At that time, our First Emperor had just finished uniting the land. You should realize, the scale of his empire was unprecedented. No ruler before him could ever match his power. There was nothing on this earth that he could not obtain, if he wanted it. To the north of Xianyang, between the Yong Gate and the Jin and Wei Rivers, he built replicas of the royal palaces of the other six states. He filled them with the six states’ most precious treasures and most beautiful women. At the Shanglin royal park, he began the construction of the enormous Epang Palace. The First Emperor could enjoy every luxury that any of the former kings had known without ever stepping outside of Xianyang.
We were all delighted for our emperor. He would be the happiest ruler in history, we thought.
But the First Emperor was only happy in the very beginning, immediately after the formation of his empire. He lost all interest before long, and his displeasure grew before our eyes.
His closest advisers tried to lift his spirits: clever wordplay, feats of prowess, even magicians brought in from the western lands. But the First Emperor’s mood remained dark.
We ministers debated amongst ourselves what he wanted.
One day, at last, the First Emperor himself told us.
“We wish to become immortal,” he said.
You can imagine what tempests that declaration birthed in our court. The First Emperor was no longer the child who’d first ascended the throne, and not the sort to lose himself in impossible fantasies. And yet he now claimed he sought immortality!
Shock, suspicion, fear.
All sorts of protests followed: tactful, blunt, verbal, written...
In front of our faces, the First Emperor threw our pile of petitions down the dais steps.
“What you’ve never seen can still exist!” he raged. “There are real immortals in this world, and real immortality for the taking, but they’re simply beyond your knowledge!”
He burned the petitions. He stood in front of the roaring flames and told us: “Next time, we will burn more than just petitions.”
His rage failed to frighten me into retreat. I wrote an impassioned petition, sent it, and ordered myself a coffin.
I am a historian, and historians must tell the truth.
The First Emperor summoned me to his resting palace. He wore informal clothes, reclined on a massive bed of camphor wood. His expression was dark as he watched me, silent.
I returned his gaze fearlessly.
A palace woman massaged his legs, now and then stealing glances at me with terrified eyes.
A while later, he finally spoke. “Why did you send that petition? Did you not hear what we said?”
I said: “Your Majesty does as Your Majesty wishes. Your minister does as your minister is duty-bound to do.”
The harshness in the First Emperor’s eyes slowly faded. He sighed. “Zhong Xiu, we know you’re loyal,” he said. “But can’t you allow us some peace? We’re tired, truly tired. We don’t want to argue with you anymore. You won’t be able to change our mind, just like we won’t be able to change yours.”
The note of weariness in his voice took me by surprise, and I found I didn’t have the heart to continue with the cutting admonishments I’d prepared. I could only say: “Then can Your Majesty at least tell me why? I will not argue with you.”
The First Emperor dismissed the palace woman with a wave of his hand. He was silent for a while, then said, distantly: “We hold all the land under heaven. But what point is there in all the land under heaven if, in the end, we will only return to dust without a sigh like any other mortal?”
I told him, sincerely: “How can Your Majesty be compared with any other mortal? Your Majesty’s virtue exceeds that of the Three Sovereigns of legend, and your deeds exceed those of the Five Emperors of old. Your people will pass down your exalted name for a thousand autumns--”
“We’ve heard that one enough times already,” the First Emperor said icily. “Reputation is worth nothing once you’re dead, even assuming it’s a good reputation! They speak of us flatteringly enough for now, but once we die, hah-- you’re the Grand Historian, so you should know this well: what great ruler was not lauded by the masses during his lifetime? What great ruler was not insulted at will after his death?”
To that, I had no response.
Rulers as wise as Yao and Shun had met with future generations’ criticism. They said that Yao had governed unwisely, loosing the “four demons” upon the world; said that Shun executed Gun to employ Yao in his place, killed the father to use the son, actions that no virtuous ruler would have taken. I truly couldn’t think of a single ruler left unquestioned both before and after his death.
