You may proceed!” With this, Xiang Yu drew his sword and cut off the governor’s head. Xiang Liang picked up the governor’s head and hung the seals of office from his own belt. The governor’s office was thrown into utter panic and confusion. After Xiang Yu had attacked and killed several dozen attendants the entire staff submitted in terror, not a man daring to offer resistance.
…[the text narrates Xiang Yu’s [Xsiang Yu’s] rise to power, including his military exploits, his cunning and ruthless use of execution, and his treachery towards Song Yi, the supreme general of the Chu army, to whom Xsiang Yu was at that time second in command]…
For a long timeChuand Han held their respective positions without making a decisive move, while their fighting men suffered the hardships of camp life and their old men and boys wore themselves out transporting provisions by land and water. Xiang Yu sent word to the king of Han, saying, “The world has been in strife and confusion for several years now, solely because the two of us. I would like to invite the king of Han to a personal combat to decide who is the better man. Let us bring no more needless suffering to the fathers and sons of the rest of the world.” The king of Han scorned the offer with a laugh, saying, “Since I am no match for you in strength, I prefer to fight you with brains!”
Xiang Yu then sent out one of his bravest men to challenge Han to combat. In the Han army there was a man who was very skilful at shooting from horseback, a so-called loufan. Chu three times sent out men to challenge Han to combat, and each time this man shot and killed them on the spot. Xiang Yu, enraged, buckles on his armour, took up a lance, and went himself to deliver the challenge. The loufan was about to shoot when Xiang Yu shouted and glared so fiercely at him that the man had not the courage to raise his eyes or lift a hand, but finally fled back within the walls and did not dare venture forth again. The king of Han secretly sent someone to find out who the new challenger was, and when he learned that it was Xiang Yu himself he was greatly astonished. Xiang Yu approached the place where the king of Han was standing, and the two of them talked back and forth across the ravine of Guangwu. The king berated Xiang Yu for his crimes, while Xiang Yu angrily demanded a single combat. When the king of Han refused to agree, Xiang Yu shot him with a crossbow which he had concealed, and the king, wounded, fled into the city ofChenggao.
Xiang Yu, receiving word that Han Xin had already conquered the area north of theYellow River, defeating Qi and Zhao, and was about to attack Chu, sent Long Ju to attack him. Han Xin, joined by the cavalry general Guan Ying, met his attack and defeated the Chuarmy, killing Long Ju. Han Xin then proceeded to set himself up as king of Qi. When Xiang Yu heard that Long Hu’s army had been defeated, he was fearful and sent Wu She, a man of Xuyi, to attempt to bargain with HanXin, but Han Xin refused to listen.
At this time Peng Yue had once more raised a revolt in the region of Liang, conquered it, and cut off Chu’s sources of supply. Xiang Yu summoned the marquis of Haichun, the grand marshal Cao Jiu, and others and said to them, “Hold fast to the city of Chenggao. Even if the king of Han challenges you to a battle, take care and do not fight with him! In fifteen days I can surely do away with Peng Yue and bring the region of Liang under control once again. Then I will return and join you.”
Xiang Yu marched east and attacked Chenliu and Waihuang. Waihuang held out for several days before it finally surrendered. Enraged, Xiang Yu ordered all the men over the age of fifteen to brought to a place east of the city, where he planned to butcher them. One of the retainers of the head of the district, a lad of thirteen, went and spoke to Xiang Yu. “Waihung, oppressed by the might of Peng Yue, was fearful and surrendered to him, hopeful that Your Majesty would come to the rescue,” he said. “But now that you have arrived, if you butcher all the men, how can you hope to win the hearts of the common people? East of here there are still a dozen cities of Liang, but all will be filled with terror and will not dare to surrender.”
Xiang Yu, acknowledging the reason of his words, pardoned all the men of Waihuang who were marked for execution and proceeded east to Suiyang. Hearing what had happened , the other cities made all haste to submit to him.
The king of Han meanwhile several time challenged the Chu army to a battle, but the Chu generals refused to send out their forces. Then he sent men to taunt and insult them for five or six days, until at last the grand marshal Cao Yiu, in a rage, led his soldiers across the Si River. When the troops were halfway across the river, the Han force fell upon them and inflicted a severe defeat on the Chu army, seizing all the wealth of the country of Chu. Grand marshal Cao Jiu, the chief secretary Dong Yi, and Sima Xin, the king of Sai, all cut their throats on the banks of the Si. (Cao Jiu, former prison warden of Qi, and Sima Xin, former prison warden of Yueyang, had both done favours for Xiang Liang, and so had been trusted and employed by Xiang Yu.)
