top of page



WeY Yang Defects from Wei to Qin


Wey Yang[1] defected from Wei[2] to Qin. Duke Xiao[3] made him Chancellor and gave him the domain of Shang[4], from which he took the name Lord Shang. When Lord Shang governed Qin, laws and ordonnances were fully implemented, private interests had no place in the public sphere, punishments were inflicted without regard to power and status, and rewards were distributed with no regard to private interests and close ties. The law reached even as far as the Crown Prince[5], whose tutors[6] suffered the punishments of tattooing and mutilation. After one year, people would not pick up items left lying in the street, nor would they take anything that was not their property, the army had grown strong, and the sovereign lords lived in fear. In such circumstances, restrictions cut deep and kindness was rare; strength alone ensured submission.




Duke Xiao's rule continued for eight more years[7]. Then he fell sick and could not get up. He wished to abdicate in favour of Lord Shang, but Lord Shang declined and would not accept the throne. Duke Xiao died and was replaced by King Hui[8]. A little while after he took power, Lord Shang informed him that he would be retiring and returning home[9].


Various people exercised their persuasions on King Hui, saying, "When its high-ranking servants are too influential, the state is at risk. When you are too close to those around you, then your life is at risk. Now even the women and children of Qin all talk about Lord Shang's laws, and never mention Your Majesty's laws. This being so, Lord Shang has become the King, and Your Majesty has become his servant. Thus, Lord Shang is your[9] rival; I hope your Majesty has made plans for this." Lord Shang was on his way back[10], but King Hui had him torn apart by chariots[11] and the people of Qin showed no sympathy."

[1] Wey Yang later wrote the essays that would become the core of the Book of Lord Shang, which has served as a guide for Chinese leaders ever since.

[2] Wey Yang, as his name suggests, was born into the royal family of Wey (衛), but left to work for Wei (魏).

[3] Duke Xiao is now known principally for having employed Wei Yang, though evidence suggests that his position was tending toward legal reform even before Wei Yang defected.

[4] Shang is now Shangluo, in Shaanxi. 

[5] Prince Si, who would later become King Hui was caught breaking the law, and both he and his tutors were prosecuted. He was banished from the palace.

[6] Prince Qian (one tutor) had his nose cut off, and Gongsun Gu (the other) was tattooed with details of the offence.

[7] The commentaries suggest that this should read "eighteen".

[8] Reading 王之 for 王, per the commentaries.

[9] Yao suggests that this implies a return to Wei which would accord with the Sima Qian version of the story. Bao suggests retirement to Shang.

[10] Again, the precise departure and arrival points implied here are unclear.

[11] Lord Shang died in a battle between his forces and those of King Hui, so this would have been a desecration rather than an execution.


Su Qin Begins Advocating for a Horizontal Alliance


Su Qin[1] began advocating for a Horizontal Alliance[2] and exercised his persuasions on King Hui of Qin[3], saying: "Your Majesty's state has the riches of Ba, Shu and Hanzhong[4] in the West. In the North are the Humo tribes[5] and you have use of their Dai horses[6]. In the South you are protected by the Wu Mountains[7] and Qianzhong[8]. In the East you have the barrier of the the Xiao Mountains[9] and Hangu[10]. Your arable fields are beautifully fecund, your population flourishing and wealthy, your war chariots number in the tens of the thousands and your elite troops in the hundreds of thousands; you have irrigated fields covering thousands of li, abundant stores of supplies and your terrain is advantageous for military manoeuvres. This is what is called being favoured by nature, being an exceptional state within All-Under-Heaven.[12] With Your Majesty's wisdom, your multitudinous population, the efficacy of your cavalry and the teaching of proper tactics, you could annex the sovereign lords, swallowing up All-Under-Heaven and taking the name of Emperor to govern. But I hope that Your Majesty will pause briefly, as your servant is begging permission to offer advice to accomplish this."


The King of Qin said: "We have heard that without sufficient feathers it is impossible to fly high, that if decrees are not well-recorded, then no sentences can be imposed, that if a man does not follow a path generating abundant honour he cannot lead the citizens, and that if political teachings do not fit in with the spirit of the age then great servants of the state will not trouble themselves with them. Now, professor, you have a impressive demeanour, and did not consider a thousand li too far to travel to instruct our court. We hope you will do so another day."