The First Emperor said: “You have nothing to say, yes? Because you, too, know that death takes away everything: one’s power, wealth, prestige, women... and you, too, cannot promise that our name will not be defiled and perverted after our death! So, we tell you this. On this world, the only thing we can put our trust in is to remain alive; the only thing worth pursuing is immortality.”
“But...” I started. I’d initially wanted to say “But there’s no such thing as immortality” before realizing that it would only return us to our earlier disagreement, resolving nothing. The First Emperor was willing to listen to me right now; approaching him from a different angle might prove more effective. So I said: “...But Your Majesty, are you not satisfied by all that you’ve conquered, possessed, enjoyed already? The things in this world are all the more precious because you’ll lose them someday. If you could keep your possessions forever, you would only grow weary of them.”
“Grow weary? Laughable!” The First Emperor smiled contemptuously. “A platitude to comfort those who possess nothing. We would never grow weary, never grow satisfied and complacent. There’s oceans to the east, vast sands to the west, the Baiyue to the south, the Xiongnu to the north... so many lands foreign to me. Give me enough time, and I will conquer them to the edges of the sky. Immortality, immortality, ai, what a fine thing it would be...”
The First Emperor spoke in unbound rapture, eyes shining with anticipation. He was no longer looking at me, but into the world of his dreams...---
When I anxiously sought out the Military Minister afterwards, I found him leisurely pruning in his garden.
“If a battle has broken out,” he said, trimming a honeysuckle vine, “I’ll let you interrupt me then.”
“It’s a more serious problem than any battle!” I said. “Military Minister, you can’t ignore it.”
“Oh?” His hands paused. “What happened?”
“The emperor wants to become immortal.” I relayed the recent events to him.
The Military Minister thought for a while, then returned to his vines. “Then let him do as he wishes!”
“What?” I said, astounded. “Military Minister, how can you be like this? This is no small matter-- this could bring down the empire!”
The Military Minister, still clipping at flower buds, said: “Don’t worry, the empire’s safe.”
I seized his hand. “Military Minister, things are serious. The emperor’s stopped listening to even Li Si. Only you might be able to...”
He smiled a little. “Do you believe that gods and immortals really exist?”
I said: “No.”
“Do you believe that immortality-bestowing potions really exist?”
I said: “No.”
The Military Minister said: “Then what are you worried about?” He pulled his hand loose from mine and returned to his thicket of vines.
In a daze, I slowly began to comprehend. “Military Minister, you mean... you mean...”
Continuing at his work, he said patiently: “I mean: if it’s something that doesn’t exist, then let the emperor go ahead and look for it! If he can’t find it, he’ll give up sooner or later. Would someone as intelligent as the First Emperor devote his whole life to gods and immortals? Why expend so much effort trying to dissuade him, when it will only harden his resolve?”
Admiration for the Military Minister followed my realization. But after some thought, I said “But as ministers, watching our ruler go down such an unwise path without even trying to persuade him otherwise seems a little... a little...”
“Then what would you do instead? The Military Minister turned to look at me. “Try to persuade him, and fill the hall with your corpses? Do you still not understand our emperor’s mentality? When has a cost in human lives ever frightened him away from his course?” He set down his clippers and patted me on the shoulder. “I know, all you historians have a streak of Dong Hu’s stubborn honesty. But listen to me: a loyal minister’s life is very valuable. Don’t waste it at the slightest provocation to prove how loyal you are. Return that coffin of yours to its seller!”
I left the Military Minister’s residence feeling both admiration and embarrassment.
Ai, no one could compare to the Military Minister. He’d always had the ability to stay calm and take the long view.
After hearing that I’d visited the Military Minister, my colleagues flocked to me to learn his viewpoint. I relayed his words to them. They, too, responded with admiration at the realization: “Yes, the Military Minister always sees clearest. How did we not think of it?”