Xiang Yu was at this time in Suiyang but, hearing of the defeat of the grand marshal’s army, he led his troops back. The Han army had at the moment surrounded Zhongli Moat Xingyang, but when Xiang Yu arrived, the Han forces, fearful of Chu, all fled to positions of safety in the mountains. At this time the Han troops were strong and had plenty of food, but Xiang Yu’s men were worn out and their provisions were exhausted.
The king of Han dispatched Lu Jia to bargain with Xiang Yu for the return of his father, but Xiang Yu refused to listen. The king then sent Lord Hou to bargain. This time Xiang Yu agreed to make an alliance with Han to divide the empire between them, Han to have all the land west of the Hong Canal and Chu all the land to east. In addition, upon Xiang Yu’s consent, the king of Han’s father, mother, and wife were returned to him amid cheers of “Long life!” from the Han army. The king of Han enfeoffed Lord Hou as “Lord Who Pacifies the Nation”. (Lord Hou retired and was unwilling to show himself again. Someone remarked, “This man is the most eloquent pleader in the world. Wherever he goes he turns the whole nation on its head. Perhaps that is why he has been given the title ‘Lord Who Pacifies the Nation’.”)
After concluding the alliance, Xiang Yu led his troops away to the east and the king of Han prepared to return west, but Zhang Liang and Chen Ping advised him, saying, “Han now possesses over half the empire, and all the feudal lords are on our side, while the soldiers of Chu are weary and out of food. The time has come when Heaven will destroy Chu. It would be best to take advantage of Xiang Yu’s lack of food and seize him once and for all. If we were to let him get away now without attacking him, it would be like nursing a tiger that will return to vex us later!”
The king of Han, approving their advice, in the fifth year of Han (202BC) pursued Xiang Yu as far as the south of Yangxia, where he halted and made camp. There he set a date for Han Xin and Peng Yue to meet him and join in attacking the Chu army. But when he reached Guling, the troops of Han Xin and Peng Yue failed to appear for the rendezvous, and Xiang Yu attacked him and inflicted a severe defeat. The king of Han withdrew behind his walls, deepened his moats, and guarded his position.
“The other leaders have not kept their promise. What shall I do?” he asked Zhang Liang.
“The Chu army is on the point of being destroyed,” Zhang Liang replied, “but Han Xin and Peng Yue have not yet been granted any territory. It is not surprising that they do not come when summoned. If you will consent to share a part of the empire with them, they will surely come without a moment’s hesitation. If this is impossible, I do not know what will happen. If you could assign to Han Xin all the land from Chen east to the sea, and to Peng Yue the land from Suiyang north to Gucheng, so that each would feel he was actually fighting for his own good, then a Chu could easily be defeated.”
The king of Han, approving this suggestion, sent envoys to Han Xin and Peng Yue, saying, “Let us join our forces in attacking Chu. When Chu has been defeated, I will give the land from Chen east to the sea to the king of Qi, and that from Suiyang north to Gucheng to the Prime Minister Peng.” When the envoys arrived and reported this to Han Xin and Peng Yue, both replied, “We beg leave to proceed with our troops.” Han Xin then marched out of Qi. Liu Jia led his army from Shouchun to join in attacking and massacring the men of Chengfu; from there he proceeded to Gaixia. The grand marshal Zhou Yin revolted againstChu, using the men of Shu to massacre the inhabitants of Liu, gained control of the army of Jiujiang, and followed after Liu Jia and Peng Yue. All met at the Gaixia and made their way toward Xiang Yu.
Xiang Yu’s army had built a walled camp at Gaixia, but his soldiers were few and his supplies exhausted. The Han army, joined by the forces of the other leaders, surrounded them with several lines of troops. In the night Xiang Yu heard the Han armies all about him singing the songs of Chu. “Has Han already conqueredChu?” he exclaimed in astonishment. “How many men ofChuthey have with them!” Then he rose in the night and drank within the curtains of his tent. With him were the beautiful Lady Yu, who enjoyed his favour and followed wherever he went, and his famous steed Dapple, which he always rode. Xiang Yu filled with passionate sorrow, began to sing sadly, composing this song:
My strength plucked up the hills,
My might shadowed the world;
But the times were against me,
And Dapple runs no more,
When Dapple runs no more,
What then can I do?
Ah, Yu, my Yu,
What will your fate be?
He sang the song several times through, and Lady Yu joined her voice with his. Tears streamed down his face, while all those about him wept and were unable to lift their eyes from the ground. Then he mounted his horse and, with some 800 brave horsemen under his banner, rode into the night, burst through the encirclement to the south, and galloped away.
