The sword dance as a guise to mount an assassination attempt

Zhang Ciyun
Treachery may lurk in the most outwardly benign, harmless situations.
Zhang Ciyun

During the late years of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), rebellions raged across the country seeking to overthrow the first imperial dynasty in China.

After nearly four years of battle, the two most prominent leaders of insurgent forces were warlord Xiang Yu (232-202 BC) and Liu Bang (256-195 BC), also known as Duke of Pei, who was later enthroned as the first emperor of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).

In 206 BC, as a gesture of goodwill, Xiang invited his rival Liu to a banquet at Hongmen, which is located today in Xi’an, capital of northwest China’s Shaanxi Province.

During the feast, Xiang’s cousin Xiang Zhuang offered to perform a sword dance to entertain the gathering, but his true intention was to seek an opportunity to kill Liu.

Thanks to the timely interruption of the dance by one of Liu’s aides, the assassination ploy failed, and Liu, under the excuse of going to the toilet, escaped without bidding farewell to the host.

This historical story has been adapted to many Chinese stage plays, films, novels and folk ballads.

It has also produced a common phrase and a popular proverb. The phrase hongmen yan, or the Banquet at Hongmen, is used figuratively to refer to a trap, which outwardly appears harmless but actually is treacherous.

And the proverb, xiangzhuang wujian, yizai peigong, or literally “Xiang Zhuang performs a sword dance; his target is the Duke of Pei,” is now used to describe an elaborate deception that hides malicious intent or someone who does something with a disguised purpose.


xiàng zhuāng wǔ jiàn, yì zài pèi gōng

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