Emperor Gaozu, before founding the imperial Han Dynasty in China, was one of many rebel warlords who participated in an uprising that overthrew the Qin Dynasty between 209-206 BCE. After the rebellion proved a success, China was divided between the rebel leaders, who founded new kingdoms or revived those that had existed before the Qin era. Yet, the idea of a single ruler to dominate the myriad kingdoms of china could not be erased from the minds of the rebel warlords, and factions soon emerged to support ambitious would-be emperors. Before long, two particular warlords became the only plausible candidates for the imperial throne. One, unsurprisingly, was the future Emperor Gaozu, who in these pre-imperial days was the rebel king of Han. Curiously, he was the underdog during much of the civil war between the rebellion leaders, as his main rival for the throne was a well-respected and extremely dangerous man. In order to place the Han Dynasty in charge of China, the emperor needed to defeat Xiang Yu, the leader of Chu, who could be considered the commander-in-chief of the various rebel groups that had toppled the Qin Dynasty.
An intriguing showdown of vastly different leadership styles occurred in the war between Xiang Yu and Emperor Gaozu. On one side, Xiang Yu comes across as the far more talented warrior and military strategist of the two. Yet, his major drawbacks were his love of micromanaging everything and an overreliance on using victories in battle to keep his allies loyal. Gaozu, on the other hand, often proved himself to be a fairly poor general, yet he and his wife were extremely adept at diplomacy, politics and intrigue. Most importantly, the future emperor was much more willing than Xiang Yu to rely on skilled lieutenants to make up for his weaknesses, and he had a knack of keeping morale high despite the many blows that were inflicted on him and his supporters. Due to the future emperor’s charisma and durability, he was able to steadily build up his network of followers, recruiting other former rebels to his cause. Xiang Yu’s army, on the other hand, began to weaken from the attrition of aggressive campaigning. Before long, the balance of power soon shifted to the growing Han coalition, allowing Emperor Goazu to finally overcome Xiang Yu’s formidable talents as a general. The deathblow to Xiang Yu’s military came at the Battle of Gaixia in 202 BCE. Although the warlord was said to have lived to escape from the battlefield, Han forces easily pursued him, ultimately causing the defeated general to take his own life. With Xiang Yu out of the way, Gaozu could officially become emperor.
As Xiang Yu had been a well-liked figure, Emperor Gaozu had to step carefully in how he treated his rival’s family and memory. According to the Han Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), Xiang Yu was given an honorable burial and his family was met with no reprisals. Similarly, nothing too public was done to disrespect the deceased warlord. Yet, Emperor Gaozu did indeed find a more subtle way to get revenge on Xiang Yu and his admirers in high society. As the story goes, the emperor forced the officers and aides who had once served under the late warlord to break formal linguistic propriety while speaking of their former leader. Instead of letting them use the respectful and formal name, Xiang Yu, Emperor Goazu decreed that the noblemen in his court could only refer to the fallen leader by his familiar name, Xiang Ji, which was considered a greatly disrespectful action. This was mentioned by Grand Historian Sima Qian, who wrote “Emperor Gaozu ordered all of Xiang Yu’s former officials to refer to Xiang Yu by his familiar name, Ji, but Zheng Jun alone refused to obey the order [and was exiled]” (Shi Ji 120).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Artwork from a lacquered Basket from Lo-lang excavated from an Eastern Han tomb, c. 2nd century BCE, [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.