Su Qin said: "I had formed doubts as to whether Your Majesty would be able to make use of my advice. In the past, Shennong[13] attacked the Busui[14], Huangdi[15] fought at Zhuolu[16] and captured Chiyou[17], Yao[18] attacked Huandou[19], Shun[20] attacked the Sanmiao[21], Yu[22] attacked Gonggong[23], Tang[24] attacked Xia[25], King Wen[26] attacked Chong[27], King Wu[28] attacked Zhou[29], and Duke Huan of Qi[30] used military means to dominate All-Under-Heaven. Having observed as much, how could one possibly have an army and not use it?[31] The ancients dispatched swift-wheeled chariots and bound themselves together with words[32]; All-Under-Heaven was as one. Their treaties created alliances and arms were not stockpiled. Cultured officials weighed the arguments, but the sovereign lords were bewildered; ten thousand opinions emerged, and none could prevail. Rules and regulations were prepared, while the masses followed a multitude of false customs; political treatises proliferated, but the hundred clans lived in penury. Superiors and inferiors existed in mutual hostility, and the people had no one upon whom they could rely. While clarity shone through in speech and writing, ever more troops were raised. Rhetoricians wore magnificent robes, and the fighting continued without respite. Complicated words and literary arguments proliferated, but All-Under-Heaven went ungoverned. Their tongues were exhausted and their ears fell deaf, and no results were to be seen. Those who acted with principle and kept their word were unloved by All-Under-Heaven. This being so, scholarship was abandoned for military measures. Lavish resources were poured into supporting soldiers destined to die. Armour was repaired and weapons sharpened for the troops to ensure victory on the battlefield. To pursue immobility but still profit, to remain seated and extend one's domains, is something that the Five Emperors, the Three Sovereigns, the Five Hegemons[33] - all intelligent rulers and wise lords - always desired to achieve, but for all their power they could not manage it. Therefore they used military force. In vast plains armies manoeuvred to attack one another, and when pressed they would strike with staves and halberds[34], thus establishing great achievements for posterity. This being so, armies win victories abroad on the principle that it will create strength at home, and when superiors inspire awe, the citizens below submit. Now you wish to unite All-Under-Heaven[35], to bully states of ten thousand chariots, to make your enemies yield, to control all within the four seas, to be held in affection[36], to make servants of the sovereign lords. This impossible without the use of troops. Now the heirs of the great lords ignore the correct path and follow ignorant teachings. They are chaotic in government, bewildered by speeches, confused by words, drowning in arguments and sunk in justifications. In light of these discourses, Your Majesty will certainly be unable to follow my advice."



To persuade the King of Qin, Su Qin presented ten or more memorials to the throne, but to no avail. His sable coat wore thin and his hundred catties of gold were exhausted. His resources had completely run out, so he left Qin and returned home. He wound up his worn out puttees[37] and put on his straw sandals, carrying his texts in a bag on his back. Looking aged and withered, with dark circles under his eyes and an abject expression[38], he returned home. His wife did not break off from her weaving, nor did his sister-in-law cook him any food, and his parents refused to speak to him. Su Qin sighed loudly[39] and said, "My wife does not treat me as a husband, my sister-in-law does not treat me as a brother-in-law, my parents do not treat me as a son. This is all my own fault[40]." So that night he took out his books, opening dozens of boxes, learning the strategies of the Secret Book of Tai Gong[41], head bowed as he recited, selecting passages, studying them and analysing the contents. When he grew tired from reading, he would take a needle and stab himself in the leg, until the blood ran down to his feet. Once he had said, "How could anyone persuade the lord of men and not extract from him gold and gems and fine brocades, or win a respected position as a high-ranking official or a Chancellor?" But after a year spent refining and perfecting his knowledge, he said, "Now I can truly persuade any of the lords of this world!"


This being so, he went to the Palace of Gathering Swallows and Crows[42], obtaining an audience at the steps of the Hua Hall of the King of Zhao[43], he took up his position and spoke easily. The King of Zhao was delighted and made him the Lord of the city of Wu'an[44]. Su Qin received the Chancellor's seals[45], a hundred chariots for his entourage, a thousand rolls of embroidered silk, a hundred pairs of white jade pieces[46], and ten thousand yi[47] of gold, to take in his baggage train and use to form a Vertical Alliance and scatter the Horizontal Alliance, with the aim of repressing mighty Qin. 



Thus, Su Qin served as Chancellor in Zhao and the Pass[48] was closed to traffic. During this time, throughout the vast lands of All-Under-Heaven, the masses in their multitudes, the sovereign lords in their magnificence and the servants of the state in their power, the fate of all depended upon the stratagems of Su Qin. Without expending a dou of grain, nor troubling a single soldier, nor sending an officer into battle, nor snapping a  bowstring, nor loosing off an arrow, he enjoyed familiar relations with the sovereign lords, who indulged him as a brother[49]. When a sage emerges, All Under Heaven submits, and if this person is employed appropriately, All Under Heaven will follow him. Thus it is said: employ politics, not bravado; do your work in palaces and ancestral temples, not beyond your four borders. When Su Qin came into his good fortune, he put his ten thousand yi[50] of gold to regular use dispatching swift carriages, shining and splendid on the roads, heading for all of the states east of the mountains[51]. These states felt the way the wind was blowing and submitted, increasing Zhao's influence and also ensuring that Su Qin - a back-alley scholar from a humble cottage with a mulberry door hanging from a twisted frame[52] - now drove his own carriage, propagating his Vertical Alliance throughout All-Under-Heaven. He deployed his persuasions in the courts of the leaders of the sovereign lords[53], silencing their entourages, such that none in All-Under-Heaven dared match wits with him.


On his way to exercise his persuasions on the King of Chu[54] he took the road passing through Luoyang[55]. His parents heard about this, and tidied the house, swept the street, hired musicians, bought wine, and traveled thirty li to greet him. His wife would not look him in the eye, but lent an ear to everything he said. His sister-in-law prostrated herself and groveled before him, bowing four times, kneeling to apologise. Su Qin said, "Sister, how can it be that you were so arrogant before and are so humble now?"

She said, "It is to your position that I pay my respects, and to your abundant wealth."

