Originally a foot soldier in the Tang army, he joined the Hidden Ones in 751 upon being rescued by them in the aftermath of the Battle of Talas. In 755, he allied himself with loyalists of the Tang to rally resistance against An Lushan and the Yeluohe.
Survival at the Battle of Talas
In 751, Li E was serving as a foot soldier of the Anxi Protectorate 7th Army 15th Squad in the Tang army under jiedushi Gao Xianzhi when it clashed with the Abbasid Caliphate at the Battle of Talas. On the fifth day of the battle, the Karluk allies who comprised a substantial portion of the Tang force suddenly betrayed them, resulting in their catastrophic defeat. Li E survived this bloodbath, but when he heard the Abbasid commanders issue orders that surviving Tang engineers were to be taken alive but their soldiers were to be executed, he was incited to make a lone last stand.
Seizing a repeating crossbow, he sprung on his feet and began unleashing bolt after bolt at the unsuspecting Arabian soldiers. His shocked enemies, footsoldiers and armoured lancers alike, charged at him in fury, one that was matched by Li E's ferocious and desperate battle cry. With the Arabians rapidly closing the gap, Li E tossed aside the crossbow to unsheathe his sword. Just as they were upon him, they were swept aside by a charge of Hidden Ones on horseback which had burst forth from behind Li E.
Massacre at Duling village
In 754, Li E followed the trail of a massacre that occurred in Duling village just before the annual Flower Banquet that was to be held in Chang'an. The village was well-known for its exquisite flower farms, which were highly sought after for the contest for the grandest fleet at the festival. Although Chancellor Yang Guozhong had already secured victory every year due to his vast wealth and influence, he also resorted to unscrupulous means to reinforce his chances. This amounted to even the hiring of a gang of common city thugs to coerce the residents of Duling village into turning over peonies to Yang without compensation, an act of robbery that culminated in the deaths of seventeen villagers. Li E was outraged by this atrocity and was determined to avenge those innocent lives.
Meeting a legendary poet
He arrived in Chang'an in time for the festival and, by chance, encountered the famous poet Li Bai on a balcony in what would be the first of many meetings. The Assassin did not pay Li Bai much heed, but the poet, then in a drunken stupor, rambled on freely about the affairs of the day: how the festival was the only day of the year that commoners were allowed into the imperial city, how Yang Guozhong's victory was inevitable, and how not even the finest peonies could compare with the beauty of Yang Yuhuan. He droned on about his distaste for court life, having once experienced it himself, and how he had once dreamed of being a xiake before finally revealing that he had only come to Chang'an to see off his friend Abe no Nakamaro for his return to Japan. Having received news of Nakamaro's demise in a shipwreck on his journey home, Li Bai was then wallowing in his grief for his lost friend.
Li E, who had been on the balcony to survey the streets and find his target, sighted a lone wagon being transported by three men, a wagon full of the very peonies violently seized from Duling. Before lowering himself onto the street to tail the cart, he at last gave Li Bai some acknowledgement, rhetorically asking "how many people have had their families destroyed for the sake of one peony", given the saying that "one peony is worth a thousand gold". At that, Li Bai got a sense for the kind of individual this youth beside him was, but Li E gave him a vague answer that had come "to pluck flowers" when questioned as to his purpose in Chang'an. The poet, perhaps misinterpreting this to mean courting women, laughed this off like it was folly. Having located his target, Li E parted only with the words "nothing is true, everything is permitted".
Assassin in a capital of flowers
Blending in with the throng of city life, Li E sneaked up to the wagon unnoticed. His ambush was swift and sudden, killing one man from behind, dragging his corpse with him into the wagon of flowers, then slaying another from cover. Before the third could react, he had pulled him onto the bed of peonies as well, so as to interrogate him on the whereabouts of his boss. Though this last henchman answered truthfully that his boss had already entered palace grounds, Li E coldly rejected his plead for mercy, citing his and his colleagues' lack of mercy for the Duling villagers. Upon executing him, he plucked a single peony from the cart, thereby making literal truth of his answer to Li Bai, and he would carry it until he had completed his mission.
Within the walls of Xingqing Palace, Li E located the ringleader behind the massacre, who was simultaneously the organizer for Yang's flower fleet as his flower envoy. Gazing at the bandit with contempt from afar, he narrowly attracted his target's attention, but the dense crowd of excited festival-goers kept him well-hidden. When the opening ceremony of the festival began, Yang Guozhong was declared the victor, much as Li Bai had foretold, and the flower envoy and his team were invited into the Flower and Calyx Pavilion to receive their honours and rewards.