Next morning, when the king of Han became aware of what had happened, he ordered his calvary general Guan Ying to lead a force of 5,000 horsemen in pursuit. Xiang Yu crossed the Huai River, though by now he had only 100 or so horsemen still with him. Reaching Yinling, he lost his way, and stopped to ask an old farmer for directions. But the farmer deceived him, saying, “Go left!”, and when he rode to the left he stumbled into a great swamp, so that the Han troops were able to pursue and overtake him.
Xiang Yu once more led his men east until they reached Dongcheng. By this time he had only twenty-eight horsemen, while the Han cavalry pursuing him numbered several thousand.
Xiang Yu, realizing that he could not escape, addressed his horsemen, saying, “It has been eight years since I first led my army forth. In that time I have fought over seventy battles. Every enemy I faced was destroyed, everyone I attacked submitted. Never once did I suffer defeat, until at last I became dictator of the world. But now suddenly I am driven to this desperate position! It is because Heaven would destroy me, not because I have committed any fault in battle. I have resolved to die today. But before I die, I beg to fight bravely and win for you three victories. For your sake shall I break through the enemy’s encirclements, cut down their leaders, and sever their banners, that you may know it is Heaven which has destroyed me and no fault of mine in arms!” Then he divided his horsemen into four bands and faced them in four directions.
When the Han army had surrounded them several layers deep, Xiang Yu said to his horsemen, “I will get one of those generals for you!” He ordered his men to gallop in all four directions down the hill on which they were standing, with instructions to meet again on the east side of the hill and divide into three groups. He himself gave a great shout and galloped down the hill. The Han troops scattered before him and he succeeded in cutting down one of their generals. At this time Yang Xi was leader of the cavalry pursuing Xiang Yu, but Xiang Yu roared and glared so fiercely at him that all his men and horses fled in terror some distance to the rear.
Xiang Yu rejoined his men, who had formed into three groups. The Han army, uncertain which group Xiang Yu was with, likewise divided into three groups and again surrounded them. Xiang Yu once more galloped forth and cut down a Han colonel, killing some fifty to 100 men. When he had gathered his horsemen together a second time, he found that he had lost only two of them. “Did I tell you the truth?” he asked. His men all bowed and replied, “You have done all you said.”
Xiang Yu, who by the time has reached Wujiang, was considering whether to cross over to the east side of the Yangtze. The village head of Wujiang, who was waiting with a boat on the bank of the river, said to him, “Although the area east of the Yangtze is small, it is some thousand miles in breadth and has a population of 300,000 or 400,000. It would still be worth ruling. I beg you to make haste and cross over. I am the only one who has a boat, so that when the Han army arrives they will have no way to get across!”
Xiang Yu laughed and replied, “It is Heaven that is destroying me. What good would it do me to cross the river? Once, with 8,000 sons from the land east of the river, I crossed over and marched west, but today not a single man of them returns. Although their fathers and brothers east of the river should take pity on me and make me their king, how could I bear to face them again? Though they said nothing of it, could I help but feel shame in my heart?” Then he added, “I can see that you are a worthy man. For five years I have ridden this horse, and I have never seen his equal. Again and again he has borne me hundreds of miles in a single day. Since I cannot bear to kill him, I give him to you.”
Xiang Yu then ordered all his men to dismount and proceed on foot, and with their swords to close in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. Xiang Yu alone killed several hundred of the Han men, until he had suffered a dozen wounds. Looking about him, he spied the Han cavalry marshal Lu Matong. “We are old friends, are we not?” he asked, Lu Matong eyed him carefully and then, pointing him out to Wang Yi, said, “This is Xiang Yu!”
“I have heard that Han has offered a reward of 1,000 catties of gold and a fief of 10,000 households for my head,” said Xiang Yu. “I will do you the favour!” And with this he cut his own throat and died.
Wang Yi seized his head, while the other horsemen trampled over each other in a struggle to get at Xiang Yu’s body, so that twenty or thirty of them were killed. In the end the cavalry attendant Yang Xi, the cavalry marshal Lu Matong and the attendants Lu Sheng and Yang Wu each succeeded in seizing a limb. When the five of them fitted together the limbs and head, it was found that they were indeed those of Xiang Yu. Therefore the fief was divided five ways, Lu Matong being enfeoffed as marquis of Zhongshui, Wang Yi as marquis of Duyan, Yang Xi as marquis of Chiquan, Yang Wu as marquis of Wufang, and Lu Sheng as marquis of Nieyang.
With the death of Xiang Yu, the entire region of Chu surrendered to Han, only Lu refusing to submit. The king of Han set out with the troops of the empire and was about to massacre the inhabitants of Lu. But because Lu had so strictly obeyed the code of honour and had shown its willingness to fight to the death for its acknowledged sovereign, he bore with him the head of Xiang Yu and, when he showed it to the men of Lu, they forthwith surrendered.