Su Qin said, "Ah, when I was poor my parents had no son, now I am prosperous and ennobled, my family lives in fear of me. What person born on this earth can[56] pay no heed to power, wealth and titles?"

[1] Su Qin was later the principal proponent of the vertical alliance, aimed at bringing together the other states to oppose Qin's expansion. At the point at which this story begins, however, he is still angling for employment in Qin, which involved arriving at court and pitching some sort of policy innovation calculated to appeal to the sovereign and/or his ministers - hence he is arguing for the opposite of the position that he would eventually make his own, in the hope of securing a job.

[2] Opinion at the time was divided on how to deal with Qin's aggressive expansion, whether via a Vertical Alliance (whereby the other states would cooperate to contain Qin using military means) or a Horizontal Alliance (whereby the other states would ally with Qin to share the rewards of its conquests and/or be eaten last). 

[3] We first met King Hui in the previous chapter, having Shang Yang torn apart by chariots. Despite any personal antipathy, he maintained Lord Shang's reforms and began an intensive campaign of military expansion into the area that is now Sichuan.

[4] Hanzhong is still called Hanzhong, and is in Shaanxi.

[5] Humo were horse nomads.

[6] Steppe horses of better quality than those bred in China. 

[7] The Wu Mountains surround what is now the Three Gorges dam system, near Chongqing.

[8] Qianzhong Commandery, now Yuanling County, Hunan.

[9] Also written 崤, 殽 or 肴, the Xiao Mountains are in modern Henan.

[10] The Hangu Pass separated Qin from the other states.

[11] The precise length of a li varied, but it was usually about a third of a mile.

[12] This most striking aspect of this description is that it is complete nonsense, as any contemporary reader would recognise. The entire reason for Qin's expansionary policy lay in the inadequacy of its own land and population. Much of Qin's territory was sparsely inhabited, being rocky or vertical or both. The region is boiling in summer and freezing in winter, and the dusty Loess soil is difficult to farm and to conduct military operations upon. 

[13] Shennong was the semi-mythical farmer-king and later god of agriculture, said to have introduced various technological innovations to China in the distant past.

[14] An ancient tribe; the story of Shennong's conflict with them has been lost, and this is the only source attesting to their existence.

[15] The Yellow Emperor, another semi-mythical ancestral god-king.

[16] The Battle of Zhuolu is supposed to have taken place in the mid third millennium BC at Zhuolu in Hebei between the embryonic Chinese nation led by Huangdi and the Yanhuang  tribes lead by Chiyou. 

[17] Chiyou was the leader of the Yanhuang tribes, possibly ancestors of the Miao people.

[18] Yao was another semi-legendary sovereign, conventionally supposed two have ruled during the Great Flood (either 2300 BC or 1900 BC).

[19] Huandou was another early Miao leader.

[20] Shun took over from Yao either as his chosen successor or by overthrowing him.

[21] Another name for the Miao.

[22] Yu the Great succeeded Shun, being venerated for having dealt with the Great Flood.

[23] Gonggong was a mythical water god blamed for causing natural disasters; the story is obviously a metaphor for Yu's struggle to deal with the Yellow River's regular floods.

[24] Tang of Shang, the first ruler of the Shang Dynasty, defeated the Xia forces at the Battle of Mingtiao and forced Jie, the last ruler, into exile.

[25] Jie was the tyranical and debauched last ruler of the Xia Dynasty, deposed by Tang of Shang.

[26] King Wen was the father of King Wu, the first sovereign of the Zhou Dynasty. Wen began the rebellion that led to the defeat of the Shang Dynasty by Wu's troops at the Battle of Muye in 1046 BC.

[27] Chong was a feudal domain under the Shang Dynasty. King Wen attacked it after the Marquis of Chong insulted him. 

[28] King Wu of Zhou, the son of King Wen, founded the Zhou Dynasty after defeating Shang troops at the Battle of Muye in 1046 BC

[29] Zhou (紂) was the final ruler of the Shang Dynasty, defeated by King Wu to found the Zhou (周) Dynasty.

[30] Duke Huan successfully transformed Qi into China's most powerful state, and was recognised as sole hegemon during the seventh century BC.

[31] This section follows a quasi-poetic metre which I have not made any great effort to reproduce. The technique is not uncommon in political texts of the era.

[32] Some of the commentaries suggest that the 語 is superfluous.

[33] The commentaries disagree as to whether the characters 五伯 (Five Hegemons) belong here. The membership of each of these groups varied according to who was doing the listing, but they all contained the individuals listed above.

[34] This seems to be a reflection of the habit of avoiding pitched battles. If given the chance, the states would raid one another rather than fighting face-to-face.

[35] This is another quasi-poetic passage.

[36] The commentaries suggest that one 元 may be superfluous.

[37] The commentaries suggest 贏 for 羸, but modern translations follow the present version.

[38] Reading 愧 for 歸, per the commentaries.

[39] Reading 喟然 for 喟, per the commentaries.

[40] This could also read "This is all Qin's fault." Modern translations are divided.

[41] The Secret Book of Tai Gong no longer exists, and may be an entirely fictional title chosen purely because it sounds suitably ancient and occult.

[42] The commentaries suggest that there is an error in the name of this place, but are unable to resolve it.

[43] Marquess Su of Zhao (349 – 326 BC) fought a war with Wei over its adoption of royal titles, and built defensive walls around Zhao territory.

