Xiang Yu (項羽, 项羽, Xiàng Yǔ, Hsiang Yü, original name Hsiang Chi) (232 B.C.E. - 202 B.C.E.) was a prominent general during the fall of the Qin Dynasty ( 秦朝; Ch'in Ch'ao). After the Second Qin Emperor’s incompetence undermined the unity of the Qin dynasty, Xiang was the principal rival for control of China with Liu Bang (Liu Pang, 劉邦), the founder of the Han dynasty (漢朝, 206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.). He was a descendant of Chu (楚) nobility. A great military leader, he gained control of a great empire in just a few years; but he was poor at diplomacy and administrative affairs. His brutal treatment of his enemies made it difficult for him to gain the trust of those he conquered.
Xiang's heroism on the battlefield and his death at the hands of Liu Bang, immortalized in the Shǐjì (史記, Records of the Grand Historian) has made him a cultural hero and a favorite subject of Chinese folk tales, poetry, and drama including the Peking Opera. Xiang is traditionally viewed as having an impetuous nature and an inability to realize his shortcomings that doomed him to failure during his struggle with Liu Bang(劉邦) for the supremacy of China. He is commonly known by his self-styled title of Xīchǔ Bàwáng (“西楚霸王,” lit. Overlord of Western Chu).
Xiang Yu was born during a period when Qin ( 秦朝; Ch'in Ch'ao), the first regime that tried to unify China, was completing its conquests of the other kingdoms of the Warring States Period. This was accomplished in 231 B.C.E. under the emperor Ying Zheng (嬴政, later known as Qin Shi Huang, 秦始皇), who founded the Qin dynasty (221 – 207 B.C.E.)and took the title of First Emperor of Qin (Qin Shi Huang Di). When Ying Zheng died in 210 B.C.E., he was succeeded by his incompetent second son, Hu Hai, Second Emperor of Qin (Ying Huhai, Qin Er Shi Di). Riots and rebellions broke out all over the empire because the people had suffered severely under the rigidity of the Qin government. Soldiers mutinied against their superiors and the authorities, and people deserted the Qin government, whose central authority collapsed. The nobles living in the regions which had been conquered by the Qin began to revive their former states and to establish their own regional governments.
Xiang Yu was born Hsiang Chi in 232 B.C.E., to a noble family in the former state of Chu, which had ceased to exist when Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor unified the country. Life was not easy under Qin rule for a family which had been privileged in the now defunct kingdom of Chu (楚). Xiang Yu was raised by his uncle Xiàng Liáng, which suggested that his father, and possibly both parents, died early. Xiang Yu had been born with a double pupil in one of his eyes, a symbol for the destiny of a king. His unique abnormality was known to the Chinese political world from the time he was an infant. 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 this, believing that martial arts were not worth his time. Xiang Liang then tried another approach and instructed Xiang Yu in military strategies such as the Art of War. Xiang Yu again rebelled and felt such studies were a waste of his youth. Disappointed in Xiang Yu, who showed no signs of motivation or apparent talents except an unusual physical strength for his age, Xiang Liang gave up and let Xiang Yu have his way. After Qin Shi Huang's death in 210 B.C.E., however, there were revolts everywhere against his incompetent son and successor, Ying Huhai (Qin Er Shi, Second Emperor of Qin Dynasty). Many of these revolts took the form of attempts to restore the kingdoms that Qin had conquered two decades earlier.
One of these rebellions started in 209 B.C.E., under Xiang Liang. At that time, the Xiangs were living in the region of Wú (modern southern Jiangsu 江蘇; Chiang-su ). 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 (陳勝), 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 quickly demonstrated both his military ingenuity and his impolitic cruelty. For example, when his uncle commissioned him to attack the Qin stronghold Xiangcheng (襄城, in modern Xuchang( 許昌), Henan ( 河南)), he conquered the city despite its strong defenses, and after it fell, he slaughtered the entire population.
