Ling Li 1 Replied to the Letter of Wu Su 2  (99 BCE)

Li, Ling (?-74 BCE)

Dear Mr. Su,

    I heard that after you returned to China, you were honored for your great deeds and were offered a good position in a time of peace. How fortunate you are! In contrast, I still live in a foreign country as a guest. People in old times would consider this a sad thing. When I think of your great manners and our friendship, how could I not miss you? I appreciate that you did not forget me and sent me a letter from China. In your letter, you consoled me, taught me patiently and treated me more sincerely than my own brother. Foolish as I am, how could I not be moved? Since I surrendered to the Huns, my situation has been very difficult. Most of the time, I sit alone and am engulfed in sorrow. I can see nothing but the Huns. They protect themselves from storms by dressing in leather and living in fur tents. When they are hungry, they eat mutton. When they are thirsty, they drink milk. When I lift my eyes and desire a chat, with whom can I converse? In winter, the roads in Hun are paved with thick ice. The earth is painfully cracked. All I hear is the sound of the north wind. In cool September, the grass in this area, which is north of the Great Wall, withers. During this season, I have a hard time falling asleep at night. A sound far away often causes me to prick up my ears. It is either the sad neigh of horses or one reed music after another. When I get up in the morning, I hear the singing and shouting of groups from all directions. Whenever I hear their music, my tears cannot help but fall. Alas! My dear friend, I wish I had no heart so that I wouldn't feel sad anymore.

    After you returned to China, I was bored all the more. I especially missed my mother and my wife. After I surrendered to the Huns, my mother and wife were charged with the same felony and sentenced to death even though they were innocent. I was blamed for failing to return the favor of free education that China had provided to me. You returned to China and were honored by the Chinese government. It was my fate that I remained in Hun and suffered humiliation by the Chinese government. Although I was born in a civilized country, I came to a barbaric place. I felt sad because I was forced to disregard the love of my parents and stay in a foreign country forever. I pitied myself as well because the offspring of my late father will now be Hun's citizens. The Chinese government failed to recognize my great contribution to China during the war against the Huns. They judged me as a traitor simply because I surrendered to the Huns. This unfair judgment really hurts because I have always wanted to do something for China. Every time I think about this, I suffer pain so severe that I no longer wish to live. It is not hard for me to stab into my heart to reveal my honesty or slash my neck to show my loyalty. However, the Chinese government will never forgive my surrender to the enemy. It is useless to kill myself. On the contrary, if I commit suicide, it will only give the Chinese government reason to humiliate me more. Therefore, I often roll up my sleeves to build courage and endure the insult. My friends in Hun saw me through the ordeal. They tried to console me with music, which I could barely understand. The foreign music only upset me more and increased my pain.

    Alas! My dear friend, the precious part of friendship is mutual understanding. My previous letter was written hastily. It failed to include all that I had in mind, so I roughly repeat my story here: During the war against the Huns, the former emperor of China gave me 5,000 infantry men. Five generals coming from various forts were to meet me at the battlefield. However, they claimed that they got lost. Thus my troops had to fight against Hun's main force alone. After passing the gate of the Great Wall, we entered the territory of the Huns. Using 5,000 soldiers, I fought 100,000 Hun's cavalry. Our soldiers had neither horses nor vehicles, but had to carry their food supply 1,435 miles on foot. I led my exhausted infantry to fend off strong Hun's horses just recently caught in the wild. Even with such terrible odds, we killed Hun's generals and took their flags. Because my troops regarded death as a way to go home, they chased the enemy away as though they were sweeping fallen leaves. Incapable as I am, I accomplished my mission by luck. At that moment, I thought my contribution to China was unparalleled.

    After the Huns was defeated, all of them worked together to build a strong cavalry of 100,000 soldiers. The King of Hun himself led his cavalry to besiege my camp. In terms of manpower, the enemy greatly outnumbered my troops. In regard to combat capability, it was hard for our men on foot to fight against their armored horses. My exhausted soldiers fought again; each one had to fend off thousands. They endured the pain from their wounds and did their best to kill their enemies. The dead and fatally wounded of my troops spread all over the battlefield. Less than one hundred Chinese soldiers remained. They all needed medical care and could not fight anymore. However, when I lifted my arms and cried out, the ailing and wounded all rose up and pointed their swords toward the Huns. Hun's horses were running away. Our weapons were used up. The helmets of our soldiers were crushed. They did not even have weapons in their hands, but they made war cries and rushed to the front line. At that moment, Heaven and Earth were moved by our fighting spirit. My soldiers shed tears and blood for me. The King of Hun thought that I was determined not to surrender, so he wanted to withdraw his troops. But my officer Gan Guan, who had defected, told him that I had no reserve. Because of this, the king decided to keep fighting. Consequently, I could not avoid being captured by the Huns.

