The Emperor and the Assassin
荊柯刺秦王 【jīngkē cì Qínwáng】
a 1998 Chinese historical romance film based
primarily on Jing Ke's assassination attempt as
described in Sima Qian's Records of the Grand
Historian. The film was directed by Chen Kaige
and stars Gong Li (Lady Zhao), Zhang Fengyi
(Jingke), Li Xuejian (the Emperor), and Zhou
Xun (as the blind girl in her feature film debut).
The film won the Technical Prize at the 1999
Cannes Film Festival.
Chen Kaige (1952-)
a Chinese film director whose
films are known for their visual
flair and epic storytelling.
His most famous film in the
West, Farewell My Concubine
(1993), nominated for two
Academy Awards Best Foreign
Best Cinematography and
winner of the Palme d'Or
(Golden Palm) at 1993 Cannes
Film Festival, follows two
Beijing opera stars through
decades of change in China
during the twentieth century.
Aesopian History Studies
En’dymion Wilkinson
in Chinese History, a Manual
1.of, pertaining to, or
characteristic of Aesop
or his fables: a story
that points an Aesopian
2.conveying meaning
by hint, euphemism,
innu’endo, or the like: In
the candidate's
Aesopian language,
“soft on Communism”
was to be interpreted
as “Communist
影射【yǐngshè】 allude
to; hint obliquely at;
史学【shǐxué】 the
science of history;
historical science;
Practitioners, following
an old Chinese
tradition, criticizing the
present indirectly by
using historical
Aesop and His Fables
Aesop (also spelled
Æsop or Esop, from
the Greek Αἴσωπος—
Aisōpos) (ca. 620-564
BC), known for the
genre of fables
ascribed to him, was by
tradition born a slave
(δούλος) in the midsixth century BC in
ancient Greece.
Dramatic Conflict (Agon)
The Soul in Drama
Agon: Literature. conflict, esp. between the protagonist
and the antagonist.
Inner--a character struggles with himself (such as Johnny
Cash in Walk The Line).
Relational--the battle between the mutually exclusive
goals of the protagonist and antagonist
Social--between a person and a group, usually present in
films about corruption, injustice, or oppression.
Situational--a character is in conflict with a specific
situation – a woman trapped in a burning building, a man
hiding in a married woman’s closet when her husband
arrives home, a group of stranded adventurers trying to
find a way off a deserted island.
Ambivalence vs. Ambiguity
The coexistence in one person
of contradictory emotions or
attitudes (as love and hatred)
towards a person or thing.
A moment of being torn
Sometimes, due to an oversight
on some deeper connection
between the two values, a
person tends to view some
value in an isolated way,
assuming one value is
incompatible with another.
Subjectively: Wavering of
opinion; hesitation, doubt,
uncertainty, as to one's
Objectively: Capability of
being understood in two or
more ways; double or
dubious signification,
ambiguousness. spec. in
Literary Criticism
A word or phrase
susceptible of more than
one meaning; an equivocal
The Aeneid of Virgil
Love vs. Duty
Aeneas Flees Burning Troy,
Federico Barocci, 1598
Galleria Borghese, Rome:
carrying his father, leading
his son by the hand, with his
wife following behind…
a Latin epic poem written by
Virgil in the late 1st century
BC (29–19 BC) that tells the
legendary story of Aeneas, a
Trojan who traveled to Italy,
where he became the
ancestor of the Romans.
Love vs. Duty
In Virgil:
Love and duty can’t
go together;
Aeneas abandoned
Dido, queen of
Aeneas recounting the Trojan War to Dido,
a painting by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin.
Dido was the founder
and first Queen of
Carthage (in modern-day
Tu’nisia). She is best
known from the account
given by the Roman poet
Virgil in his Aeneid. In
some sources she is
also known as Elissa.
Dido ascends the pyre, lies again on the couch which
she had shared with Aeneas, and then falls
on a sword that Aeneas had given her.
Dido and Aeneas fall in
love by the management
of Juno and Venus—
caught in a storm,
Jupiter dispatches
Mercury to send Aeneas
on his way and the pious
Aeneas sadly obeys.
Mercury tells Aeneas of
all the promising Italian
lands and orders Aeneas
to get his fleet ready.
