Jing Ke (? – 227 BC) was a retainer of Crown Prince Dan of the Yan state and renowned for his failed assassination attempt of King Zheng of the Qin state, who later became Qin Shi Huang, China's first emperor (reign from 221 BC to 210 BC). His story is told in the chapter entitled Biographies of Assassins (刺客列傳) in Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian.
In 230 BC, the Qin state began conquering other states as part of a unification plan. Qin's army successfully annihilated the weakest of the Seven Warring States, Han. Two years later Zhao was also conquered.
In exchange for peace, King Xi of Yan had earlier forced his son Crown Prince Dan to be held hostage by the Qin, but Prince Dan returned knowing that Qin was far stronger than Yan and would attack it sooner or later.
Jing Ke originally came from the State of Wey. He was a scholar, proficient in the art of the sword. His homeland of Wei was absorbed by Qin, and Jing Ke fled to Yan. A Youxia named Tian Guang (田光) first introduced him to Prince Dan. There Jing Ke accepted the hospitality of Prince Dan, who as a last resort decided to send an assassin against the King of Qin. The plan involved either kidnapping the king and forcing him to release the territories from his control; or failing this, killing him. The expectation in either case was that Qin would be left disorganized, enabling the other six major states to unite against it.
In 228 BC, the Qin army was already at the Zhao capital of Handan, and was waiting to approach the state of Yan. Jing Ke agreed to go to Qin and pretend to be a nobleman begging for mercy. According to events at the time, Dukang (督亢) (in present-day Hebei Province) was the first part of the Yan state that the Qin wanted, by reason of its fertile farmland. The plan was to present as gifts the map of Dukang and the severed head of the traitorous Qin general Fan Wuji to the king of Qin, in order to approach him.
At the time, General Fan Wuji had lost favor with Qin and wanted revenge against it; whereas the Qin state put a bounty on capturing him of 1,000 gold pieces. Jing Ke went to Fan himself to discuss the assassination plan. Fan Wuji believed that the plan would work, and agreed to commit suicide so that his head could be collected.
Prince Dan then obtained the sharpest possible dagger, refined it with poison, and gave it to Jing Ke. To accompany him, Prince Dan assigned Qin Wuyang as his assistant. Qin Wuyang was known to have successfully committed murder at age of 13.
In 227 BC, Prince Dan and other guests wore white clothing and white hats at the Yi River (易水) to send the pair of assassins off. Jing Ke reportedly sang a song "the wind blows, the river freezes. The hero fords, never to return!" (風蕭蕭兮易水寒，壯士一去兮不復還). The King of Qin received the message of visitors presenting a gift to him, and was willing to receive them at the city.
Concealing the dagger inside the map scroll, Jing Ke and Qin Wuyang represented the Yan and met with the King. Qin Wuyang reportedly became so nervous that he acted almost paralyzed when entering the presence of the King. Jing Ke explained that his partner had never set eyes on the Son of Heaven. Other sources suggest Jing Ke described Qin Wuyang as a rural boy from the countryside who had never seen the world.
When the King opened the map, Jing Ke immediately seized the revealed dagger and attacked the King, who managed to back away from the initial thrust, tearing off a sleeve in the process. While the King fled from his attacker on foot, he attempted to draw his own sword hanging from his belt, but was unable to do so quickly enough, as it was a ceremonial sword that had deliberately been made very long. None of the other Qin officials within the vicinity were armed and able to stop Jing Ke, and the guards stationed outside the palace were unable to reach the scene in time. In the confusion Jing Ke began to close in on the King, who struggled to get away from the assassin by circling behind a pillar.
Seeing the king in grave danger, a royal physician named Xia Wuju (夏無且) grabbed his medicine bag and threw it at Jing Ke. This slowed down the assassin just enough to allow the king to recover some distance. Reminded by cries from other officials, the King managed to shift the sword behind his back and unsheathe over his shoulder. He immediately struck Jing Ke in the thigh, effectively immobilizing him. The injured Jing Ke, out of a desperate last attempt, threw his dagger towards the King, only to miss the target. The King then proceeded to stab Jing Ke eight more times, mortally wounding him. At this point, the guards arrived to finish off both Jing Ke and the fleeing Qin Wuyang.