So. We no longer dissuaded the First Emperor from abandoning governmental affairs to tour the empire; no longer warned him of his occultists’ wasteful quests to find immortals upon the seas; no longer protested the foul smoke that billowed from alchemists’ furnaces throughout the palace...
We all believed that this confusion was only temporary, that everything would soon return to normal.
Much later, we finally realized that we-- including the Military Minister-- had made a terrible mistake. But it was too late then, of course. No, to be precise, we couldn’t have stopped what happened even if we’d known beforehand.
That was the will of heaven, you see.
Truly the will of heaven.
Even as we patiently waited for the First Emperor to recover, he’d already begun walking, step by step, into that trap forged for him by the will of heaven.
He enthusiastically toured one famous mountain after another-- Yi, Tai, Zhifu, Langya-- sacrificing to demons and gods, carving steles of praise. We wondered at his tireless travels, unsure of what sustained his willingness to continue in his senseless games.
A hint of worry crept into my heart.
That day finally came.
The First Emperor returned from his tours by the East Sea with a strange man called the Gentleman of the East Sea. My friend, an aide who’d accompanied the expedition, informed me that this Gentleman of the East Sea had utterly won the First Emperor’s trust. They’d traveled in the same carriage, ate from the same table, treated each other as equals.
After hearing my friend’s words, I thought I rather wanted to see this Gentleman of the East Sea. The sooner I could unmask him in front of the First Emperor, the better.
I trusted that my scholarly knowledge would be more than enough to deal with this breed of charlatan.
I soon saw my wish granted when the First Emperor summoned me to his palace.
As soon as I stepped through the door, the First Emperor proudly pointed to the man next to him. “Zhong Xiu, you’ve always doubted that immortality existed, but here stands an immortal in the flesh. What do you think?”
I followed his finger and saw a cold-eyed man in black robes. He looked ordinary enough, no more than thirty or forty in age. So I laughed, contemptuously, as I examined him. “An immortal? How old do you claim to be?”
The First Emperor said: “Ai! Mind your manners! This Gentleman of the East Sea is more than a thousand years old, and he knows every event that’s occurred during his lifetime. As Grand Historian, you might be able to learn a few things from him!”
Startled, I turned my gaze towards the First Emperor. He looked back at me with sparkling eyes.
I suddenly realized why the First Emperor had called me into the palace. He, too, doubted the veracity of this “immortal” Gentleman of the East Sea, and wanted my expertise to see how well his story held up.
I considered my approach. Most historical events found their way into proper records, and from there, spread far and wide into the four directions. What I knew, other people would know. If this Gentleman of the East Sea dared to claim he was a thousand years old, he no doubt came prepared. To defeat him, I needed something that few knew the truth behind, something obscured by myth and folk tales to the vast majority.
After some thought, I proposed my first question: “May I ask, who was Laozi, really?”
I expected that he would, like most, answer that Laozi had been a Keeper of the Archives for the Zhou Dynasty. I never thought he’d say, coldly and without hesitation: “He was a Grand Historian, just like you. He served Zhou first, then Qin.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Laozi had lived his whole life in careful obscurity. The Zhou kings had been losing power at that time, and he’d eventually left through the passes, his destination unbroadcasted. Of course, in reality he’d gone to Qin, and spent his last years there.
As Grand Historian, he’d written a bit about himself for the Qin archives. In time, not even the other historians necessarily knew about it any longer. I’d recently chanced upon this secret while sorting through a pile of old documents, their bamboo strips too dusty for anyone to have read them in years. But the Gentleman of the East Sea had answered me so easily, so matter-of-factly, as if it were common knowledge.
Nothing could convince me that immortality existed. I found more obscure questions to ask him: how did King Zhao of Zhou die? What was the outcome of King Mu’s campaign against the Quanrong...
The Gentleman of the East Sea answered them one by one. His voice remained calm, his expression detached. Those dark, buried secrets came from his lips like any commonplace trifle. He knew every fact and detail without a trace of difficulty.
