“One may reach the First Emperor upon the highway of the mind.”

Jack Winter’s new novel, Tales of the Emperor is based on the life of Qin Shi Huang (circa 260–210 BCE), the “First Emperor” – he who unified China, gave it his name, built the Great Wall, entombed an army of terra cotta soldiers, authored legalism, erased history, insinuated governance, and established paranoia as a national characteristic. His dynasty did not outlive him but his influence permeates the present and, there is ample indication, will dominate the future. There’s only one principal theme: you find the antiquity you look for, or, in the language of the book: “history is the study of the paintings of great events.”

Below, read excerpts from Tales of the Emperor (from pages 7 through 18).


Many wish to reach the First Emperor, one may say all men wish it. There are as many ways to reach him as there are those who desire to do it. One may reach the First Emperor upon the highway of the mind. That is how I have travelled, and how I travel still. Sometimes I succeed. Especially after a night of prayer I have only to close my eyes and he enters like the dawn. He is very beautiful. You must reach him in your way, for he is yours to reach and everyone’s.

The Three Travellers

One day three men set out to reach the Emperor: Li Ssu who wished to advise him; Master Ching who wished to assassinate him; a musician named Kao whose companionship was required by Master Ching. Li Ssu departed alone. At a crossroads he met the others and they decided to continue their several quests together. When they reached the imperial throne, Li Ssu showed the Emperor how to thwart the attack of Master Ching. Li Ssu thereby won himself a high post at court. Master Ching was seized and executed, but Kao was punished more severely.

The Recruitment of Master Ching
(A song of Kao)

Master Ching and the prince went to a pool of the palace.
Master Ching picked up a tile and threw it at a tortoise.
The prince gave Master Ching balls of gold to throw.
Master Ching concluded, “My prince entertains me royally.”

Master Ching and the prince rode on matched white horses.
Master Ching remarked, “What is rarer than matched white horses?”
The prince drew forth his sword and slew the horse he rode on.
Master Ching concluded, “My prince entertains me royally.”

Master Ching and the prince watched the princess dance a dance.
Master Ching observed, “The princess has skilful feet.”
The prince cut off her feet and gave them to Master Ching.
Master Ching concluded, “My prince entertains me royally.”

Master Ching and the prince were afflicted with old age.
Master Ching grew weary of all the court amusements.
The prince went among the people and caught the plague and died.
Master Ching concluded, “My prince entertains me royally.”

The Departure of Master Ching

In the matter of my commission to assassinate the Emperor, it is not true that I have procrastinated. Nor that I was awaiting the death of my host, the prince, before departing to fulfill the task he had entrusted. That famous witticism was accomplished by my companion, the musician Kao. Who better than Kao to have jested, for is it not he who shared my sojourn at the court of our delightful prince? Neither did Kao commit procrastination. Accomplice to the assassin of the emperor of the world, is that not a post that requires preparation? Since the Emperor never before has been assassinated, who is qualified to conclude how long is necessary to prepare oneself for the deed? Or that fifteen years is too long? It is appropriate to observe that I merely awaited the convenience of my admired accomplice. After the example of my prince’s hospitality to me, his guest, could I have demonstrated less to Kao who was mine?

It is correct to point out that, as his provinces fell one by one and the armies of the Emperor approached the gates of his very palace, my prince became unable any longer to purchase my amusements and, bereft of life and kingdom, he soon would have been required to decline the honour of remaining my host. Such are the vicissitudes of decorum in a state under siege by an unassassinated emperor. Nevertheless, it cannot be disputed that I exploited my prince. Wherein did I exploit him? Why, in omitting to convince him that my commission on his behalf must fail!

The Departure of Li Ssu
(A song of Kao)

On a tree no limb is straight. Yet there are arrows.
On a tree no trunk is round. Yet there are wheels.
Li Ssu concluded, “Art is stretching and bending.”

In the latrine there are rats. They flee the approach of a dog.
In the granary there are rats. No dog dare approach them.
Li Ssu concluded, “Ability depends on place.”

There is a truly hard substance. It is not afraid of grinding.
There is a truly white substance. It is not afraid of dyes.
Li Ssu concluded, “Such an emperor can be advised.”

The spoor pursues the hunted. The arrow pursues the spoor.
The chariot pursues the arrow. The carrion bird pursues the chariot.
Li Ssu concluded, “A politician must travel.”

The Thoughts of Li Ssu Along the Road

I go to serve the Emperor. To others it will seem that I but use the Emperor to serve myself. That is how it seems to this old assassin riding beside me, but that is because he has not long to live and must come to quick decisions.

I go to serve the Emperor for one reason only. Now is the time for such service, a moment later would be too late, a moment sooner too soon. It does not follow that the Emperor will welcome me. If he did, it would be because he is diminished by the lack of me and is not worth the serving. No indeed, I must manage affairs so as to create the need.

