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Li Ling

Atsushi Nakajima

Translated from the Japanese by Paul McCarthy


In the ninth lunar month of Tianhan 2 (99 B.C.E.), during the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, Commander of the Cavalry Li Ling led a force of five thousand foot soldiers north from the border fort of Zheluzhang. For thirty days, they threaded their way through harsh foothills where the southeastern end of the Altai mountain range starts to give way to the Gobi desert. The cold north wind cut through their uniforms, and they felt truly isolated, ten thousand li from any source of help. When they reached the foothills of Mount Xunji at the northern edge of the Gobi desert, the army at last made camp. They were already deep inside the territories of their enemy, the Xiongnu nomads, known to the West as “the Huns.” It being so far north, the clover had withered, and the elms and willows had shed all their leaves, although it was still autumn. Even the trees themselves were hard to find, apart from the area surrounding the camp, so harsh and wild was the landscape, with nothing but sand and rocks and a waterless riverbed. As far as the eye could see, there were no signs of human habitation. The only signs of life were the occasional antelope that ventured onto the plain in search of water, and formations of wild geese flying south high above the distant mountains clearly outlined against the autumn sky. Yet not a single man was moved to sweet nostalgic thoughts of home. Their situation was too perilous to permit that.

To move against the Xiongnu—whose cavalry was their main force—with infantry alone, without even a single company of horsemen (the only mounted men being Li Ling and a few adjutants), and to push deep into enemy territory—it was the height of folly! The infantry, moreover, numbered a mere five thousand, without possible reinforcements, and Mount Xunji was a full thousand five hundred li from the nearest Han fort at Juyan. It would have been impossible to continue such a march without his men having absolute trust in Li Ling as commander.

Every year when the autumn winds began to blow, a horde of bold and fierce invaders would appear, whipping their northern horses on as they raced through the northern borderlands of the Han territories. They slaughtered the officials, plundered the people, and made off with their cattle. Year after year towns like Wuyuan, Shuofang, Yunzhong, Shanggu, and Yanmen became victims. For thirty years these calamities continued to befall the northern frontier, except for the few years from 122 to 111 B.C.E., when it was said that, for a time, owing to the successful strategies of Generalissimo Wei Qing and of General Huo Qubing, who was known as “the Strong and Swift,” there were no Xiongnu towns south of the Gobi. But Huo Qubing had died eighteen years before, and Wei Qing, seven years.

Zhao Ponu, known as “the Hammer of the Huns,” who had earlier been appointed Lord of Zhuoye for his services, was taken prisoner along with his whole army; and the defensive fortifications built in the north by Xu Ziwei, Commander of the Palace Gates, were immediately destroyed by the Xiongnu. There was one Han commander left who had the respect of the entire army: General Li Guangli, who had made a great name for himself by leading an expedition against Ferghana several years before.

In the summer of that year—Tianhan 2—in the fifth lunar month, General Li Guangli left Jiuquan at the head of thirty thousand cavalry, well before the Xiongnu invasion. He planned to attack the Xiongnu commander, Lord Youxian, who was watching for an opportunity to invade the western frontier, near the Tian mountain range.

Emperor Wu ordered Li Ling to take charge of provisioning the army’s campaign. When he was summoned to the Wutai Hall of the Palace, however, Li Ling earnestly begged to be excused from that task. He was the grandson of the famous Li Guang, known as “the Flying Arrow” due to his skill in archery. Li Ling himself was an expert at mounted archery, and had long been said to resemble his grandfather in that respect; for some years past, he had been stationed at Jiuquan and Zhangye in the west, in charge of training the troops in archery. He was close to forty years of age, at the height of his powers, and the job of provisioning the troops must have seemed beneath him. Since the troops he was now training in the borderlands were superb soldiers from Jing and Qu, he implored the Emperor that he be permitted to lead them out to attack and contain the Xiongnu army.

Emperor Wu was inclined to grant this request. Unfortunately, he said, he had no cavalry reserves to spare for Li Ling’s forces, since the cavalry had been dispatched to so many different areas already. Li Ling responded that it didn’t matter. It must have seemed an impossible task to accomplish under those conditions; but so distasteful was the proposed job of provisioning that he would rather take the risk together with his five thousand troops, who would not hesitate to give their lives for his sake. “I would like to attack a great force with my small one!” he proclaimed. Emperor Wu, who had always liked such shows of valor, was highly pleased with Li Ling’s words, and granted his request.

Having returned to Zhangye in the west, Li Ling readied his troops and set out at once for the north. Lu Bode, commander of the Crossbow Troops, who was then encamped at Juyan, was ordered to go out and meet Li Ling’s army at the halfway point. That was all well and good, but then things took a very serious turn for the worse.

Lu Bode had served under General Huo Qubing for many years, and had been enfeoffed as Lord of Pili. He was a veteran who, as naval commander, had with one hundred thousand troops succeeded in destroying southern Yue twelve years earlier. After becoming implicated in some illegality, however, he had lost his fief and been demoted to his present position of guarding the western frontiers. Between himself and Li Ling, the difference in age was like that of father and son. For this veteran general, who had formerly been an enfeoffed lord, to yield pride of place to the younger Li Ling was hard to swallow. At the very time that he went to greet Li and his army, he was sending a messenger to the capital to raise strategic objections. He pointed out that, since it was autumn, the Xiongnu’s horses were well-fed and sturdy; and that with so few soldiers it would be difficult for Li Ling to bear the brunt of their attacks, skilled as the Xiongnu were in battle on horseback. Therefore, Lu Bode argued, it would be better if both Li Ling and he passed the New Year where they were and, after spring came, carried out sorties from Zhiuquan and Zhangye with five thousand horsemen each. Such was his message to the emperor, a message of which Li Ling was entirely unaware.

When Emperor Wu read it, he was furious, thinking it the product of discussions between Lu Bode and Li Ling. “What is the meaning of this? Boasting to my face of what he will do, then going to the frontier and getting cold feet!” A courier was sent posthaste from the capital to where Lu Bode and Li Ling were encamped. To Lu Bode, the message was: “Li Ling boasted in my presence of wishing to attack the many with a few. There is therefore no need for you to assist him. The Xiongnu have just invaded Xihe, and you, Bode, are to leave Li Ling where he is and hasten to Xihe to block the enemy’s path.”

The emperor’s message to Li Ling was: “Go at once to the north Gobi and observe any developments from Mount Xunji in the east to the Longle River in the south. If there is nothing amiss, proceed to the town of Shouxiang, following the route used by the Lord of Zhuoye in the past, and rest your men.” It goes without saying that the emperor appended furious questions about “the outrageous message you sent me after conferring with Bode!”

For an army without horses, the march of several thousand li was brutal, quite apart from the dangers of wandering about enemy territory with so few troops. This would be obvious to anyone who took into account the time required for such a march on foot, the need for hauling the military wagons by man power alone, and the climate of the nomads’ territory as winter drew on. Emperor Wu was by no means a mediocre ruler, and he had the same strengths and weaknesses as Emperor Yang of Sui and the First Emperor of Qin, who were, likewise, decisive monarchs. Even General Li Guangli, the elder brother of Emperor Wu’s most beloved consort, aroused the emperor’s ire when he sought to retreat for a time from Ferghana because he lacked sufficient manpower: to prevent the general’s return, the emperor ordered that the frontier at Yumenguan be closed. The campaign against Ferghana itself was occasioned by the emperor’s desire to acquire the best-quality horses, and nothing more. Once the emperor set his mind on something, he was not to be deterred, no matter what the cost.

In this case, moreover, the onus was on Li Ling, since he himself had asked to be given the task. He therefore had no reason to hesitate, despite the great difficulties posed by the season and distances. And so Li Ling set off on his “northern campaign sans cavalry.”

Li Ling’s forces stayed at Mount Xunji for ten days, and each day scouts were sent out near and far to learn what the enemy was doing. But Li Ling also had to report to the capital on the geography of the area, supplying maps showing mountains and rivers. This intelligence was given to Chen Bule, one of his subordinates, who put it carefully inside his tunic, bowed to Li Ling, then mounted one of the fewer than ten horses available, and with a flick of his riding crop, galloped off down the hill to make his way alone to the capital. With heavy hearts, the officers and men watched his figure grow smaller and smaller, disappearing into the vastness of the dry gray landscape.

During the ten days at Mount Xunji, Li Ling and his forces did not see even one Xiongnu soldier in the space of thirty li to the east and to the west.

General Li Guangli had gone to attack the enemy in the Tian mountain range in the summer, leaving well before the arrival of Li Ling’s forces. Although he defeated Youxianwang on one occasion, on his return from that battle he found himself surrounded by a different Xiongnu army and was overwhelmed. Six or seven out of every ten Han troops were killed, and the general himself was endangered.

When this news reached Li Ling, he wondered where this main body of the enemy troops might be now. There was an enemy force that was currently being held in check by General Gongsun Ao around Xihe and Shuofang (Lu Bode had rushed to his aid there after leaving Li Ling); but, considering the time and distance involved, it seemed unlikely that these were the enemy’s main force that had overwhelmed Li Guangli.

It seemed impossible that they would have moved so swiftly from the Tian mountain range to the Ordos high plain, which was some four thousand li to the east. No, the Xiongnu’s main force must now be encamped in the area between Li Ling’s position and the Zhiju River to the north. Every day, Li Ling stood atop the mountain in front of his camp and looked in all four directions. From the east to the south there was nothing but an expanse of desolate flat desert; from the west to the north, low mountains and hills with few trees stretched on and on. Occasionally he caught sight of either a hawk or a falcon soaring among the autumn clouds, but he never saw even a single nomad horseman come riding over the earth.

Li Ling arranged the army wagons in a circle at the edge of a sparsely forested gorge, and he set up his headquarters inside it. When night came, the temperature dropped precipitately. The men cut down what few trees there were to burn for warmth. During their ten days’ encampment, the moon disappeared from the sky. The stars were incredibly beautiful, perhaps due to the dryness of the air. Each night Sirius sent a slanting bluish white radiance against the pitch-black shadow of the mountains.

They had spent more than ten peaceful days when Li Ling decided it was time to move southeast along the appointed route. The night before they were due to depart, a sentry was gazing up at the brilliant form of Sirius, when all at once there appeared another extremely large reddish star beneath it. As the sentry watched in amazement, this new, large star began to move, dragging behind it a thick red tail. Then there were two, three, four, five similar lights in the same vicinity, also moving. As the sentry was about to cry out, those distant lights all at once disappeared. It was as if he had been seeing them in a dream.

When he heard the sentry’s report, Li Ling ordered the entire army to prepare for battle at dawn. He inspected each battalion and then returned to his tent and fell fast asleep, emitting thunderous snores.

