Three Kingdoms History: Xiang Yu

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Xiang Yu
Lived (232-202 BC)

Han Ruler and Emperor Biographies
Authoring and Translation by

Xiang Yu was born from a noble in the former state of Chu, which had ceased to exist when Qi Shi Huang, the first Emperor unified the country. While Chen Sheng and Wu Guang were leading peasant uprisings against the Qin Dynasty, Xiang Yu killed the prefect of Wu (now Xuzhou in Jiangzu Province) and organized troops to join the rebellion.

About this same time, a peasant called Liu Bang led an uprising in Jiangsu Province. After Chen Sheng and Wu Guang were killed in battle, Xiang Yu and Liu Bang formed the main force in the battle against the Qin government. For a time they fought under the banner of King Huai of Chu.

In 208 BC while Xiang Yu and Liu Bang were planning the capture of the Qin capital Xian Yang, an urgent message came from the city of Julu, which had been under siege for nearly a month by Qin troops. A large army was sent to relieve Julu with Xiang Yu as second in command under the veteran political leader Song Yi.

When the troops got to Anyang, Song Yi ordered them to stop. He wanted to wait while the Qin army would exhaust themselves. They camped in the cold wet weather for forty-six days and the troops were short of food. Xiang Yu was furious because Song Yi ignored the suffering of the soldiers. The next morning during a conference with Song Yi, Xiang Yu jumped up and killed him. The generals were in awe and elected him their leader.

The vanguard of Xiang Yu’s army as unable to raise the siege, so Xiang Yu sent his entire force into battle. After crossing the river Zhang, Xiang Yu ordered all boats sunk, and after three-day supply was prepared, all cooking pots were smashed, giving the troops no choice but to go forward.

After Xiang Yu’s troops raised the siege and the Qin generals had surrendered to him, he went on to conquer a vast territory covering five former states. Xiang Yu also divided the Qin Empire in fiefs for his generals, and giving himself the title of Overlord of Conqueror, banished King Huai of Chu.

In the meantime, Liu Bang moved his forces to Han Zhong and began training an army. In the year 206 BC, Liu Bang’s forces engaged Xiang Yu on Shaanxi Plain. Xiang Yu, homesick for Chu, made the tactical error of withdrawing from the territory west of Shaanxi.

By the end of 203 BC, many of the lesser kings and barons had deserted Xiang Yu. One night, while his army was surrounded by Liu Bang’s forces, Xiang Yu was sitting in his tent with his concubine Lady Yu when he heard the sound of songs from Chu, his homeland, coming from the besiegers. “Can it be that Han has conquered Chu, that they have so many men of Chu with them?” he exclaimed. Xiang Yu sat late into the night drinking with Lady Yu and singing this melancholic song:

“My strength uprooted mountains,
My spirit overstepped the world;
But the times are against me,
And my horse can gallop no more
When he can gallop on more
What can I do?
And what is to become of Lady Yu.”

He sang it repeatedly until tears ran down his retainers’ cheeks. He then dashed out of the tent and gathered his remaining forces in an attempt to break through enemy lines. When they reached the Wujiang River, Xiang Yu gave up and turned around. He summoned a good friend and bade him to cut off his head, on which there was a high price. Thus, Xiang Yu’s life ended, and the Han was victorious.

Copyright © 2002 - 2003
Major Sources: Shi Ji (Sima Qian)
Zhongguo lishu ditu ji by Tan Qixiang (Shanghai Press, 1982)
Ancient Chinese History and Emperors (Brian Williams)
with notes from William Ho and Quentin Tran