[44] Wu'an is still called Wu'an, and is in modern Hebei. Confusingly, Bai Qi was another Lord Wu'an. 

[45] That is to say, he was appointed Chancellor.

[46] These circular pieces of polished jade have been conveyors of value since the neolithic and remain popular today as key-chains, jewelry and on rear-view mirrors, though no one quite knows why.

[47] Reading 鎰 for 溢, per the commentaries.

[48] The Hangu Pass, in modern Xin'an County, Henan, marked the traditional border of Qin.

[49] The commentaries disagree regarding the precise interpretation of this phrase, though the general sense is clear.

[50] Reading 鎰 for 溢, per the commentaries.

[51] All states except Qin were east of Mount Hua.

[52] Mount Hua marked the border of Qin. It is in modern Shaanxi.

[53] Reading 主 for 王, per the commentaries. 

[54] King Wei of Chu (339–329 BC) enjoyed a quiet reign.

[55] Luoyang still exists and is in Henan. Su Qin was born nearby and his family still lived in the area.

[56] Reading 可以 for 可, per the commentaries. 

King Hui of Qin Speaks to Master HanQuan


King Hui of Qin[1] spoke to Master Hanquan[2], saying, "Su Qin[3] has betrayed us. He intends to use his personal expertise to turn the heads of the lords east of the mountains[4], and now they are following him and betraying Qin. Zhao is consolidating its forces and sending Su Qin out with cash and silk to make agreements with the sovereign lords. It is clear that they will never achieve unity just as chickens with their feet tied together cannot stand on a single perch[5]. Nevertheless, I am intensely exasperated. I have nursed my irritation for many a long day, and I wish to send Qi, Master Wu'an[6], to present them with an expression of my opinions."

Han Quanzi said, "Impossible. If you wish to attack their forts and destroy their cities, then please send Master Wu'an. If you want send an envoy to the sovereign lords who will benefit our state, I beg that you send your noble guest Zhang Yi[7]."

King Hui said, "I accept your instruction."

[1] King Huiwen of Qin (338–311 BC) began his reign by killing Shang Yang, but maintained his legal and military reforms, using his strengthened state to acquire large tracts of additional land.

[2] Master Hanquan supposedly studied at the Guiguzi School at the same time as Su Qin and Zhang Yi. He later served as an official in Qin.

[3] Su Qin worked for almost all of the states during a long and successful career as the principal proponent of the anti-Qin alliance.

[4] Reading 山東  for 東山, per the commentaries. This refers to all of the other states, which lay east of Mount Hua, on Qin's eastern border. Mount Hua is in modern-day Shaanxi.

[5] Reading  亦 for 之, per the commentaries.

[6] Bai Qi was a Qin General famous for his mass murders. Confusingly, both he and Su Qin used the title Lord Wu'an.

[7] Zhang Yi​ was a politician and general in Qin, and the principal proponent of Qin's Horizontal Alliance, the aim of which was to prevent the other states from unifying against Qin.

Ling Xiang Speaks to the King of Qin


Ling Xiang[1] spoke to the King of Qin[2], saying: "I wish to use Qi to serve your majesty's interests. I will have[2] it attack Song. Once Song is broken, the former Jin states will be in danger, and then Anyi[4] will be yours. Yan and Zhao will loathe the prospect of a Qi-Qin accord, and they will certainly bestow domains upon you to foster good relations, then Qi will certainly accord even more influence to Your Majesty. When I launch an attack on Song, this will frighten Qi and increase your influence. How could Your Majesty oppose my invasion of Song? I was under the assumption that a man of your intelligence would already have understood this, without me needing to explain."

[1] Ling Xiang seems to have worked as a politician in multiple states. At the time he seems to have been working in Qin.

[2] The commentaries suggest 故 as a potential alternative for 使. This does not substantially alter the sense.

[3] King Huiwen of Qin (338–311 BC) began his reign by killing Shang Yang, but maintained his legal and military reforms, using his strengthened state to acquire large tracts of additional land.

[4] Anyi is now Yuncheng in Shanxi. At the time it was the capital of Wei, on the border with Han. 

Zhang Yi Exercises his Persuasions on the King of Qin


Zhang Yi[1]exercised his persuasions on the King of Qin[2], saying: "Your servant has heard that he who speaks of things he does not know is not wise[3] and he who does not speak of things he knows is not loyal. A public servant with no loyalty merits death, as does one who speaks falsely[4]. This being so, I wish to put all I have heard into words and let Your Majesty judge my faults. I have heard that the states of All Under Heaven - from icy Zhao in the North to Wei in the South[5] - have linked themselves with Jing and joined forces with Qi, picking up the remnants of Han and creating an alliance to head west[6] and trouble Qin. Inconsequential though I may be, I laughed to myself at this. In this world there are three forms of state collapse, and All-Under-Heaven has accumulated all of them. How can I describe it? Your servant has heard it said that, 'when chaos attacks order, the result is extinction; when wrong attacks right, the result is extinction; and when disobedience attacks obedience, the result is extinction'. Currently the state armouries of All-Under-Heaven are depleted, and the granaries have been emptied. All of the states' officers and citizens have been drawn up into armies millions strong, but when facing naked blades in front and the executioner's axe behind[7], they evade both, and so they cannot be killed[8]. It is not that the members of the hundred clans are immortal[9], but rather that their superiors are unable to send them to their deaths[10]. They talk of rewards but do not give them; they talk of punishments but do not carry them out; when rewards and punishments are not applied, then your citizens will not die for them.