Early the next morning, he found that his troops had mustered as ordered and were quietly awaiting the enemy. The soldiers were sent beyond the circle of army wagons: troops with pikes and shields were placed in the front rank, those with bows and crossbows in the rear. The two mountains that flanked the valley were silent in the darkness just before dawn, but the men sensed danger hidden beneath the surrounding crags.

As the morning sun began to penetrate the valleys (the Xiongnu would not take action until their khan had worshiped the rising sun), from the summits to the slopes of the mountains, where hitherto nothing had been visible, innumerable human figures suddenly emerged. With shouts that seemed to shake the heavens and the earth, the barbarians rushed down the mountainsides. When the first onslaught had come within twenty paces, a roll of drums echoed from within the Han camp, which until then had been absolutely silent. A thousand crossbows fired at once, and several hundred of the Xiongnu fell to the ground. Without a moment’s delay, the Han army’s front rank of halberdsmen attacked the remaining barbarians, who had been stunned by the rain of arrows. Completely routed, the Xiongnu army fled back up the mountainsides. The Han forces pursued, taking barbarian heads in the thousands.

It was a splendid victory, but the tenacious enemy would certainly not withdraw, leaving things as they were. There must have been thirty thousand enemy troops flung into battle on that day alone. And, judging from the banners that floated on the hilltops, they were the Xiongnu personal guards. If the khan were there, the Han army would have to expect a rearguard of eighty thousand to one hundred thousand sent out in wave after wave of attacks.

Li Ling decided immediately to withdraw and move south. The previous day’s plan to go to Shouxiang, two thousand li to the southeast, was abandoned. Instead, the army would travel south along the same route they had come two weeks earlier, and try to return to Fort Juyan as speedily as possible (although it too was well over a thousand li distant).

On the afternoon of the third day of their southward journey, a cloud of yellow dust could be seen rising up far to the rear of the Han forces, on the northern horizon. The Xiongnu cavalry were in pursuit. By the next day some eighty thousand nomad troops had seamlessly surrounded the Han army on every side, so fast were their horses; but stung, it seemed, by their defeat a few days earlier, they did not venture too close. They loosely circled the Han army, their mounted archers sending volleys of arrows from a distance. When Li Ling ordered his army to halt and prepare to engage the enemy, the Xiongnu would ride some little distance away, avoiding pitched battle. When the Han forces resumed their march, the Xiongnu would ride closer and let loose their arrows.

Thus the pace of the march was greatly slowed, and the number of dead and wounded grew steadily day by day. Like wolves pursuing a starving, exhausted traveler through the wilderness, the Xiongnu tracked the Han troops, always using the same tactic. They would wound and weaken the Han little by little, watching for a chance to move in for the kill.

For several days, the two forces moved south, now fighting, now retreating, until the Han decided to rest for one day in a mountain valley. The number of wounded was already quite large. Li Ling took a roll call to determine how bad the situation was, and then he decided as follows: soldiers with just a single wound would be required to bear arms and fight as usual; soldiers with two wounds would help push the army wagons; and soldiers with three wounds or more would be placed on handcarts and transported by their fellow soldiers. The bodies of the dead would have to be abandoned in the wilderness.

That night during camp inspection, Li Ling happened to discover a woman dressed in men’s clothing hiding in one of the supply carts. Inspection of all the supply carts revealed the presence of over ten women, similarly hidden. Several years earlier, a robber band from Guangdong had been caught and killed, and their women and children had managed to flee to these western regions. Some of the widows, lacking food and clothing, had married border guards; not a few of the others had become prostitutes, servicing the Han troops. These women had secreted themselves in the military carts and accompanied the troops all the way to the northern desert. Li Ling promptly ordered his officers to kill the women.

Nothing whatsoever was said about the officers and men whose companions they were. The women were taken to a hollow in the valley, and for a time the echo of their high-pitched wailing was heard. Then all at once it ceased, as if swallowed up in the night’s silence. The men within the camp stood, gravely listening.

The next morning the Han army fought with brave determination against the enemy which, after a long interval, now dared to attack at close quarters. But the Xiongnu left behind over three thousand corpses on the battlefield that day. The Han army, who were exasperated by the protracted guerilla warfare that the Xiongnu had been waging, found that their long-suppressed fighting spirit had suddenly reasserted itself.

The next day the Han army’s retreat toward the south began again, following the old road to Longcheng. The Xiongnu, for their part, reverted to their original tactic of distant encirclement. On the fifth day, the Han troops entered one of the marshes that are sometimes found among the desert sands. The water of the marsh was half-frozen, and the mud reached to the soldiers’ knees. There seemed no end to the expanse of dry reeds through which they marched.

A party of Xiongnu that had gone upwind of them set fire to the reeds. A north wind fanned the flames, and the fire, burning white and giving off no light under the noonday sun, advanced toward the Han with terrifying speed. Li Ling at once ordered his men to set fire to the reeds near them and so narrowly managed to stop the oncoming flames. The fire was averted, but the difficulties in pushing the army wagons and carts through the quagmire were indescribable.

After slogging through the mud the whole night without finding a place to rest, they at last reached higher ground in the morning, only to meet with attack by the enemy’s main force, which had circled ahead and was lying in ambush for them. What followed was a wild free-for-all of men and horses. Trying to evade the nomads’ fierce cavalry attack, Li Ling abandoned the supply carts and shifted the battleground to the sparsely forested foothills.

The rain of arrows let loose by the Han forces from among the trees had a dramatic effect. The khan and his personal guards appeared at the head of their troops, and a hail of arrows descended upon them. The khan’s white horse reared up, its forelegs pawing the air, throwing the blue-clad barbarian king to the ground. Two of his mounted guards swept him up from either side, and the whole brigade at once surrounded him and galloped off. After hours of intense combat, the Han were able to fight off their tenacious enemy, but it had been their hardest battle to date. The enemy had again left several more thousand corpses on the battlefield, but the Han army too had lost close to a thousand men.

From the mouth of a Xiongnu prisoner taken that day, Li Ling learned something of the situation in the enemy camp: the khan was amazed at the toughness of the Han forces, apparently unafraid of a massive army twenty times their own. They seemed to be inviting him to follow as they made their way south day by day. He suspected there might be a hidden Han force somewhere nearby, on whose help they were relying. The previous night the khan had discussed this with his principal officers. They agreed that it was plausible, but concluded that if the khan, leading several tens of thousands of cavalry, could not destroy the small Han force, it would mean a terrible loss of face. Thus, the war party prevailed, and it was decided to attack relentlessly as the Han moved southward through the next forty to fifty li of mountains and valleys. When they emerged into the flatlands, the Xiongnu would launch a decisive battle. If, even then, they could not prevail against the Han, it would be time to send the troops back to the north.

Hearing this account from the enemy prisoner, Han Yannian and the other commanders of the Han army felt the first faint stirrings of hope that they might emerge from this alive.

Beginning the next day, the nomad attacks were extraordinarily intense. This must be the start of the final string of assaults that the prisoner had spoken of, they thought. There were repeated attacks, well over ten times per day. Fiercely counter-attacking, the Han army moved steadily southward. After three days, they entered the plains. Now that the battle was to be on level ground, the Xiongnu, taking advantage of the greatly increased power of their cavalry, attacked furiously; but once again they were forced to retreat, leaving two thousand dead behind. If what the prisoner had said was true, the nomad army could be expected now to give up their pursuit of the Han. Since it was only the word of a single captured soldier, it could not be fully relied on; but even so, the commanders felt somewhat relieved—that was undeniable.

That evening a Han scout named Guan Gan slipped out of the camp and went over to the Xiongnu. The night before, this Guan Gan, who had been a young hooligan in Chang’an, was rebuked and whipped in front of the troops by Han Yannian for neglect of duty. That was why he had deserted, but some also said that one of the women killed in the valley several days before was his wife. Now Guan Gan knew what the Xiongnu prisoner had told the Han officers, so when he was brought into the presence of the khan, he said the following: There was no hidden Han army, and therefore no need for the Xiongnu to withdraw out of fear of one. There were no reinforcements for the Han troops, and their arrows were almost gone. Many of the soldiers had been wounded, and it would be grueling for the army to keep on marching. The core of the Han army consisted of two groups of eight hundred men led by General Li Ling and Commander Han Yannian. They were designated by yellow and white banners, so if the pick of the Xiongnu cavalry were to concentrate their attacks on those two groups tomorrow and defeat them, the rest of the Han army would easily be crushed.

He told all this to the khan, who was greatly pleased and rewarded Guan Gan accordingly. The khan then at once revoked his order for withdrawal to the north.

The next day, the pick of the nomad cavalry attacked, charging toward the yellow and white banners and shouting for Li Ling and Han Yannian’s immediate surrender. The Han army was gradually pushed back from the plain to the mountainous area to the west, and finally driven into a valley far from the main route. The enemy poured down arrows like rain from the surrounding mountaintops. The Han no longer had any arrows to shoot back. The five hundred thousand arrows—one hundred per soldier—with which the army had left Zheluzhang had all been expended, and half of the other weaponry—swords, spears, pikes, and halberds—was damaged and useless. It was as the saying goes: “With swords broken and arrows used up.”

Even so, those who had lost their pikes cut spokes from the wagon wheels to use instead, and civilian officials prepared to defend themselves with their short swords. The valley got narrower and narrower as they proceeded deeper into it. The enemy troops hurled huge rocks down from the crags, and this proved more effective in inflicting death and injury than mere arrows could have. Mounds of corpses and piles of rocks made further progress impossible.

That night Li Ling changed into a tight-sleeved simple tunic and, forbidding anyone to come along, left the encampment by himself. The moon hung low over the ravine, shedding its light on the piled-up corpses in the valley. It had been dark the night the army left camp at Mount Xunji, but the moon had now begun to get brighter. The moonlight and the frost covering the ground made one side of the steep valley look wet with water. The officers and men, who remained within the camp, surmised from the way Li Ling was dressed that he planned to spy on the enemy camp and, if the chance presented itself, to engage the khan in a fight to the death.

Li Ling did not come back for a long time. The men listened for sounds from outside the camp, hardly daring to breathe. The notes of a reed flute echoed from the enemy camp far above them. After a long while, the flap of the tent where the men were gathered was silently raised, and Li Ling entered. “It’s no good,” he spat out, sitting down on a camp stool. After a while, he said to no one in particular: “There’s nothing for it but to let the whole army die fighting.” No one said a word.

Minutes passed before a civilian official ventured to say that when Zhao Ponu, the Lord of Zhuoye, had been taken prisoner by the Xiongnu some years before, and then fled back to the Han territories several years later, Emperor Wu had not punished him. This would suggest that even if Li Ling, having struck terror into the hearts of the Xiongnu with such a small force, should flee back to the capital now, the Emperor would surely reward him.

