There is a Chinese saying, “When people are approaching death, what they say tends to be from heart (人之将死，其言也善)”. In their final moments, people may recall what they did in their life, feel powerless or worry about uncompleted missions. Here are some famous last words of great people in history, which may shed light on their extraordinary life.
“The whole world is muddy, I alone am clear; the people are all drunk, I alone am awake.”
Qu Yuan, a Warring States Period court minister in the state of Chu and one of the most famous poets in Chinese history, was betrayed by corrupt colleagues and forced into exile. It is said that he always walked around the Miluo River district (Northeast of Hunan Province nowadays), singing sad poems. On May 5, 278 BCE, he eventually jumped into the Miluo River holding a big stone. “The whole world is muddy, I alone am clear; the people are all drunk, I alone am awake” was his last word, through which we gather clues on his immense disappointment and agony.
“It’s the heavens that want me to die, not the sin of war.”
Xiang Yu (232- 202 B.C.), born in Xiaxiang (today’s Suqian, Jiangsu), was the leader of an uprising in the late Qin Dynasty and a famous militarist, famed as King of Western Chu. Xiang was tall and strong, with great ambition at a young age. When Chen Sheng and Wu Guang launched the peasant uprising against the Second Emperor of the Qin Dynasty, Xiang followed his uncle in assassinating the Grand Administrator Yin Tong in Wuzhong to assist in the uprising. In this battle Xiang Yu killed a hundred guards by himself, showing his excellent combat skills. Later, he was chosen as the leader of the uprisers and ended the era of Qin.
However, his abilities did not lead him to ultimate victory. Because of his headstrongness and atrocity, Xiang Yu lost the support of vassals and common people. He was defeated by Liu Bang in “The Contest between Chu and Han” and committed suicide by the Wujiang River. Though he had the opportunity to flee, he declined, because he could not face going back to his hometown. Before killing himself, Xiang said, “It has been eight years since I took up arms. Every enemy has been defeated by me, no exception. Now, I am trapped here. It’s the heavens that want me to die, not the sin of war.”
Many people feel sorry for the god-like man and his last words is now used to describe unavoidable defeats decided by fate.
“Since Zhou Yu was born, why had Zhuge Liang to be born as well?”
Due to the success of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the “last words” of Zhou Yu, a military general and strategist of Kingdom Wu, are known by almost every Chinese individual. According to the literature, Zhou Yu was a rival of Zhuge Liang, the premier of Kingdom Shu. Zhou was extremely jealous of Zhuge’s talent and relentlessly attempted to outwit him but never succeeded. Zhuge often foiled Zhou’s military plans and he soon became infuriated. There were stories called “Zhuge Liang irritates Zhou Yu three times (诸葛亮三气周瑜)” depicting their rivalry.
The third defeat led Zhou to death. At that time, Zhou had been suffering from an arrow wound and his health deteriorated rapidly. Just like the previous two times, Zhuge made him look foolish again. Zhou was so enraged that he fell down from his horse, and coughed blood. Before he died, he lamented “Since [Zhou] Yu was born, why was [Zhuge] Liang to be born too?”
It should be noted that this did not actually happen and is only a work of fiction. Real life Zhou Yu lived out his life consulting for his lord, Sun Quan, until his death.
“The heavens everything; the heavens know everything.”
Yue Fei (1103 –1142), a military general who lived in the Southern Song dynasty, is best known for leading Southern Song forces in the wars with Jin dynasty in northern China. Yue fought a long campaign against the invading Jurchens in an effort to retake northern China, which was occupied by Jin Dynasty in 1126. When approaching the final victory, Yue was framed by corrupt officials and recalled by the emperor. He was imprisoned and executed on false charges. Before dying, Yue wrote eight characters on his charge-sheet: “天日昭昭，天日昭昭”, which means “The heavens know everything.”
Widely seen as a patriot and national folk hero in China, Yue Fei has evolved into a standard epitome of loyalty in Chinese culture.
“Confucius said ‘die for benevolence’, Mencius said ‘die for righteousness.'”
Wen Tianxiang（1236 –1283) was a well-known scholar and general in the late years of the Southern Song Dynasty. He joined the resistance movement against Kublai Khan’s invasion of the Song, and refused to surrender to Yuan Dynasty despite being caught and tormented. Before he was executed, Wen said,
“Confucius said ‘die for ren’; Mencius said ‘die for yi’ [both ren and yi are traditional Chinese concepts, referring to love for others and righteousness]. It only when we fulfill our commitment to yi that ren will be achieved naturally. We read the books of sages, what did we learn? From now on, I can almost feel no shame for myself. ( 孔曰成仁,孟曰取义,唯其义尽,所以仁至。读圣贤书,所学何事?而今而后,庶几无愧.)”
Wen’s last words denoted his loyalty and integrity, just like the words of his famous poem: “Who since the advent of time is immune from death? May my loyalty illuminate the annals of history (人生自古谁无死，留取丹心照汗青).”
“I have the will to kill enemies, but not the power to reverse fate.”
Tan Sitong was a well-known Chinese politician, thinker and reformist in the late Qing Dynasty. He was, however, executed at the age of 33 when Reform Movements in the year of Wuxu (戊戌变法) led by “Six gentlemen of the Hundred Days’ Reform” (戊戌六君子), including Tan, failed. He occupies a place of tremendous importance in modern Chinese history. To many contemporaries, his execution symbolized the political failure of Qing Dynasty’s reform from inside and forced the intellectual class to seek violent and hostile means to overthrow the dynasty. Before his death, Tan wrote in prison that “I have the will to kill enemies but don’t have the power to revert fate; I will die in on the right path, and it’s truly a pleasure. (有心杀贼，无力回天。死得其所，快哉快哉.)”
Though his aspiration of reform was never realized, his spirit carried on. People today can still remember what he said, “Every reform in every country involves blood. As for China, if there has to be blood and sacrifice, please start from me.”