Li E did not strike immediately but rather waited into the night to make his move. All the while, the gang leader and five of his men were also kept waiting by Yang Guozhong outside in the courtyard, leaving them especially vulnerable to the Assassin. In the evening, he casually settled himself at Chenxiang Pavilion, still fiddling with the peony he had picked up earlier and knowing full well that his targets would wander right into his position. Making no effort at subtlety, he greeted them by dispassionately asking for their lives, with the intent to provoke a direct confrontation. He made his motives clear when he explicitly declared the seventeen lives of Duling as his only concern, and the shocked and infuriated thugs rushed him with their daggers drawn.
Dispatching two of the men in front with ease, he taunted his remaining foes that he would only use his blade once, before swiftly killing the rest of the henchmen. This was all without drawing a single weapon, for he kept his Hidden Blade concealed with the peony. As the leader tried to flee, Li E leapt at him, unleashed his Hidden Blade through the peony in his hand, and plunged the blade into his target's throat.
Escape from Xingqing Palace
- Éléna：“Can you hear those sounds?”
- Li E：“What sounds?”
- Éléna：“The sounds of people weeping. People who have been viciously beaten. People who have been cheated, humiliated. People who have been dragged off to the battlefield to die. People who have lost their homes. The desperate wails of the people. No matter how faint the whisper, it cannot be missed. No matter how small the injustice, it cannot be forgiven. Tamghaj, are you ready?”
- —Éléna and Li E.[来源]-[记忆]
It was not long before the bodies of the dead criminals were discovered by Yang Guozhong's servant. The chancellor issued a call for the Yulin imperial guards to hunt and arrest the assassin but with strict orders not to raise the alarm or alert even the Emperor, lest they cause a mass panic and ruin the festivities. Li E took to the highest roofs, where the guards did not think to search, and seized upon this moment's respite to recall the lesson shared by his mentor Éléna when she was preparing him for his first Leap of Faith. Concentrated on her words, to "not miss even the faintest sounds", he synchronized with his eagle companion to scout the palace grounds for guard positions and an escape route, spotting two carriages of flowers passing along below him. Her mantras invigorated him, for they bespoke of the Hidden Ones' fearlessness in the face of death while they "worked in the dark to serve the light". Thereupon, he performed what was in form and function a flawless Leap of Faith onto the second carriage—only he made a serious miscalculation.
Not only had the roof of the carriage failed to support his weight, sending him crashing inside, but he had mistaken it for an clean-up transport for flowers that was empty of passengers. In reality, he had fallen quite literally out of the sky onto the carriage floor in front of the young Yan Jiming. Before the stunned Jiming could unsheathe his sword, Li E was holding his Hidden Blade to his neck, signalling him to keep silent. The carriage driver, whom Jiming referred to as Uncle Chen, loudly questioned him on the raucous commotion in the back. After a brief pause, the young man assured Uncle Chen that he was only practicing kung fu and had accidentally kicked the ceiling, destroying it. Uncle Chen was unconvinced, telling him off as not "martial arts material", but thought nothing more of it than Jiming's tomfoolery.
At this point, Li E ordered Jiming to resume driving, prompting him to loudly shout for Uncle Chen to get moving lest they block the corridor. As Uncle Chen obliged, the Hidden One and Jiming both settled down, with the former even musing out loud his mistake. Jiming explained that it was because he knew that all these flowers would go to waste after the festival that he took it upon himself to collect as many as he could to redistribute them to the children outside Chang'an, allowing them to enjoy them as well. Privately touched, Li E assured Jiming that he would leave as soon as the carriage exited the imperial city and vowed not to harm him.
Just as Jiming realized that the stranger before him was an assassin, the carriage was halted at the gate by the detachment of guards stationed there. They informed Uncle Chen that they were abiding by their orders to check every carriage entering and leaving Xingqing Palace due to the infiltration of a criminal. When they angrily shouted for whoever was inside to report their identity, the young man announced himself as "the son of Grand Protector Yan Gaoqing of Changshan Commandery, Yan Jiming". The embarrassed guards suddenly apologized to Jiming for mistaking him to be a commoner, attributing their error to the plainness of the carriage, but the young scholar corrected them that he was indeed a commoner. To their final question as to whether he had seen any suspicious person, he lied and simply said he had not, albeit with some obvious hesitation that still escaped the guards' notice, and they allowed him to pass.