In 208 B.C.E., in order rally forces against Qin, Xiang Liang made a member of Chu royalty, Mi Xin (羋心 , also known as 楚懷王), the Prince of Chu. Initially, Mi Xin was more or less a puppet prince under Xiang Liang's control. However, when Xiang Liang died in battle later that year, there was no single general who took his place, and the rebel Chu generals and the Prince became an effective collective leadership, with the Prince gradually asserting his authority. In the winter of 208 B.C.E., against Xiang Yu's wishes, Prince Xin 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 siege by Qin general Zhang Han (章邯) in his capital Handan( 邯鄲) (in the modern city of the same name in Hebei, 河北). Prince Xin put Liu Bang (劉邦) in command of another expeditionary force (which Xiang had wished to command) against the heart of Qin itself. Around this time, Prince Xin also created Xiang the Duke of Lu.
Song Yi appeared brilliant while talking but was fairly incompetent as a general. Confident that Qin and Zhao(趙) forces would wear each other out, and not realizing that Zhao was in danger of soon being destroyed, Song stopped some distance away from Julu (鉅鹿, in modern Xingtai, Hebei), where the Prince of Zhao and his forces had retreated, and did not proceed further. Xiang, who had analyzed the situation correctly but was unable to persuade Song, took measures into his own hands. At a military conference, he surprised and assassinated Song. The 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 proceeded with haste to 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 beseiging Qin forces, under general Wang Li (王離), the 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 prevent Wang Li from motivating his army by pointing out the small size and weakness of Xiang’s forces, Xiang Yu ordered his army to carry only three days of supplies and destroy the rest, before engaging Wang in battle. Xiang’s forces knew they would have to win the battle in three days, and Wang Li would have no choice but to face the raw strength of Xiang Yu himself in a fight to death. The Battle of Julu (巨鹿之戰 or 鉅鹿之戰) in 207 B.C.E., was fought primarily between Qin forces led by Zhang Han, and Chu rebels led by Xiang Yu. No other relief force sent by the 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 Li was captured. After the battle, all the other rebel generals, including those who did not come from Chu, were so awed by Xiang that they voluntarily came under his command, and Xiang then prepared for a final confrontation with Zhang, whose major forces had already been eliminated.
The Qin prime minister, the eunuch Zhao Gao ( 趙高), had become jealous of Zhang's success and was concerned that Zhang would replace him. He falsely accused Zhao of deliberate military failure and conspiracy with the rebels, before Qin Er Shi, Second Emperor of Qin Dynasty. In fear, in the summer 207 B.C.E., Zhang surrendered to Xiang without a fight. Again demonstrating his cruelty, Xiang slaughtered the surrendering Qin army except for Zhang and a few other generals, and ignoring Prince Xin's authority, created Zhang the Prince of Yong (a region within Qin proper (the former territory of Qin during the Warring States Period before its expansion), modern central Shaanxi 陝西), even though he had not yet captured Qin proper.
Xiang then prepared an invasion against the heart of Qin, intending to wipe Qin out. He was unaware that, by this point, the other Chu general, Liú Bāng (劉邦) had already proceeded deep into Qin and was near its capital Xianyang (咸陽) (near modern Xi'an (西安), Shaanxi (陝西)). Xiányáng and Qin's final ruler, Zi Ying ( 子嬰), surrendered to Liu's forces in the winter of 207 B.C.E., ending the Qin Dynasty. The son of Fusu, the eldest son of the First Emperor of Qin, Zi Ying had killed the powerful chief eunuch Zhao Gao, who had murdered Zi Ying's uncle Qin Er Shi. After only forty-six days on the throne, Zi Ying surrendered to Liu Bang, the first rebel leader to enter the capital Xianyang, and later the founder of the Han Dynasty.
When Xiang arrived at Hangu Pass ( 函谷關), the gateway into Qin proper, he found the pass guarded by Liu's forces, and in anger, he besieged it, even though Liu was a fellow Chu general. He then approached Liu's forces, which he outnumbered three to one. Xiang required Liu, under duress, to attend a feast at his headquarters. The event later became famous as the Feast at Hong Gate (鴻門宴, 鸿门宴, Hóngményàn) and was memorialized in Chinese histories, novels, and drama, including the Beijing opera. Xiang had considered executing Liu at the feast, and his adviser 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 (張良), and spared Liu, although he continued to bear a grudge against Liu for robbing him of the glory of destroying Qin.
