Chen Sheng

From New World Encyclopedia
This is a Chinese name; the family name is Chen.

Chen Sheng (Traditional Chinese: 陳勝) (d. 209 B.C.E. or 208 B.C.E. around the new year), known in some sources as Chen She (陳涉), was the leader of the first rebellion against Qin Dynasty during the reign of Qin Er Shi (Húhài (胡亥) Second Emperor). Following the death of Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇), First Emperor of Qin, Chen Sheng and another officer, Wu Guang ( 吳廣) were ordered to lead their bands of commoner soldiers north to participate in the defense of Yuyang (漁陽). However, they were stopped halfway in Anhui (安徽) province by a severe rainstorm and flooding. According to the harsh Qin laws, if soldiers could not arrive at their posts on time, they would be executed. Chen and Wu realized that they were doomed and decided to organize a rebellion, preferring to die fighting for their freedom rather than by execution. They became the center of armed uprisings all over China, and in a few months their numbers increased to around ten thousand men, mostly discontented peasants. Chen announced the re-establishment of the kingdom of Chu, and declared himself Prince of Chu. He then sent his generals out to conquer more territory, but they were either defeated by Qin forces, betrayed, or defected because of Chen’s strict authoritarianism. Chen was assassinated by his guard Zhuang Jia (莊賈) in the winter of 209 - 208 B.C.E..

The Chen Sheng Wu Guang Uprising (Chinese: 陳勝吳廣起義) lasted only from July to December of 209 B.C.E., but it was the first uprising against Qin rule, and set an example for the rebellions of Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, who ushered in the Han dynasty. Chen Sheng is regarded as a evolutionary hero by the Peoples Republic of China because he led a peasant uprising.


Qin (Ch'in or Kin) dynasty: Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi

The Qin (Ch'in 221–206 B.C.E.) dynasty, from which the name China is derived, founded the first great Chinese empire and established the basic administrative system followed by all subsequent Chinese dynasties for the next 2,000 years. One of many small Chinese feudal estates, between the middle of the third and the end of the second century B.C.E., the rulers of Qin (Ch'in) began centralizing state power, creating a system of universal laws, and organizing the state into a series of commanderies and prefectures. Qin (Ch'in) gradually conquered surrounding states, and in 221, Chao Cheng completed the Qin (Ch'in) conquests and proclaimed himself Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi (Shih huang-ti or Shih Hwang-Tih) (“First Sovereign Emperor of Qin (Ch'in)”).

The Qin (Ch'in) instituted a rigid, centralized government to rule over their vast territories. They standardized the writing system and measurements of length and weight, fixed the width of highways, abolished feudal privileges, and built the Great Wall. In 213, to suppress subversive thought, all books except those on utilitarian subjects such as medicine, were burned. The harsh rule of the government, coupled with the oppressive taxes levied to finance wars and construction, provoked rebellion erupted after the death of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi (Shih huang-ti).

Second Emperor of Qin

In 210 B.C.E., Qin Shi Huang died suddenly at Shaqiu prefecture while on a journey with his youngest son Huhai (胡亥). According to Han dynasty historians, Huhai, under the advice of two high officials—the Imperial Secretariat Li Si(李斯 Li Ssu),) and the chief eunuch Zhao Gao( 趙高), forged and altered Emperor's will. The faked decree ordered Qin Shi Huang's first son, the heir Fusu (扶蘇), to commit suicide, and named Huhai as the next emperor instead. The decree also stripped the command of troops from Marshal Meng Tian (蒙恬)—a faithful supporter of Fusu—and sentenced Meng's family to death. Zhao Gao gradually seized power from Huhai, effectively making Huhai a puppet emperor and initiating the decline of the Qin dynasty. Out of concern for the security of his throne, Huhai killed all his brothers and sisters. In the end, he was killed by Zhao Gao. Within three years of Qin Shi Huangdi's death, widespread revolts by peasants, prisoners, soldiers, and descendants of the nobles of the Six Warring States sprang up all over China.


Chen Sheng was born in Yangcheng (陽城, in modern Dengfeng, Henan). In 209 B.C.E. he was a military captain along with Wu Guang when the two of them were ordered to lead 900 soldiers to Yuyang (漁陽, in modern Beijing) to help defend the northern border against Xiongnu. However, their advance was stopped halfway in Anhui province by a severe rainstorm and flooding. and it became clear that they could not get to Yuyang by the time required. According to law, if soldiers could not arrive at their posts on time, they would be executed regardless of the nature of the delay. Chen and Wu, believing that they were doomed, led their soldiers in a rebellion. They announced that Ying Fusu, the beloved elder son of Qin Shi Huang and elder brother of Qin Er Shi, who had unjustly been forced to commit suicide, and Xiang Yan (項燕), a beloved general of Chu, had not died and were joining their cause. They also declared the re-establishment of Chu. The people, who had felt bitterly oppressed by the Qin regime, quickly joined Chen and Wu's rebellion. There were armed uprisings all over China, and in a few months their numbers had increased to around ten thousand men, mostly discontented peasants.