Dido is heartbroken.
(4.474) Dido has her
sister Anna build her a
pyre under the pretence
of burning all that
reminded her of Aeneas,
including weapons and
clothes that Aeneas had
left behind and (what
she calls) their bridal bed
(though, according to
Aeneas, they were never
officially married.)
(May/June c.1265 –
September 14, 1321),
commonly known as
Dante, was an Italian
poet of the Middle Ages.
His Divine Comedy is
often considered the
greatest literary work
composed in the Italian
language and a
masterpiece of world
Virgil Vs. Dante
Love and duty won’t
go together
Love and duty could
go hand in hand.
Key Players
All Tangled Up
with One Lover Missing
The Emperor
Ying Zheng
(Zhao Zheng)
Lǚ Buwei
Mother Queen
Lao Ai
Mother Queen’s
Conflicts Crisscrossed
Lady Zhao
Personal/private level—the king is going to
another girl; it is time for her to exit since they
have drifted apart;
Political/public level—the king has destroyed
her home country, which’s tipped her over from
a willing mole or an undercover to a trooper
who wants to have the king killed;
Mother Queen vs. the King
Mother Queen
At two levels
personal conflict: her lover, her two sons;
Political conflict: she is also a native of Zhao
Irony: the king thinks he has done something to please
his mother—by taking revenge
In his tender years, the king was humiliated by the Zhao
people (Qin attacked Zhao on some previous occasion,
which provoked Zhao’s hatred, and as a result, they
vented their anger on the hostages)
Qin Shi Huang
(259 BC – 210 BC)
King of the Chinese
State of Qin from
246 BC to 221 BC
during the Warring
States Period. He
became the first
emperor of a unified
China in 221 BC
Two Tales
The king also hired
someone who
criticized him
Shiji 6, page 38
About Wei Liao from
The king did take
revenge against the
Zhao people;
Records of The Grand Historian by Sima Qian,
renditions by Columbia University Press, translated
by Burton Watson
The First Emperor was a son of King Zhuangxiang of
Qin. When King Zhuangxiang was a hostage for the
state of Qin in Zhao, he happened to see a
concubine belonging to Lǚ Buwei. (35)
The connection is hinted…
It was ‘custo’mary for the ruling families of the
various states to exchange sons as hostages so as
to insure compliance with diplomatic and military
Shiji 85: The Biography of Lǚ Buwei
Lǚ Buwei had selected from among the ladies of
Handan one of matchless beauty and great skill
in dancing and had lived with her, and in time he
learned that she was pregnant. Zichu, joining Lǚ
Buwei in a drinking bout, happened to catch
sight of her and was pleased…
She concealed the fact that she was pregnant…
See Watson’s translation, 161-162
Harsh Life in Early Years
The first emperor was born in Handan, capital
of the State of Zhao.
Since his father was a hostage at the time, the
family went through lots of hardships and
In 257 BCE, King Zhaoxing of Qin sent Wang
Yi to lay siege to Handan…provoking hatred;
On the way back to Qin, the young prince, his
mother got separated from the king during the
Lǚ Buwei
(291?–235 BCE)
Chen Kaige as Lǚ Buwei, a Perfect Role
Served as Chancellor for
King Zhuangxiang of Qin (r.
249 to 247 BCE), and as
regent and Chancellor for
the king's (or, some claim,
Lü's) young son Zheng, who
became Qin Shi Huang, the
first Emperor of China.
Lü sponsored an
encyclopedic compendium
Lüshi Chunqiu (Lü's Spring
and Autumn Annals"),
completed in 239 BCE.
The Zhanguoce (The Intrigues of the Warring States) has a story
about Lü’s decision on his career change from commerce to politics.
On returning home, he said to his father, "What is the profit on
investment that one can expect from plowing fields?"
"Ten times the investment," replied his father.
"And the return on investment in pearls and jades is how much?"
"A hundredfold."
"And the return on investment from establishing a ruler and securing
the state would be how much?"
"It would be incalculable." "Now if I devoted my energies to laboring
in the fields, I would hardly get enough to clothe and feed myself; yet
if I secure a state and establish its lord, the benefits can be passed on
to future generations. I propose to go serve Prince Yiren of Qin who is
hostage in Zhao and resides in the city of Jiao."