With every question, my heart sank further. I couldn’’t stump him, and in fact, he knew some matters better than I did.
Finally, I had no questions left. I could only admit defeat.
I glared at him, filled with hate and fury. “With all that scholarly knowledge at your disposal, did you truly have to stoop to such lows?”
I hoped he’d show anger, contempt, even mockery. Then, at least, he wouldn’t seem so unfathomable, so untouchable.
I would be disappointed. His expression didn’t change. He said no words in response. He didn’t even bother to look at me. He only sat there coolly, as if I didn’t exist.
The First Emperor laughed with the open joy of one whose worries have just been relieved. He told the servants to gift me with two night-shining pearls, then dismissed me.
As I stepped out the palace doors, I heard the Gentleman of the East Sea’s cold voice: “Your Majesty, are you finished with your tests?”
The First Emperor responded: “Where did you ever get the idea, sir? That was certainly not our intent...”
I left the palace in a daze, my chest aching. I was the Grand Historian, the most learned man in all of Qin. And yet, today, I’d met crushing defeat in the area of my expertise at the hands of a mere occultist! At the same time, a sense of unease pervaded my heart, though I couldn’t say why.
In my muddle, I’d somehow arrived at the Military Minister’s residence. Perhaps I’d unconsciously known that only someone as sharp-witted as he could deal with such matters.
When I met him, I told him everything.
At first, he didn’t seem to take me seriously. But gradually, he came to listen in earnest. His expression darkened, and he interrupted me at times to ask questions. When I’d finished my account, prepared to hear his opinion, I found him silent.
“Military Minister, say something!” I said. “This Gentleman of the East Sea makes me uncomfortable, but I don’t know why.”
The Military Minister brought his forefingers together, pushing them left and right, left and right. In the past, he only did this when he was strategizing before a great campaign. I startled at seeing it.
A long time later, he said: “You were right to worry. We have great trouble ahead.”
I said: “But I’m not sure myself what I’m so worried about. Isn’t this just some occultist?”
The Military Minister shook his head. “He’s no common occultist.”
I forced out a laugh. “Military Minister, do you truly believe he’s a thousand years old?”
He sighed. “That would be preferable. I only fear that he’s gone beyond mere immortality.”
My heart lurched in my chest. “What... what do you mean?”
The Military Minister said: “Would a person from King Zhao of Zhou’s era necessarily know that his lasciviousness got him murdered during the river crossing?”
“Would a person of the Spring and Autumn Period necessarily know which road Laozi took beyond the passes?”
I finally understood where my deep unease came from!
The Gentleman of the East Sea’s answers were perfect, illogically perfect. Intent on defeating him, I’d asked him the hardest questions I could think of. But I’d forgotten-- even a person from those past eras might not have known the answers to such questions. And yet the Gentleman of the East Sea didn’t raise a single objection. If I asked it, he answered it, and answered it irreproachably! What kind of person could manage that?
I felt chills crawl up my back: “Military Minister, do you mean that this Gentleman of the East Sea...”
The Military Minister said: “I can’t be sure of anything right now. I must visit the palace!”
While the Military Minister paid his visit, I waited.
When I tired of sitting, I stood. When I tired of standing, I sat. I’m not sure how long it was before the Military Minister returned.
His face was pale. He said nothing, and simply sat, as if entranced. I’d never seen him like that before. “Military Minister, what’s wrong?” I asked hurriedly. “Did you see him? Have you figured out where he came from? And what about His Majesty? What did he say?”
The Military Minister didn’t answer. He only sat, frozen. A long time later, he suddenly spoke: “Have you heard of mirrors that can show one’s five viscera and six bowels?”
Nonplussed, I said: “What are you talking about? What mirror?”