Under a promise issued earlier by Prince Xin of Chu, Liu Bang had assumed that he, as the one who entered Xianyang (咸陽) first, would be created the Prince of Guanzhong (which included the capital Xianyang (咸陽) and most of Qin proper). He had also planned to make Zi Ying, whose wisdom and knowledge he admired, his prime minister. Xiang paid no attention to Liu's presumptive title to Qin, and in an act of deliberate cruelty, killed Zi Ying. It is also generally believed that he burned down the Qin palace, which contained a large royal library commissioned by Qin Shi Huang, and that unique copies of many "forbidden books" were lost forever. (Recent research by historians indicates that Xiang Yu did not burn down the Qin Palace.) Despite the suggestion from one of his advisers that he establish 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 response, one of the advisers muttered, "Those men of Chu are nothing but apes wearing robes." When Xiang Yu heard this insult he ordered the adviser to be executed by being boiled alive slowly.
Xiàng, jealous of Liú, suggested to Prince Xin of Chu that while Liu should be made a prince, he should not be given Guanzhong (關中, Interior of Passes, or Guanzhong Plain). Instead, he suggested that Qin proper be separated into three sections and divided among Zhang Han and his two deputies; their territories were to be known as the Three Qins. Prince Xin responded that he was obligated to carry out his promise to Liú. In response, Xiang, now firmly in control, deposed Prince Xin. While ostensibly offering Prince Xin the even more honorable title of "Emperor Yi," he exiled him to an "empire" in the then-uncivilized region around Chencheng (郴城, in modern Chenzhou, Hunan). In the spring of 206 B.C.E., Xiang divided the former Qin empire into eighteen principalities (in addition to Emperor Yi's "empire"):
Note: Yong, Sai, and Zhai were known as the three Qins, because they comprised the former territories of Qin proper; similarly, Qi, Jiaodong, and Jibei were known as the three Qis.
Xiang rewarded several generals from the rebel coalition states, who had supported him in the campaign against Qin, by placing them in the original seats of the princes who had sent them. 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, he had Emperor Yi murdered and Han Cheng executed, seizing Han territories and merging them into his own principality in the process. This alienated large numbers of people, and the death of the Emperor left his confederation of states without legitimacy. 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 because he had been left out of the division and his former subordinate had been promoted over him, resisted the division and conquered the three Qis. Initially he put Tian Fu back on the throne, but eventually killed him and took over after Tian Fu displayed fear of Xiang. 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, Xiang’s most formidable enemy was Liu Bang, who not only resented being robbed of what he considered his rightful division as the Prince of Qin, but being "exiled" to the then uncivilized region of Han.
The rebel kings derived from the collapse of Qin Dynasty formed two opposing camps, one headed by Liu Bang (劉邦), King of Han, and the other headed by Xiang Yu (項羽), Overlord of the Western Chu.
Xiang Yu and Liu Bang fought a five-year war known as the Chu Han Contention (楚漢相爭 or 楚漢春秋, 206–202 B.C.E.). Initially, Xiang had the advantages of a much larger territory, a larger army, and a greater number of allies. He was also far superior as a general to Liu. However, his lack of political skills, his inability to accept criticism, and his disinclination to trust and to listen to wise advisors eventually led to his downfall. He also paid little attention to supplying his army, a fatal error. Liu set up an efficient 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 suffered from hunger and lack of weaponry. As Xiang got bogged down in wars on different fronts, Liu, along with his very able general Han Xin ( 韓信), was able to gradually absorb many of the principalities into his alliance. By 203 B.C.E., Xiang was caught in an unfavorable war. After a one year siege upon Liu Bang, troops on both sides were tired. Xiang Yu managed to capture Liu Bang's father, and stood outside the city walls threatening to boil Liu Bang's father alive if Liu Bang didn't open the castle gates. Liu Bang replied bitterly, "When you are done with my father, let me have a taste of the soup." Without the heart to kill Liu Bang's father, Xiang Yu sued for peace, which Liu granted. Liu signed a treaty with Xiang. However, as soon as Liu received the hostages that Xiang returned to him as part of the treaty, Liu changed his mind, tore up the treaty and attacked Xiang's army, which was in retreat and completely unprepared. In 202 B.C.E., his forces, under Han Xin's command, had Xiang trapped at the Battle of Gaixia (垓下之戰). Liu ordered his army to sing songs from Xiang's native country of Chu to demoralize Xiang's army. Xiang Yu, experiencing the taste of personal defeat for the first time in his military career, lost his morale. In a famous opera version of the story, Xiang was in his camp with his beloved concubine Yuji (虞姬) when he sang this famous song:
To which Yu Ji replied after performing a final dance in front of him:
(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.)