"Now Qin issues decrees and follows them with the appropriate rewards and punishments; those with achievements and those with none pursue their respective and distinct courses[11]. If, from the moment children leave the arms of their parents, even before they have had a taste of life or seen an enemy, when they hear the sound of battle they stamp their feet, roll up their sleeves[12] and throw themselves upon the enemy swords, running through the fire to do so, it is because all are resolved to meet the death that lies before them[13]. Resolving to risk death and resolving to live are very different, but if citizens do either, it is because the effort is prized[14]. One man can thus defeat[15] ten, ten can defeat a hundred, one hundred can defeat a thousand, a thousand can defeat ten thousand, and ten thousand can defeat All Under Heaven. Now Qin's territory, if it were squared off, would come to a thousand square li, and your renowned troops number in the millions. With your ordonnances and decrees, your rewards and punishments and the strategic advantages of your territorial situation, All Under Heaven has nothing to compare. Thus if you move against All-Under-Heaven, then, even united, All-Under-Heaven will be no match for you, and you will take possession of it. This being so, the states are well aware that Qin's army has never joined a battle it could not win, it has never made an attack in which it did not take its objective, and that its targets have never avoided destruction. Opening up thousands of li of new land is an immense achievement, but as a result your men-at-arms are on their knees with fatigue, officials and citizens are suffering, your stores are exhausted, fields are falling fallow and your granaries are empty. The sovereign lords on your four borders refuse to submit, and you have not yet achieved the name of Hegemon. For this there can be no other reason[16]: your strategists are not all entirely loyal.


"Your servant will risk speaking of past matters[17]. In the past, Qi broke Jing in the South and Song in the centre[18]; it made Qin submit in the West and broke Yan in the North; in the centre it used the Lords of Han and Wei as its officials. Its territories were wide and its troops strong, in battle it was victorious and what it attacked it took. It issued decrees to All Under Heaven. The clear Ji River[19] and the muddy Yellow River sufficed to protect its borders, and the Great Wall and its vast earthworks[20] were sufficient defence for its frontiers. Qi was a state that had fought five wars, but it lost one and ceased to exist[21]. Thus it can be observed that a state of ten thousand chariots at war exists between life and death.



Therefore your servant says: 'chop down the trunk and cut away the roots; be no neighbour to misfortune and none will arise'[22]. Qin brought war to the people of Jing, and Jing was broken. You raided Ying[23] and took Lake Dongting[24], Wudu[25] and Jiangnan[26]. The King of Jing[27] fled for his life, hiding in Chen in the East. If, at that time, you had sent your troops onward into Jing then Jing could have been unified with Qin; if Jing had been unified then its people alone would have been an enviable asset, and its land sufficient profit. You could have threatened[28] Qi and Yan in the East and bullied the Three Jin in the centre[29]. From there, unification would have been possible at a single stroke, and the title of Hegemon would have been an achievable goal. The sovereign lords of the four directions would have paid homage in your court. But Qin's strategists did not act. They pulled back their armies and retreated, making peace with the people of Jing. You made[30] the people of Jing take back a dying state, collect their scattered citizens, reestablish the gods on their altars and rebuild their ancestral shrines, and then you let them lead All Under Heaven westwards to trouble Qin. This was your first step on the path away from hegemony. The states of All Under Heaven, of one mind, thus massed their armies beneath Mount Hua[31]. Your Majesty[32] used deceit to break them and marched as far as the capital at Liang[33]. You surrounded Liang for several weeks, and so Liang could have been taken. If Liang had been taken, then Wei could have been unified with Qin. If Wei had been unified, then the unity of purpose between Jing and Zhao would have been broken, and Zhao would have been in danger. With Zhao in danger, Jing would have been isolated. You could have threatened[34] Qi and Yan in the East, and loomed over the Three Jin in the centre. From there, unification would have been possible at a single stroke, and the title of Hegemon would have been an achievable goal. The sovereign lords of the four directions would have paid homage in your court. But your strategists did not act. They pulled back their armies and retreated, making peace with the Wei family. You made the Wei family take back a dying state, collect their scattered citizens, reestablish the gods on their altars and rebuild their ancestral shrines. This was your second step on the path away from hegemony. Previously, when Marquess Rang[35] governed Qin, he wished to use the troops of one state to achieve feats worthy of two. This being so, his troops lived their whole lives exposed to danger and harsh conditions[36] abroad, as officials and citizens grew hungry and depleted at home, and the name of Hegemon was not achieved. This was your third step on the path away from hegemony.