“I saw it,” the Military Minister murmured. “It was an extraordinary thing, four feet wide, five feet nine inches in height, made of something akin to metal, but not metal; something akin to stone, but not stone. It stood in front of me, plain as day. I could see my bones, my living organs. Do you know how our viscera crawl within us? I know now...”
My heart was cold. “Military Minister, Military Minster, wake up!” I shouted. “Whatever you saw, it had to be fake, some illusion by the Gentleman of the East Sea! Those occultists are full of tricks!”
The Military Minister slowly turned his gaze towards me. “An illusion? Were his answers to your questions also illusions? No one could fool my eyes. I’d broken my arm as a child. It healed properly, and few knew about it afterwards. That mirror showed the marks on my arm bone... ah, admit it, we’ve come across a real one this time.”
“A real what?” I asked. “A real immortal? A real god?”
“A real demon.” The Military Minister sighed and stood. “I just don’t understand why he came so soon. Our empire was just founded!”
I asked: “Military Minister, what are you talking about?”
Looking at me, he said: “ ‘A state about to fall always births demons.’ As Grand Historian, you should understand these words better than I do. Inexplicable supernatural events have always prefigured a dying state. During the moral decline of the Xia Dynasty, two dragons descended from the heavens before disappearing from whence they came; the decline of Shang began when King Wu Yi shot heaven in effigy and was slain by lightning; the great Zhou of old fell with Bao Si, and was she not said to have been fathered by a dragon’s saliva? Now it’s our dynasty’s turn.”
Slowly, dazedly, I said: “So... so there’s nothing we can do about it? Military Minister, you’re always full of strategies. You’ve never lost a battle.”
He sighed. “I can defeat my empire’s every enemy on the battlefield, but this a matter outside the realm of men.”
I asked: “Then... what do you plan to do?”
“I plan to leave court,” the Military Minister said.
“What?” I said, shocked. “Leave court? No, you can’t leave! Without you, our court is doomed.”
“And it won’t be doomed if I stay?”
I said: “At least... at least everyone will be a little less fearful. With you here to watch over the court, maybe the Gentleman of the East Sea won’t dare to act too wantonly...”
The Military Minister shook his head. “He’s too smart. He went directly for the emperor. I’ve grown old, and have neither the time nor the strength to do protracted battle with a demon that holds the ruler in his sway.” Looking at his white hair, the slight stoop of his back, I didn’t know what to say.
The Military Minister walked laboriously to his desk and picked up the golden tiger tally that lay there. Turning it in his hands, he said: “The empire is my creation; if she falls so soon, it will be my shame. So I must do this, to prove it isn’t my fault.”
Dazed, I asked: “What will you do?”
“I will find a worthy successor and teach him all that I know, so that, someday, he can build a second Qin Empire. It will prove that my empire did not fall because of my incompetence.”
I could only stare. Few could ever anticipate the workings of the Military Minister’s mind. But I’d never expected that he’d come up with an idea this inconceivable!
“Of course, I’ll be careful, and make sure he won’t use my strategies against my empire,” the Military Minister continued. “I’ll find someone intelligent, with enough patience, endurance, and belief in keeping his word. Someone whose ambition I can rein in with vows until a time of chaos comes. At the same time, I’ll secretly warn the local officials against giving him government posts. If the empire doesn’t fall, he’ll have no opportunity to use what he’s learned, and it’ll only make him dangerously contemptuous towards authority; if the empire does fall, he’ll only die for her in vain if he holds a position in the old government.”
My thoughts spun chaotically. I tried to seize onto something, anything, and failed.
They’ve all gone mad, I thought sorrowfully.
The emperor to whom I’d sworn my loyalty, bedazzled by a trickster, was obsessed with seeking immortality. The Military Minister whom I’d so admired planned to abandon the empire he’d built with his own hands on some bizarre quest to find a successor! What was I supposed to do? What could I do? I was only a Grand Historian-- a prestigious rank, but with little real power. Aside from my loyalty, I had nothing.
I could only watch as my empire walked step by step towards subjugation.
