Nie Zheng
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Nie Zheng
- Qin Shi #50 (appended)
聶政 1
琴史 #50 2
  Nie Zheng killing himself 3                        
(source) Nie Zheng (4th c. BCE) is particularly associated with a story called Nie Zheng Stabs the Han King (聶政刺韓王 Nie Zheng Ci Han Wang), but the related melody of this title has in turn been connected to the very famous title Guangling Melody (廣陵散 Guangling San). No melody called Nie Zheng Stabs the Han King has survived, but versions called Guangling San survive from several handbooks, beginning with the Shen Qi Mi Pu.

Although these titles are different, the stories they tell are similar. The Nie Zheng entry here in Qin Shi mentions them both, but does not seem to take sides about which is the correct version, either concerning the story of Nie Zheng himself or concerning the correct theme of the melody.

The earliest account of this story can be found in Shi Ji, Chapter 86, Assassin-Retainers; it does not mention the qin. According to this and several similar accounts,4

Nie Zheng "was a native of 軹 Zhi, now part of Henan province. Ca. 400 BCE, having killed a man, he fled from possible revenge attacks by going to 齊 Qi (also Henan), where he worked as a butcher while taking care of his aging mother. Meanwhile, 嚴仲子 Yan Zhongzi, assistant to a minister of the 韓 Han state (near Loyang), got in trouble with the prime minister there, 俠累 Jia Lei (original name 韓傀 Gui of Han?). Fleeing to Qi, Yan Zhongzi tried to make friends with Nie Zheng, offering him money but asking nothing in return. Nie Zheng turned him down, but some years later after his mother died Nie Zheng, recalling Yan Zhongzi's kindness, went to visit him, then living in 衛 Wei, which lay between Wei and Han, and offered his help. Yan Zhongzi told him of the feud with Jia Lei and asked Nie Zheng to kill Jia Lei. Nie Zheng then went to Wei, killed Jia Lei and many of his guards, then disfigured his face and killed himself (so that retribution would not be taken on his family). However, his sister 聶榮 Nie Rong thought he should get credit for this noble act, so she came, claimed his body, spoke of his virtue and dropped dead of anguish. Everyone praised her valor.
(Compare Wang Shixiang.)
The later story, called Nie Zheng Stabs the Han King, survives first from an account in Qin Cao (#19 of the Hejian Zage). This version, which does mention the qin, is generally said to have inspired the famous melody, which still survives, Guangling San. According to this account, 5

"Nie Zheng Assassinates the Han King" was created by Nie Zheng. Zheng's father was once tasked with making a dagger for the Han King. However, he missed the deadline, so the king killed him. At the time Nie Zheng was not yet born. When Zheng came to manhood he asked his mother, "Where is my father?" His mother told him. Wanting to kill the Han king, he studied how to do plastering so that he might get into the Han palace and use his dagger to stab the king. Unable to do this, he went out through a hole in the city wall and went to the Mount Tai. Here he met an immortal and from him studied how to play the qin. He "lacquered" his body to make it strong and tough, and swallowed charcoal to change the sound of his voice. Seven years later with the qin he was ready. Now he wanted to enter the Han (palace). Along the road he met his wife. He put on his comb to tidy his hair, faced his wife and laughed. Looking back his wife shed tears. Zheng said, "Madam, why are you crying"? She said, "Nie Zheng went out wandering and for seven years has not returned. I was just dreaming of how I wished to see him. You now laugh at his wife. Your teeth resemble Zheng's teeth, so this makes me so sad that I cry." Zheng said, "The teeth of everyone on earth are just like Zheng's teeth? Why do you cry? So he took his leave and returned to the mountains, looked up to heaven and sighed, saying, "Alas, I changed my appearance and voice so as to avenge my father, and yet my wife recognizes me. So when will I be able to avenge my father?" So he got a stone and knocked out all his teeth. He spent three more years on the mountain practising how to play, then took (his qin and returned to the Han state. Now no one recognized Zheng. As he played qin below the watch tower, spectators walked by, horses and cattle stopped to listen, and so the Han king heard about this. The king then summoned Zheng, and while looking at him ordered him to play his qin. Zheng then took up his qin and sang. His dagger was inside the qin. Zheng then with his left hand grabbed his clothing and with his right hand took out his dagger, using it to stab the Han king, killing him while saying, “How can a person who for his whole life has never seen his father bear such a thing? Zheng having killed the monarch, he knew this would be blamed on (the perpetrator's) mother, so he slashed the skin off his face and cut up his body, and no one was able to recognize him. They then exposed Zheng's mutilated body in the market, dangling gold by his side, (announcing that if) anyone knew who this person was they would be given a thousand catties of gold. Then a single woman came forth and cried out, saying, "Aiya, was this revenge for a father?" Looking at the townspeople she said, "This was the person called Nie Zheng. He has avenged his father. He knew the blame would go to his mother, so he slashed his facial features. But how could a woman just love her own life, and not spread her son's fame?" She then embraced Zheng's corpse and cried. Full of grief, she died of a broken heart. Thus it is said, "Nie Zheng assassinated the Han King."
(Compare Wang Shixiang.)