"The Zhao family rules a key state. It is inhabited by multifarious peoples. Their citizens are capricious and difficult to employ[37], ordonnances and decrees are not implemented, rewards and punishments are not reliable, and the terrain is unfavourable for military manoeuvres. The leadership is incapable of making its citizens exert all their strength. It would clearly appear to be a doomed state, and yet with no concern for its people, it mobilised officers and citizens and the army massed below Changping[38] to fight for Han's territory in Shangdang[39]. Your Majesty[40] used deceit[41] to destroy them and took Wu'an[42]. At the time, within the Zhao family there was no affection or unity between superiors and inferiors, and no trust between the nobility and the lower classes. This being so, they could not have defended Handan[43]. If Handan had been taken, Hejian[44] would have fallen with it, the army could have been pulled back and dispatched westwards to attack Xiuwu[45], crossing Mount Yangchang[46], then heading up to Dai[47] and Shangdang. Dai has thirty-six counties and Shangdang twenty-seven[48]. Without deploying a single man-at-arms or bothering a single citizen, all could have been Qin's to possess. Dai and Shangdang would have come over to Qin without a fight, without a fight Dongyang[49] and Hewai[50] would have been returned to Qi, and without a fight the territory north of Zhongshan[51] and the Hutuo River[52] would have gone to Yan. In the circumstances, with the unification of Zhao being a fait accompli, Han would certainly have been eliminated. With Han wiped out, then neither Jing nor Wei would be able to stand alone. Since neither Jing nor Wei would have been able to stand alone[53], unification would have been possible at a single stroke; you could have broken Han, eaten away at Wei, and seized[54] Jing. In the East this would have weakened Qi and Yan, and allowed you to breach the banks of the Baima Channel[55] to flood[56] the lands of the Wei family. At a single stroke, the Three Jin would have been eliminated, and the Vertical Alliance defeated. You could have folded your hands and waited for All-Under-Heaven to come[57] together to bow before you, and the title of Hegemon would have been an achievable goal. But your strategists did not act. They pulled back their armies and retreated, making peace with the Zhao family. For all Your Majesty's intelligence and the strength of Qin's troops, the work of achieving hegemony was abandoned, and you were unable to expand your lands[58], but rather you were imposed upon by a dying state. If this was so, it was due to the stupidity of your strategists. Zhao should have expired and did not, while Qin should have achieved hegemony and did not; this was the first chance for All-Under-Heaven to judge the quality of Qin's strategists. When Qin then[59] regrouped its units and launched another attack on Handan[60], you failed to take the city. The troops discarded both their armour and their fighting spirits, trembling and fleeing[61]. This was the second chance for All-Under-Heaven to judge Qin's strength[62]. The army retreated, gathering at Lixia[63]. You and your reinforcements met up with the troops[64], and returned to battle, but you could not favour them with a victory, merely join the dejected retreat. This was the third chance for All-Under-Heaven to judge Qin's strength[65]. Internally I am judged by my strategists; abroad I am evaluated by my troops' strength. Having observed as much, why would All-Under-Heaven have any difficulty forming an alliance? If my men-at-arms are on their knees with fatigue, my officials and citizens are suffering, my stores are exhausted, my fields are falling fallow and my granaries are empty at home, then All-Under-Heaven will affirm its resolve and consolidate its plans abroad. I hope Your Majesty will consider this.


"Moreover, your servant has heard that, 'we must approach every battle with trepidation, and every new day with caution, for it is only through exercising caution that All-Under-Heaven can be ours.'[66] How do I know this to be the case? In the past, when Zhou[67] was the Son of Heaven, he summoned the armies of All Under Heaven[68], numbering in the tens of millions. When the left flank drank from the Qigu River[69] and the right flank drank from the Huan River[70], the Qigu River was exhausted and the Huan River dried up. But they were still brought to grief by the forces of Zhou Wu[71]. King Wu, still in white mourning dress[72] and having only three thousand men[73], fought for a day and destroyed Zhou's state, captured him, occupied his land and took possession of his subjects, and in All Under Heaven no one[74] had any sympathy for Zhou. Zhi Bo[75] led battalions from three states[76] to attack Lord Zhao Xiang[77] in Jinyang[78]. After provoking a flood that lasted three years[79], he was about to take the city. Lord Xiang conducted turtle shell divinations[80] and counted yarrow sticks[81], reading the omens to see what profit could be gained and which state would be able to prevail, finally appointing Zhang Mengtan[82] as his envoy. This having being done, Zhang Mengtan departed in secret and sneaked out to disrupt Zhi Bo's alliances, winning the over the troops of the other two states in order to attack Zhi Bo, capture him and and complete Lord Xiang's[83] achievements. Now Qin's territory, if it were squared off, would come to a thousand square li, and your renowned troops number in the millions. With your ordonnances and decrees, your rewards and punishments and the strategic advantages of your territorial situation, All-Under-Heaven has nothing to compare. This being so, if you move against All-Under-Heaven, then even together the other states of All-Under-Heaven will be no match for you, and you will take full possession of them.


"I could not know whether I would die as a result, but I desired an audience with Your Majesty in order to speak on methods to be used[84] to break All Under Heaven's Vertical Alliance, to unify Zhao and destroy Han, to make servants of Jing and Wei, and friends of Yan and Qi, and thereby gain the name of Hegemon, ensuring that the sovereign lords of the four directions will make their way to pay homage in your court. If Your Majesty tests and follows this advice, and the All Under Heaven's Vertical Alliance is not broken at a single stroke, if Zhao is not unified and Han not destroyed, if Jing and Wei are not made into servants and Yan and Qi into friends, if you do not gain the name of Hegemon and the sovereign lords of the four directions do not pay homage at your court, may I be executed as a warning to the entire state of what happens to those who advise Your Majesty disloyally[85]."