Three days later, in the early hours of the morning, the Military Minister quietly left Xianyang. He told no one but the First Emperor, to whom he’d sent a letter of resignation. But the First Emperor tossed the letter aside without reading it-- he’d already sunk, utterly, into the delusional world created for him by the Gentleman of the East Sea. To the emperor, anything outside it no longer mattered.
Zhong Xiu’s story ended.
The delicate Vermillion Bird lamp still burned steadily. The millet wine had long since cooled.
Han Xin asked: “What happened afterwards?”
“Everything was as the Military Minister had predicted,” Zhong Xiu said. “The empire drifted towards destruction, step by step. No one could save her from her fate.”
Han Xin said: “I was talking about the Gentleman of the East Sea. Didn’t he claim he knew how to bestow immortality? But the First Emperor later died at Shaqiu, all the same. Wouldn’t he have been punished for that?”
Zhong Xiu smiled bleakly. “No, he wouldn’t have. He stayed by the First Emperor for only half a year before he left.”
“Half a year?” Han Xin said. “Did the First Emperor stay that way even after...”
Zhong Xiu said: “Like I told you, he was a demon. Demons don’t need to stay by a ruler’s side to work their evil. Half a year’s worth of contact was enough to forever ensnare the First Emperor within his dreams of immortality. The day the Gentleman of the East Sea disappeared, the First Emperor was like a madman, interrogating every one of his servants himself before executing them all. Next was the searching. They scoured Xianyang three feet into its foundations and sent a likeness of the Gentleman of the East Sea to every county and commandery. The First Emperor even sent Xu Fu and his cohort to search the seas, while he himself personally made inquiries throughout the land under the guise of touring his empire. The emperor was terrifying during that time. His eyes looked as if prepared to blast forth flames, and he kept pacing back and forth, back and forth, his hands behind his back, muttering things to himself. I didn’t know what he cursed under his breath; I only found it strange that he was so angry at the Gentleman of the East Sea for leaving, when his only real crime was leaving without a proper farewell. The First Emperor had been deceived by occultists more than once before.”
“After that, his moods became more and more erratic. He swung between joy and rage without warning. He was obsessed with the supernatural, but at times, he would fly into a rage at the occultists in his palace, calling them useless, treasonous thieves. ‘Only the Gentleman of the East Sea was real,’ he’d say. ‘The rest of you are all frauds! Fakes!’ One year, he buried alive more than four hundred and sixty alchemists and Confucian scholars in his rage. ‘We’ll see who dares to cheat us now!’ he said. He exiled the Crown Prince Fusu for protesting. But he passed away on his last tour at Shaqiu without ever seeing the Gentleman of the East Sea again.”
Han Xin said: “You said that the First Emperor had likenesses drawn when searching for him? Do any of those drawings still exist?”
Zhong Qiu said: “With the chaos of the last few years, most of the county offices and courts have been destroyed. I doubt the drawings would have survived. The palace archives should have a copy, but I can’t be certain. It’s been too long, even notwithstanding the mess Zhao Gao made during his administration... right, aren’t you from the Chu army? They’ve emptied out all the palace storage rooms and are sorting the contents right now. You could ask them.”
Han Xin gave a pained smile. “They’re only interested in the gold and jewels. Liu Bang’s already carted away all the documents and archival materials.”
“Oh?” Zhong Xiu said thoughtfully. “Liu Bang has more foresight than your Great King.”
Han Xin sighed without commenting.
“But even if that’s the case,” Zhong Xiu continued, “you might be able to find at least one thing: the heart-searching mirror. The Gentleman of the East Sea left it when he disappeared.”
“The heart-searching mirror? The mirror that the Military Minister told you about?”