    In the past, the Huns caused the Founding Emperor, Gao-zu, of the Han dynasty and his army of 300,000 soldiers great difficulty in Ping-cheng City. At that moment, there were numerous Chinese generals, gathered in one place, like a bank of storm clouds. Chinese strategists were as plentiful as raindrops in a dense rain. Nevertheless, Emperor Gao-zu had to endure hunger for seven days in order to avoid capture. Not to mention, I was encountering Hun's main force. How could it be simple to defeat them? There were impractical debates regarding my surrender among the officials in the emperor's court. They claimed that I should have died in the war. Is it a crime that I am alive? You know me very well. Do you think I am the kind of person who is afraid of death? Do you think I consider it beneficial to choose to disobey my mother and abandon my wife? I want to live because I wish to provide a greater service to China. Just as I said in my previous letter, I resolve to return the favor the Emperor of China gave me. Dying for nothing is not as important as accomplishing a goal. Committing suicide is less meaningful than returning the favor China gave me. Prime Minister Li Fan of the State of Yue did not die from the shame of being defeated by the State of Wu. Seven years later Fan helped the King of Yue gain revenge against the King of Wu. General Mei Cao of the State of Lu was defeated three times by the State of Qi, so Lu made peace with Qi by offering a piece of land. Later, during an international conference, Cao kidnapped the King of Qi with a dagger and forced him to return the land to Lu. I personally admire the deeds of these two heroes very much. How could I have anticipated that the momentum of hate toward me in the emperor's court could have become so strong before I could accomplish my goal and that my mother and my wife could have been sentenced to death before I could execute my plan? I pounded my chest and burst into tears, asking heaven why.

    You said, "The Han dynasty treats the officials who have contributed greatly to China well." You are a Chinese official, how could you not agree? Here are real counterexamples: Officials He Xiao and Kuai Fan were put into jail; Kings Xin Han and Yue Peng were chopped into pieces; Official Cuo Chao was sentenced to death; Prime Minister Bo Zhou and Duke Ying Dou were prosecuted and found guilty. The rest of the officials, who could have helped their kings accomplish great work, such as Officials Yi Jia and Yia-fu Zhou, were truly talented and capable of assuming positions as generals or prime ministers. However, these two officials suffered the shame of failure because slander prevented them from utilizing their talents. Who would not lament depriving them of the right positions? My grandfather's accomplishments expanded across heaven and earth. He was the bravest man in the entire Chinese army. Simply because he failed to please the officials in power, he was forced to commit suicide in a foreign country during a war. This was the reason why the loyal and virtuous would make a long sigh. How could you say that the Chinese government treats its officials well?

    In the past, you came to Hun, with only a few servants, to assume the position of ambassador. The King of the Huns mistreated and detained you for nineteen years. Oftentimes you wanted to draw your sword and kill yourself because of your suffering. You wandered in the wilderness and almost died near the North Sea. When you came to Hun, you were still young. When you returned to China, all your hair had turned white. Your mother had died and your wife had remarried. Your great deeds were previously unheard of in this world. There is not even a precedent for such deeds in all of Chinese history. Even barbaric people praised your deeds, not to mention the Emperor of China. In my opinion, you should be awarded the title of duke and a large piece of land. However, I heard you only received $5,000 and a position as the Minister of Foreign Affairs. You have worked so hard, but have not been given any land. The officials that denied the talented, and persecuted the good, all gained a large piece of land. The royal family and greedy flatterers all became officials in the emperor's court. Loyal as you are, the Chinese government does not treat you well. How can I expect them to give me fair treatment?

    The Han dynasty punished me severely simply because I had not died in the war. You had worked very hard for nineteen years, but the Chinese government awarded you meagerly. Based on these facts, it would be very hard to convince an official who lives in Hun to return and devote himself to China. Every time I think about this, I do not regret my surrender to the Huns. You may say that I disregard the favor that China gave me. The truth is the Han dynasty has failed to give me a chance to show my loyalty. There is a saying, "Loyal officials need not sacrifice meaninglessly to show their bravery." Even if I had killed myself during the war, would the Emperor of China have missed me forever? Now that I cannot please the Emperor of China, it is all right for me to die in Hun. Who can afford to kowtow again, return to China, and leave oneself at the mercies of jailers? I hope you will not try to persuade me to return to China again. Alas! My dear friend, what else can I say? We are separated by thousands of miles, and can hardly communicate with each other. I have taken a different path and will stay in Hun forever. I will probably not see you again. Please say thanks to my old friends for me. Encourage them to work hard for the Emperor of China. Your son is fine. You need not worry about him. Please take good care of yourself. When the north wind causes you to remember me, please write to me.

Sincerely yours,

Ling Li


1 In 100 BCE, the Emperor of China sent Wu Su as the envoy to Hun. The King of the Huns asked him to surrender. He refused, so he was detained in Hun. The next year China attacked Hun. General Ling Li, with 5,000 soldiers encountered Hun's main force of 100,000 soldiers. General Li struck Hun's cavalry and caused serious damage while withdrawing his troops. The front line moved and stretched one hundred and forty miles. At last Li was forced to surrender because he had no reserve. The King of Hun respected Li very much and gave him his daughter in marriage. Thus Li became a duke in Hun.

2 Wu Su had been detained in Hun for nineteen years. In 81 BCE, China and Hun made peace with each other. Wu Su was released and returned to China. While staying in Hun, Su married a woman of Hun. They had a son who did not go to China with his father.