Chen declared himself Prince of Chu, against the recommendations of Zhang Er (張耳) and Chen Yu (陳餘), who had advised him to seek out a descendant of the Chu royal house to be the prince.

Downfall and Death

After establishing his capital at Chenqiu (陳丘, in modern Zhoukou, Henan), Chen commissioned various generals to advance in all directions to conquer Qin territory. Among these were Wu Guang, whom he created Acting Prince (假王) of Chu and Zhou Wen (周文), whom he ordered to head west toward Qin proper; his friend Wu Chen (武臣), whom he ordered to head north toward the old territory of Zhao (modern Hebei); and Zhou Fu (周巿), whom he ordered to head northeast toward the old territory of Wei (modern eastern Henan and western Shandong). None of these generals returned. Wu Guang was assassinated by generals under him; Zhou Wen was defeated by Qin forces; Wu Chen was initially successful but then declared himself the Prince of Zhao and became independent of Chu; and Zhou Fu supported a descendant of the royal house of Wei to be the Prince of Wei, also independent of Chu. Historians explain that the generals were disloyal because Chen was paranoid and executed his subordinates at any suggestion, even a rumor, of infidelity. Chen was greatly weakened; as he had suffered losses at the hands of the Qin army, he personally led an expeditionary force to try to gather reinforcements, and he was assassinated by his guard Zhuang Jia (莊賈) in the winter of 209 - 208 B.C.E..


Historians in the modern People's Republic of China (PRC) often idealize Chen as a great leader of the peasants against intolerable oppression of the Qin nobility and bourgeois. However, Chen's desire to overthrow Qin appears to have been motivated by self-interest and self-aggrandizement. He ignored the suggestions of his advisors and made unwise decisions, overestimating his strength. As the Song Dynasty historian Sima Guang wrote in his Zizhi Tongjian:

When Chen Sheng first became the Prince of Chu, his relatives and friends all arrived to join him, as did his father-in-law. But when his father-in-law arrived, Chen treated him as an ordinary guest, and only made a slight bow and did not kneel to him. His father-in-law became angry and stated, "You are leading a rebellion and falsely claiming the title of a prince, but you are arrogant toward your elders; you surely cannot last." He turned to leave without further discussion, and even though Chen knelt to ask for his forgiveness, he ignored Chen. Later, when more and more relatives and friends were arriving, they repeated stories about when Chen was young. Someone suggested, "The old friends and guests of Your Royal Highness are foolish and often like to talk in vain; they will damage your image and hurt your reputation." Chen executed a good number of his old friends, and therefore his friends began to leave him and not follow him. Chen made Zhu Fang his examination minister and Hu Wu the head of his guard, in charge of intelligence and security. When the generals returned from conquering cities, these two were overly critical of the commands issued by those generals or their acts; often, if they felt the commands or the acts were not lawful, they would arrest the generals. Chen considered those who were strict to be the most faithful ones. The ones that Chen did not like were either given over to military courts or personally punished by Chen. The generals had no affection for Chen, and this led to his downfall. (初,陳涉既為王,其故人皆往依之。妻之父亦往焉,陳王以眾賓待之,長揖不拜。妻之父怒曰:「怙亂僭號,而傲長者,不能久矣!」不辭而去。陳王跪謝,遂不為顧。客出入愈益發舒,言陳王故情。或說陳王曰:「客愚無知,顓妄言,輕威。」陳王斬之。諸故人皆自引去,由是無親陳王者。陳王以硃防為中正,胡武為司過,主司群臣。諸將徇地至,令之不是,輒系而罪之。以苛察為忠,其所不善者,弗下吏,輒自治之。諸將以其故不親附,此其所以敗也。)

Note: The title wang (王) has been translated as "prince." It can also be translated as "king," and is often done so in the Warring States context.

The Chen Sheng Wu Guang Uprising (Chinese: 陳勝吳廣起義) lasted only from July to December of 209 B.C.E., but it was the first uprising against Qin rule following the death of Qin Shi Huang. It set the example that was to be followed by Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, who ushered in the Han dynasty. Their attitude is best summed up in Chen's quote, "王侯將相寧有種乎" (wáng hóu jiāng xiāng níng yǒu zhǒng hu), meaning that every man, regardless of birth, has the chance to become someone with great power if he exerts himself.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • History of Warfare in China Antiquity Through the Spring and Autumn Period. Westview Press, 2007. ISBN 9780813321943
  • Loewe, Michael, and Edward L. Shaughnessy. The Cambridge history of ancient China: from the origins of civilization to 221 B.C.E. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 9780521470308
  • Twitchett, Denis Crispin, and John King Fairbank. The Cambridge history of China. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1978. ISBN 9780521214476
  • Quian, Sima. Records of the Great Historian, Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. Columbia University Press, 1961. ISBN 0231081677


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