Li Ling interrupted him: “Leave me aside for the moment! If we had any arrows, we might be able to break through the enemy encirclement, but with not even one arrow, at dawn tomorrow the entire army will have to surrender. If, however, we break out tonight, and everyone scatters and flees pell-mell, someone might make it to a border fort and be able to send a report to the emperor. I think we are now in the mountainous region north of Mount Tihan, still several days’ journey to Juyuan, so success is very unlikely. Even so, at this point it’s the only course left to us.”

The commanders nodded in agreement. The officers and men were each given two measures of dried grain and a chunk of ice and instructed to run as fast as they could toward Zheluzhang. At the same time, the camp battle flags were taken down, ripped up, and buried, and all weapons and military wagons that might be of use to the enemy were destroyed. Around midnight the order was given to beat the drums to wake the troops, but the drums failed to resound—it was a bad omen. Li Ling and Han Yannian mounted their horses and led the way, attended by some ten well-hardened mounted soldiers. The plan was to break through the eastern end of the valley into which they had been driven, emerge onto the plain, and then race south.

The new moon had already set. Taking the Xiongnu by surprise, two-thirds of the army managed to break through the eastern end of the valley. They were immediately set upon by the enemy cavalry, however. Most of the Han foot soldiers were killed or captured; but several dozen were able in the confusion of battle to steal Xiongnu horses, which they whipped on, galloping southward.

Li Ling took a count of his men who had managed to shake off the pursuing enemy and escape over the expanse of sand, vaguely white even in the night. Having determined that they numbered over one hundred, he returned to the scene of carnage at the entrance to the valley. He had sustained several wounds, and his battle dress was sodden with blood—his own, and that of his foes. Han Yannian, who had been fighting alongside him, was dead. Having lost his officers and indeed his whole army, Li Ling could not bear the thought of facing the emperor. Taking up his halberd again, he rushed back into the thick of battle. In the darkness it was hard to tell friend from foe in the melee. Suddenly his horse fell forward, struck by a random arrow. At almost the same moment, Li Ling drew his spear back to stab an enemy in front of him and was struck by a heavy blow on the head from behind. He tumbled off his horse, unconscious, and a mass of Xiongnu soldiers piled on top of him, hoping to take him alive.




The five-thousand-strong Han army that had set out for the north in the ninth month had been reduced to a defeated group of fewer than four hundred soldiers—weary, wounded, and without their general—when in the eleventh month they reached a fort on the frontier. News of their defeat quickly reached the capital of Chang’an via post-horse.

Emperor Wu was not as angry as might have been expected. Given that the main Han army, a large force commanded by Li Guangli, had been soundly defeated earlier, it was unreasonable to expect much from Li Ling’s small force, amounting to a single detachment. Moreover, the emperor was convinced that Li Ling had died in battle. Nonetheless, Chen Bule, who had earlier come from the northern deserts bearing a message from Li Ling to the effect that all was quiet on the battlefront and the troops’ spirits were high, and who had been rewarded with an official post for having brought such good tidings, and remained even now in the capital—this Chen Bule had of necessity to commit suicide. Everyone felt sorry for him, but there was no help for it.

In spring of the following year, Tianhan 3, news arrived at the capital that Li Ling had not died in battle, but had been captured and was being held prisoner. Now Emperor Wu was furious. He was close to sixty, having reigned for over forty years, but he was more hot-tempered even than in his prime. He loved tales of gods and immortals and had deep faith in diviners and shamans, by whom he had several times been deceived over the years. This great emperor, who exercised power for a total of over fifty years while the Han dynasty was at its height, had since his middle years had an obsessive, uneasy interest in the supernatural world. Thus, disappointments in that realm were all the more telling blows to him. As he grew older, a succession of such blows had made him—a person by nature quite openhearted—darkly suspicious of his officials. Three successive prime ministers—Li Cai, Qing Zhai, and Zhao Zhou—were each put to death. The present prime minister, Gongsun He, had actually wept openly in front of the emperor, fearful of what would happen to him after he accepted his appointment. Ever since the resolute minister Ji An retired, the emperor had been surrounded by flatterers or corrupt, cruel men.

Emperor Wu summoned the various high officials to discuss what should be done about Li Ling. The general himself was not physically present in the capital, of course; but if his guilt was decided, his wife, children, and relatives were available for punishment and his property liable to seizure. One legal official, known for his cruelty, was skilled at reading the emperor’s face and bending the law to accord with the ruler’s wishes. When someone reproved him for this, citing the authority of the law, he replied: “What earlier rulers approved becomes the law, and what a later ruler approves becomes the regulation. What law can there be, apart from the will of the ruler?”

All the ministers were cut from the same cloth as this legal official. No one, from Prime Minister Gongsun He, Superintendent of the Court of Impeachment Du Zhou, and Superintendent of Rites Zhao Di on down, would attempt to defend Li Ling at the risk of incurring the emperor’s wrath. They denounced his traitorous behavior. They said how embarrassed they were ever to have served at court alongside such a turncoat. Everyone agreed that, in retrospect, Li Ling’s overall conduct had been suspect. The charge that Ling’s cousin Li Gan had grown haughty because he had the favor of the crown prince became an excuse for baseless accusations against Ling himself. Those who were the most favorably inclined toward Ling simply kept their mouths closed and did not criticize him, but even they were few in number.

There was just one man who watched these developments with a pained countenance. Were these men who were slandering Li Ling now not the same as those who had, some months earlier, toasted his departure from the capital, offering him the highest encouragement? And were they not precisely the same men who had, when the messenger arrived from the northern deserts with the news that all was well with Li Ling’s forces, praised the small army’s fighting spirit, declaring Li Ling a worthy grandson of the great General Li Guang? This single observer wondered at these high officials, who pretended to have quite forgotten all that had gone before, and also at the emperor himself, who was wise enough to see through the officials’ sycophancy yet refused to lend an ear to the truth. No—he did not actually wonder at this, since he knew all too well from long experience that this is what people were like. But even so, it remained distasteful to him.

As a middle-ranking official at court, he too was asked for his opinion. In his reply, he made a point of praising Li Ling. He remarked that, when one observed Ling’s conduct, one could see that he was filial in serving his parents, trustworthy in his relations with other gentlemen, and a true patriot in his readiness to stand up, cast aside concern for his own safety, and sacrifice himself when the nation was in crisis. Now, alas, he had suffered a defeat; but how truly unfortunate it was that the emperor’s wise judgment should be in danger of being obscured by the accusations of flattering courtiers whose only wish was to preserve themselves and safeguard their wives and children, and who were now taking advantage of Ling’s one failure, which they distorted and exaggerated. Ling, after all, had led a force of fewer than five thousand foot soldiers deep into enemy territory, nearly exhausted the strength of the Xiongnu army numbering tens of thousands, and fought many battles over a distance of a thousand li. Even when his army’s path was blocked and their arrows gone, he had them brandish their longbows at the enemy and use their swords to fight to the death. He had so won the hearts of his followers that they were willing to do this. Not even the most famous generals of the past could have surpassed him in this. Though his army was defeated, their valiant effort was worthy of celebration throughout the empire. And it seemed to him, this official went on, that in not dying but becoming a prisoner, Li Ling’s aim must have been to serve the Han secretly in some way, in that enemy land....

The assembled courtiers were stunned. It was unthinkable that anyone would dare to speak like this. They looked up in fear at the face of Emperor Wu, the veins on whose temples seemed about to burst. Then they thought of what fate awaited this man who had called them “courtiers whose only wish was to preserve themselves and safeguard their wives and children,” and they smiled.

No sooner had this audacious man, Sima Qian, the Grand Historian, left the emperor’s presence than one of these “courtiers whose only wish was to preserve themselves and safeguard their wives and children” spoke to Emperor Wu about the alleged friendship between Qian and Li Ling. Another claimed that the Grand Historian’s statements were a reflection of a rift between Qian and General Li Guangli, saying that Qian’s praise for Ling was intended to disgrace General Li, who had left the fort before Ling arrived but had accomplished nothing. At any rate, everyone joined in the view that Qian’s attitude was far too high and mighty for a mere grand historian, whose job was to serve as astrologer, calendar-maker, and declarer of auspicious and inauspicious days.

Strange to say, Sima Qian was punished even before Li Ling’s own family. The following day, he was put into the custody of the head of the Board of Punishments, the appointed penalty being castration.


In China from ancient times there were four principal types of physical punishments: tattooing, cutting off the nose, cutting off the feet, and castration. During the reign of Emperor Wu’s grandfather, Emperor Wen, three of the four were abolished, leaving only castration, that peculiar penalty by which a man is deprived of his manliness. It was sometimes called “the punishment of rottenness,” perhaps because the resulting wound gave off a rotting odor, or perhaps because the man was thought to become like a rotten tree that cannot bear fruit. Those who had been punished in this way were known as “eunuchs,” and most of the officials who served in the women’s quarters of the palace were of course eunuchs. But that Sima Qian, of all men, should suffer such a punishment!

Still, though we of later ages know him as the famous author of the Historical Records, we must remember that, at the time, Sima Qian was an insignificant official in charge of writings at court. His was unquestionably a brilliant intellect, but he had too much confidence in his abilities, was hard to get along with, never lost in debate with others, and was known to his contemporaries as merely a stubborn eccentric. No one was terribly surprised that he had met with “the punishment of rottenness.”

The Sima clan had originally been court historians in the state of Zhou. Later they went to Jin and then served at the Chin court; and Sima Tan, in the fourth generation during the Han dynasty, served Emperor Wu and became grand historian in the Qianyuan era (140–135 B.C.E.). Tan was Qian’s father. Apart from law, calendar-making, and divination according to the I Ching, which were his professional specialties, he was well-versed in the teachings of Daoism and familiar also with the doctrines of the various schools—Confucian, Mohist, legalist, and nominalist. He mastered all of these views and synthesized them into a system of his own.

His strong confidence in his own intellect and spiritual powers was passed on intact to his son Qian. But Tan’s greatest educational gift to his son was sending him on a grand tour of the empire upon the completion of his studies. This was not a common way of finishing an education in those days, but it goes without saying that this grand tour played a very major role in making Sima Qian the historian that he later became.

When in 110 B.C.E. Emperor Wu climbed Mount Tai in the east and worshipped Heaven, the hot-tempered Sima Tan, who happened to be lying ill in Zhounan at the time, was grieved that he alone was unable to accompany the emperor on this auspicious occasion of building the Han’s first ritual mound. The indignity of this was so overwhelming that he died. It had been his most cherished desire in life to compile a comprehensive history from ancient to contemporary times, but he had only gotten as far as the collection of materials.

