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Xiang Yu

Xiang Yu (232 BC – 202 BC) was a prominent general during the fall of the Qin Dynasty. His name was Ji (籍), Yu was his courtesy name. He was a descendant of Chu nobility. A great general, it took him only several years to put a giant empire effectively at his whim — but he was poor at diplomacy, management and administrative affairs. He is traditionally viewed as having an impetuous nature by Chinese historians, and that further inability to realize his shortcomings doomed him to failure during his struggle with Liu Bang over supremacy of China. He is commonly known by his self-styled title of Xīchǔ Bàwáng (“西楚霸王,” lit. Hegemon-King of Western Chu).

Early career

Xiang Yu was born when Qin -- the first regime that unified China -- was completing its conquests of the other kingdoms of the Warring States Period. This was finally accomplished in 221 BC under Emperor Ying Zheng (嬴政, later known as Qin Shi Huang). As a member of a family privileged in the now defunct kingdom of Chu, Xiang was opposed to Qin rule. He was raised by his uncle Xiàng Liáng, which suggested that his father, and possibly both parents, died early. Xiang Yu was born with a double pupil in one of his eyes just like Shun, a symbol for the destiny of a king. His unique double pupil eye was known in the political world ever since he was just a baby. Despite the prophecy, his uncle Xiang Liang was a realist, and instructed the young Xiang Yu in martial arts. The rebellious young Xiang Yu rejected the idea, believing that martial arts was not worth his time. Xiang Liang then tried to school Xiang Yu in traditional Chinese military strategies, such as those from the Art of War, but was rejected again by Xiang Yu, who felt that it is a waste of his youth. Disappointed in Xiang Yu, who showed no sign of motivation or apparent talent except for his unusual physical strength, Xiang Liang gave up and let Xiang Yu have his way.

After Qin Shi Huang's death in 210 BC, however, there were revolts everywhere against his incompetent son and successor Ying Huhai (Qin Er Shi). Many of these revolts claimed to be attempts to restore the kingdoms that Qin had conquered two decades earlier. One of these rebellions started in 209 BC, under Xiang Liang. At that time, the Xiangs were living in the region of Wú (modern southern Jiangsu). Xiang Liang was well known as the descendant of the Chu general Xiang Yan, and people of the Wu region quickly rallied about him in resistance to Qin. After one of the first and strongest rebel generals, Chen Sheng, then styling himself the Prince of Chu, was assassinated by one of his guards, Xiang Liang assumed leadership of a coalition of rebels. Serving under his uncle, Xiang Yu showed quickly both his military ingenuity and his ruthlessness. For example, when his uncle commissioned him to attack the Qin stronghold Xiangcheng (襄城, in modern Xuchang, Henan), he conquered the city despite its strong defenses, and after it fell, he slaughtered the entire population.

To rally the disparate forces against Qin, Xiang Liang reinstated the Chu monarchy and installed a member of the deposed Chu royalty, Mi Xin (羋心), as the Prince of Chu in 208 BC. Initially, under Xiang Liang's control, Mi Xin was more or less a puppet prince. However, when Xiang Liang died in battle later that year, there was no single general who took his place, and the rebel Chu's generals and the Prince became an effective collective leadership, with the Prince gradually asserting his authority. A demonstration of this was that, against Xiang Yu's wishes, in winter 208 BC, he sent Xiang Yu as the second-in-command to Song Yi (宋義) in an expeditionary force to relieve Zhao Xie (趙歇), the Prince of Zhào, who was then under resurgent Qin siege by Qin general Zhang Han in his capital Handan (in modern city of the same name in Hebei). He put Liu Bang in command of another expeditionary force (which Xiang had wished to command) against the heart of Qin itself. Around this time, Prince Mi Xin also named Xiang the Duke of Lu.

The Battle of Julu and Xiang's rise to military supremacy

Song Yi was an incompetent general. Believing that Qin and Zhao forces would wear each other out and not realizing that Zhao was at the brink of destruction, Song stopped some distance away from Julu (鉅鹿, in modern Xingtai, Hebei), where the Prince of Zhao and his forces had retreated to, and did not proceed further. Xiang, wanting to attack immediately but unable to persuade Song, took the matter into his own hands: at a military conference, he surprised and assassinated Song. Other generals, who were already intimidated by his military capabilities, offered Song's command to him, and Prince Xin was forced to retroactively approve it.