Zhong Xiu said: “Yes. That mirror was kept in the rear palace, so I’ve never seen it for myself. But according to the servants, it really does reflect a person’s five viscera and six bowels. When a person stands in front of it, the image comes out reversed, for whatever reason. That mirror could show where sickness lies in an ailing person, but the First Emperor mostly used it to examine his concubines, to see whether their hearts held fear or disloyalty. If he saw anything, he had them executed.”
“The mirror could show him that sort of thing?” Han Xin said curiously. “How?”
“They say that if a woman has dark thoughts, her gallbladder would expand and her heart would palpitate. I don’t believe it myself; perhaps it’s caused by nervousness. But of those women snatched from the palaces of the six conquered states, how many wouldn’t have met the First Emperor with trembling hearts? To think of all the innocent women killed because of that mirror! Ai!”
It was almost dawn by the time Han Xin left Zhong Xiu’s residence.
That night had been spent listening to a very long, very absurd story.
An interesting story, but thinking about it more detachedly, what did it have to do with his fate?
Yes, all that eventually resulted in his encounter with his teacher, but that was no more than a minor detail in the story.
And he himself was the most insignificant personage of them all-- no, he didn’t even count as a personage. He was only a tool with which the Military Minister planned to prove his worth.
No one had truly cared for him, appreciated him. Not in the past, and not now.
The early morning winds blew bone-piercingly cold. He instinctively wrapped his arms tightly around himself.
A few wilted fallen leaves skittered dizzily in circles on the street, swept by the wind. He felt like one of them, alone and helpless in the grip of the stormwinds, unsure of where he was being taken.
He walked slowly back to the barracks, where he was promptly greeted by a campmate. “Where did you go? The Great King sent for you several times, and even the Foster Father came looking for you twice.”
“For me?” Han Xin said, astonished. “The king and his Foster Father came looking for me? Why?”
“I don’t know,” his campmate said. “Go ask for yourself. It sounds urgent, so you’d better hurry.”
Han Xin assented and quickly left.
Not long later, Fan Zeng hurried over. “Where’s Han Xin?” he asked as soon as he stepped into the camp. “Did he return?”
“He came back,” the campmate answered.
Fan Zeng exhaled in relief. “As long as he’s back, that’s good. I’d thought he’d... right, where is he now?”
“He’s with our king.”
“The king?” Fan Zeng asked doubtfully. “The king came looking for him?”
“Yes, I don’t know why, but he sent a man over three or four times. When Han Xin returned a bit earlier, I told him about it, and he went.”
Fan Zeng sat down, murmuring to himself in puzzlement. “Strange. Why is our Great King suddenly interested in him now?”
His elbow knocked a few bamboo writing slips off the nearby desk. Fan Zeng picked one up and glanced at it, his eyes immediately brightening. The slip had broken after being scraped clean once too many times, but he could read: “Guanzhong... has the security of the passes, mountains and rivers as natural defenses. It is a place to realize the ambitions of ten thousand generations of rulers, and should not be lightly abandoned. But...” The rest was illegible.
Fan Zeng raised his head. “Who wrote this? It shows considerable insight.”
The campmate answered: “Han Xin-- he spent a whole night fussing over it, writing and editing. The rest of us have better things to do!”
“Oh, really?” Fan Zeng picked up the rest of the broken bamboo slips and looked them over, nodding now and then. “Hmm, quite good, solid reasoning.”
Suddenly, he leapt to his feet, one last bamboo slip in his shaking hands. It read: “Your loyal Attendant Halberd-Bearer Han Xin risks penalty of death to advise you, Great King...” The writing beyond that was too scraped to read.
Fan Zeng said: “This... this was meant as a petition for King Xiang?”
The campmate said: “Probably! I guess that was why he took the writing so seriously.”
Fan Zeng stamped his foot. “This is bad! Just yesterday, some pedant got into an argument with the Great King over the location of his capital. The Great King had him boiled alive. Why did he have to pick this time to... ai! How long has it been since he left?”
Xiang Yu hurled the petition at Han Xin’s feet.