The scene of Tan’s death is depicted in detail by his son Qian in the final chapter of the Historical Records. We are told that as soon as Sima Tan realized that he would not recover, he summoned Qian and, taking his hand, spoke earnestly of the necessity of writing history. He wept as he lamented the fact that he, the Grand Historian, had failed to accomplish this and was guilty of allowing the accomplishments of wise rulers and loyal ministers to be buried in the dust. “When I die, you will surely become grand historian. When that happens, do not forget what I sought to write!” When he said that this would be Qian’s highest act of filial piety, the son bowed his head, weeping, and vowed that he would not disobey his father.

Two years after his father died, Sima Qian did indeed succeed to the post of grand historian. He immediately set his hand to the vocation that his father had bequeathed him, using the materials Tan had collected as well as secret documents stored in the palace. His first official duty after being appointed, however, was the major task of calendar revision, which required a full four years of his attention. When in 104 B.C.E. it was done, he set to work at once on the writing of the Historical Records. Qian was, at the time, forty-two years of age.

He already knew what he wanted to achieve: a work of history that would be unlike any that had come before it. He approved of the Spring and Autumn Annals for the standards of moral and ethical criticism it provided, but found its factual side wanting. More facts were what was wanted—not moral lessons, but facts. The Commentary of Master Zuo and the Accounts of the States contained an abundance of facts, to be sure. One could only marvel at the narrative skills of Master Zuo, but he did not explore the nature of the individual actors who created the facts he related. Zuo’s descriptions were vivid, but there was no investigation of character or motive. This seemed highly unsatisfactory to Sima Qian.

In addition, all previous histories aimed at giving an account of the past to present-day readers, and seemed little interested in relating present-day affairs to readers in the future. In short, Sima Qian could not find what he sought in existing works of history. As for what precisely was unsatisfactory about those histories—Qian felt that he would come to a clear understanding of that only when he had tried his own hand at writing what he wished. Yet it was not so much criticism of existing histories that motivated him as a need to express the vague notions pent up within himself.

Indeed, his criticism of other histories simply took the form of creating something new of his own. He was not even sure whether the concepts that he had limned in his mind for so long could in fact be called “history.” But whether or not that was the case, he had not the shadow of a doubt that it needed to be written—for the sake of the people of his age and of later ages and, above all, for his own sake.

As was the case with Confucius, Sima Qian’s policy was “to relate and not create,” but his relating and not creating were rather different from the sage’s. For Sima Qian the mere listing of events in chronological order did not constitute “relating,” while moralizing judgments that would impede future generations from knowing the facts themselves struck him as falling into the category of “creating.”

Five successive reigns totaling one hundred years had elapsed since the founding of the Han Dynasty, and books that had been destroyed or hidden due to the anticultural policies of the First Emperor of the Chin began to reappear, at last. The literary arts seemed on the point of flourishing once again. It was not only the Han court but the times themselves that demanded the writing of histories. For Sima Qian, the deep emotions aroused by his father’s final injunction were conjoined to broad learning, powers of observation, and literary skill; and all these had matured to a point where the writing of a nearly perfect history could be achieved. His work went well—almost too well, to his way of thinking. From the chronicles of the first five emperors of China down to the Xia, Yin, Zhou, and Chin Dynasties, he was little more than a technician arranging materials in the service of strict narrative accuracy. But when he passed from the reign of the First Emperor of the Chin and began to chronicle the life of General Xiang Yu at the beginning of the Han dynasty—including his fatal troubles with the founder of the Han after Xiang Yu became a “king,” or local ruler, Qian began to be unsure about how cool and neutral a technician he could continue to be. It might happen, somehow, that Xiang Yu would take possession of him, or he of Xiang Yu.


King Xiang then rose in the night and was drinking behind the curtains of his tent. A beautiful woman was with him. Her name was Yu. She was so much favored by the king that she always attended him. He had a fine steed whose name was Chui, which he always used to ride. Thereupon King Xiang improvised a poem expressing his sorrow and anger: “My power can penetrate mountains and my spirit cover the world, yet the times are not propitious, and Chui will not go forward. What can I do if he refuses to go forward? And what shall I do about thee, my Yu, my Yu?” He sang a few verses, and the beautiful Yu joined in the song. King Xiang shed tears. Those around him all wept, and none could look upon him.


Sima Qian wondered if this kind of writing was appropriate. Could he allow himself to write so passionately about past events? He wanted to be wary of “creating.” His job was only “to relate.” In fact, all he had done was to relate events. But with what vividness he related them! His kind of narration would be quite impossible for someone without an extraordinarily imaginative visual sense. Sometimes, out of an excess of fear that he was “creating,” he would reread a passage he had written and cut the phrases that made historical figures seem to behave as if they were actual living persons. Then the vital breath would vanish from those figures, and there would be no need to worry about his having “created” them. But, it seemed to Sima Qian, at this point Xiang Yu ceased to be Xiang Yu. Xiang Yu and the First Emperor of the Chin and King Zhuang of Qu all became the same kind of person. How could depicting very different people as if they were the same be called “relating”?

Also, “to relate” was to depict different people as different, was it not? Looking at things in this way, he could not help but restore the phrases he had earlier deleted. He would put them back in, try reading the passage once again, and finally be content. And not only he: the historical figures depicted—Xiang Yu, Fan Kuai, Fan Zeng—all seemed at last to calm down and settle into their place in history.


When in good spirits, Emperor Wu was a truly wise, magnanimous, and understanding protector of letters and learning. Moreover, since the position of grand historian was one that required an unspectacular but very special kind of skill, Sima Qian was able to avoid the insecurity about his position (or his very life) that often resulted from the practically inevitable slander and detraction by colleagues in official life.

For some years, then, Sima Qian led a full and happy life. (The happiness envisioned by the men of that period was a very different thing from our present conceptions, but the quest for happiness was the same.) He was not one to compromise; but he was positive and active, often debating, often indignant, often amused; and his favorite occupation was beating his opponents in argument to the point where they had not a leg left to stand on.

And then, after some years of such a life, this calamity descended upon him.


The light was dim inside the “silkworm chamber.” It was necessary to avoid all exposure to the wind for some time after a castration was performed, so a dark, tightly sealed room was built, and a fire kept going for warmth; and there the castrated prisoner was kept to enable him to recover. Since the warm, dark room was similar to the chamber in which silkworms were raised, it was so named.

Disturbed beyond words, Sima Qian leaned vacantly against a wall. He was not so much angry as thunderstruck. He had always been ready to face death by beheading, for example. He could imagine himself being executed; and he had had forebodings of that when he spoke up in defense of Li Ling, risking the emperor’s anger. But that he should be subjected to castration, the most shameful of all punishments! He had, no doubt, been too heedless (for if one is to be prepared for death, one must be prepared for any punishment); but he had never considered the possibility of such an ugly fate as this. He had always believed that, in this life, only things appropriate to a person happened—an idea that had come to him from his long study of history. Thus, in adverse circumstances, a gentleman who is righteously indignant over the state of the nation will experience intense, violent pain, while a weaker man will have to endure a slow, gloomy, ugly pain. Even if what happens to a man seems at first sight unjust, his response to his situation will ultimately demonstrate that his fate well suits him.

Sima Qian believed himself to be a manly person. True, he was a writer; but he felt sure that he was more of a man than any of the military men of his day. And it was not only he who thought so: even those who had not the least liking for him could not but acknowledge that fact. Thus, he could imagine himself—if he insisted on his personal views—facing execution by being tied to two carriages and torn apart. But to face a humiliating punishment like this when he was almost fifty years of age! That he should now be in this “silkworm chamber” seemed like a nightmare. He wanted it to be a bad dream. But, leaning against the wall and opening his eyes, he saw in the dimness three or four men sitting or lying every which way, their faces lifeless, as if their very souls had left them. When he realized that he was in that same condition, a cry burst from him, a cry that was something between a sob and a bellow.

During the several days of anger and pain that followed, thoughts came to him, the result of ingrained habits of scholarly reflection: What, in fact, had gone wrong? Who had done what to cause all this? He first blamed Emperor Wu (the Way of Lord and Subject of China being fundamentally different from that of Japan). Indeed, his resentment against his sovereign was for a time so intense as to make him forget everything else. When, however, this brief period of violent feeling had passed, the historian within him was reawakened. Unlike the orthodox Confucianists, he knew how necessary it was, as a historian, to discount the inflated reputations of the Sagely Previous Kings, as they were termed; and so he could not now allow personal resentment to distort his historical evaluation of Emperor Wu, a latter-day king.

Emperor Wu was undeniably a great ruler. Despite his various defects, so long as he was sovereign, the empire of the Han was unshakable. Leaving aside for the moment the merits of the founding emperor of the dynasty, one had to admit that both Emperor Wen, “the Benevolent,” and Emperor Jing, “the Illustrious,” were minor figures compared to Emperor Wu. But the defects of major figures are also major—that is the way of the world—and it was incumbent on Sima Qian not to forget that, even in the midst of his intense anger. One had to regard what had happened as an act of Heaven, on a par with plagues, typhoons, and violent thunderstorms.

Thus, reflection would now push him toward even more despairing indignation, and now toward a kind of resignation. Finding that he could not forever direct his fierce resentment toward the sovereign, inevitably he aimed it at the wicked ministers surrounding the ruler. They were wicked, no doubt about it; but theirs was a very minor kind of wickedness. Besides, Sima Qian had so high a sense of self-respect that he could not find satisfaction in taking such petty persons as objects of his resentment.

But never before had he felt such anger at apparently “good-natured” people. They were harder to deal with than the obviously wicked ministers and cruel officials. Observing their doings infuriated Sima Qian. They enjoyed a cheap, “conscientious” peace of mind and helped others to enjoy it, too, and it was this that made their behavior all the more shameful. They would neither defend nor confute. Inwardly, there was neither self-examination nor self-reproach.

The Prime Minister Gongsun He was a prime example of this type. When it came to toadying to the powerful, a man like Du Zhou (who had recently brought down Wang Ching and cleverly managed to take his place as superintendent of the Impeachment Court) knew exactly what he was doing; but this fool of a prime minister was not even aware of what he himself did. Even were he to be called “the kind of minister who seeks only to save himself and protect his wife and children,” it would not anger this fellow in the least. Finally, he too was not worth directing one’s resentment against.

