專諸

What follows is my original translation from Classical Chinese of the story of the Chinese assassin Zhuan Zhu, as recounted by the famous Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian in “The Lives of the Assassin-Retainers,” which comprises chapter 86 of his magnum opus history of China from the beginning up to his own time, The Records of the Historian. Zhuan Zhu lived during the so-called “Spring and Autumn Period” of Chinese history (771-476 BC), when a number of small states battled for control of China during the dying days of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty.


Zhuan Zhu was a native of the city of Tang in the state of Wu. When Wu Zixu1 escaped Chu and went to Wu, he soon recognized that Zhuan Zhu was a man of talent and ability .

Wu Zixu had already had an audience with King Liao of Wu,2 and had persuaded him of the profit in attacking Chu. But Prince Guang of Wu said afterwards to the King, “That Wu Zixu’s father and elder brother were both killed by Chu, and the only reason he tells us to attack Chu is because he wants to pursue his private vendetta. It is not that he can be of any real service to Wu.” The King was convinced and ceased considering an attack.

But Wu Zixu knew that Prince Guang secretly wanted to kill King Liao of Wu, and said to himself, “That Guang has domestic ambitions, and until they are satisfied, it is useless to speak to him about undertakings abroad.” He therefore presented Zhuan Zhu to Prince Guang, and bided his time.

Prince Guang’s father had been King Zhufan of Wu.3 Zhufan had three younger brothers: the first was called Yuzhai, the second was called Yimo, and the third was called Jizi Zha. Zhufan knew that Jizi Zha was a worthy man, and so he did not name one of his own sons crown prince, but instead arranged that the throne would pass in order to his three younger brothers, hoping that in the end the crown would pass to Jizi Zha.

When Zhufan died, the throne passed to Yuzhai,4 and when Yuzhai died, it passed to Yimo.5 When Yimo died, it should have passed to Jizi Zha, but Jizi Zha was unwilling to take the throne and withdrew from consideration.6 The people of Wu thereupon enthroned Yimo’s son Liao as the king. Prince Guang was disgruntled and thought to himself, “If the order of succession is from older brother to younger brother, then Jizi Zha should have taken the throne. But if it is from father to son, then as the true legal heir, I should have been given the throne!” He therefore had begun secretly retaining resourceful advisors for the purpose of seizing the throne. After Guang had obtained the services of Zhuan Zhu, he always treated him as a valued retainer.

Nine years passed and King Ping of Chu died.7 The next spring King Liao of Wu, hoping to take advantage of Chu’s period of mourning, sent his two younger brothers, the princes Gaiyu and Shuyong, to lead troops to lay siege the Chu town of Qian. He also sent Jizi Zha to the state of Jin to observe the reactions of the other great lords. Chu sent forth its own troops, which cut off the path of retreat behind the Wu generals Gaiyu and Shuyong so that Wu’s troops could not return home.

At this time, Prince Guang said to Zhuan Zhu, “This chance cannot be missed! If we do not seek something we want, what will we ever gain? Moreover, I am the rightful heir and deserve to be on the throne. As for Jizi Zha, even if he returns, he will not oppose me.”

Zhuan Zhu said, “King Liao can be killed! His mother is old, his son is but a boy, and both of his younger brothers are leading troops to attack Chu, which has cut off their retreat. Now Wu is facing trouble abroad in Chu and is emptied of troops at home, and there are no outspoken ministers. There is no one who can stop us!”

Prince Guang bowed and said, “I am in your hands.”

In the fourth month on the day of bing-zi,8 Guang had armed soldiers lie in wait in his cellar, prepared a banquet, and invited King Liao. King Liao had soldiers line up on both sides of the road all the way from his palace to Guang’s house. At the gate, by the door, on the stairs, to the left and the right, King Liao was surrounded by his most trusted men, standing ready to serve and armed with long swords.

When the banquet had reached its height, Prince Guang suddenly feigned pain in his leg, excused himself, and went to the cellar, where he ordered Zhuan Zhu to put a dagger in the belly of a roasted fish and go offer the fish to King Liao. When Zhuan Zhu had come before the King, he ripped open the fish, and promptly used the dagger to stab King Liao. The King fell dead on the spot, but his retainers also killed Zhuan Zhu.

The king’s followers were thrown into disarray and milled about in confusion. Prince Guang brought out his soldiers who had been lying in ambush and they fell upon King Liao’s men, and completely wiping them out to the last man.

Thereafter, Guang took the throne and made himself king, and took the reign name Helü.9 Helü then enfeoffed Zhuan Zhu’s son and made him a high-ranking minister.


Notes:

1. Wu Zixu was a disgraced former chief minister in the state of Chu.
2. King Liao of Wu, reigned 526-516 BC.
3. King Zhufan of Wu, reigned 560-548 BC.
4. King Yuzhai of Wu, reigned 547-531 BC.
5. King Yimo of Wu, reigned 530-527 BC.
6. Not taking the throne only further proves Jizi Zha’s worthiness. In ancient China it was considered especially noble to refuse to become king, even when offered the throne.
7. King Ping of Chu, reigned 528-516 BC.
8. In the Chinese Calendar, days were counted in cycles of sixty, so each day occurred only once every two months. Bing-zi is the 13th day of one of these sixty-day cycles.
9. As King Helü of Wu, Guang reigned from 515-495 BC.


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