[1] Zhang Yi was among Qin's most famous diplomats; like Su Qin he was a Guiguzi alumnus. This speech would be an excellent introduction to his oratory, were it not for the fact that it is actually the first chapter of the Han Feizi, and makes reference to events that happened after Zhang Yi's death in 309 BC. At the time it was not uncommon to interpolate entire chapters from one work into another if it was felt that they had something to contribute. It is possible that the original record of Zhang Yi's speech was lost, but as it was known to be similar in tone and content to this one, Liu Xiang simply substituted this in as a useful point of comparison: it is precisely the sort of discourse Su Qin's pastiche was mimicking two chapters ago.

[2] In the context of the Stratagems this implies King Huiwen (338–311 BC). The speech was in fact given to King Zheng (247 – 210 BC) around a hundred years later.

[3] Reading 弗知而言为不智 for 不智, as in other versions of the text.

[4] Reading 當 for 審, as in the Han Feizi version, as suggested by the commentaries.

[5] The commentaries are divided on this sentence, with some interpreting it as "from great Zhao to little Wei".

[6] Reading 面 for 南, as in the Han Feizi version, as suggested by the commentaries.

[7] Anyone convicted of having fled in the face of battle was supposed to be executed. The idea behind this segment is that because superiors are unwilling to execute their subordinates for fleeing battle, they latter refuse to risk their lives fighting. 

[8] The commentaries suggest that this should read 死也 for 死.

[9] Reading 非 for 罪, per the commentaries. Some of the commentaries argue that this entire clause is superfluous.

[10] Reading 上不能故也 for 其上不能殺也, as in the Han Feizi version, as suggested by the commentaries.

[11] Reading 有功無功 for 不攻無攻, as in the Han Feizi version.

[12] Or take their shirts off. Different translations interpret this in both ways.

[13] Reading 皆 for 比, as in the Han Feizi version, as suggested by the commentaries. The commentaries disagree regarding the meaning of this sentence; this is a best guess. 

[14] Interpretations of this sentence also vary. The Han Feizi version reads 是貴奮死也 ("if the people act thus, it is because the courage to risk death is valued").

[15] The Han Feizi version reads 對 for 勝 - "one man may face ten" etc.

[16] The commentaries disagree about the interpretation of this clause. Some suggest it should be interpreted as meaning "this is not surprising".

[17] The commentaries suggest that this should read 臣敢言之往者 as in the Han Feizi version. This does not substantially alter the sense.

[18] The Han Feizi version gives "in the East".

[19] The Ji River flowed through Henan and Shandong. It marked the traditional northern border of the Chinese cultural sphere, but had long since been exceeded by the time that this speech was given.

[20] Reading 防 for 坊, per the commentaries.

[21] Zhao troops took Qi's capital, but the state was later resurrected.

[22] This reads like a quotation, but the source is unknown.

[23] Ying was the capital of Chu it is now Jingzhou in Hubei. 

[24] Lake Dongting is a flood basin surrounding the Yangtze River.

[25] This refers to Wuzhu (五渚), the area around Weihai in Shandong, but this was far from Chu at the time.

[26] Jiangnan refers to the area South of the Yangtze River. 

[27] King Qingxiang of Chu (298–263 BC) was the son of King Huai, and ascended the throne while his father was still held prisoner in Qin. 

[28] The Han Feizi version gives 弱 for 強, reading "you could have weakened Qi and Yan".

[29] Reading 中以 for 中, as in the Han Feizi version, as suggested by the commentaries.  

[30 Reading 令 for 今, per the commentaries.

[31] Mount Hua marked the border of Qin. It is in modern Shaanxi.

[32] This was actually King Zhaoxiang of Qin (306–251 BC). He began life as a relatively minor prince, and served as a child hostage in Zhao before being sneaked out by Queen Xuan (his mother), her brother Wei Ran, and King Wuling of Zhao to assume the throne following the premature death of his brother, King Wu. Upon coming of age, he exiled Queen Xuan and Wei Ran, and worked with a succession of important figures of the age (Gan Mao, Fan Ju, Bai Qi...) to expand Qin's territory during the course of a long and successful reign. Nevertheless, this version of the text makes it seem as though this was one of Huiwen's campaigns, and we have chosen to reflect this here and in subsequent incidences.

[33] Reading 都 for 郭, per the comments.

[34] As above, the Han Feizi version gives 弱 for 強, reading "you could have weakened Qi and Yan".

[35] Wei Ran (Marquis Rang) was the half-brother of Queen Xuan of Qin and the uncle of King Zhaoxiang. Having backed Zhaoxiang in the struggle for succession that occurred following the death of King Wu, he subsequently became Chancellor.

[36] Reading 暴露 for 暴靈, as in the Han Feizi version, as suggested by the commentaries.  

[37] Reading 用也 for 用, per the commentaries.

[38] Changping was in what is now Gaoping, in Shanxi. The Battle of Changping, fought against Qin on Han territory, was a famously bloody defeat for Zhao, and the country never really recovered.

[39] Zhaoxiang again. 

[40] The commentaries suggest that 詐 may be intended to read 詔 - "the King decreed that they should be destroyed".