“How about you be the Hegemon-King of Western Chu instead?” Xiang Yu snarled. “It was wrong to kill Ziying, wrong to make Pengcheng the capital, wrong to give Hanzhong to Liu Bang, wrong to make Tian Shi a king, wrong to make Zhao Xie a king, Zhang Er, Chen Yu, Zang Tu-- all wrong! So everything I’ve done since I entered Hangu Pass has been wrong, according to you? I’ll meet the same fate as Qin’s rulers if I don’t listen to you? Hah, the phrasing you used! Who destroyed Qin? I did! I saved the land from crisis, rescued the people from tyranny, revived the six states! Who doesn’t owe me their gratitude? Who doesn’t praise the way I handled matters? And you compare me with those Qin tyrants? You understand shit all!”
Han Xin stood there, unmoving, looking at the bamboo scroll at his feet. The impact had broken the threads holding the slats together. When Xiang Yu was done with his tirade, he said calmly: “Great King, you’re currently in the midst of assigning titles and land. Many praise you only for the sake of their own gain. They care not about the well-being of your hegemony, but about their interests alone. Great King, don’t let these people deceive you with their flattery--”
“Enough!” Xiang Yu roared. “You think I can’t tell the difference between truth and lies? You think I need you to teach me? The only reason anyone praises me is to flatter me? Your insults can’t be any more blatant, and you expect me to sit prettily and listen! Don’t forget who you are! A mere Halberd-Bearer, and you dare speak to me like this? Did you think you could get away with it? Guards! Drag him down and give him seventy strokes of the whip-- no, the cane!”
Han Xin could only stare at Xiang Yu, more shocked than fearful.
Two guards came and seized Han Xin’s arms, right and left.
“Stop!” Fan Zeng shouted, striding through the doors. The guards could only let go.
Xiang Yu said: “Foster Father, you’re here?”
Fan Zeng walked to Han Xin’s side. “You leave first and wait for me outside. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Aye,” Han Xin said, raising his head to give Fan Zeng a grateful look. He left.
“You all leave too,” Fan Zeng ordered the guards around them.
The guards looked at Xiang Yu, who waved a hand. “Leave.”
They obeyed, closing the doors behind them.
I admit I didn’t like Han Xin that much when I was first introduced to the Chu-Han Contention era through a TV drama, but he’s grown on me since. He’s now one of my favorite historical figures of all time, between the anecdotes and the badassery and the really depressing death.
Translating this book gives me newfound appreciation for certain details I didn’t notice the first few times around-- for example, that Wei Liao compares Han Xin to a sword, an inanimate object, when he apparently praises him in Prologue I. Harsher in hindsight.
The answers to Zhong Xiu’s questions are all slightly different from the versions found in the historical texts we go by now. For example, King Zhao of Zhou supposedly drowned by accident during the river crossing.
 Baiyue is a collective term for the non-Han Chinese people who lived in southern China and northern Vietnam around that time.
 The Xiongnu were a powerful nomadic people living in the steppes to the north of China. Qian Lifang's other book, Tianming, deals pretty heavily with them, if you're interested.
 Dong Hu was a historian during the Spring and Autumn Period who served the State of Jin, known for his forthrightness.
 The story goes that King Wu Yi hung a leather bag of blood high in the air and shot it with arrows, claiming he was shooting heaven. This and other similar acts of blasphemy were blamed for his death by lightning during a hunting trip.
 Bao Si was the famously beautiful concubine of King You of Zhou. To make her laugh, King You lit the capital's warning beacons when no attack was happening, forcing his lords and their armies to come for nothing. When the capital actually was attacked later on, none of King You's lords came, and he was killed. After that, the capital was moved east to Luoyang, and the Zhou royal family's resulting loss of authority to regional lords led to the Spring and Autumn Period.
A tiger tally was a symbol of military authority. They came in two matching, symmetrical halves. The ruler held one half, and the commander held the other. One needed both halves to authorize a troop deployment.