Xiang quickly marched toward Handan. At the time of his arrival at the battlefield, the city of Julu and the Zhao forces within had been nearly starved by the besieging Qin forces, under general Wang Li (王離), an assistant to Zhang Han. Xiang understood the importance of reducing the Qin forces' effectiveness first, and he accomplished this by cutting off Wang's supply lines. To further prevent Wang Li from using his weakness as a source of motivation for his army, Xiang Yu ordered his forces to carry three days of supplies and destroy the rest, giving his troops the option of quick, decisive victory or death. Still, no other relief force sent by other rebel principalities dared to engage the Qin forces, and Xiang attacked them alone. He fought nine engagements before the Qin forces collapsed and Zhang was forced to retreat. Wang was captured. After the battle, all other rebel generals, regardless of whether they came from Chu or not, were so awed by Xiang, that they voluntarily came under his command. Xiang then prepared for a final confrontation with Zhang.

That confrontation would not happen, however. The Qin prime minister, the eunuch Zhao Gao, had become jealous of Zhang's military successes and became concerned that Zhang would replace him. He falsely accused, before Qin Er Shi, Zhang of military failure and conspiracy with the rebels. Having no other option, Zhang surrendered to Xiang without a fight in summer 207 BC. Xiang slaughtered the surrendering Qin army except for Zhang and a few other generals, and, ignoring Prince Xin, named Zhang the King of Yong (a region within Qin proper (i.e., the former territory of Qin during the Warring States Period before its expansion), modern central Shaanxi), even though he had not yet captured Qin proper.

Entry into Qin proper and Xiang's jealousy of Liu Bang

Xiang then prepared an invasion against the heart of Qin, to wipe Qin out. He was unaware that, by this point, Liu Bāng had already proceeded deep into Qin and was near its capital Xianyang (near modern Xi'an, Shaanxi). Xiányáng and Qin's final ruler, Zi Ying, surrendered to Liu's forces in winter 207 BC, ending the Qin Dynasty. When Xiang arrived at Hangu Pass, the gateway into Qin proper, he found the pass guarded by Liu's forces, and in anger, he sieged it, even though Liu was a fellow Chu general. He then approached Liu's forces, which he outnumbered three to one. At a famous event later known as the Feast at Hong Gate, Xiang required Liu, under duress, to attend a feast he put on and considered executing Liu at the feast. His advisor Fan Zeng (范增) strongly encouraged him to do so. However, Xiang listened to his uncle Xiang Bo (項伯), a friend of Liu's strategist Zhang Liang and spared Liu, although he would continued to bear grudge against Liu for robbing him of the glory of destroying Qin.

Under a promise issued by Prince Xin of Chu earlier, Liu Bang had assumed that he, as the one who entered Xianyang first, would be created the Prince of Guanzhong (which includes the capital Xianyang and most of Qin proper). He had also planned to make Ying Ying, whose wisdom and knowledge he admired, his prime minister. Xiang paid no attention to Liu's presumptive title to Qin, and he, in another act of deliberate cruelty, killed Ying Ying. It is also generally believed that he burned down the Qin palace, which contained a large royal library commissioned by Qin Shi Huang. The unique copies of many "forbidden books" were then lost forever. However, recent reports from historians said that Xiang Yu did not burn down the Qin Palace. Despite advice from one of his advisors to set his own capital at Xianyang, Xiang was intent on returning to his home region of Chu. Xiang said "To not return home when one has made his fortune is like walking in the night with rich robes, who will notice?" (富贵不归乡,如锦绣夜行,谁知之尔?). In which one of the advisors muttered "Those men of Chu are nothing but apes wearing robes", when Xiang Yu heard that insult he made sure that advisor was executed by being boiled alive slowly.