At last Sima Qian began to direct his rage at himself. If he had to be angry at someone, there could be no better object than himself. But where had he gone wrong? He could not possibly regard his defense of Li Ling as a mistake; nor did he feel his choice of methods was particularly bad. Speaking out was the only thing he could have done if he did not wish to descend to the level of a sycophant. If, looking back, he found nothing to be ashamed of, a gentleman worthy of the name ought to accept whatever resulted from acting honorably. That could not be denied. Therefore he was prepared to accept his punishment, even if it meant amputation of his limbs or being cut in half at the waist.

But castration—and the physical state resulting from that punishment—that was another matter entirely. It was different from losing a foot or a nose to the executioner. It was not a punishment to be inflicted upon a gentleman. Indeed, this bodily condition he was left with was, viewed from whatever angle, a perfect evil. It could not be disguised with fine words. A wound to the spirit might heal with time, but the hideous reality of his body would be with him until death. Whatever his motives might have been, anything that invited such a result had to be termed wrong. But what, precisely, had been wrong? What wrong had he done? None whatsoever. He had done nothing but what was right. At most, his mere presence there at that time was at fault.

Sima Qian would be sitting in the silkworm chamber in a vague, absent state, and then suddenly jump up and begin pacing around the warm, dim room, moaning like a wounded animal. He kept repeating these actions unconsciously, and his thoughts, too, went round and round the same point, never coming to a conclusion.

Several times he found himself butting his head against the wall until his blood flowed, but apart from that, he never attempted to harm himself. He wanted to die—how good it would be if he could! He had no fear of death because a sense of shame that was far more fearsome relentlessly pursued him. Why, then, could he not die? Partly because he had none of the tools needed for suicide in this prison. There was, however, something else that stopped him from committing suicide, something from inside himself. At first, he was not aware of what it was. Although he often felt a fitful urge to die in the midst of his frenzy and resentment, he was also vaguely aware of something that would not let his emotions move in the direction of suicide.

It sometimes happens that one feels as if one has forgotten something, but cannot say quite what. That was Sima Qian’s situation. It was only after he had been permitted to return to his residence, under strict orders to refrain from leaving it, that he realized that he had, during the madness of the past month, forgotten about his life’s work, the compilation and writing of the history. He realized too that, although he had forgotten about it on one level, his unconscious commitment to that work had played a role in keeping him from suicide.

His father’s agonized words as he lay on his deathbed ten years before, weeping as he took his son’s hand, still resounded in his ears. But it was not those words alone that kept him from giving up his work on the history, even in his present harrowing state of mind. It was, above all, the work itself. Not the charm of the work, or his enthusiasm for it—not something so pleasant as that. He realized, of course, that it was his mission to write the history, but this realization was not born of proud self-reliance. He had been a very egotistical man, but what had happened made him painfully aware of how worthless he really was. He had been proud of his ideals and aspirations, but in fact he amounted to no more than a worm crushed under the hooves of cattle by the roadside.

Yes, his ego had been crushed, but there could be no doubt about the value of his work as a historian. Having lost all self-confidence, all self-reliance, having been reduced to this contemptible state, he would nonetheless live on in this world and accomplish his task—not that he would take any pleasure in it. It felt to him like the kind of human relationship that seems destined, fated, and that one cannot, finally, break off, no matter how repugnant it may be. It was absolutely clear to him that, as long as he had this work to do, he could never kill himself. This was not from a mere sense of duty, but due to an almost physical bond with the work.

Now, in place of the blind, animal suffering he had first experienced after his castration, there was a more conscious, human suffering. Unfortunately, with the clear realization that he could not commit suicide came a steadily clearer realization that there was no other means of escape from his suffering and shame, apart from suicide. The strong and healthy Grand Historian Sima Qian died in the spring of Tianhan 3, and the Sima Qian who later continued the unfinished history was no more than a writing-machine, without intelligence or consciousness; it was essential for Sima Qian to convince himself of this. And so he tried his best to do so. The writing of the history must be carried on. For him, this was an absolute. For the work to be carried on, he had to continue to live, no matter how hard it was to endure. In order to continue to live, he had to convince himself that he no longer existed as a person.

After the fifth lunar month had passed, Sima Qian once again took up his writing-brush. There was neither joy nor excitement in this: he was just whipped on by his will to complete the work; and so, like a traveler dragging himself on sore, injured legs toward his destination, he plodded on with the manuscript. He had been relieved of his post as grand historian, but Emperor Wu, a little regretful of what he had done, made Sima Qian head of the Department of Documents. To Qian, however, official advancement or degradation no longer had any meaning. He who had been such a keen debater now never opened his mouth, and neither laughed nor showed anger.

Yet he did not appear despondent or dispirited. On the contrary, people saw in his silent visage a terrifying quality, as if he were possessed by an evil spirit. He carried on with his work, even begrudging the time he had to spend in sleep at night. He seemed to his family to be in a great hurry to finish the work as quickly as possible so he would then be free to take his own life.

After applying himself grimly for a year or so, Sima Qian discovered at last that, even after having lost all joy in living, there was still joy to be found in self-expression. Even then, however, he maintained his perfect silence, and the terrifying harshness of his countenance remained unsoftened. When, in the course of writing the history, he came to passages where he had to use the words “eunuch” or “gelding,” he could not suppress a groan. Whether he was alone in his study or lying on his bed at night, whenever the memory of his humiliation came back to him, a throbbing pain would run through his body, as if he had been burned with a hot iron. He would jump up, letting out a strange cry, and begin to walk about the room for a time, moaning. Then, gnashing his teeth, he would endeavor to compose himself.




Li Ling had lost consciousness in the thick of battle, and he awakened to find himself in the khan’s tent, lit by animal-fat lamps and warmed by a fire made with dried dung. He understood his situation immediately. He had only two choices: To cut his own throat and so escape the shame of captivity, or to yield to his captors for the time being while waiting for a chance to make his escape—and take back with him a trophy sufficient to atone for his defeat in battle. It was this second course that Li Ling decided upon.

The Xiongnu khan released Li Ling from his bonds with his own hands, and his treatment of his captive thereafter was exceedingly courteous. Judihou Khan, the younger brother of his predecessor, Goulihu Khan, was a sturdily built middle-aged warrior, goggle-eyed, and with a reddish beard. Like several generations of Xiongnu leaders before him, he had fought against the Han; but he frankly admitted that he had never come up against an opponent as tough as Li Ling, praising his military skills as comparable to those of Li Ling’s grandfather, Li Guang. The illustrious name of Li Guang, “the Flying General,” who had killed a tiger with his bare hands and pierced a large rock with an arrow, was spoken of even now, and even in barbarian lands. The cordial treatment that Ling received was due to his being the grandson of a man of such strength, and to his own strength as well. It was the Xiongnu custom when dividing up food for the strong to take the tastiest parts, leaving the remainder for the old and weak. Among the Xiongnu, it was out of the question to humiliate a powerful man. Thus, the captive general Li Ling was given his own tent and several dozen attendants, and treated with all the courtesy due to an honored guest.

And so there began what was for Li Ling a strange new way of life. His dwelling was a curtained and carpeted tent; his food, mutton; and his drink, the milk of sheep and cows, and fermented koumiss. For clothing, there were furs and the hides of wolves, bears, and sheep sewn together.

Herding, hunting, and pillaging were the whole of life for the Xiongnu. Yet even on the apparently limitless high plain, there were borders formed by rivers, lakes, and mountains. Apart from the land under the direct rule of the khan were the territories of various Xiongnu nobles, beginning with the Lords Zuoxian, Yuxian, Zuoluli, and Yululi; and the migrations of the nomads were confined to each area. It was a land without towns and without fields. Even the villages that did exist shifted location from season to season, in pursuit of grass and water.

Li Ling was not given any land. He always accompanied the khan, together with the Xiongnu commanders who served directly under their ruler. If the opportunity were to present itself, Ling would have liked to take the khan’s head; but such a chance was unlikely to come. Even had he managed to kill the khan, it would have been impossible to escape with the head as trophy, barring exceptionally good luck. If he succeeded in killing the khan but were himself killed in the barbarians’ territory, the Xiongnu would be sure to hush up the whole matter as it would bring dishonor to themselves; so word of Li Ling’s deed would never get back to the Han. Nonetheless, Li Ling patiently awaited the arrival of that virtually impossible opportunity.

There were several other Han captives in the khan’s encampment. One of them, Wei Lu, was not a military man but was treated with the greatest regard by the khan, having been given the rank of Lord Dingling. His father had been a Xiongnu, but Wei Lu happened to be born and raised in the Han capital. He had served under Emperor Wu, but fearing he would be implicated in the affair of Master of Music Li Yannian some years before, had fled to the barbarians’ territory and joined the Xiongnu. Blood tells, after all, and he was able quickly to accustom himself to the barbarians’ ways. He was also a very able man and always attended Judihou Khan’s war council, being party to all plans and discussions. Li Ling hardly ever spoke with Wei Lu or other Han who were now among the Xiongnu. He was sure none among them would choose to become a partner in the plans he was quietly forming. And in fact all the Han captives in the camp seemed to feel uncomfortable with each other, and never formed close friendships.

It happened that the khan summoned Li Ling, asking him for instruction on a point of military strategy. Since it was part of a war with the Eastern Hu, another barbarian state, Ling readily gave his advice. The next time the khan consulted him, it had to do with strategy against the Han army. Li Ling showed his displeasure by the look on his face, saying not a word; and the khan did not press the matter. Some time after this, Ling was asked to go south as one of the commanders of an army aiming to raid two districts in northern China. This time Li Ling flatly refused, saying that he could not participate in action against Han. Thereafter, the khan never again made such a request. His treatment of Li Ling was unchanged. It seemed that he had no ulterior motive: he wished to accord gentlemanly treatment to his prisoner because he recognized him as a gentleman. Li Ling, for his part, felt that the khan was, in the true sense, a man.

The khan’s eldest son, Lord Zuoxian, started to show unusual goodwill toward Li Ling—or rather, respect for him. He had just turned twenty—a bit coarse, but a brave and serious youth. His regard for strength was intense and pure. When he first visited Li Ling, he asked the general to tutor him in mounted archery. The mounted part presented no problem: he was easily a match for Li Ling on horseback. Indeed, he far surpassed the older man when it came to riding without a saddle. Li Ling therefore decided to focus on archery, and Lord Zuoxian became his devoted student. When Ling told him about his grandfather Li Guang’s almost superhuman skill in archery, the barbarian youth listened eagerly, his eyes shining.