Further regarding these two stories, although the Shi Ji version does not mention the qin, subtitles from one of the surviving versions from 1525 seem to connect that version with the Shi Ji story; however the other version from 1525 as well as the one from 1425 more clearly connect it to the story from Qin Cao.

The original biography in Qin Shi, as appended to that of another man who sought revenge, Shuli Mugong, is as follows.

Qin Cao also has the melody Nie Zheng Stabs the Han King. Nie Zheng once met an immortal who taught him to play the qin. This accomplished he went to Han. This matter is in the Biography of Nie Zheng in the Shi Ji, but there it is quite different, saying that he stabbed the Han minister 俠累 Jia Lei. (Qin Cao) says Han King, so it is different from Shi (Ji). This melody, although it records the musicians, concerns the affairs of assassin-retainers; 非管弦所宜也 it is not appropriate for ensemble music.

Further details on this version of the story can be found in the comments on Guangling San.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. 聶政 Nie Zheng
29829.20 聶政 Nie Zheng says to see 史記45琅琊代最編卷36, Shii Ji Annal 45, which concerns the Hereditary House of 韓 Han, but the account it summarizes sems to come from the main account, in 史記86刺客 Shi Ji Annal 86, Assasin Retainers.

2. 4 or 8 lines

3. Image: 聶政自殺 Nie Zheng kills himself
This image was copied from, which also has basically the same Qin Cao text as here but then adds an expanded and dramatized version. Its source for the latter is not clear and it did not identify the source of the image. However, an image search found it here, identified as 聶政自屠(《南陽兩漢畫像石》,圖版138號) Nie Zheng kills himself (#138 from "Nanyang Han dynasty portraits in stone").

4. The story from Shi Ji
The account above outlined the story as translated in (GSR VII, pp.323-5; see original in (ctext). A footnote in GSR says the same account can be seen also in 戰國策 Zhan Guo Ce, with other versions appearing elsewhere, such as in 韓非子 Han Fei Zi. Compare this, however, with the account in 琴操 Qin Cao, next.

軹 Zhi was north of modern 濟源 Jiyuan in Henan, north of the Yellow River, above Luoyang. At the time it belonged to the 魏 Wei kingdom. The Han capital was then at 陽翟 Yangzhai (Yangdi?), today's Yuxian in central Henan. Note 禹縣 Yu Xian

5. The story of from 琴操 Qin Cao
Nie Zheng Stabs the Han King (聶政刺韓王 Nie Zheng Sha Han Wang) is #19 from 河閒雜歌Hejian Zage can be found online. See, for example, the full Qin Cao text from in ctext, with the following copied from here.


The translation above it tentative. It is also unclear exactly when this edition of Qin Cao was written.

Two other accounts I have found online are as follows. They did not give their source. I have also seen longer accounts that I assume without any special knowledge are modern dramatizations (as above).


Return to Biographies, or to the Guqin ToC.