King Huai of Chu had first enfeoffed Xiang Yu as duke of Lu, and Lu was the last place to surrender. Therefore, the king of Han buried Xiang Yu at Gucheng with the ceremony appropriate to a duke of Lu. The king proclaimed a period of mourning for him, wept, and departed. All the various branches of the Xiang family he spared from execution, and he enfeoffed Xiang Bo as marquis of Sheyang. The marquises of Tao, Pinggao, and Xuanwu were all members of Xiang family who were granted imperial surname Liu.
The Grand Historian remarks: I have heard Master Zhou say that Emperor Shun had eyes with double pupils. I have also heard that Xiang Yu, too, had eyes with double pupils. Could it be that Xiang Yu was a descendant of Emperor Shun? How sudden was his rise to power! When the rule of Qin floundered and Chen She led his revolt, local heroes and leaders arose like bees, struggling with each other for power in numbers too great to be counted. Xiang Yu did not have so much as an inch of territory to begin with, but by taking advantage of the times he raised himself in the space of three years from a commoner in the fields to the position of commander of five armies of feudal lords. He overthrew Qin, divided up the empire, and parceled it out in fiefs to the various kings and marquises; but all power of government proceeded from Xiang Yu and he was hailed as a dictator king. Though he was not able to hold this position to death, yet from ancient times to the present there has never before been such a thing!
But when he went so far as to turn his back on the Pass and return to his native Chu, banishing the Righteous Emperor and setting himself up in his place, it was hardly surprising that the feudal lords revolted against him. He boasted and made a show of his own achievements. He was obstinate in his own opinions and did not abide by established ways. He thought to make himself a dictator, hoping to attack and rule the empire by force. Yet within five years he was dead and his kingdom lost. He met death at Dongcheng, but even at that time he did not wake to or accept responsibility for his errors. “It is Heaven,” he declared, “which had destroyed me, and no fault of mine in the use of arms!” Was he not indeed deluded?
THE ASSASSIN AND HIS SISTER
Nieh Cheng was a native o fShengching Village in the district of Chih. Having killed a man, he escaped with his mother and elder sister to Chi where he set up as a butcher. Later Yen Sui of Puyang, who owed allegiance to Marquis Ai of Hann, offended the chief minister Hsia Lui and fled to escape punishment, searching everywhere for a man who would kill Hsia Lui for him. When he reached Chi, he heard Nieh Cheng was a brave man who was living as a butcher to avoid vengeance. Yen Sui called him several times, then he prepared a feast in honour of Nieh Cheng’s mother at which he presented her with a hundred pieces of gold. Amazed by such munificence, Nish Cheng declined the gift. When Yen Sui insisted he said, “I am blessed with an aged mother. Though I am but a poor stranger in these parts, I am able to supply her daily food and clothing by selling dog meat. Since I can provide for her, I dare not accept your gift.”
Yen Sui sent the others away and told Nieh Cheng, “I have and enemy. Reaching Chi after travelling through many states, I heard that you, Sir were a man with a high sense of honour.
So I am offering you a hundred gold pieces to supply food and clothing for your mother and to win your friendship. I want no other return.”
Nieh Cheng replied, “I have lowered my ambitions and humbled myself to sell meat in the market solely for my mother’s sake. While she lives, I cannot promise my services to anyone.” He could not be prevailed upon to accept, whereupon Yen Sui took a courteous leave of him.
In due time Nieh Cheng’s mother died. After she was buried and the mourning over Nieh Cheng said, “I am a poor stall-keeper wielding a butcher’s cleaver, while Yen Sui is a state minister; yet he came a thousand li in his carriage to seek my friendship. I did very little for him, performed no great services to deserve hid favour, yet he offered my mother a hundred pieces of gold; and though I did not accept, this shows how well he appreciated me. His longing for revenge made this worthy gentleman place his faith in one so humble and obscure. How, then, can I remain silent? Previously I ignored his overture for my mother’s sake. Now that my mother has died of old age, I must serve this man who appreciates me.”
So he went west to Puyang to see Yen Sui and told him, “I refused you before because my mother was still alive, but now she has died of old age. Who is the man on whom you want to take vengeance? I am at your service.”
Then Yen Sui told him the whole story, saying, “My enemy is Hsia Lui, chief minister of Hann and uncle of the marquis of Hann. He has many clansmen and his residence is closely guarded. All my attempts to assassinate him have failed. Since you are good enough to help me, I can supply you with chariots, cavalry and men.”
“Hann is not far from Uei, and we are going to kill the chief minister who is also the ruler’s uncle,” said Nieh Cheng. “In these circumstances, too many men would make for trouble and word might get out. Then the whole of Hann would become your enemy and that would be disastrous.”