I seek to advise the Emperor. Others seek to reach him with their hands. Such a one is that watchful drunkard riding behind us, but that is because he is a musician and must fondle remarkable vents. I seek to advise the Emperor for one reason only. Yesterday the empire was unborn, tomorrow it will be dead, this is the only day to immortalize its dying. For that great task mouths are more useful than hands, advice more necessary than remarkable events.

A single misfortune impedes me. It is said the Emperor has a deaf ear, and it is that ear that is reserved for aliens. Because there is no alternative, my way is clear. I must await the one event so remarkable that it averts the head of the Emperor and turns his good ear toward me.

The Thoughts of Master Ching Along the Road

My assassination of the Emperor must fail. Can you imagine if it did not? It is as if it had already failed. Why, then, am I proceeding to the capital city? Because the details have yet to be settled.

Such is not the case of this young politician riding beside me. He seeks to gain high office. His attempt assumes the life of the Emperor and, since my attempt will fail, it follows that his will succeed. The dimensions of his success, those are the details of his attempt that remain to be settled.

Yet the case of this ambitious young man is not entirely different from mine. Although I seek to end the life of the Emperor, my failure surely will alter his life if only for the instant of his deliverance. In that sense even my attempt will succeed, though not in the way that I nor the son of the prince who dispatched me intend. That way no longer is possible. Even along this endless road the news has reached us that the son of the son of the prince who dispatched me is dead and the last of his state has fallen to the Emperor.

Why, then, do I proceed to the capital city? A journey once begun must be ended. But why there? Why not here? Or at the next meadow or at the last? Why must I ride past meadow and meadow, heartland and morass, toward a task I cannot accomplish? Surely the road is a little to blame. It leads straight to the Emperor, for it is his road. Even were I to turn aside into a byroad and then to another and then to a footpath and then to none, I would find myself on the Emperor’s highway, for it gathers all ways to itself in the end. As for stopping, that would require more strength than I can command, enough perhaps to accomplish my commission, and then what would be the need of stopping?

The Thoughts of Kao Along the Road
(A song of Kao)

Hanging on this lip of time, fully informed, bewildered, are they keeping something from me? Do I know too much already? What is there to know?

Hanging on this lip of time, fully informed, bewildered, do they know what I am thinking? Have they thought of me at all?

Hanging on this lip of time, fully informed, bewildered, does knowing make the difference between my work and theirs?

Is there any difference between my work and theirs? Do I care to know the difference? Do I care at all?

Hanging on this lip of time, fully informed, bewildered, why have I not been consulted?

Are they having consultations? Ear to lip? Lip to ear? Nightly? Hourly? If so, where?

Why do they keep secrets from me? Why have I been told so much? What am I required to do with what I think I have been told?

Hanging on this lip of time, fully informed, bewildered, pending contrary instructions shall I withhold certain measures? Shall I undertake the rest?

Hanging on this lip of time, fully informed, bewildered, are they keeping something from me? Do I know too much already? What is there to know?

The Chant of the Bearers

The road to the Emperor is long and hard.
     Long and hard.
The stones on the road are sharp and dry.
     Sharp and dry.
That is why no tigers reach him.
That is why no ill winds reach him.
That is why no devils reach him.
That is why few men try.
     Long and hard.
     Sharp and dry.
     Reach him, reach him, reach him, try.

The walls of the city approach, approach.
     Approach, approach.
The bricks of the walls are red, blood-red.
     Red, blood-red.
Through the chinks in the bricks not a nail can enter.
Through the chinks in the bricks not a thought can enter.
Through the chinks in the bricks only spirits enter
And the walls are stained with the flight of the dead.
     Approach, approach.
     Red, blood-red.
     Enter, enter, enter, the dead.

The streets of the city are endless, endless.
     Endless, endless.
The gates of the palace are endless, endless.
     Endless, endless.
Parks and pavilions, endless, endless.
Towers and forests, endless, endless.
Grottoes and galleries, endless, endless.
Endless, endless, the steps to the throne.
     Endless, endless.
     Endless, endless.
     Endless, endless, endless, the throne.

The Assassination

It is well known that history is the study of the paintings of great events. What, then, is to be observed from the famous depiction of the assassination of the Emperor? Why, that the dagger did not reach him! There is the bronze pillar and there is the dagger embedded in it. Behind it, recoiling beyond the border, must be the figure of the Emperor. There beyond the border on the other side must be Master Ching himself in the very act of throwing. These details are too well known to require further recounting, and surely that is the reason no other painting of the event has been permitted to survive. This one is our authority.

