An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Yandanzi 燕丹子

Dec 3, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Yandanzi 燕丹子 "Prince Dan of Yan" is a short story about the attempted assassination of the king of Qin 秦 and eventual First Emperor of Qin 秦始皇 (r. 246/221-210 BCE). No author is known, but the story must have been very famous already in the 2nd century BCE and might have been compiled by retainers of Prince Dan from the state of Yan 燕. The book is first recorded in the imperial bibliography Jingjizhi 經籍志 in the official dynastic history Suishu 隋書. The book was lost for a while between the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and the Qing 清 (1644-1911) periods and was only reconstructed from the encyclopedia Yongle dadian 永樂大典 during the compilation process of the reprint series Siku quanshu 四庫全書. The resulting version has been arranged in 3 juan "scrolls".
The story in the book is largely identical to the reports in the histories Shiji 史記 and Zhanguoce 戰國策, except some phantastic stories, like the following: When Prince Dan was still a hostage in Qin and requested to be allowed to return, the king of Qin said that he would not be allowed to go unless he would be able to turn a crows's head white, or that a horse grows a horn. Another passage speaks of a golden dish with which the prince presented Jing Ke 荊柯 after he had hit a frog with a stone. A third popular story is that instead of killing the king of Qin, the assassin Jing Ke was only able to cut off his ear, before being killed himself by the bodyguards. Some of the stories were mentioned in the late Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) books Fengsu tongyi 風俗通義 and Lunheng 論衡, but the name of a book Yandanzi is not quoted. The Tang period 唐 (618-907) scholar Li Shan 李善, commentator of the anthology Wenxuan 文選, says that Sima Zhen 司馬貞 and Zhang Shoujie 張守節, commentators of the Shiji, made use of a book called Yandanzi. This, together with the similarity of the stories in the Shiji, proves that there must have been a fix shape of Jing Ke's adventure in the mid-Western Han period 西漢 (206 BCE-8 CE). The Qing period scholar Sun Xingyan 孫星衍, analyzing the language of the Yandanzi, identified it as a pre-Qin period 秦 (221-206 BCE) product that must have been compiled by retainers of the Prince just after his death. The Republican scholar Lu Xun 魯迅 follows this opinion in his book Zhonguo xiaoshuo shilüe 中國小說史略. Li Ciming 李慈銘 believed that it was rather a compilation from the early Southern Dynasties period 南朝 (420~589). Modern scholars see the historiographical part with the attempted assassination as an original, while the many stories around this event were product of popular stories that were incorporated into the book in the course of time. The transmitted version might have been found the present form at the end of the Han period. The whole text appears nevertheless as a more or less coherent story that can be called an early novella (xiaoshuo 小說).
The Yandanzi describes the fear of prince Dan that the Qin might conquer his home state. In order to stop the conquest machine of Qin, a mission was dispatched. The chief embassador Qin Wuyang 秦舞陽 took with him the head of the defected Qin general Fan Yuqi 樊于期, and a map of the Yan commandery of Dukang 督亢 (modern Zhuoxian 涿縣, Hebei). Inside the folded map, a knife was hidden. On the presentation of the map to the king of Qin, Jing Ke took out the knife to kill him, but he failed.
The Yandanzi is included in the reprint series Pingjinguan congshu 平津館叢書, Dainange congshu 岱南閣叢書, Wenjingtang congshu 問經堂叢書, Zishu baijia 子書百家, Sibu beiyao 四部備要 and Congshu jicheng 叢書集成. In 1985 the Zhonghua shuju press 中華書局 published a modern edition, with a commentary compiled by Cheng Yizhong 程毅中.

Cao Chuji 曹礎基 (1986). "Yandanzi 燕丹子", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 1128.
Li Xueqin 李學勤, Lü Wenyu 呂文鬰, eds. (1996). Siku da cidian 四庫大辭典 (Changchun: Jilin daxue chubanshe), Vol. 2, 2166.
Ma, Y.W. (1986). "Yen Tan-tzu 燕丹子", in William H. Nienhauser, ed. The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature (Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press), 930-931.