Just over two thousand years ago, China’s first great historian, Sima Qian, decided to include a chapter on assassins in his long history of his newly united homeland. He chose five men as representative examples of those who had tried to kill Chinese leaders, and he explained the reasoning behind this decision in a brief note appended to the end of the chapter. In Burton Watson’s excellent translation, it reads: “Of these five men, from Ts’ao Mei to Ching K’o, some succeeded in carrying out their duty and some did not. But it is perfectly clear that they had all determined upon the deed. They were not false to their intentions. Is it not right, then, that their names should be handed down to later ages?”
The success or failure of the individual assassins was less important to Sima Qian than their sincerity. He understood that an assassin worth remembering had to be spurred on to his deed both by his inner determination and by the moral pressure of a minister or ruler whom he respected. As a sister of the assassin Nieh Cheng explained to the local townsmen, after viewing her brother’s defaced and mangled corpse exposed in the public marketplace for all to see, he had really had no choice in his reckless venture. He owed a debt to chief minister Yen Chung-tzu, at whose behest he had undertaken the assassination, for Yen had shown him generosity and trust that had to be reciprocated. As she put it to the listeners who crowded around her, “Yen Chung-tzu, recognizing my brother’s worth, lifted him up from hardship and disgrace and became his friend, treating him with kindness and generosity. So there was nothing he could do. A gentleman will always be willing to die for someone who recognizes his full worth.”
Nieh’s sister was here reflecting the hierarchical code of value and honor prevalent in China’s period of “the Warring States” in which these events took place. The Chinese term used by Sima Qian which we here translate as “assassin” is ci ke, where ci has the meaning of “to stab” and ke carries a sense of being a valued guest or retainer. But apart from this shared core of moral obligation, the five men depicted by Sima Qian undertook their ventures in very different ways, with different kinds of success.
The first, Ts’ao Mei, was a general who drew his dagger at a meeting attended by his own ruler and their main rival, threatening the rival with death unless he relinquished the land he had seized. The rival ruler grudgingly acquiesced. In this case, Ts’ao Mei’s goal was attained and no one was killed. In the second case, the assassin concealed a dagger in the belly of a fish that had been roasted for a banquet, and thus eluded the watchful guards of the ruler he sought to kill; as he came into the king’s …