What can be concluded from it other than the fact that it was the pillar that was pierced and not the Emperor? Is it correct to conclude even that? After all, the painting records but one moment of the attempt, the instant at which the dagger pierced the pillar. Who is to say what happened later on? Perhaps the dagger was not arrested? If one were to object that the pillar appears to be bronze and this fact alone is sufficient to curtail the flight of any dagger however fiercely thrown, could we not be justified in asking how it was, in that case, that the dagger came to pierce the pillar at all, and to conclude that a dagger sufficiently thrown to pierce a pillar of bronze might pass clear through it, blade, hilt, and tassel? Indeed, it often has been observed that festivals commemorating the event during which rural competitors of every degree of malevolence attempt to pierce bronze pillars with missiles must have had their origin in the curiosity of our folk concerning this very point. Since none in decades of participation has so much as dented the face of a single pillar, little can be concluded beyond the implacability of bronze pillars and the eagerness of our folk to pierce them.

To return to the matter of the assassination, in the next instant after the painting did the dagger gather its velocity and hurl itself still further into the body of the pillar, impelling before it innumerable shards, every one of them a minute dagger, twisting this way to avoid an alloy, that way to exploit a flaw, parting layer after layer of inner encrustation until splinters and splinterer, daggerlets and dagger, burst in an orifice of bronze and hurled themselves at the body of the Emperor, penetrating him, transfixing? It is difficult to say. For one thing, how could such an unauthorized calamity accord with the well-known fact that Li Ssu saved him? For another, like Master Ching and the Emperor, Li Ssu does not appear in the painting. Are we meant to conclude, therefore, that Li Ssu rushed into the scene a moment after the pillar was pierced which is proof that the dagger passed through it, for why else would the Emperor have required further saving? If that indeed is the case, why has the painter chosen to represent not the assassination of the Emperor at all but the moment before it, thereby denying us any authentic history of the apprehended event?

Or do these omissions suggest that the painting is to be interpreted symbolically? That Li Ssu is represented as the pillar? That he, like it, interrupted the dagger that itself is a symbol of some less direct mode of assault: a suggestion, perhaps, that the Emperor resign? a campaign for his impeachment? If the pillar does represent Li Ssu, its interception of a dagger could well refer to his defence of the Emperor with brazen words. Such an assault would not have penetrated that defence! Indeed, the impervious multiloquence of the renowned Li Ssu must have absorbed every argument of Master Ching, thus protecting the unassailability of the empty space behind the pillar that then could be seen to represent the Emperor against the aggression of the word-assassin Master Ching who, of course, would be represented by that eruptive empty space in front.

Who, then, or what is the musician Kao? Kao, at least, might be in the painting. That crumpled pile of fabric lying in the corner — in a fuller depiction, perhaps, just below the flying sleeve of the Emperor’s robe torn off in his struggle to escape and adjacent to the box containing the severed head of Master Ching’s former host, the prince, offered as a diversionary tribute — that could be he, flat on the ground like a discarded garment, protecting his instrument. If so, Kao represents the painting itself, and his posture the vanity of interpreting great events other than by means of the instruments of art.

The Last Words of Master Ching

Waiting for my head to fall, I caress my neck and think. We have been a long time together and I for one welcome this opportunity to contemplate the nature of our attachment.

The Advice of Li Ssu Regarding Several Matters

Sire, Master Ching could no longer live, and that is why he has been made to die. The musician Kao had heard enough, and that is why he has been deafened. What of me? I comment on these matters, so that is my employment. I am in your presence, so you intend to hear me. You continue to live, so my service to you has begun.

In my case, sire, you will not distinguish by conferring high office. As has been demonstrated, it is unfortunate that you are perceptible. Elevate me and who will defend us both? The same is true of my citizenship. You will permit me to remain an alien so that my presence is not accorded visibility and my advice may emanate from your mouth unimpaired by the reputation of having entered your ear.

Regarding the matter of aliens, punitive banishment retroactive to the sixth generation is gratifying to contemplate and productive to threaten, though you do not wish it accomplished because it has not been. Regarding the matter of the remaining world, you will continue to refrain from absorbing it lest banishment and alienation alike be rendered inconceivable.

Regarding affairs in general, two conclusions are certain. The present situation will not continue. Prediction is impossible.

Regarding the well-known matter of the impending death of the empire, two observations are permissible. Because your assassination has been resisted, the empire is not yet dead. Because the death of the empire remains inevitable, you intend to govern its dying. Clearly, it is upon this latter task, the greatest of your reign because it is the last, that I am intended to concentrate my service.

Here, then, is my first advice. Collect tales! National ballads, political songs, odes of lamentation by the wearied and the slandered, festive hymns on fixed occasions, murderous anecdotes and tomes, imprecations, work cries, gossip, curses, diary dreams and tavern murmurs, sacred jokes and long night ramblings … excepting only the military, the academic, and other matters related to vanished sentiment, collect them, sire, collect them all! Collect them, and command their collection, and prefer those by whom they are collected! Is it not by attending their tales that one locates the pulse of the people? Is it not by touching the pulse of the people that one perceives the moment of its cessation? Indeed, sire, do not neglect to collect tales! How else are you to know when the empire has died?

The Departure of Kao

Concluding that a deaf musician is only a poet, Kao broke his instrument and retired to Cold Mountain and was heard of again.

Tales of the Emperor is now available for $19.95.