Xiang's deposition of Prince Xin of Chu and division of the empire

Xiàng, jealous of Liu, suggested to Prince Xin of Chu that while Liu should be made a prince, he should not be given Guanzhong. Instead, Qin proper were separated into three and divided amongst Zhang Han and his two deputies. Their territories were to be known as the Three Qins. Prince Xin responded that he was inclined to carry out his promise. Xiang, now firmly in control, in response, deposed Prince Xin. While ostensibly offering Prince Xin the even more honorable title of "Emperor Yi," he in fact put Emperor Yi's "empire" in the then-uncivilized region around Chencheng (郴城, in modern Chenzhou, Hunan) and exiled him there. In spring 206 BC, Xiang divided the former Qin empire into 18 principalities (in addition to Emperor Yi's "empire"):

  • Western Chu (西楚), taken by Xiang himself, occupying modern Jiangsu, northern Anhui, northern Zhejiang, and eastern Henan
  • Han (漢), given to Liu Bang, occupying modern Sichuan, Chongqing, and southern Shaanxi
  • Yong (雍), given to Zhang Han, occupying modern central Shaanxi
  • Sai (塞), given to Zhang Han's deputy Sima Xin (司馬欣), occupying modern northeastern Shaanxi
  • Zhai (翟), given to Zhang Han's assistant Dong Yi (董翳), occupying modern northern Shaanxi
  • Western Wei (西魏), given to Wei Bao (魏豹), the Prince of Wei and a descendant of the royalty of the Warring States state of Wei (whose territories Xiang had incorporated into Western Chu), occupying modern southern Shanxi
  • Henan (河南), given to Shen Yang (申陽), an assistant of Zhang Er, the former co-prime minister of Zhao, occupying modern northwestern Henan
  • Han (韓) (note different character than above), retained by Han Cheng (韓成), the Prince of Han and a descendant of the royalty of the Warring States state of Han, occupying modern southwestern Henan
  • Yin (殷), given to Sima Qiong (司馬邛), a Zhao general, occupying modern northern Henan and southern Hebei
  • Dai (代), given to Zhao Xie (趙歇), the Prince of Zhao and a descendant of the royalty of the Warring States state of Zhao, occupying modern northern Shanxi and northwestern Hebei
  • Changshan (常山), given to Zhang Er (張耳), the co-prime minister of Zhao, occupying modern central Hebei
  • Jiujiang (九江), given to Ying Bu (英布), a Chu general under Xiang's command, occupying modern central and southern Anhui
  • Hengshan (衡山), given to Wu Rui (吳芮), a Qin official with support from Yue tribes, occupying modern eastern Hubei and Jiangxi
  • Linjiang (臨江), given to Gong Ao (共敖), a Chu general under Prince Xin, occupying modern western Hubei and northern Hunan
  • Liaodong (遼東), given to Han Guang (韓廣), the Prince of Yan, occupying modern southern Liaoning
  • Yan (燕), given to Zang Tu (臧荼), a Yan general under Han Guang, occupying modern northern Hebei, Beijing, and Tianjin
  • Jiaodong (膠東), given to Tian Fu (田巿), the Prince of Qi and a descendant of the royalty of the Warring States state of Qi, occupying modern eastern Shandong
  • Qi (齊), given to Tian Du (田都), a Qi general under Tian Fu, occupying modern western and central Shandong
  • Jibei (濟北), given to Tian An (田安), a Qi region rebel leader, occupying modern northern Shandong

Note: Yong, Sai, and Zhai were known as the Three Qins because they comprised of the former territories of Qin proper; similarly, Qi, Jiaodong, and Jibei were known as the three Qis.

Xiang's downfall

The list shows several seeds of Xiang's downfall. Xiang named several generals from the rebel coalition who supported him in the campaign against Qin as princes, ignoring their lords and superiors. He also left several important figures who did not support him without principalities, despite their contributions to the effort against Qin. Soon after this division, further, he would have Emperor Yi murdered and Han Cheng executed (seizing Han's territories and merging them into his own principality in the process). This greatly alienated a great deal of people and left his confederation of states without legitimacy. As a result, several months after his division of the empire, Xiang was facing enemies on several different fronts; Tian Rong (田榮), the prime minister of Qi, angry that not only was he left out of the division but that his former subordinate had been promoted over him, resisted the division and conquered the three Qis, initially putting Tian Fu back on the throne but eventually killing him and taking over after Tian Fu displayed fear of Xiang. Similarly, Chen Yu (陳餘), a former co-prime minister of Zhao, who was also left out of the division, led an uprising against his former colleague Zhang Er, taking back Zhang's territory and reinstalling Zhao Xie as the Prince of Zhao. However, the enemy that would prove to be the most formidable for him was Liu Bang, who resented not only the fact that he was robbed of what he viewed as his rightful division as the Prince of Qin, but that he was "exiled" to the then uncivilized region of Han.