So refusing all assistance, he bid farewell and carrying his sword went alone to the capital of Hann. Hsia Lui, seated in his office, was surrounded by a host of guards and armed attendants; but Nieh Cheng marching straight in and up the steps stabbed the minister to death. The attendants, in utter confusion, were set upon with loud cries by Nieh Cheng, till several dozen of them were laid low. Then he gashed his face, gouged out his eyes and stabbed himself so that his guts spilled out and he died.
Nieh Cheng’s corpse was exposed in the market-place in Hann and inquiries were made but no one knew who he was. A reward of thousand gold pieces was offered for identifying the assassin, but time passed without any news. Then Nieh Cheng’s sister Jung heard of Hsia Lui’s assassination and the large reward offered for the identification of his unknown assassin, whose corpse had been exposed. “Can this be my brother?” she sobbed. “Ah, how well Yen Sui understood him!”
She went to the market-place in Hann and found that it was indeed he. Falling on the corpse she wept bitterly and cried, “This is Nieh Cheng from Shenching Village in Chih!”
The people in the market warned her, “This man savagely murdered our chief minister and our chief minister and the king – has offered a thousand gold pieces for his name. Did you not know this? Why do you come to identify him?”
“I knew this,” she replied. “But he humbled himself to live as a tradesman in the market because our mother died and I had no husband. After our mother died and I was married, Yen Sui raised him from his squalor to be his friend. How else could he repay Yen Sui’s great kindness? A man should die for a friend who knows his worth. Because I was still alive, he mutilated himself to hide his identity. But how can I, for fear of death, let my noble brother perish unknown?”
This greatly astounded the people in the market. Having called aloud on heaven three times, she wailed in anguish and died beside her brother.
Word of this reached Tsin,Chu, Chi and Wei, and everyone commented, “Not only was Nieh Cheng able, but his sister was a remarkable woman too.” Nieh Cheng might never have given his life for Yen Sui had he know that his sister, with her strong resolution, would not balk at his corpse exposed ine the market-place and take the long difficult journey to make his name known and perish by his side. Yen Sui certainly was a good judge of character able to find loyal helpers!
LETTER IN REPLY TO REN SHAOQING
Shao-ch’ing, honored sir:
In the past I had the honor of receiving a letter from you in which you advised me to be careful in my dealings with people and instructing me in my duty to recommend men and work for the advancement of worthy gentlemen. Your concern is indeed kind and heartfelt. Perhaps you are angry that I have not marked your words and think that I am following the counsels of worthless men. I assure you I would not dare to do such a thing. Worthless old creature that I am, I have yet heard something of the teachings handed down from the great men of old. But I remember that I am no more than a mutilated being who dwells in degradation. Anything I might try to do would only meet with censure; should I try to help others I should only succeed in doing them injury. Therefore I am “in sadness and despair with no one to speak to.”
There is an old saying, “Whom will you do it for, and whom will you get to listen to you?” After Chung Tzu-ch’i died, Po Ya never again played upon the lute. Why? “It is for a friend who understands him that a man will act, and for a lover who delights in her that a woman will make herself beautiful.”
But one like myself, whose very substance is marred and mutilated though I might possess the worth of the jewels of Sui and Ho, though my conduct might be as pure as that of Yu and I, in the end I could never achieve glory, but on the contrary would only succeed in arousing laughter and bringing shame upon myself.
I should have answered your letter, but at the time I had to accompany the Emperor on a trip to the east and was pressed by many petty affairs of my own. The time we had together was indeed short, and I was so busy that I could not seem to find a moment of leisure to tell you all that I really feel. Now, Shao-ch’ing , you are accused of this terrible crime. The days and months have gone by and it is drawing close to the end of winter. I am forced to go in attendance upon the Emperor to Yung. If you should suddenly meet with that which cannot be disguised by euphemism, it would mean that I would have no opportunity to unburden to you my bitterness and anguish. Then in the long journey hereafter your spirit would forever bear me personal resentment. So I beg you to allow me to explain in brief my rude and unworthy feelings, and I pray you will not blame me too severely for having been so long in answering.
I have heard it said that to devote oneself to moral training is the storehouse of wisdom; to delight in giving to others is the beginning of humanity; that proper giving and taking are the mark of a man’s sense of duty; while times of shame and disgrace determine his courage; and that making a name for himself is the aim of all action. Only when a man has shown that he possesses these five qualities may he take a place in the world and rank among the host of superior men. No more severe misfortune can come to a man than to be driven by covetous desires, no sadness is so painful as the grief of the heart. No deed is more hideous than bringing shame to one’s ancestors, and no disgrace greater than the palace punishment [castration]. That a man who has undergone such punishment is fit no longer to be associated with is the opinion not of one age alone but has been held since ancient times. When Duke Ling of Wei rode in the same carriage with Yung Ch’ü, Confucius departed for Ch’en. Because Shang Yang obtained audience with the King through the offices of Ching Chien, Chao Liang’s heart turned cold. When Chao T’an rode in the Emperor’s carriage, Yüan Ssu was fired with anger. So from old times men have been ashamed to associate with eunuchs. If even ordinary men are loath to have dealings with eunuchs, how much more so in the case of gentlemen of virtue and feeling? Although our court today may be in need of good men, what business would I, a mere “remnant of the knife and saw,” have in trying to help and recommend the finest and most worthy men of the world?
