The Han Dynasty was said to have begun in 206 BCE. Interestingly enough, Emperor Gaozu, the first ruler of the Han Dynasty, was not technically an emperor at that time, and would not become emperor for several more years. Prior to taking the imperial title, Gaozu was known as Liu Ji or Liu Bang, and at the time of the major rebellions against the Qin Dynasty in 209 BCE, he was the governor of Pei. Serving under and alongside successive rebel supreme leaders, such as Chen She, Xiang Liang and Xiang Yu, the governor of Pei gained a strong following and positioned himself for grants of fiefdoms from the emerging rebel hegemons. In 206 BCE, after the Qin capital of Xianyang had fallen and the last Qin ruler, Ziying, had been executed, the then chief war leader of the rebel forces, Xiang Yu, granted the governor of Pei control of the Kingdom of Han, an action that began the Han Dynasty.
Besides the king of Han, Xiang Yu appointed or confirmed around eighteen other monarchs to rule portions of the former Qin Empire. Although Xiang Yu likely hoped that he could keep his newfound hegemony of kings under his control, the freshly born kingdoms almost immediately began fighting amongst themselves. The coalition of rebels that had dethroned the Qin Dynasty quickly became a free-for-all of kings and warlords, clamoring for the recently vacated imperial throne. The king of Han, who conquered the realms inside the former Qin heartland of “The Pass,” quickly became one of Xiang Yu’s greatest threats. Around 205 BCE, the king of Han felt strong enough to invade the personal domain of Xiang Yu, who was calling himself the Dictator King of Western Chu. Xiang Yu, who was fighting other rebels at the time, immediately rerouted to push the Han forces out of his kingdom. The Han suffered significant losses, usually after the Han king carelessly allowed his forces to get trapped against a river, but the future emperor was able to escape and remobilize his troops.
In 204 BCE, however, the king of Han found himself besieged in the city of Xingyang by the forces of Xiang Yu. Unfortunately, the city was not well supplied or garrisoned. Whatever the case, the king of Han apparently had no illusions of being able to fight his way out of the siege. According to the Grand Historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), the Han king and his aides gathered to create a plan to beat the overwhelming odds placed against them. Interestingly enough, they decided to surrender—well, they actually planned to fake a surrender.
First, the king of Han supposedly gathered 2,000 women from the city of Xingyang and equipped them with all of the gear that would be expected on a band of soldiers. Next, the king handed over his royal carriage, fully outfitted with its yellow canopy and its majestic side-plumage, to a man named Ji Xin, one of his trusted lieutenants. Finally, after waiting until the dark of night, Ji Xin rolled out of the city with his ornate carriage and his honor guard of armor-clad women. Impersonating his liege, Ji Xin announced that his forces were surrendering. The besieging forces of Xiang Yu supposedly cheered after the speech, thinking that the Han were crushed. Little did they know that the real king of Han was at that very moment slipping out of the city with a small band of cavalry. By the time the ruse was discovered, it was already too late—the king of Han arrived safely at the city of Chenggao, where he would resume the wars that would eventually make him emperor of China. Ji Xin, however, would not share in his liege’s ultimate victory; Xiang Yu reportedly had him burned alive.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (A portrait painting of Emperor Gao of Han (Liu Bang), c. 18th-century, and women from a Song dynasty painting attributed to Emperor Huizong, both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.