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Persons in Chinese History - Xiang Yu 項羽

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Xiang Yu 項羽 (233-202 BCE), actual name Xiang Ji 項籍 (Yu is his courtesy name), was one of the rebels causing the downfall of the Qin dynasty 秦 (221-206 BC). He became the most powerful warlord but was finally defeated by his competitor Liu Bang 劉邦, the eventual founder of the Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE). Xiang Yu came from Xiaxiang 下相 (near modern Suqian 宿遷, province of Jiangsu). His father Xiang Yan 項燕 had been a general of the state of Chu 楚 and was killed by the Qin general Wang Jian 王翦. His uncle Xiang Liang 項梁 was during the Qin period entrusted to oversee corvée labourers. He used the time to secretly give the labourers military training. Xiang Yu was very strong as a young man, but he did not love to learn, neither writing nor fighting with the sword. He said he wanted to learn how to fight a whole army, and not only a single man. When the First Emperor of Qin 秦始皇 (r. 245-210 BCE) passed the town during an inspection tour, Xiang Yu had a glimpse at him and instantly rated him as someone who can be defeated and replaced. When Chen Sheng 陳勝 and Wu Guang 吳廣 rose in rebellion, Xiang Liang and Xiang Yu answered the call to topple the Qin dynasty.
Xiang Liang was made Counsellor-in-chief (shang zhuguo 上柱國 "supreme pillar of state") of the newly founded state of Chu. He crossed the Yangtze River, united his 8,000 troops with that of Chen Ying 陳嬰, Ying Bu 英布 and "General" Pu 蒲將軍 to a total strength of 70,000 men. Xiang Liang convoked the rebels at Xue 薛 and installed the grandson of the last king of Chu as King Huai 楚懷王. He called himself Lord Wuxin 武信君 "Loyal-trustworthy" and led the rebel army against Qin. The Qin army was smashed at Dong'a 東阿 and Dingtao 定陶. Xiang Yu and Liu Bang participated in the battle of Chengyang 城陽. In consequence of his easy victories Xiang Liang became over-confident and was killed in battle by the Qin general Zhang Han 章邯. Xiang Yu and Liu Bang were able to hold Pengcheng 彭城. Zhang Han advanced to the north and endangered Julu 巨鹿 (modern Pingxiang 平鄉, Hebei). King Chu of Huai then appointed Song Yi 宋義 as the highest commander and Xiang Yu as lieutenant general. When Song Yi was not able to recaputre Anyang 安陽, Xiang Yu killed his superior with the charge of treason. He was made the highest commander of the rebel army and was in fact able to conquer Julu. He crossed the Yellow River, had destroyed the kettles and boats (quite similar to Hernan Cortez in Mexico) and ordered the army to advance against the heartland of the Qin empire in the west, the so-called region of Guanzhong 關中. The Qin generals Wang Li 王離 and She Jian 涉間 were defeated and committed suicide. Zhang Han himself asked for a meeting with Xiang Yu and told him of the internal quarrels at the Qin court that was dominated by Zhao Gao 趙高. After he had conquered Xin'an 新安, Xiang Yu had buried alive more than 20,000 surrendering Qin troops.
While Xiang Yu had secured the north, Liu Bang had already conquered the capital of Qin, Xianyang 咸陽 (modern Xianyang, Shaanxi). With an army that was four times stronger than that of Liu Bang, Xiang Yu threatened to annihilate his rival. Liu Bang asked for a meeting and becalmed Xiang Yu with the offer not to accept the title of king that the King of Chu had promised to the conquerer of the Qin capital. Xiang Yu killed the "Infant" king of Qin 秦王子嬰, plundered the imperial palace and burnt it down. As the formal victor over the Qin dynasty, Xiang Yu bestowed the title of Yidi 義帝 "Righteous Emperor" to the King of Chu and divided the empire into fiefdoms that he distributed among the rebel leaders. Wu Rui 吳芮 was made king of Hengshan 衡山, Gong Ao 共敖 king of Linjiang 臨江, Qing Bu king of and Jiujiang 九江, Zhang Er 張耳 king of Zhao 趙, Zhao Xie 趙歇 king of Dai 代, Tian Du 田都 king of Linzi 臨菑, Tian An 田安 king of Jibei 濟北, Tian Shi 田市 king of Jiaodong 膠東, Liu Bang 劉邦 king of Han 漢, Zhang Han, the general of Qi, king of 雍, Sima Xin 司馬欣 king of Sai 塞, Dong Yi 董翳 king of Di 翟, Zang Tu 臧荼 king of Yan, Han Guang 韓廣 king of Liaodong 遼東, Wei Bao 魏豹 king of Wei 魏, Sima Ang 司馬卬 king of Yin 殷, Han Cheng 韓成 king of Han 韓, and Sheng Yang 申陽 king of Henan 河南. The title of hegemonial king of West Chu (Xi-Chu bawang 西楚霸王) was reserved for Xiang Yu himself.
After a short while Tian Rong 田榮, Chen Yu 陳餘 and Peng Yue 彭越 rose in rebellion against Xiang Yu. Liu Bang joined the rebellion and conquered the kingdoms of Sai 塞, Di 翟 and Yong 雍 (the three kingdoms in the ancient region of Qin, called San-Qin 三秦 "the Three Qins"). He thus controlled the economically very important region of the ancient capital. He advanced to the east and conquered Pengcheng but was repelled by Xiang Yu, whose base of power was in the east. For long months, there was a stable front at Yingyang 滎陽 and Chenggao 成臯. Except of missing an operative and logistics base, Xiang Yu did not have the right feeling for competent supporters during the war. He continued his politics of enfeoffing those loyal to him but never built up a reliable relationship with those persons. A lot of kings therefore changed side and fought on Liu Bang's side, like Wu Rui 吳芮, Qian Bu, Zhang Er 張耳 and Wei Bao 魏豹. He was also not able to attract competent generals, while Liu Bang had Han Xin 韓信 and Chen Ping 陳平 at his disposal. Xiang Yu even disapproved the tactical plans of his advisor Fan Zeng 范增 (also known as Ya Fu 亞父). Because of these reasons Xiang Yu lost all military advantages he had over his rival Liu Bang. In 202 his army was finally encircled at Gaixia 垓下 (near modern Lingbi 靈璧, Anhui). The troops of Liu Bang started chanting songs from Chu in order to make Xiang Yu believe that his whole army has surrendered to Liu Bang and to express that the people of Chu were fighting their own lord (si mian Chu ge 四面楚歌 "songs of Chu from all four sides", a proverb expressing "utmost catastrophy"). In a last banquet with his concubine, Lady Yu 虞姬, Xiang Yu deplored his fate. Lady Yu killed herself with a sword, a scene included in the famous opera Bawang bie ji 霸王別姬 "The hegemonial king parts form his concubine". After her death Xiang Yu managed to break through the lines of Liu Bang with 800 cavalry troops. When he arrived in Wujiang 烏江 (near modern Hexian 和縣, province of Anhui) at the Yangtze River, only 28 loyal supporters stayed with him. He was offered to cross the river and to establish his kingdom in the east, but he refused and committed suicide, seeing the reasons for his defeat in Heaven's will and not in his own incompetent leadership. Liu Bang was now the sole potentate in the empire and proclaimed himself emperor of the Han dynasty.


Source: Tian Renlong 田人隆 (1992), "Xiang Yu 項羽", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 3, pp. 1308-1309.

March 10, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail
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