In 202 BCE, after around seven years of war following the fall of the Qin Dynasty, two major warlords were left in the competition to seize the imperial throne of China. These two leaders were Xiang Yu, the ruler of Chu, and Liu Bang (also known as Liu Ji), the King of Han. Even though Xiang Yu was the very man who had crowned Liu Bang as the king of Han (in 206 BCE), the protégé slowly began to gain advantage against his master. By 203 BCE, Xiang Yu recognized Liu Bang as ruler of eastern China after they had negotiated a truce. Although an agreement was met, the Han forces were in much better shape than the Chu. Therefore, in 202 BCE, Liu Bang broke the peace and invaded Chu to deliver the deathblow to his rival.
Liu Bang successfully encircled the last remaining troops of Xiang Yu in a walled camp at Gaixia. Sensing that victory was near, the Han troops allegedly spent the night singing triumphant songs. Xiang Yu, likewise, recognized that he could not win a pitched battle against the Han forces, so he prepared his favorite horse, Dapple, and along with 800 horsemen, he prepared to puncture a hole through the besiegers. In the Records of the Grand Historian, the father of Chinese history, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), recorded a dramatic account of Xiang Yu’s final ride.
According to the historian, Xiang Yu and his band of cavalry successfully broke through Han lines, but they did so at great cost—only 100 of the Chu horsemen were said to have survived the escape. With Han cavalry hot on his trail, Xiang Yu fled first to Yinling, then to Dongcheng. Somewhere between Dongcheng and Wujiang, the Han forces intercepted the fleeing Chu warlord. No longer able to run, Xiang Yu decided to fight in one last battle.
Sima Qian painted Xiang Yu as being an almost super-human figure. Well over six feet in height, and a man of immense strength, Xiang Yu was allegedly a one-man wrecking crew. In a series of charges and strategic withdrawals, Xiang Yu supposedly slaughtered hundreds of the pursuing Han soldiers, including an unnamed Han general and colonel. Nevertheless, Xiang Yu was eventually cornered and could fight no longer. Not willing to allow the enemy a complete victory, the defeated warlord took his own life.
After Xiang Yu was dead, Sima Qian alleged that various Han generals dismembered the deceased warlord and took his head and limbs as prizes. When news of Xiang Yu’s death spread, the region of Chu largely submitted to the king of Han. Sima Qian wrote that only the area of Lu resisted, but when Liu Bang arrived with the head of Xiang Yu, they, too, surrendered. The king of Han allegedly showed respect to his dead rival—he collected the pieces of Xiang Yu for an honorable burial at Gucheng and was said to have taken no reprisals against the Xiang family.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Pinyin- Dahuting Han mu; Wade-Giles- Tahut’ing Han mu) of the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), located in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China, was excavated in 1960-1961).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.