Because of the undertakings of my father which have passed on to me, I have been allowed for some twenty years to serve beneath the hub of the royal carriage, always awaiting my punishment. I realize full well that first of all, in serving our enlightened Emperor, I have not been able to pay due fidelity or inspire real confidence, nor have I gained a name for cleverness in planning or superiority of ability. Second, I have been able to perform no service in repairing deficiencies or supplying what was lacking in the imperial rule or in promoting and advancing men of virtue and talent, nor have I brought to light any gentlemen who were living in retirement. In foreign affairs I have commanded no ranks of men, captured no castles and fought on no field; no glories of generals slain or enemy pennants seized are mine. At the least I have not, by piling up the days and sticking to my labors, achieved any high position or large salary, or brought glory and favor to my family and friends. I have not succeeded in a single one of these four endeavors. From this it is obvious that I am a worthless person who by mere chance has been tolerated at court.
Once in former times I too took my place among the lower officers and participated in the lesser deliberations in the outer court. If I could not at that time introduce any great precepts or present any of my ideas, now when I am no more than a slave who sweeps the paths, mutilated and ranked among the low worthless—now should I try to lift up my head and look lordly and discourse upon right and wrong, would I not show contempt for the court and bring shame to the gentlemen of my time? Alas, alas! A man like myself—what can he say now? What can he say now?
It is not easy to know the beginning and end of things. When I was young I had a spirit that would not be bridled, and as I grew older I won no fine praises in my village and district. But because of my father, our Ruler graciously allowed me to offer my poor talents and to come and go in the inner parts of the Palace. Therefore I cut off my acquaintanceship with friends and visitors and neglected the business of our family.
I considered then that a man who has a bowl over his head cannot hope to see the sky. Day and night I thought only how to use to the fullest my poor talents and strength. I went about the duties of my office with a single mind, seeking only the favor and love of our Ruler. But, quite contrary to my hopes, things came to a terrible misunderstanding.
Li Ling and I both held office at the same time. Basically we were never very close. Our likes and dislikes lay in different directions; we never so much as drank a cup of wine together or shared the joys of intimate friendship. But I observed that he was clearly a man superior ability. He was filial to his parents and trustworthy with his associates, honest in matters of money and just in all his giving and taking. In questions of precedence he would always yield; he was respectful and modest and gave way to others. His constant care was to sacrifice himself for his country, hastening in time without thought for his own safety. This was always in his mind, and I believed him to be truly one or the finest men of the nation. A subject who will go forth to face ten thousand deaths, giving not the slightest thought for his own life but hurrying only to the rescue of his lord—such a man is rare indeed! Now he has committed one act that was not right, and the officials who think only to save themselves and protect their own wives and children vie with each other in magnifying his shortcomings. Truly it makes me sick at heart!
The infantry that Li Ling commanded did not come up to five thousand. They marched deep into barbarian territory, strode up to the ruler’s court and dangled the bait, as it were, right before the tiger’s jaws. In fearless ranks they shouted a challenge to the powerful barbarians, gazing up at their numberless hosts. For over ten days they continued on combat with the Shan-yü. The enemy fell in disproportionate numbers; those who tried to rescue their dead and wounded could not even save themselves. The barbarian lords in their robes of felt trembled with fear. They summoned their Wise Kings of the Left and Right and called out all the men who could use a bow. The whole nation descended together upon our men and surrounded them. They fought their way along for a thousand miles until their arrows were all gone and the road was blocked. The relief forces did not come, and our dead and injured lay heaped up. But Li Ling with one cry gave courage to his army, so that every man raised himself up and wept. Washed in blood and choked with tears, they stretched out their empty bows and warded off the bare blades of the foe. North again they turned and fought to the death with the enemy.