Xiang still enjoyed support in his homeland in the Wu region, south of the Yangtze River. He broke out of the Gaixia pocket and headed for the river, intending to cross it at Wujiang (烏江, in modern Chaohu, Anhui 安徽). 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 with his own sword.
There are many different accounts of Xiang Yu's suicide. One story is that, 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. According to legend, he decapitated himself with his own sword, although many dispute whether such a thing is possible. Another legend about the warrior Xiang Yu relates that he and his remaining twenty-four elite personal bodyguards managed to slay more than two hundred Han cavalry soldiers. His bodyguards fought to the bitter end until the only survivor was Xiang Yu. None of the Han assassins dared to approached the seriously injured Xiang Yu, who was still capable of fighting; instead he committed suicide after seeing Lu Matung among the Han crowd.
Although Liu Bang was Xiang's bitter rival, he held a grand funeral (with the ceremony befitting that of a duke) and buried Xiang Yu in a tomb which ordered 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.
Xiang's heroism on the battlefield and his death at the hands of Liu Bang, immortalized in the Shǐjì (史記, "Records of the Grand Historian") has made him a cultural hero in Chinese folk tales and poetry. His dominance over the princes was undeniable; he defeated every single opponent in combat. Even Han Xin (韓信), one of the greatest commanders in Chinese history, who was given the title "Invincible Against Metal" by Liu Bang, knew of Xiang Yu's invincibility, and never really confronted him in battle. Instead, Han Xin used the strategy of isolating Xiang Yu, and then Liu Bang took advantage of this and betrayed Xiang Yu.
The stories of prophecy flourished and in some ways overshadowed Liu Bang's glory of building the Han dynasty (漢朝). 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 before being 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 also viewed as having bravery but no wisdom, as summarized in the Chinese idiom "yǒuyǒng wúmóu" (有勇無謀), much like the tragic Roman hero Pompey, who overshadowed the glory of the political genius, Caesar. Xiang’s military tactics were required study for generals, while his political blunders were lessons for emperors on what not to do as leaders. A popular idiom, "surrounded by Chu music" (sìmiàn Chǔgē, 四面楚歌), which refers to a desperate situation without allies, is based on Xiang's lament, when he was surrounded at Gaixia, that he heard Chu songs coming from Liu's surrounding camps, implying that Liu had conquered all of Chu. Another idiom that expresses the inability to listen to advice, "having a Fan Zeng but unable to use him" (有一范增而不能用), comes from Liu's criticism of Xiang after his final victory, that Xiang relied on Fan but was unable to listen to Fan's advice.
Another figure in Chinese history, Sun Ce( 孫策), was often compared favorably to Xiang by his contemporaries, and was given the nickname "Young Conqueror" (小霸王).
Note: Throughout this article the Chinese character 王 (wang) had been translated as "prince." It can also be translated as "king."
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, whose ambitions ended abruptly when he committed suicide at the age of thirty.
He is depicted as a ruthless leader, in sharp contrast to his rival, Liu Bang (Emperor Gao, commonly known as Gaozu, 高祖). Xiang was known to be a mass murderer beginning with the battle of Julu. On the other hand, Liu Bang was depicted as a shrewd and cunning leader, who strictly ordered his troops not to loot in the cities they conquered, in order to gain the support and trust of the people, which Xiang was not able to do. This ruthlessness was said to be Xiang's greatest weakness as a leader, and he soon became an example for Confucianists seeking to demonstrate that leaders should rule with love, not fear.
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 disguised themselves as Liu Bang and an army, distracting Xiang Yu while Liu Bang escaped from the city of Jung-yang.
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