Zheng of Qin: The Chinese Emperor Who Escaped Assassination By Running Around a Pillar

Photo Credit: 1. Canva 2. Unknown / Jane Portal / The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Photo Credit: 1. Canva 2. Unknown / Jane Portal / The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Zheng of Qin, who reigned as the first emperor of China’s Qin Dynasty from 221-210 BC, survived several assassination attempts, including some that occurred while he was the King of Qin. One saw him escape an assailant by running around a pillar – a tactic that surprisingly worked.

The Crown Prince of Yan plotted Zheng of Qin’s assassination

Map of China, with the state of Yan highlighted in red
China, 260 BC. (Photo Credit: Philg88 / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 227 BC, Crown Prince Dan of Yan employed his retainer, Jing Ke, and his accomplice, Qin Wuyang, to assassinate Zheng. Qin had successfully conquered its neighbors, and Dan wanted to bring an end to this before the state’s army went after Yan.

The assassins were granted an audience with the king, under the guise of a gesture of goodwill by Yan. They carried with them the severed head of a man Zheng wanted dead, Gen. Fan Wuji, and a map of Dukang, which could prove handy when it came to future military campaigns. Concealed within the folded piece of parchment, however, was a dagger, which the men intended to use to kill Zheng.

Qin was the first to step forward, but he reportedly was so nervous that he became paralyzed with fear. Jing convinced Zheng and his courtiers that his partner’s behavior was the result of him having never before set eyes on the Son of Heaven, a name given to the Chinese sovereign. Still, Qin was barred from entering the palace any further, so Jing had to present the gifts on his own.

The events that followed were recorded by Chinese historian Sima Qian.

Zheng of Qin foiled Jing Ke’s assassination attempt

Illustration of Jing Ke trying to assassinate Zheng of Qin
Jing Ke attempting to assassinate Zheng of Qin. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

When Jing presented the gifts, Zheng opened the map, accidentally revealing the dagger within its folds. Jing grabbed it and the king’s sleeve, but Zheng jumped back in shock, ripping his sleeve and narrowly avoiding the assassin’s thrust toward his chest.

Zheng struggled as he tried to unsheathe his ceremonial sword, but it was much too long. Jing ran toward him, forcing him to flee on foot. Confused and acting hastily in the wake of what had just happened, Zheng ran around the pillar in the room. His attempt to get away wasn’t foolproof, however, as Jing was catching up to him.

While all of this was happening, none of the courtiers stepped in to help. Some believe it was because they never carried arms in the presence of the king, so had nothing to attack Jing with. Others think it was because the men were too shocked by the whole incident to do anything. Additionally, the palace guards were stationed outside, making them unable to swiftly reach Zheng in a time such as this.

Only one person tried to help. Royal physician Xia Wuju saw what was happening and grabbed his medicine bag, whacking Jing with it. This gave Zheng enough time to create some distance between himself and his assailant. He was reminded by a courtier at this time to draw his sword, which he finally did. With the weapon, he turned to face Jing, slashing him in the thigh.

The far-reaching implications of the assassination attempt

Portrait of Zheng of Qin
Zheng of Qin. (Photo Credit: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Jing was immobilized by the strike, staggering to the ground. In a final attempt, he threw the dagger toward Zheng, but missed and struck the pillar. The king then proceeded to strike him eight more times. In his final moments, Jing sat with his legs spread (an extremely rude position) while taunting Zheng with obscenities.

By this point, the palace guards had finally arrived and were able to finish off both Jing and Qin, who’d tried to flee. Zheng returned to his throne in a dazed state. Once he’d collected himself, he thanked Xia for his assistance.

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The assassination attempt was a failure, and an aggravated Zheng sent Qin Army Gen. Wang Jan and his army to attack Yan. A battle ensued in 226 BC, and Crown Prince Dan’s forces were defeated. His father, King Xi of Yan, put his son to death, hoping to appease Zheng and prevent any further conflict. This, unfortunately, wasn’t the case, and Zheng had Yan annexed and destroyed.

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!