The two often hunted together. With only a few attendants, they would race over the plains, hunting foxes, wolves, antelope, eagles, and pheasants. It once happened that, as dusk fell, they had used up all their arrows, and their horses having far outpaced those of their attendants, they found themselves surrounded by a pack of wolves. Whipping their horses on, they broke through the pack at full speed. A wolf leapt onto the rump of Li Ling’s horse, but young Lord Zuoxian, who had been riding just behind, slashed through the wolf’s body with a single stroke of his scimitar. A quick look revealed that the legs of both of their horses had been bitten and torn at by the wolves and were covered with blood. After a day like this, as they sat in their tent at night blowing on the hot broth made from their catch before drinking it down, Li Ling suddenly felt something akin to friendship for this young barbarian prince, his cheeks rosy in the firelight.


In the autumn of Tianhan 3, the Xiongnu again attacked Yanmen in north China. In retaliation, in Tianhan 4, the Han had General Li Guangli leave Shuofang at the head of an army of sixty thousand cavalry and seventy thousand foot soldiers. Commander of Crossbow Troops Lu Bode was sent to assist him with ten thousand men. Soon after, General Gong Sun’ao advanced from Yanmen with ten thousand cavalry and thirty thousand infantry, while General Han Yue advanced from Wuyuan with thirty thousand foot soldiers.

This northern campaign was on a scale unprecedented in recent years. As soon as the khan learned of it, he ordered that the women, the very old and very young, and his herds and valuables be transferred to an area north of the Shewu River. Then, leading one hundred thousand of his best cavalry, he attacked the forces of Li Guangli and Lu Bode on the great plain south of the river. The battle went on for more than ten days. Finally the Han army was forced to withdraw.

Young Lord Zuoxian was in command of his own battalion, which moved east to confront General Gong Sun’ao, and destroyed him utterly. General Han Yue’s forces, constituting the left flank of the Han army, likewise failed to win the day, and withdrew. The northern campaign had been a total failure.

As usual, Li Ling never appeared in the Xiongnu camp while battle with the Han forces was ongoing, keeping to the north of the river instead. But he was shocked to find himself privately anxious about how well Lord Zuoxian was doing. Of course he hoped, on the whole, for a Han victory and a Xiongnu defeat. Yet he seemed to feel that Lord Zuoxian, at least, must not be allowed to lose. When he became aware of this feeling, Li Ling censured himself severely.

Gong Sun’ao, who had been defeated by Lord Zuoxian, returned to the capital, and when imprisoned on charges of having lost numerous troops without achieving anything, he offered a peculiar defense. An enemy prisoner, he claimed, had said that the Xiongnu army was so strong because General Li, who had surrendered to the nomads, was training the troops and preparing the Xiongnu for war against the Han forces by teaching them military strategy. Now this in itself was not an adequate defense against the charge of having been defeated, so General Gong was not pardoned; but it goes without saying that Emperor Wu, hearing this, was filled with fury against Li Ling. Ling’s family members, who had been pardoned and allowed to return home, were once again imprisoned; and this time everyone, from his elderly mother to his wife, children, and younger brothers, was executed. Typical of the ways of shallow people, the gentry and officials of Longxi, the Li family’s hometown, were filled with shame that their town had produced such a family, the records tell us.

It took about a half year for the news of all this to reach Li Ling. When he first heard it, from the mouth of a Han soldier who had been abducted from a frontier area, Li Ling leapt to his feet, grabbed the prisoner by the collar and shook him roughly, trying to learn whether he was telling the truth. When he determined that the man was not lying, Ling gritted his teeth and tightened his grip. The prisoner struggled and let out an agonized groan. Without knowing what he was doing, Ling had choked the breath out of him. When he released his grip, the man fell to the ground. Without giving him a second glance, Ling rushed from the tent.

He walked over the grassland in a terrible state. A fierce anger swirled inside him. When he thought of his aged mother and his young children, his heart burned within him, yet he shed not a single tear. Anger so intense must have the effect of drying up all one’s tears.

It was not only this time. What kind of treatment had his family received from Han over the years? He thought of the way his grandfather Li Guang had died. (Ling’s father Danghu had died a few months prior to his birth, making Ling a “posthumous child.” It was his famous grandfather, therefore, who educated and trained him in his boyhood. ) The renowned General Li Guang had made great contributions on numerous northern campaigns yet had never received any reward, due to the machinations of the evil sycophants surrounding the throne. Various commanders who were his subordinates went on to be ennobled and enfeoffed, but the honest and upright general, far from being enriched, had to endure poverty to the end of his days. Finally Li Guang had a run-in with Generalissimo Wei Ching. Wei Ching himself felt sympathy for the aged General Li, but one of the officials serving under him, wrongly borrowing his authority, humiliated Li Guang. The famous old general, infuriated, cut his own throat on the spot, in the midst of the army camp. Even now Ling could clearly remember himself as a boy hearing the news of his grandfather’s death, and wailing....


And what about the death of Ling’s uncle Li Gan, who was Li Guang’s second son? Filled with resentment against Wei Ching because of his father’s miserable death, he went to the generalissimo’s residence and berated him publicly. General Huo Qubing, the generalissimo’s nephew, was indignant at this, and used the occasion of a hunt at the Sweet Springs Palace to shoot Li Gan with a fatal arrow. Emperor Wu knew what had happened, but, wishing to protect General Huo, had it announced that Li Gan had died as a result of a wound from a deer’s antler....


Li Ling’s feelings were far less mixed than Sima Qian’s. They could be summed up in the word “outrage.” (Apart, that is, from the remorseful thought: “If only I had managed to act sooner and carry out my original plan, escaping from the Xiongnu lands with the khan’s head in hand...” ) The only question was how to express this outrage. He recalled the words of the soldier he had questioned, that the emperor was infuriated to learn that General Li was instructing the barbarian soldiers and preparing them to fight against the Han. And then he understood: He himself had, of course, never done such a thing; but there was another captive Han general in Xiongnu hands, named Li Xu. He had originally been a Commander-Beyond-the-Great-Wall, charged with protecting Xihoucheng; but after his capture, he had regularly instructed the Xiongnu army on military strategy and trained the troops. Indeed, he had followed the khan into battle against the Han forces as recently as a half year before. This was the General Li who was meant, and for whom Li Ling had been mistaken at the Han Court.

That evening he went alone to Li Xu’s tent. He said not a word, and allowed the other to say nothing. One stroke of the sword, and Li Xu fell dead.

The next morning Li Ling went before the khan and confessed what he had done. The khan told him there was no need to worry, although the queen mother might create difficulties. The khan’s mother, despite her advanced years, was involved in a licentious relationship with Li Xu, which the khan had accepted. According to Xiongnu custom, when a father died, his eldest son took all of the late man’s wives and concubines and made them his own. His own birth mother was the single exception—respect for one’s mother being maintained even among this people, by whom women in general were held in such low esteem.

The khan urged Li Ling to go into hiding in the north for a time, adding that he would send a messenger for him when the storm blew over. Following this advice, Li Ling went into hiding in the foothills of Elindaban Peak to the northwest, along with several attendants.

Soon after, the difficult queen mother took ill and died. Summoned to return to the khan’s court, Li Ling seemed a different person. Up to then, he had absolutely refused to take part in any strategies aimed against the Han, but now he himself said he would gladly offer his advice. The khan rejoiced to see this change. He named his captive general Lord Youxiao, the Commander of the Royal Guard, and gave him one of his own daughters in marriage. There had earlier been talk of such a marriage, but Ling had always refused. Now, however, he accepted the khan’s gift without hesitation.

A Xiongnu force was just about to move south to attack and pillage the area around Jiuquan and Zhangye, and Ling asked to be allowed to go along. But when their route to the southwest happened to pass through the foothills of Mount Xunji, his spirits fell. He remembered the men under his command who had fought to the death on this spot. As he walked over the sand where their bones were buried and which their blood had once stained, and thought of his own present condition, he lost the heart to continue southward and fight against the Han. Claiming illness, he rode back to the north, alone.

The next year, Tai Shi 1, according to the Chinese calendar, Judihou Khan died and was succeeded by Lord Zuoxian, who was still on very close terms with Li Ling. He assumed the title Hulugu Khan.

Li Ling had become Lord Youxiao of the Xiongnu, but his mind was still unsettled. Though he felt in every fiber of his being a burning resentment at the extermination of his mother, wife, and children, it was clear from his recent experience that he could not bring himself to lead troops to fight against the Han. He had vowed never to set foot on Han territory again; but, despite his close friendship with the new khan, he was by no means sure that he could be content to live totally according to Xiongnu ways and to end his life among them. He did not much like thinking, and so, when he was upset, he would mount a swift horse and gallop over the plains alone. He would ride like a madman over grasslands and hilly ground, his horse’s hooves clattering under the clear blue skies of autumn. After racing for several dozen li, both horse and rider would tire, and Ling would look for a brook flowing through the plateau, where he would dismount and water his horse.

Then he would lie on his back on the grass and gaze up, with a pleasurable sense of fatigue, at the blue sky in all its clarity, height, and breadth. At times he would suddenly feel himself to be a mere speck between earth and sky, and wonder why in heaven’s name there were such distinctions as Han and Hun. After a good rest, he would again mount his horse and begin to gallop wildly over the plain. Fatigued from his day’s ride, he would return to camp as yellow clouds of dust darkened the setting sun. Exhaustion was his only salvation.

He had heard that Sima Qian had been found guilty of speaking in his defense. Li Ling felt neither special gratitude for this, nor pity. He knew Sima Qian slightly and had exchanged greetings with him, but they had never established a relationship. Indeed, Ling had thought Qian a rather troublesome man, overly fond of disputation. Besides, Ling was far too caught up in the struggle with his own pain to have much sympathy for the misfortunes of others. He may not have gone so far as to think that Sima Qian should have minded his own business, but it was a fact that he did not feel particularly grateful either.


The nomads’ customs, which had at first seemed coarse and grotesque, were, when viewed against the backdrop of the actual geography and climate of the land, by no means either vulgar or irrational, Li Ling gradually came to see. Without wearing clothing made of thick animal hides, one could not endure the northern winters; without eating meat, one could not store enough energy to endure the intense cold of the region. Their way of life decreed that they not build fixed dwellings: that too could not be simply dismissed as low class. If one were to try to conform to the ways of the Han in everything, one could not survive even for one day in the midst of that natural environment.

Li Ling recalled the words of the former khan, Judihou, criticizing the Han for constantly praising their own nation as “the land of good manners,” while regarding the ways of the Xiongnu as akin to those of animals. “What are these good manners that the Han talk of? Doesn’t it mean an empty show? Hiding what is ugly under a veneer of beautiful ornamentation? When it comes to loving self-advantage and envying others, who is worse, the Han or the Xiongnu? And as to lust and greed, which side is worse? Tear off the veneer, and there is finally no difference between the two! The only difference is that the men of Han know how to cover it up, while we do not.”

