聶政

This is my original translation from Classical Chinese of the story of the ancient Chinese assassin Nie Zheng, as recounted by the famous historian Sima Qian in "The Lives of the Assassin-Retainers," which comprises chapter 86 of his comprehensive history of China from the earliest times to the Han Dynasty, The Records of the Historian. Nie Zheng lived during the turblent "Warring States Period" of Chinese history (476-221 BC), a turbulent time after the Zhou Dynasty had collapsed and a number of smaller states battled each other for supremacy.


Some forty years later1 there was the affair of Nie Zheng of Zhi. Nie Zheng was a native of the village of Shenjing in Zhi. He killed a man, and to avoid his enemies, he went with his mother and elder sister to the state of Qi, where he took up a new life as a butcher.

Some time later, Yan Zhongzi of Puyang2, who served Marquis Ai of Han, had a quarrel with Xia Lei, who was the Prime Minister of Han. Yan Zhongzi feared he might be executed, so he fled and traveled about, looking for someone who could take revenge on Xia Lei for him.

When he arrived in Qi, people told him that Nie Zheng was a brave and daring man who was avoiding his enemies by hiding among the butchers. So Yan Zhongzi went to his home and requested an audience, but was refused several times. Finally, he prepared a gift of some ale and asked to be allowed to personally offer a toast to Nie Zheng’s mother. At last he was allowed to enter.

When the drinking was well underway, Yan Zhongzi offered 100 gold pieces as a present to Nie Zheng’s mother. Nie Zheng was amazed by his generosity, but firmly refused his gift. When Yan Zhongzi just as firmly pressed it upon him, Nie Zheng again refused, saying, “I am fortunate to have my old mother with me. Although our family is poor and I am living far from home as a dog butcher,3 thanks to this job I am still able to obtain decent food each day with which to nourish her. She has everything she needs and is completely cared for, so I would not dare to consider it proper to accept your gift.”

Yan Zhongzi asked the others present to withdraw, and then said to Nie Zheng, “I have an enemy, and I have traveled among the different kingdoms many times, looking for someone to help me. But when I reached Qi, I was blessed to hear that you are a man of extremely high principles. Therefore I presented 100 pieces of gold to you, so that you might use them to buy some trifle of coarse food for your honored parent, and so that I might win the pleasure of your friendship. How could I dare to hope for anything more?

Nie Zheng said, “The reason why I surrender my ambition and humble myself by living in a village as a butcher, is only because I have the good fortune to be able look after my old mother in this way. While she lives, I do not dare to promise myself to another.” Yan Zhongzi firmly pressed him, but to the end Nie Zheng was unwilling to accept. Nevertheless, before leaving Yan Zhongzi did all the proper rites a guest should perform towards his host.

Some time later, Nie Zheng’s mother died. After she had been buried and the mourning period was over, Nie Zheng said to himself, “Alas! I was but a man of the village, wielding a blade as a butcher, but Yan Zhongzi, who was a chief minister to a powerful lord, did not consider 1000 leagues too far, and went out of his way with his whole entourage and befriended me. The way I treated him was poor indeed! I have no great achievements for which I can be praised, yet Yan Zhongzi offered 100 pieces of gold as a present to my mother, even though I did not receive it. The only reason he acted this way, was because he truly understands me. Now when a worthy gentleman, even though burning with anger and indignation, has offered friendship and trust to such an impoverished and insignificant man as myself, how can I simply remain silent and let that be the end of it? Moreover, on that day when he made his request to me, I only refused because of my duty to my aged mother, but now that my mother’s appointed days have passed, I will make myself useful to the one who understands me!”

Thereupon he traveled to the west and arrived in Puyang, where he called upon Yan Zhongzi. He said, “On that earlier occasion, the reason I did not promise myself to you, was only because my mother was still alive. But now, unfortunately, my mother’s appointed years have reached their end. Who is this enemy upon whom you wish to take vengeance? I request that I be allowed to undertake this matter for you!”

Yan Zhongzi then told him the whole story. “My enemy is the Han Prime

Nie Zheng then took his leave and set out all alone, disguising his sword as a walking stick, until he arrived in the state of Han. At that moment, Prime Minister of Han Xia Lei was sitting in his office, guarded and attended by a large group of men bearing halberds and other weapons. Nie Zheng walked straight in, ascended the stairs, and stabbed and killed Xia Lei. His retainers fell into great confusion, and Nie Zheng, bellowing loudly, struck down and killed twenty or thirty of them. He then skinned his face and gouged out his eyes, and butchering himself as he had once done to dogs, tore out his intestines, and in this way died.

The ruler of Han took Nie Zheng’s corpse and shamefully displayed it in the marketplace, offering a reward for his identity, but no one could tell who it was. So then the ruler of Han displayed the reward itself, declaring he would give a thousand pieces of gold to whoever could say who killed Prime Minister Xia Lei. Some time passed, but still no one came forward with the man’s name.

Meanwhile, Nie Zheng’s older sister Ying heard that someone had stabbed and killed the Prime Minister of Han, but that the identity of the villain could not be obtained because no one in the whole state knew his name, and that they had shamefully exposed his corpse in the marketplace and hung up a reward of a thousand pieces of gold.

She sighed and said, “Surely this is my little brother? Alas! Yan Zhongzi certainly understood him well!” At once she set off and went to the marketplace in Han, and sure enough, she found that the dead man was her brother Nie Zheng. She fell prostrate before the corpse and sobbed loudly with inconsolable sorrow, crying out, “This man is called Nie Zheng from the village of Shenjing in Zhi!”

The many people passing through the market all said to her, “This man has committed an act of cruel violence against our state’s Prime Minister, and the king has posted a reward of a thousand pieces of gold for his name—how can anyone not have heard about this? Why do you dare to come here and admit you know him?”

Ying answered, “Yes, I heard about it. But the reason why Nie Zheng was willing to bear filth and humiliation, cast away his life, and live in the marketplace as a butcher, was because our mother had the good fortune of not being ill, and I was not yet married off. But now our mother has passed away from this world, I have already been married off to a husband, and Yan Zhongzi has inquired after him and raised my brother up from hardship and filth and befriended him. It was a generous blessing, so what else could he do? ‘Gentlemen die for those who understand them.’4 Now, because I am still alive and could be punished for his crime, he has inflicted this terrible disfiguration on himself in order to wipe out all traces of his identity. How could I possibly, merely out of fear of being put to death, deny my worthy brother the fame he deserves?”

Having astonished the people in the marketplace with these words, she then cried out loudly to heaven three times, and finally from sorrow and grief fell dead at her brother’s side. When the men of Jin, Chu, Qi, and Wei heard of it, they all said, “It was not only Nie Zheng who was so able—his sister was also a heroic woman!”

If Nie Zheng had in fact known before that his sister would be unwilling to tolerate his attempt to hide his identity for her sake, but instead, heedless of the risk of being executed and having her corpse exposed in public, would not fail to travel a thousand danger-filled leagues in order to make his name known to posterity, such that sister and brother would die together in the marketplace of Han, he certainly would not have promised himself to Yan Zhongzi.

As for Yan Zhongzi, it certainly can be said that he knew how to recognize ability in others and win them to his service.


Notes:

1. i.e. forty years after the affair of Yu Rang.
2. A town in the state of Wei.
3. literally, a butcher of dogs, which were often eaten in those days, especially by poorer people.
4. A famous Chinese proverb. The full proverb can be found in the preceeding story of Yu Rang.


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