Relieved of this nerve-wracking encounter, Jiming leapt on his feet and ecstatically asked Li E if he could teach him the "art of flying across eaves and running on walls". To his dejection, the Assassin commented that Uncle Chen was right when he judged him to be not "martial arts material". However, as he climbed out of the carriage, he offered a parting vow that he would remember his help that night and repay the debt someday. The two had made lasting impressions on one another, to the extent that the Hidden One did not mind revealing his identity as he left, answering Jiming that he was "Qinghe'ren, Li E".
Inspiring Li Bai's "Xiake Xing"
- “Hey! Wait for me! Hahaha where are you going?! Do you need to chase after the moon?! Run! Hahahaha! Run! Don't let them see you! Don't let them catch you either! If Chang'an got bigger, the blue sky got higher, they still won't be able to keep you in! Hahahahaha! Run, run! No one can fence you in! Go cross over the peak of Mount Lu, go cross the waters of the Yellow River! No matter what's in front of you, you still have to keep on running forward just like you are now! Or perhaps, you can then run into the moonlight! Because compared with whoever else, you need your freedom!”
- ―Li Bai shouting after Li E[来源]-[记忆]
Outside Xingqing Palace, Li E continued the rest of the way through Chang'an on foot, sprinting and leaping across its tiled roofs. It turned out that Jiming would not be the last of his future friends who discovered him. A drunk Li Bai wandering through the streets alone managed to spot him when the guards could not. Recognizing Li E from earlier that day, he was awestruck at his parkour and the swiftness by which he ran, instantly breaking out in a chase after him from ground level. On and on he pursued, yelling out at the Assassin streams of euphoric but wild cheers for him to keep on running. All the while, Li E was amused but ignored him.
When at last, Li Bai could not keep up any longer, he collapsed on the ground in exhaustion. As the poet continued to watch Li E fade into the distance, he reminisced again on how he had once wanted to pick up a sword and become a xiake but having lost his sword for a pen, he decided to compose a poem in tribute to this amazing sight and to Li E. This poem, titled《侠客行》(Xiákè Xíng), would be remembered even more than a thousand years later as his most famous piece on youxia.
Refuge with a Mohist community
- Jing Jing：“Twelve hours in a day, two hours practicing the sword, three hours studying the art of war, one hour of writing characters, four hours of making ink... It's really not easy to bear with until a day off, not to mention to get graphite from these remote mountains. Ah, so much suffering in our lives!”
- Li E：“The toil isn't even yours. Suffering, what suffering? You two little munchkins... what are you guys doing always following behind my butt?”
- ―Jing Jing and Li E bantering, 755[来源]-[记忆]
Li E returned to his home commandery of Qinghe, where he spent the year living among the local Mohist village run by the retired general Pei Min. On his initial arrival, he brought with him "mixed fruities" (雜果子, i.e. Tang-era dim sum and pastries) from the most well-known bakery in Chang'an, and much to their delight, he shared them with the orphans of the village. Then, he settled into a daily routine of rigorous work and training. Every day, he would spend four hours further honing his skill with a sword, six hours studying military strategy, two hours practicing his writing, and eight hours making ink.
One day in 755, Li E was out hiking the Taihang Mountains to mine some graphite for ink, accompanied by two of the children from the village, Jing Jing and Kong Kong. With a basket on his back, he utilized a rope as a harness to rappel down cliff-sides and collect graphite ores with a pickaxe. As he was climbing back up one precipice, he heard Jing Jing jokingly bemoaning their tough life from above. He reached the top and remarked to him that he and Kong Kong were not the ones doing the labour, not to mention that he could not understand why they always insist in following him. Jing Jing, as spirited as ever, happily told Li E that he was one of their own people, so they had to look out for him wherever he went.
As they started the trek back home, Li E politely reminded Jing Jing that he was not actually one of Pei Min's pupils and that he was only staying with them temporarily, but upon noticing the two kids' disappointment, he added a reassurance that he would still return to visit regularly. Their moods brightened again, and then Jing Jing recalled the snacks that Li E had brought from Chang'an the previous year which they had greatly enjoyed. He asked if they could accompany him the next time he journeys to Chang'an, but before Li E could come up with an answer, their attention was drawn to the continuous sound of rumbling nearby below. From a cliff, they witnessed thousands of armoured cavalry galloping through the gorge below towards the direction of Fanyang, and the apprehensive Li E could only mutter that he hope that there would be no need to return to Chang'an again. His premonition was not off the mark, for this vast army was marching for the grand meeting where they would be rechristened as the Yeluohe, An Lushan's elite rebel force.
Equipment and skills
During his time as a foot soldier, Li E showed exemplary stamina and perseverance in the face of certain defeat. Even heavily wounded he managed to gather his courage for what seemed to be a final stand and demonstrated proficiency with a repeating crossbow.
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