When the khan went on to give specific examples of internecine fighting and the exclusion and overthrow of worthy ministers throughout the Han dynasty, Li Ling was hard-pressed to make any reply. He himself, as a military man, had often felt doubts about the burdensome “manners for the sake of manners” attitude that prevailed at the Han Court. Certainly the rough directness of the Xiongnu often seemed far preferable to the craftiness of the Han, hiding itself behind fine words. To take it for granted that Chinese customs were right and nomadic customs base—was that not merely a biased view on the part of the Han? Over time, it came to seem so to Li Ling. For instance, he had always assumed that a person needed to have a “social name” in addition to his “personal name”; but when you considered the matter, there was no reason why one absolutely had to have a separate name for use in society.

His new Xiongnu wife was a very gentle woman. She remained timid and apprehensive in front of her husband, and hardly spoke. But the son who was born to them was not the least bit afraid of his father and would climb up on his lap to be held. As he gazed into the child’s face, memories of his other children—those whom he had left behind in Chang’an, and who had been killed along with their mother and grandmother—would suddenly come to mind, and Li Ling would, despite himself, feel dejected.


Exactly one year before Li Ling went over to the Xiongnu, Su Wu, commander of the Han Palace Guards, was detained in nomad territory. Su Wu had originally been dispatched as a peace envoy to arrange an exchange of prisoners. His vice-envoy, however, had become involved in an internal struggle among the Xiongnu; as a result, Su Wu’s entire party was taken prisoner. The khan did not wish to kill them but rather to force them to come over to his side under threat of death.

Su Wu alone would not agree to surrender and actually stabbed himself in the chest with a sword in an attempt to avoid the shame of captivity. The nomad doctor charged with treating the Han envoy, who had lost consciousness, employed a very unusual method of treatment. According to the History of the Han, he had a hole dug and embers buried at the bottom, then laid the wounded man down on the earth above the buried embers and stepped on his back until Su Wu’s blood began to flow. Thanks to this harsh course of treatment, Su Wu, to his great sorrow, revived after having been unconscious for a half day.

Judihou Khan regarded Su Wu with great favor. When, after several weeks, Su Wu had fully recovered physically, the khan sent his advisor Wei Lu to urge most strongly once again that the Han envoy submit to the Xiongnu. Wei Lu’s efforts were met with a hail of fiery words from Su Wu, and he withdrew, thoroughly shamed. After that, Su Wu was confined in a pit, where he escaped starvation by eating wool fluff mixed with snow. Finally he was moved to an unpopulated place on the banks of Lake Baikal, and told that he would be allowed to return to his country “when rams gave milk.”

Because these events are so well-known, together with Su Wu’s fame as one who remained faithful to his duty for nineteen long years, they will not be recounted in detail here. At any rate, around the time that Li Ling was at last forced to decide to bury himself in the nomad lands for the painful remnants of his days, a solitary Su Wu had been tending sheep for many years on the shores of Lake Baikal, “the Northern Sea.”

Su Wu had been Li Ling’s friend for twenty years. They had served as advisers to Emperor Wu around the same time. Ling knew that, although Su Wu had an obdurate, unsociable side, he was without question a man of rare character and conviction. When, in Tianhan 1, shortly after Su Wu’s departure for the north, his aged mother died of illness, Ling went with the funeral procession as far as the cemetery at Yangling. When Ling himself was about to leave for his northern campaign, he heard the news that Su Wu’s wife, despairing of his return to Han, had gone off to become the wife of another man; thinking of his friend, Ling was highly indignant at the woman’s inconstancy.

After he had unwillingly submitted to the Xiongnu, however, Li Ling no longer wanted to see Su Wu. He was glad that Su Wu had been moved to the far north where he would not have to see him face-to-face. Particularly after his family had been slaughtered and he had lost all desire to return to Han, he wished all the more to avoid an encounter with this “Sheepherder Envoy.”


Several years after Hulugu Khan had succeeded his father, there were rumors that questioned whether Su Wu was alive at all. Calling to mind this unyielding Han envoy whom his father had never been able to persuade to submit, Hulugu Khan—aware that Ling and Wu had been friends—asked Li Ling to determine whether Su Wu was still alive. If so Ling was to urge him once again to capitulate. So Ling had to set out for the north.

He followed the Guqie River northward to its confluence with the Zhiju River and then went northwest through a forested area. After several days’ travel along riverbanks that were still snowy in places, he glimpsed beyond the forest and plain the blue waters of Lake Baikal. A guide of the Dingling tribe, who lived in the area, led Li Ling and his party to a crude log cabin. The inhabitant of the cabin, startled by the unusual sound of human voices, emerged with bow and arrow in hand. It took a while for Li Ling to discover the former Su Ziching (as Su Wu was also known), Master of the Imperial Stables, in the guise of a bearlike mountain man with a bushy beard, clothed entirely in animal hides. And it took even longer for Su Wu to recognize this high official dressed in Xiongnu clothing as Li Shaoching (Ling’s other name), the former Commander of Cavalry. Su Wu had not even heard that Ling was now serving the Xiongnu.

Strong emotion swept away in an instant whatever in Ling had made him avoid meeting Wu until this moment. At first, both men were at a loss for words.

Ling’s attendants set up several yurts nearby, and the hitherto lonely spot at once became lively. The food and wine they had brought with them was promptly transferred to the cabin; and that night, sounds of laughter that had never been heard there startled the birds and other woodland creatures.

It was hard indeed for Li Ling to explain how he had come to be dressed in Xiongnu fashion, but he laid out the facts without any admixture of self-justification. The life that Su Wu calmly described having led for the past few years sounded truly miserable to Li Ling. Some years before, the Xiongnu lord Yugan, while out hunting, had happened to pass by and, feeling sorry for Su Wu, had supplied him with food and clothing for three years. But after Lord Yugan’s death, Su Wu had had to ward off starvation by digging out field mice from the frozen earth, he said. The rumors concerning his possible death were a distortion of something that had actually happened: the herds that he was tending had been driven off by bandits and were no more.

Ling told Su Wu of his mother’s death, but he could not bring himself to tell him that his wife had abandoned their children and gone off to marry into another family.

Ling wondered why this man carried on with his life. Did he still hope to return to Han someday? From what Su Wu said, it seemed he no longer had any such hopes. If not, why was he willing to endure so wretched an existence? It was guaranteed that he would be exceptionally well-treated if he offered his submission to the khan, but it was clear to Li Ling from the beginning that Su Wu was not the kind of man to do such a thing. What puzzled Li Ling was why Su Wu had not taken his own life. If Li Ling himself was unable to end his hopeless life with his own hand, it was because he had put down roots in this land, and was bound by numerous ties of duty and affection. Besides, at this point his death would not be regarded as fulfilling his duty to the Han.

But Su Wu’s case was different. He had no ties to this land. And in terms of his fidelity to the Han Court, it would make little difference whether he starved to death on this plain, having held on to his envoy’s insignia to the bitter end, or whether he burned the insignia at once and then cut his own throat. Having stabbed himself in the chest immediately after being captured, it was unthinkable that he would now start to fear death. Li Ling recalled Su Wu’s stubbornness when he was young—an obstinate stoicism that was almost comical. The khan was trying to fish Su Wu out of extreme adversity with the bait of glory. To take the bait, of course, or even to kill himself to escape his hardships, would be to give in to the khan—or to Fate, as symbolized by the khan. Was not that how Su Wu felt?

But the sight of Su Wu engaged in a test of wills with Fate did not seem comical or ludicrous to Li Ling. If it was stubbornness that enabled someone to scorn unimaginable difficulties, deprivations, intense cold, and isolation—and this for the long stretch of time until one’s death—then this stubbornness was surely a grand and awe-inspiring thing. Li Ling was filled with admiration to see Su Wu’s former stoicism, which had seemed a bit childish at times, mature into this great power of endurance. Moreover, this man had no expectations that his conduct would become known in the land of Han. He had no hopes that he would ever be welcomed again in Han; or, indeed, that Han, or even the Xiongnu khan, would be informed of his ongoing struggles with harsh adversity in this desolate place. He would certainly die alone, unobserved by anyone; and he was determined on his last day to die with the satisfaction of being able to look back and laugh at his fate to the very end. He did not care whether anyone knew what he had accomplished.

Now Li Ling had at one time planned to take the head of the previous khan; but he feared that even if he achieved his goal, he would not be able to escape from Xiongnu territory with the head, and that would mean that his deed had been in vain, and that the Han would never hear of it. Thus, in the end, he had failed to find an opportunity to act. Confronted with Su Wu, who felt no regret at being unknown to others, he felt he might break into a cold sweat.

The first surge of emotion having passed, after two or three days Li Ling began to feel an uncontrollable fixation developing within himself. No matter what they discussed, the troubling contrast between his past and Su Wu’s kept making itself felt. Su Wu the righteous man, and himself the traitor—it was not so clear a distinction as that; but in the face of Su Wu’s sternness, tempered by long years of silence among woods and fields and waters, he could not help feeling that his own suffering up until then, which was the only possible defense for his behavior, was reduced to insignificance. Then too—or was he only imagining it?—as the days passed, he began to sense in Su Wu’s attitude toward him something of the rich man’s attitude toward the poor man—an awareness of superiority leading to a conscious effort to be generous to the other. He could not quite put his finger on it, but occasionally he could sense it. In the gaze of Su Wu, dressed in rags, there appeared at times a faint tinge of pity, and this was what Li Ling, Lord Youxiao, appareled in rich sable furs, feared more than anything else.

After ten days, Li Ling parted from his old friend and returned to the south, dejected. He had left behind ample supplies of food and clothing in Su Wu’s log cabin in the forest. He had, in the end, not broached the subject of submission, despite the khan’s charge to him to do so. Since it was unquestionably clear what Su Wu’s answer would be, what would have been the point of shaming both Su Wu and himself by making such an appeal?

Even after Li Ling had returned south, the thought of Su Wu never left him for so much as a single day. Thinking of him at a distance, Li Ling felt his friend was towering before him, looking even more austere than in the flesh.

Li Ling did not think his own submission to the Xiongnu was a good thing; but he believed that even the most unsympathetic critic would, if he considered all Li Ling had done for his homeland, and what that country had done to him in return, grant that his behavior was inevitable. But here was a man who, confronted with conditions that were truly inevitable, absolutely refused to regard them as inevitable. Hunger, cold, the pain of isolation, the indifference of his homeland, even the near certainty that his painful fidelity would be known to no one—all of these inevitabilities taken together were not enough to make him alter his steady attitude of devotion to honor and fidelity.

So Su Wu’s existence became to Li Ling both a noble lesson and an irritating nightmare. From time to time he would send people to see if his friend was all right, and to take him foodstuffs, sheep and cattle, and carpets. The desire to see Su Wu and the desire to avoid him were always at war within him.