[41] The commentaries suggest that 之 may be intended to read 之兵 - "destroyed their troops". 

[42] Wu'an is still called Wu'an, and is in Hebei.

[43] Handan is in modern Hebei, and was the capital of Zhao at the time.

[44] Hejian is still called Hejian and is in Hebei.

[45] Xiuwu is still called Xiuwu and is in Henan.

[46] Mount Yangchang was somewhere in modern Shanxi, but the precise location is uncertain.

[47] Dai Commandery, an area in Zhao formerly occupied by the state of Dai.

[48] The Han Feizi version gives forty-six and seventy.

[49] According to the commentaries this was on the bank of the Jing River. 

[50] According to the commentaries this refers to land East of the Hutuo River.

[51] Reading 中山 for 中 as in the Han Feizi version.

[52] Reading 滹沱 for 呼池, per the commentaries. The Hutuo River flows through Shanxi and Hebei.

[53] The commentaries suggest that one incidence of the repeated phrase may be superfluous.

[54] The commentaries suggest either 拔 (take) or 狹 (reduce) for 挾 (seize).

[55] Baima was on the border of Wei, in modern Hua County, Henan.

[56] Reading 沃 for 流, as in the Han Feizi version, as suggested by the commentaries.  

[57] Reading 編 for 遍, per the commentaries.

[58] Reading 棄霸王之業,地曾不可得 for 伯王之業,地尊不可得, as in the Han Feizi version, as suggested by the commentaries.  

[59] Reading 以 for 乃, per the commentaries.

[60] The commentaries disagree regarding the precise wording of this sentence, but the general sense is clear.

[61] The commentaries disagree regarding the precise wording of this sentence, but the general sense is clear.

[62] Reading 之力, per the commentaries.

[63] It is not clear where this was.

[64] Reading 至 for 致, per the commentaries.

[65] Reading 之力, per the commentaries.

[66] Other versions give 戰戰栗栗 for 戰戰慄栗, but given that 栗 is a simplification of 慄, the sense remains unchanged. The reference is to the Book of Poetry, in which the phrase used is 戰戰兢兢 (featuring in the Xiao Min and Xiao Wan verses). By this point it had become a standard literary expression.

[67] Zhou (紂) was the final ruler of the Shang Dynasty, defeated by King Wu to found the Zhou (周) Dynasty. The fact that all of the key players and one of the states involved in this story had names that transliterate as "Zhou" makes it difficult to render into English.

[68] The commentaries disagree regarding the precise wording of this sentence, but the general sense is clear.

[69] This probably refers to a stream in modern day Qi County, Henan, which, coincidentally, runs through the Gui Valley, from which the Guiguzi school would (much) later take its name. Qi County was the location of one of the Shang Dynasty capitals, making the location a plausible one.

[70] The Huan River in Northern Henan. It is a little to the South of Qi County and passes nearby Yinxu, the final Shang capital before the overthrow of the dynasty.

[71] King Wu of Zhou (周), founded the Zhou (周) Dynasty after defeating Shang troops under King Zhou (紂) at the Battle of Muye in 1046 BC.

[72] King Wu was still in the official mourning period for his father, King Wen, so he and his troops would have worn coarse white jackets under their armour. 

[73] Reading 甲三千 for 甲三千, as in the Han Feizi version.

[74] Reading 莫 for 莫不, per the commentaries. 

[75] Zhi Bo was also known as Zhi Yao or Zhi Xiangzi, and was a member of the ruling house of Jin, and its last Chancellor before it was split up by Han, Wei and Zhao.

[76] What would become the states of Han, Wei and Zhao.

[77] Zhao Xiangzi, who led the partition of Jin by convincing the Han and Wei clans to join his revolt against Zhi Bo.

[78] Jinyang is now Taiyuan in Shanxi.

[79] The Han Feizi version says three months.

[80] Reading 措 for 錯, per the commentaries. This refers to writing questions on a turtle shell and throwing it into a fire to observe the cracks and develop predictions as a result.

[81] This refers to I-Ching divination.

[82] Zhang Mengtan was a sort of Chinese Cincinnatus, winning this victory before retiring to live as a farmer, returning the next time Zhao was in danger.

[83] Reading 主 for 子, per the commentaries.

[84] Reading 以破 for 以舉破, per the commentaries.

[85] The commentaries disagree regarding the precise wording of this sentence, but the general sense is clear.

Zhang Yi Wishes to Lend Qin's Troops to Wei


Zhang Yi[1] wished to lend out Qin's troops to aid Wei. Zuo Cheng[2] spoke to Gan Mao[3], saying: "You had best[4] give them to him. If Wei does not return Qin's troops, then Master Zhang Yi will not return to Qin. If Wei returns them, it means that Master Zhang is capable of obtaining his ends in Wei, and he will not dare to return to Qin[5]. If Master Zhang does not leave Qin, he will certainly come to outrank you."

[1] Zhang Yi was among Qin's most famous diplomats; like Su Qin he was a Guiguzi alumnus.

[2] This may be another reference to You Cheng (右成), a Chu politician mentioned by the Zhou stratagems.

[3] Gan Mao was a successful Qin General and politician, involved in the siege of Yiyang.

[4] Reading 子不如予之 for 子不予之, per the commentaries.. 

[5] Because he would be suspected of working for Wei

bottom of page