After Jing Ke's attempt, the Qin army general Wang Jian was sent against the Yan state. In 226 BC, Prince Dan sent his army to fight at Ji (薊), but were soon defeated. In an effort to try to appease the King of Qin, King Xi of Yan put his son to death; however, the Yan were annexed nonetheless and the Yan were destroyed.
In popular culture
- The Chinese film The Emperor and the Assassin (1999), featuring Gong Li and others, is based on the aforementioned events. Jing Ke himself does not appear in the films The Emperor's Shadow (1996), directed by Zhou Xiaowen, or Hero (2002) starring Jet Li; but both films borrow elements from his story.
- A fictionalized version of Jing Ke appears in the film Highlander: Endgame (2000), played by actor and martial artist Donnie Yen. In the film, Jing Ke is, like the other principal characters, an immortal warrior living in the story's present day. The film alters the spelling of Jing Ke's name to "Jin Ke" and makes reference to his historical association with Qin Shi Huang.
- The Chinese film Hero is loosely based on Jing Ke's assassination attempt, with Jet Li playing the assassin.
- The character Tsing Yi in John Woo's Last Hurrah for Chivalry, according to its director, is inspired by Jing Ke.
- A Chinese TV series called Assassinator Jing Ke (荆轲传奇) was produced in 2004, depicting a fictionalized biography of Jing Ke, starring Liu Ye, Wang Yanan, and Peter Ho.
- Jing Ke is a spy in the computer game Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword.
- Jing Ke is one of the heroes in The Legend of Qin, 3D animation series, father of the protagonist, Jing Tianming. Ke's farewell song is also quoted in this series.
- Jing Ke's song as he left for his mission was played in the song, Episode 119 Medley, in an episode of the show, Community, when Señor Chang entered the library to kill off the two remaining students in the paintball fight.
- Jing Ke appears in the mobile game Fate/Grand Order as an Assassin class Servant. This version of Jing Ke appears as a woman, and the game notes she was recorded in history as a man for unknown reasons. Her personal quest revolves around her failed attempt.
- Jing Ke's story is the basis of the plot of Katanagatari.
- Jing Ke is the protagonist of the short story The Circle by Liu Cixin
- Jing Ke appears in the fictional historical drama The King's Woman based off the novel The Legend of Qin: Li Ji Story (秦时明月之丽姬传).
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- 王恆偉. (2005) (2006) 中國歷史講堂 #2 戰國 秦 漢. 中華書局. ISBN 962-8885-25-1. pp. 70-71.
- Sima, Qian (2016). "Jing Ke och mordförsöket på kungen av Qin". Kinas förste kejsare (in Swedish). Natur & Kultur. p. 131. ISBN 9789127143029.
- 曹正文.  (1998). 俠客行: 縱談中國武俠. 知書房出版集團 publishing. ISBN 957-9663-32-7, ISBN 978-957-9663-32-8. p. 27.
- 王恆偉. (2005) (2006) 中國歷史講堂 #2 戰國 秦 漢. 中華書局. ISBN 962-8885-25-1. pp. 72-73.
- 戴逸, 龔書鐸.  (2003) 中國通史. 春秋 戰國 秦. Intelligence press. ISBN 962-8792-81-4. p. 62.
- Sima Qian. Dawson, Raymond Stanley. Brashier, K. E. (2007). The First Emperor: Selections from the Historical Records. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-922634-2, ISBN 978-0-19-922634-4. pp. 15-20, 82, 99.
- 王恆偉. (2005) (2006) 中國歷史講堂 #2 戰國 秦 漢. 中華書局. ISBN 962-8885-25-1. pp. 74-75.
- Duncan MacLeod: "Jin Ke? Who served with the emperor Chin?" · Jin Ke: "The same man." ·(Highlander: Endgame (2000) Dimension Films)