Several years later, Li Ling once again visited the log cabin by the shores of Lake Baikal. On the way there, he encountered a group of soldiers guarding the area north of Yunzhong and learned from them that recently, in the border regions of Han, everyone from the governor down to the common people was dressed in white. If everyone was wearing white, it could only mean they were in mourning for the emperor. Thus Li Ling learned that Emperor Wu was deceased.

When he arrived at the shores of Lake Baikal and delivered this news, Su Wu faced south and began to wail. He wept and wailed for several days, until at last he coughed up blood. Watching this, Li Ling found his own mood gradually darkening. He did not, of course, doubt the sincerity of Su Wu’s lamentations. He could not but be moved by such pure and intense grief. But not a single tear came to his own eyes.

True, Su Wu had not suffered the slaughter of his whole family, as had Li Ling. But his elder brother had been involved in a minor road accident during an imperial progress, and his younger brother had failed to capture a criminal, as ordered. Each of them had been made to take responsibility for his failings by committing suicide. It would be hard to claim that Su Wu and his family had been well-treated by the Han Court. Knowing all this, and seeing with his own eyes Su Wu’s sincere and bitter grief, Li Ling suddenly realized that beneath what had earlier appeared to be merely intense stubbornness was an incomparably strong and pure love for the land of Han. It was not something imposed from the outside, like “righteousness” or “fidelity,” but the most intimate and natural kind of love, which welled up irrepressibly within Su Wu.

Having come up against this fundamental gap separating him and his friend, he was driven against his will into a dark skepticism regarding himself.


When Li Ling returned south from Su Wu’s place of exile, envoys from Han had just arrived. They came to announce the news of Emperor Wu’s demise and Emperor Zhao’s ascension to the throne, and they also came as a peace mission, seeking to establish friendly relations between the two nations—although such friendly relations had never in the past lasted for as much as a year. There were three envoys, headed, to Li Ling’s surprise, by Ren Lizheng, an old friend from his hometown of Longxi.

In the second month of that year, when Emperor Wu died, he was succeeded by the Crown Prince Fu Ling as Emperor Zhao, who was only eight years old. Huo Guang, Master of the Imperial Carriages, was appointed commander in chief and generalissimo with responsibility for aiding this child emperor in the work of governance. Huo Guang had been very close to Li Ling in the past, and Shangguan Jie, who had been appointed General of the Left, was also an old friend of Ling’s. The two of them had decided to summon Ling back to Han, and that was why former friends of his had been chosen for the current peace mission.

When the official business had been concluded in the presence of the khan, it was time for a festive banquet. Normally it was Wei Lu who acted as host on these occasions, but since the envoys were friends of Li Ling, he was called upon to take part. Ren Lizheng saw Ling, but in front of the assembled high officials of the Xiongnu, he could hardly urge him to return to Han. Seated at a distance from him, he would give Li Ling meaningful looks; from time to time he would stroke the knob at the head of his sword hilt, trusting that Ling would catch the hidden pun—“knob” and “return” being homophonous in Chinese. Ling did notice, and he understood what Ren was trying to communicate. But he did not know how to respond, what gestures to make.

After the official banquet was over, from the Xiongnu side only Li Ling and Wei Lu stayed on, entertaining the Han envoys with beef and wine and games of chance. It was then that Ren Licheng turned to Ling and said, “A general amnesty has been declared in Han, and everyone is enjoying the benefits of peace and benevolent governance. Since the new emperor is still a child, your old friends Huo Zimeng and Shangguan Shaoshu are helping the sovereign manage the affairs of the empire.”

Licheng regarded Wei Lu as having turned into a true Xiongnu, which was in fact the case, so he hesitated to persuade Ling openly in front of the other. He simply brought up the names of Huo Guang and Shangguan Jie, hoping to win Ling over. Ling remained silent, making no reply. After gazing intently at Licheng for a while, he stroked his own hair, which was tied in a queue in Xiongnu fashion, quite unlike that of Han.

When Wei Lu left the room to change clothes, Licheng now for the first time called Ling by his “social name” in an intimate way: “Shaoching, you have endured many long years of suffering! Huo Zimeng and Shangguan Shaoshu send you their regards.” Ling in turn asked how the two high officials were, but in a detached way, and Licheng went on: “Shaoching, come home! Wealth and rank are not worth talking about. Please make no objections, and come home!” Having just returned from seeing Su Wu, Li Ling was not unmoved by his friend’s earnest entreaty. But he knew without having to consider it that it was no longer possible for him to return to Han.

“It would be easy to return. But wouldn’t I simply meet with shame again? Is that not so?” Wei Lu returned to the table before Li Ling had finished speaking, and he and Licheng fell silent.

When the party was over and everyone was about to leave, Ren Licheng casually approached Ling and, in a low voice, asked him once more if he truly had no intention of returning to Han. Ling shook his head, and replied that a gentleman could not subject himself to humiliation twice. He said this in a very dispirited way, and it was not because he feared that Wei Lu would overhear him.

Five years later, in the summer of the sixth year of Emperor Zhao’s reign, it happened that Su Wu, who had seemed likely to die a wretched death in the far north, unknown to others, was able to return to Han. There is the well-known story of how, attached to the leg of a wild goose brought down by the Han emperor in Shanglin Park, was a message from Su Wu written on a strip of silk.

This of course was a fabrication designed to force the hand of the khan, who insisted that Su Wu was dead. A man named Chang Hui, who had come to the nomad territories along with Su Wu nineteen years earlier, met envoys from Han and, informing them that Su Wu was still alive, urged them to save him by means of this subterfuge. Immediately a messenger was sent to Lake Baikal, and Su Wu was escorted back to the khan’s court.

Li Ling was truly shaken by this. Whether Su Wu returned to Han or not, his greatness was unchanged, and consequently, there was no change in the mental lashing that Li Ling gave himself. Nonetheless, the notion that Heaven was watching them both struck Ling painfully. It might seem as though Heaven was not watching, but in fact, Heaven was. Li Ling felt fear and awe. Even now he did not think his past actions were by any means wicked; but here was Su Wu, who had boldly accomplished something that made Li Ling ashamed of himself, though in fact he had done nothing unreasonable. Su Wu’s accomplishment, moreover, was now made manifest to the world, and that fact told on Li Ling. He feared more than anything else that the unmanly feeling that now wrung his heart might be envy.

Li Ling gave a banquet for his friend prior to parting. There were many things he wished to say. But it all came down to what his resolve had been when he submitted to the Xiongnu. Before he could carry out that resolve, his entire family back home had been slaughtered, and there was no longer any reason to return to Han. But to say that would be to indulge in useless complaining, and he did not say one word about it. But at the banquet’s height, unable completely to contain himself, he rose to his feet and began to dance while chanting:


For ten thousand li I crossed the desert sands,

As our sovereign’s general to fight against the Xiongnu.

Our way was cut off, our swords and arrows broken,

Many soldiers perished, and my name too was ruined.

My aged mother is already dead—

Though I wish to repay her kindness,

To what place should I return?


As he sang, his voice trembled, and tears coursed down his cheeks. How unmanly! he rebuked himself, but to no avail.

Su Wu returned to his homeland after nineteen years’ absence.


Sima Qian continued writing tirelessly thereafter as well. He had ceased to live in this world and existed only as the characters in his writings. He no longer opened his mouth in real life, but he breathed fire when he borrowed the tongue of the ancient orator Lu Zhonglian. He became Wu Zixu and asked that his eyes be gouged out after his suicide; he became Lin Xiangru and scolded the King of Chin for his impoliteness; he became Prince Dan and, weeping, sent off the would-be assassin Jing Ke. When he described the grief and anger of the worthy but wronged official Qu Yuan of Chu and quoted at length from the famous Ode on Drowning, composed as Qu Yuan was about to throw himself into the Miluo River, Sima Qian was almost convinced that the ode was his own creation.

It had been fourteen years since he had begun his manuscript, and eight years since the calamity of his castration. Around the time that the “Purge of the Sorcerers” and the consequent tragic death of Crown Prince Li took place in the capital, this joint work by father and son had been nearly completed as a comprehensive history, in accordance with the original design. Adding supplementary material and editing and rewriting took several more years. By the time the Historical Records in 130 fascicles containing 526,000 ideographs was completed, Emperor Wu’s life was near its end.

When he laid aside his brush, having finished the autobiographical preface to the seventieth biography, that of the Grand Historian himself, Sima Qian sat in a daze, leaning against his desk. A heavy sigh came from deep within him. His eyes turned for a time toward a stand of scholar trees at the front of his garden, but in truth he saw nothing. His hearing was dulled, yet he seemed to be listening intently to the thrumming of a lone cicada somewhere. He should have been happy, but he was filled instead with a vague, dispirited loneliness and unease.

He felt tense until after he had presented his completed work to the appropriate bureau and formally offered notification to his father before his tomb; but immediately thereafter he was assailed by a terrible lethargy. Like a shaman after the state of possession ends, he was exhausted in body and mind; and although he was just over sixty years old, he seemed to have aged ten years all at once. It appeared that the demise of Emperor Wu and the accession of Emperor Zhao no longer had meaning for the shell of the man who had once been the Grand Historian Sima Qian.

When, as previously related, Ren Licheng and his party visited Li Ling in Xiongnu territory and then returned to the Han capital, Sima Qian was no longer in this world.


We have no accurate records regarding Li Ling after he said farewell to Su Wu, apart from the fact that he died in the Xiongnu lands in the first year of the Yuanping era (74 b.c.e.).

Hulugu Khan, who had been so close to him, had died before him, and had been succeeded by his son, Huyandi Khan. But there was civil strife connected with his accession, between Lord Zuoxian and Lord Yululi, and it is not hard to imagine that Li Ling might have been unwillingly drawn into the struggle against the queen mother, Wei Lu, and their confederates.

The History of the Han records in its account of the Xiongnu that the son born to Li Ling in the nomad lands supported Commander Wuji as khan and opposed Huhanye Khan, but ultimately failed. This was in Wufeng 2, during the reign of Emperor Xuan—exactly eighteen years after Li Ling’s death. We are told only that he was Li Ling’s son; his own name is not recorded.


About the author

​Atsushi Nakajima (1909–1942) was born in Tokyo, Japan. His father was a scholar specialising in the Chinese classics, and Nakajima became known for taking on historical subjects. Nakajima was sent to Palau in 1941 to teach Japanese but returned in 1942 suffering from severe asthma, and died later that year after contracting pneumonia. He completed one major novel, Light, Wind and Dreams (Hokuseido Press), based on the life of Robert Louis Stevenson. 

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