Before Li Ling fell into the hands of the enemy, a messenger came with the report [of his attack] and the lords and ministers of the Han all raised their cups in joyous toast to the Emperor. But after a few days came word of his defeat, and because of it the Emperor could find no favor in his food and no delight in the deliberations of the court. The great officials were in anxiety and fear and did not know what to do. Observing His Majesty’s grief and distress, I dared to forget my mean and lowly position, sincerely desiring to do what I could in my fervent ignorance. I considered that Li Ling has always shared with his officers and men their hardships and want, and could command the loyalty of his troops in the face of death. In this he was unsurpassed even by the famous generals of old. And although he had fallen into captivity, I perceived that his intention was to try to seek some future opportunity to repay his debt to the Han. Though in the end he found himself in an impossible situation, yet the merit he had achieved in defeating and destroying so many of the enemy was still worthy to be proclaimed throughout the world. This is what I had in my mind to say, but I could find no opportunity to express it. Then it happened that I was summoned into council, and I took the chance to speak of Li Ling’s merits in this way, hoping to broaden His Majesty’s view and put a stop to the angry words of the other officials.
But I could not make myself fully understood. Our enlightened Ruler did not wholly perceive my meaning, But supposed that I was trying to disparage the Erh-shih General and plead a special case for Li Ling. So I was put into prison, and I was never able to make clear my fervent loyalty. Because it was believed that I had tried to defame the Emperor, I was finally forced to submit to the judgment of the law officials. My family was poor and lacked sufficient funds to buy commutation of the sentence. Of my friends and associates, not one would save me; among those near the Emperor no one said so much as a word for me. My body is not made of wood or stone, yet alone I had to face the officials of the law. Hidden in the depths of prison, to whom could I plead my case? This, Shao-ch’ing, is something you must truly have seen for yourself. Was this not way I always acted? Li Ling had already surrendered alive and destroyed the fine reputation of his family. And then I was thrown into the “silkworm chamber” [where castrations were performed]. Together we became a sight for all the world to laugh at in scorn. Alas, alas! Matters such as these it is not easy to explain in detail to ordinary people.
My father had no great deeds that entitled him to receive the split tallies or the red charter. He dealt with affairs of astronomy and the calendar, which are close to divination and worship of the spirits. He was kept for the sport and amusement of the Emperor, treated the same as the musicians and jesters, and made light of by the vulgar men of his day. If I fell before the law and were executed, it would make no more difference to most people than one hair off nine oxen, for I was nothing but a mere ant to them. The world would not rank me among those men who were able to die for their ideals, but would believe simply that my wisdom was exhausted and my crime great, that I had been unable to escape penalty and in the end had gone to my death. Why? Because all my past actions had brought this on me, they would say.
A man has only one death. That death may be as weighty as Mount T’ai, or it may be as light as a goose feather. It all depends upon the way he uses it. Above all, a man must bring no shame to his forbears. Next he must not shame his person, nor be shameful in his countenance, nor in his words. Below such a one is he who suffers the shame of being bound, and next he who bears, and next he who bears the shame of marked clothing. Next is the man bound and fettered who knows the shame of rod and thorn, and the man who bears the shame of the shaved head and the binding manacle. Below again is the shame of mutilated flesh and severed limbs. Lowest of all is the extreme penalty, the “punishment of rottenness!”
The Commentary says: “Punishments shall not extend to the high officials.” This means that a gentleman must be ever careful of proper conduct.
When the fierce tiger dwells in the deep hills, all the other beasts tremble with fear. But when he is in the trap or the cage, he wags his tail and begs for food, for he has been gradually overawed and broken. Therefore there are cases when, even though one were to draw a circle on the ground and call it a prison, a gentleman would not enter, or though one carved a wooden image and set it up as a judge, a gentleman would not contend with it, but would settle the affair for himself in accordance with what is right. But when a man has been bound hand and foot with stocks and ropes, has been stripped to the skin and flogged with rods, and plunged into the depths of encircling walls, at that time when he sees the judge he strikes his head upon the ground and when he looks at the jailers his heart gasps with fear. Why? Because he has been gradually overawed and broken by force. A man must be thick-skinned indeed if he come to this and yet say, “I am not ashamed!” What respect could people have for such a man?
Hsi-po was an earl, and yet he was imprisoned at Yu-li. Li Ssu was prime minister, yet he suffered all the five punishments. Huaiyin was a king, but he was put into fetters at Ch’en. P’eng Yüeh and Chang Ao faced south and called themselves independent, but they were both dragged to prison and punished. The Marquis of Chiang overthrew and punished all the Lu family; his power exceeded that of the Five Protectors of old, yet he was imprisoned in the Inquiry Room. The Marquis of Wei-ch’i was a great general, yet he wore the red clothing and was bound with three fetters. Chi Pu was a manacled slave for Chu Chia, and Kuan Fu suffered shame in the prison of Chü-shih. All these men achieved the positions of feudal lords, generals, or ministers, and their fame reached to neighboring lands. But when they were accused of crimes and sentence was passed upon them, there was not one who could settle the matter with his hands by committing suicide. In the dust and filth of bondage, it has ever been the same, past and present. How in such circumstances can a man avoid shame?