移花接木【yíhuājiēmù】 graft one twig
on another; graft; stealthily
substitute one thing for another.
Lǚ Buwei carefully
plotted the whole thing,
and successfully
persuaded Lady
Huayang in accepting
Zichu (Yiren) as her son;
If the first emperor were
Lǚ Buwei’s son, it would
make sense that he got
rid of King Zhuangxiang
by drugging him
gradually (by a strong a
aphrodisiac) so as to
install his own son onto
the throne.
The Queen Has No Son
No Security in Her Old Age
软肋【ruǎnlèi】 weak spot
King Zhaoxiang of Qin passed away in
251 BCE. The crown prince, Lord
Anguo, succeeded him as king, thus
Lady Huayang, his favorite concubine,
became the Queen. However she had
no son.
This is where Lǚ Buwei’s scheme
sneaked in.
Professor Wang Liqun
After his relentless
investigations, Wang
concluded that the first
emperor was indeed
King Zhuangxiang’s son.
His claim is based on the
length of pregnancy. But
it is too close to call…
Wang’s hypothesis could
not wave away all the
The Death of King Zhuangxiang
(r. 249 BC – 247 BC)
In the first year of his reign (250BCE), King
Zhuangxiang made Lǚ Buwei
his chancellor and enfeoffed him with as marquis of
Wenxin with the revenue from 100,000 households
in Henan and Luoyang.
Speculations on the death: Aphrodisiac?
There seems no motivation for Lǚ Buwei
to get rid of the king since the king treated him very
well. Lǚ Buwei should have taken better care of the
king to ensure his own good life.
King Yiren is also Lǚ Buwei’s political investment;
Double Dilemma
The king took over his lady,
But Lǚ Buwei made such
an arrangement (with Lao
Ai) so that his lover would
not bother him any more;
Emotional/sexual factors
seemed to weigh less;
As long as Yiren sat on the
throne, Lǚ Buwei’s “son”
had no chance;
Note the king also had
another son (Ying
Chengjiao 赢成蛟, one year
older than Ying Zheng)
from another wife;
Lǚ Buwei had something
to do with getting rid of
the other prince so that
Ying Zheng had no
The Emperor and His Family
A Confucian Lens
(Five-Fold Relationships
his mother connects the whole web)
The Emperor
The Emperor & the Assassin
Lady Zhao Holds the Key
The Emperor
The Assassin
Lady Zhao
The Yan Prince
Dramatic Turns
The Assassin
The blind girl tipped
him over;
Redemption started
here; Jing Ke wanted
to wash his hands of
He was motivated to
kill the king because
of Lady Zhao;
Lady Zhao
A mole to help the
Prince of Yan’s chip
in his gambling;
Upon seeing all
Zhao’s children got
killed or buried alive,
Lady Zhao changed
her mind…
Dramatic Structure
Gustav Freytag (1816-1895)
Based on Aristotle’s
Poetics (c. 335 BCE),
in Die Technik des
Dramas (1863),
Freytag explained a
system for dramatic
structure, later
named Freytag's
Gustav Freytag’s analysis
German novelist, playwright, and journalist
The Art of War
It is also interesting to examine the battle
scenes in the movie through the critical
lens of Sunzi.
Are the Qin generals that stupid?
Scene Titles
1. Start
2. Qin invades Han
3. King of Qin
4. War Council
5. Lady Zhao
6. Prince of Yan
7. Qin Eliminates
8. Brand my face
9. Offer & Messages
10. The Assassin
11. Punishing a Thief
12. We need your
13. I once killed a girl
14. The children
Scene Titles
15. Marquis’ coup
16. Fratricide
17. Last laugh
18. Qin ancestral temple
19. The situation
20. Lady Zhao
21. Children! Jump!
22. Zhao defeated
23. Buried alive
24. Fan’s gift
25. The Emperor and the
26. Envoy from Yan
27. Assassin
28. Lady Zhao returns
Keeping Promise
a Theme Running Through
General Fan kept his
The king failed over
and over to keep his
The Emperor and the
The king misread
The king is a wise

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