Circumstances of Qin Shihuang

Darren Duan, Writer, Podcast, Social Media

“Calm down, we’re nearing the palace.” Jing Ke smacked Qin Wuyang playfully on the shoulder. “Deep breaths. It’ll work out. I know it will.”

Despite his assurances, Jing Ke felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. He felt something coiling around his neck, and jumped, feeling at his throat.

“What’s wrong?” Wuyang stopped as his partner did, looking at him with eyes of worry. His skin was pale, and it was obvious to both of them that they were out of their comfort zone. It was unavoidable. Everyone back at home was counting on them, they had sent them off wearing pure white. Jing Ke could still see their hopeful faces, their waving hands, a glistening tear-

“I’m fine. Keep your gaze up. Remember the story.” 

The two kept their backs straight as they met the guard in front of a large, ornate gate. There was a guard standing at one side, clothed militarily and surrounded by an aura of antagonism.

“State your business for today.” The guard growled harshly. He smelled of smoke.

“We’re-” Wuyang broke into coughs. Jing Ke picked up for him.

“We’re ambassadors from Yan. We seek an audience with the emperor.” He tried his best to keep his voice from shaking.

“Yes, I see that.” The guard’s eyes searched the two with derision, and Jing Ke suddenly felt a strong surge of strength. The guard jutted a thumb at Wuyang.

“Is he sick?”

“No, he’s a peasant child. I’m sure he was just struck by the majesty of the palace.”

“I see.” His eyes narrowed slightly. “Well, come on in.”

The doors of the palace swung open, and the two were ushered in. Jing Ke felt the gaze of the guard following him in, but paid him no attention. There were more important things to be worrying about. 

Door after door, hallway after hallway they went, the palace seeming endlessly winding and confusing. Perhaps it was just their fear-addled brains messing with them. They finally ended in front of a set of doors. With a deep breath, the two each opened one side. 


The men in the room all turned their heads towards the new visitors. Well, all but one. The room was brightly lit, with a window allowing a good deal of sunlight to illuminate the room. On either side of a large wooden table, there were strategists, servants, doctors, and consorts. Everywhere they looked there was red and yellow, and smoke permeating the air. Directly across from them, in the center seat was Qin Shihuang in all his majesty. His smooth robes seemed to flow over his body, and as he moved, the cloth slithered about. His long beard and piercing eyes struck at Jing Ke, who felt a vague pressure directed at him. 

“Great emperor, we are here from the Yan region.” The two bowed deeply.

“You may stand up straight. What business do you have with me today?” Qin Shihuang’s voice boomed from across the room, yet exhibited a sense of boredom. Jing Ke snuck a glance at Wuyang. Wuyang nodded.

“We have a gift for you, my lord. It is a beautiful map of China, drawn by a masterful artist in our village.” Jing Ke pulled out a map from the sleeves of his robe.

“Is that so? Why, let me have a look at this map you seem so fond of.” Qin Shihuang gestured for them to step forward, and Jing Ke felt a hand on his shoulder. It was going to be okay.

He felt its unusual weight in his hands as he approached the seat. Step after step. Slowly, as to not cause alarm. When he was but 2 steps away, and Qin Shihuang had his arms outstretched to receive it, Jing Ke threw the map to the ground and drew a dagger from within the paper. In one fluid motion he thrust the dagger at the man before him, expecting steel to meet flesh, but-

In that moment Jing Ke saw Qin Shihuang’s eyes flash. The soul of a man who feared death more than anything else was heavily guarded, and with a quick motion he dived from his chair into the table, sending papers and dishes flying into the air and crashing to the ground. The force of his Jing Ke’s dagger thrust had sent the blade an inch into the wooden chair, and while the attendees were stunned silent, he pulled the dagger free and thrust again at the emperor. 

Again he met air. For a second, the world seemed to stand still as Qin Shihuang stared at Jing Ke, his eyes boring a hole through his skull. Jing Ke shook all over with fear and anger. As the attendants remained silent and unsure of what to do, he began to dash at the emperor, who turned tail and did the same. It was a game of cat and mouse, and all it took was one trip to send one to death. 

One revolution. Two. Three. Why weren’t the people around them doing anything? Qin Shihuang’s eyes met that of a standing physician. He looked away in panic, and at his hands, which carried a bag filled with traditional medicine. Four. The doctor looked up and met the emperor’s eyes again. He saw fire. Five. This was not a man who would die here. This was a man who would live and would see to it that all present would be beaten for not helping him. This was a man who, even in fleeing an assassin, inspired deep fear in his soul.

The doctor swung the medicine bag forward with all his might, and on the sixth revolution, the pair made around the room, a cracking sound startled everyone present. The sound of the collision with Jing Ke’s skull resembled a knock on a wooden coffin. He fell to the ground hard, and while the room was still spinning and papers were flying everywhere, Qin Shihuang leaped across the room and grabbed his sword from beside his throne. Twisting around, Jing Ke saw a deadly serpent, its eyes gleaming with malice and fangs dripping with venom. Hurriedly he tried to climb to his feet. 

The sword sliced clean through his clothes, and he was kicked to the ground. Jing Ke’s vision swam and his chest burned with a clawing pain. His robes turned bright red. What did it mean that, in these last moments of his, all he could think about was how his blood didn’t seem real to him? That its color was too bright, too vibrant, too full of life. It always seemed…fake to him. Perhaps it was because it was never meant to be outside. 

He blinked. Between his blurry vision and painful gasps, he saw Qin Shihuang walking over. He felt anger. Angry at the emperor for his cruelty. Angry at Wuyang for slowly shifting farther away in the crowd, his eyes downturned. Angry at the attendants for just standing to the side in horror. Angry at himself. Angry that he was unable to do what he came here to do. He thought that the anger he felt in his heart must be real. Jing Ke was prepared to die, but not without taking the emperor out with him. All his strength was put into a final throw, a desperate last attempt at changing the world into one that his loved ones could breathe free in. The dagger soared through the air and stuck hard into a wooden pillar behind him. Jing Ke laughed at the sudden face of alarm that Qin Shihuang made. That was the only satisfaction he would get, and he was going to take it. 

As the emperor stood over him, Jing Ke saw the face of a man who trusted no one, who feared everyone. An emperor who had had his fears reaffirmed, and was most afraid of his fellow man. 

The sword punctured his flesh. Jing Ke saw it thrust into his body once. Twice. Thrice. On the fourth, he was gone. Again and again, Qin Shihuang stabbed the hole-ridden corpse, his crazed eyes alight with a tinge of madness. 


He would not die today. No, indeed- not today.

//Like with many ancient Chinese stories, the truth of what happened that day might be completely different. Does that mean we just deny it happened and move on with our lives? Go ahead, I won’t stop you. But as with every other piece I’ve taken a crack at, I choose to see these historical stories as fiction with the possibility of being real. Unlike pure fiction, it’s the possibility that makes the story so intriguing. The possibility that fiction was reality, and that the glorious and horrifying scenes that happened to people in the past excites me to no end. 


What message does this short scene from Chinese history express? Was it the terrible result of a man too afraid of death? Was it the failure of a man who so dearly wished to succeed? What about the betrayal of a close friend, who in seeing his comrade being knocked to the floor, backed away towards the door? Try and draw your own conclusions, since I’m certainly not about to do it for you.