The five year power struggle between Xiang and Liu became known as the Chu Han Contention. Initially, Xiang had all the advantages -- he had the much larger territory, the larger army, and the greater number of allies. He was also a far superior military commander than Liu. However, his lack of political skills, the inability to accept criticism, and his inability to trust and to listen to his advisors would eventually lead to his downfall. He also paid little attention to supplies for his army -- a fatal error, as Liu set up an efficient army supply system to keep his army well-fed and well-clothed with food and clothing shipped to the front from his heartland, while Xiang's army eventually fell apart from hunger and lack of weaponry. As he got bogged down in various wars on different fronts, Liu, along with his very able general Han Xin, was able to gradually absorb many of the principalities into his territories or alliance. By 203 BC, the balance had shifted against Xiang. Xiang Yu, however, managed to capture Liu Bang's father after a year-long siege. Outside the city walls, Xiang Yu threaten to boil Liu Bang's father alive if Liu Bang did not surrender. Liu Bang remarked, "We were sworn brothers, and my father would be your father" and then responded, "When you are done with our father, let me have a taste of the soup." Xiang Yu instead sued for peace, and Liu entered into a treaty with Xiang. However, as soon as Liu received the hostages that Xiang returned to him as part of the treaty, Liu discarded the treaty and attacked Xiang's army which were completely unprepared for the attack. In 202 BC, his forces, under Han Xin's command, had Xiang trapped at the Battle of Gaixia. Liu ordered his army to sing songs from Xiang's native country of Chu to give Xiang's soldiers an impression that they were fighting against their own countrymen, which demoralized Xiang's army. Xiang Yu, sensing his first defeat in his military career, became distraught and sang to his beloved concubine Yuji (虞姬) who was with him in the camp:

“My strength could pull mountains, my spirit pales the world.
Yet, so unlucky am I that my horse just refuses to gallop!
What can I do if my horse denies me even a trot?
Oh my dear Yu Ji, what would you have me do?”

To which Yu Ji replied after performing a final dance in front of him:

“The Han has invaded us.
Chu’s songs surround us.
My lord’s spirit is depleted.
Why then should I still live?”

Yu Ji then committed suicide. (The title of the famous Chinese opera "Farewell My Concubine", as well as the 1993 film inspired by the opera, comes from the aria that Xiang Yu sings to Yuji before his last stand.)

Early next morning, Xiang Yu organized his troops for a last desperate charge to escape the encircling Han troops. Xiang still enjoyed support in his homeland in the Wu region, south of the Yangtze River. He, with a handful of his personal cavalry, finally managed to break out, and headed for the river, intending to cross it at Wujiang (烏江, in modern Chaohu, Anhui). The fordsman at the river encouraged him to cross, telling him that the people of Wu were still intent on supporting him as their prince. Xiang laughed and said "Heaven wants me dead, why should I go back?". He then committed suicide. According to legend, he cut his throat open with his own sword.

There are many different stories about Xiang Yu's suicide. One famous story is when he was surrounded by Han cavalry, he saw an old friend and said "Are you Lü Matong? I heard the Prince of Han has a great reward for my head. Here let me give you this..." After saying these words, he killed himself. (A legend indicates that he decapitated himself with his own sword, although many dispute whether such a thing is possible.) Another legend about Xiang Yu as a warrior was that he and his remaining 28 personal elite bodyguards managed to slay more than 200 Han cavalry soldiers. His bodyguards fought to the bitter end and only 2 of Xiang Yu's soldier died in battle, and there was a man with a ship waiting for him. He said that he would die fighting and ordered all his elite bodygaurds to leave. After they had gone, Han soldiers surrounded him, but none dared to approach the heavily injured Xiang Yu, who instead he committed suicide upon seeing Lu Matung among the Han forces.

A fight apparently broke out among Han's troops at the scene over Xiang's body because of the large reward offerred by Liu Bang. According to historians, Xiang's body was severely mutilated in the fight and the reward had to be divided five ways.