From this you can see that “bravery and cowardice are only a matter of circumstance; strength and weakness are only a matter of the conditions.” This is certain. Is there any reason to wonder at it? Furthermore, if a man does not quickly make his decision to settle things for himself outside the law, but waits until he has sunk lower and lower, till he lies beneath the whip and lash, and then decides to save his honor by suicide, is it not too late? This is probably the reason why the ancients hesitated to administer punishments to officials.
It is the nature of every man to love life and hate death, to think of his relatives and look after his wife and children. Only when a man is moved by higher principles is this not so. Then there are things which he must do. Now I have been most unfortunate, for I lost my parents very early. With no brothers or sisters or close relations, I have been left alone an orphan. And you yourself, Shao-ch’ing, have seen me with my wife and child, and know how things are. Yet the brave man does not necessarily die for honor, while even the coward may fulfill his duty. Each takes a different way to exert himself. Though I might be weak and cowardly and seek shamelessly to prolong my life, yet I know full well the difference between what ought to be followed and what rejected. How could I bring myself to sink into the shame of ropes and bonds? If even the lowest slave and scullion maid can bear to commit suicide, why should not one like myself be able to do what has to be done? But the reason I have not refused to bear these ills and have continued to live, dwelling in vileness and disgrace without taking my leave, is that I grieve that I have things in my heart which I have not been able to express fully, and I am shamed to think that after I am gone my writings will not be known to posterity. Too numerous to record are the men of ancient times who were rich and noble and whose names have yet vanished away. It is only those who were masterful and sure, the truly extraordinary men, who are still remembered. When the Earl of the West was imprisoned at Yu-li, he expanded the Changes; Confucius was in distress and he made the Spring and Autumn; Ch’ü Yüan was banished and he composed his poem “Encountering Sorrow”; after Tso Ch’iu lost his sight, he composed the Narratives from the States; when Sun Tzu had had his feet amputated, he set forth the Art of War; Lü Pu- wei was banished to Shu but his Lü-lan has been handed down through the ages; while Han Fei Tzu was held prisoner in Ch’in, he wrote “The Difficulties of Disputation” and “The Sorrow of Standing Alone”; most of the three hundred poems of the Book of Odes were written when the sages poured forth their anger and dissatisfaction. All these men had a rankling in their hearts, for they were not able to accomplish what they wished. Therefore they wrote about past affairs in order to pass on their thoughts to future generations. Those like Tso Ch’iu, who was blind, or Sun Tzu, who had no feet, could never hold office, so they retired to compose books in order to set forth their thoughts and indignation, handing down their theoretical writings in order to show to posterity who they were. I too have ventured not to be modest but have entrusted myself to my useless writings. I have gathered up and brought together the old traditions of the world which were scattered and lost. I have examined the deeds and events of the past and investigated the principles behind their success and failure, their rise and decay, in one hundred and thirty chapters. I wished to examine into all that concerns heaven and man, to penetrate the changes of the past and present, completing all as the work of one family. But before I had finished my rough manuscript, I met with this calamity. It is because I regretted that it had not been completed that I submitted to the extreme penalty without rancor. When I have truly completed this work, I shall deposit it in theFamousMountain. If it may be handed down to men who will appreciate it, and penetrate to the villages and great cities, then though I should suffer a thousand mutilations, what regret should I have? Such matters as these may be discussed with a wise man, but it is difficult to explain them to ordinary people.
It is not easy to dwell in poverty and lowliness while base men multiply their slanderous counsels. I met this misfortune because of the words I spoke. I have brought upon myself the scorn and mockery even of my native village and I have soiled and shamed my father’s name. With what face can I again ascend and stand before the grave mound of my father and mother? Though a hundred generations pass, my defilement will only become greater. This is the thought that wrenches my bowels nine times each day. Sitting at home, I am befuddled as though I had lost something. I go out, and then realize that I do not know where I am going. Each time I think of this shame, the sweat pours from my back and soaks my robe. I am now no more than a servant in the harem. How could I leave of my own accord and hide away in some mountain cave? Therefore I follow along with the vulgar, floating and sinking, bobbing up and down with the times, sharing their delusions and madness.
Now you, Shao-ch’ing, have advised me to recommend worthy men and promote scholars. But would not such a course be at odds with my own intent? Now although I should try to add glory and fame to myself, or with fine words seek to excuse my error, it would have no effect upon the vulgar. I would not be believed, but would only take upon myself further shame. Only after the day of death shall right and wrong at last be determined.
I cannot convey in writing my full meaning, but I have ventured to set forth brief my unworthy opinion.