Although Liu Bang was a bitter rival, he made a grand funeral (with the ceremony befitting that of a duke) and graveyard for Xiang Yu and had it maintained regularly. Also, Liu spared many of Xiang Yu's relatives and rewarded Xiang Bo, who saved Liu Bang's life during the Feast at Hong Gate incident, by creating him and three other relatives of Xiang Yu marquesses.

Impact on Chinese history

Xiang's heroism on the battlefield and his death at the hands of Liu Bang has been immortalized in the Shǐjì ("Records of the Grand Historian") has made him a cultural hero in Chinese folk tales and poetry, the warrior king, Xiang Yu's battle against the people's king, Liu Bang. His dominance over the princes were undeniable, credited with all the victories by himself and defeated every single opponent in combat. Even Han Xin, one of the greatest commanders in Chinese history who was given the title 'Invincible Against Metal' by Liu Bang, knew of Xiang Yu's invincibilities, and never really confronted him in battle. Instead Han Xin used the strategy of isolating Xiang Yu, which Liu Bang took advantage of, and betrayed Xiang Yu on the peace treaty.

The stories of prophecy flourished and in some ways overshadowed Liu Bang's glory of building the Han dynasty. During the period of war between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, Liu Bang had once asked Han Xin, "How many soldiers can you command with efficiency?" Han Xin replied, "As many as possible -- my strength can only be increased by the number of soldiers I command." Liu Bang then asked Han Xin, who had served under Xiang Yu but was driven out, "what is Xiang Yu's weakness? Is there a way to defeat him?" Han Xin calmly replied, "No, Xiang Yu himself is invincible, he is destined to be king." Liu Bang however had a different destiny: the destiny of becoming an emperor.

Xiang Yu is popularly viewed as possessing great bravery but lacking in wisdom, as summarized in the Chinese idiom "yǒuyǒng wúmóu" (有勇無謀). His military tactics were required learning for generals, while his political blunders were also required learnings for emperors as to what not to do as leaders. An idiom that referred to his being surrounded at Gaixia is "surrounded by Chu music" (sìmiàn Chǔgē, 四面楚歌), which refers to a desperate situation without allies--based on Xiang's lament at Gaixia that he heard Chu songs coming out of Liu's surrounding camps--implying that Liu had conquered all of Chu. Yet another idiom that refers to the inability to listen to advice is, "having a Fan Zeng but unable to use him" (有一范增而不能用), referring to Xiang's reliance on Fan but actual inability to listen to Fan's advice, which came out of Liu's critique of Xiang after his final victory. (For the more complete quote from Liu, see here.)

Another figure in Chinese history, Sun Ce, was often compared favorably to Xiang by his contemporaries, and was given the nickname "Young Conqueror" (Xiǎo Báwàng 小霸王).

Popular culture

Through time, Chinese folk tales and poetry made Xiang Yu a glamorous general. He is seen by Chinese as an eager young man desiring to change the world with his own hands. His ambitions came to a quick stop as he committed suicide at approximately 30 years old.

He is depicted as a ruthless leader, making a sharp contrast with his rival, Liu Bang. He was known to be a mass murderer starting from the battle of Julu. On the other hand, Liu Bang is depicted as a shrewd and cunning leader, who strictly ordered his troops not to loot in the cities they conquered to gain the support and trust from the people, which Xiang was not able to do. As the story goes, it was Xiang's biggest mistake as a leader; it soon became an example for Confucianists to say that leaders should rule with love, but not fear.

Xiang Yu appeared in several movies, video games, and also comics. He is often depicted as heroic and brave in battle but arrogant and bloodthirsty in domestic issue; and toward other people, he is an early example of a Chinese tragic hero.

The Meng Ch'iu, an eighth-century Chinese primer, contains the four character rhyming couplet "Zhi Xin impersonates the Emperor", referring to an episode in which Zhi and two thousand women disguise themselves as Liu Bang and an army, distracting Xiang Yu while Liu Bang can escape from the city of Jung-yang.

A famous Beijing opera, 霸王别姬, which depicts the event of Xiang Yu's defeat by Liu Bang in Gaixia, gives the Chinese title for Chen Kaige's award-winning motion picture Farewell My Concubine.

References

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