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Template:Refimprove Template:Chinese name Template:Infobox royalty Template:Chinese Xiang Yu (232 BC – 202 BC) was a prominent military leader and political figure during the late Qin Dynasty period of Chinese history. His given name was Ji (籍) while his style name was Yu (羽).

Xiang was a native of Xiaxiang (下相; present-day Suqian, Jiangsu). He was granted the title of "Marquis of Lu" (魯公) by King Huai II of Chu in 208 BC. The following year, Xiang led the Chu rebel forces to victory at the Battle of Julu against the Qin armies led by Zhang Han. After the fall of the Qin Dynasty, Xiang Yu proclaimed himself "Hegemon-King of Western Chu" (Template:Zh) and ruled a vast area of land covering parts of present-day Shanxi, Henan, Hubei, Hunan and Jiangsu, with Pengcheng (present-day Xuzhou) as his capital city. He engaged Liu Bang, founder of the Han Dynasty, in a long struggle for power, known as the Chu–Han contention, that concluded with his eventual defeat and suicide at the bank of the Wu River.


Birth and family backgroundEdit

There are two accounts of Xiang's family background. The first claimed that Xiang was from the house of Mi (羋), the royal family of the Chu state. His ancestors were granted the land of Xiang (項) by the king of Chu and had since adopted "Xiang" as their family name. The other account claimed that Xiang was a descendant of a noble clan from the Lu state and his family had served the Chu rulers as military leaders for generations. Xiang's grandfather, Xiang Yan, was a famous military commander who led the Chu army in resisting the Qin invaders led by Wang Jian, and was killed in action when Qin conquered Chu in 223 BC.

Xiang was born in 232 BC in the late Warring States Period when the Qin state started annexing the other six major states. His father was Xiang Chao (項超), the oldest son of Xiang Yan.Template:Citation needed Xiang was raised by his uncle, Xiang Liang, as his father died early. In 221 BC, when Xiang was about 11-years-old, Qin finally unified China and established the Qin Dynasty under Qin Shi Huang's rulership.

Xiang had a double pupil in one of his eyes[1] just like the ancient Chinese rulers Shun and Duke Wen of Jin before him. He was thus seen as an extraordinary person because his unique double pupil was a mark of a king or sage in Chinese tradition. Xiang was slightly taller than eight chi (approximately 1.85 metres, about 6' 1") and possessed unusual physical strength as he could lift a Ding (an ancient Chinese vessel resembling a giant cauldron on tripods).[1]

Early daysEdit

In his younger days, Xiang was instructed in scholarly arts and swordsmanship but he did not manage to master what he was taught, and his uncle Xiang Liang was not very satisfied with him.[1] Xiang said, "Books are only useful in helping me remember my name. Mastering swordsmanship allows me to face only one opponent, so it's not worth learning. I want to learn how to defeat ten thousand enemies."[1][2][3] Hence, his uncle tried to educate him in military strategy and warfare tactics instead, but Xiang stopped learning after he had grasped the main ideas.[1][3] Xiang Liang was disappointed with his nephew, who showed no sign of motivation or apparent talent apart from his great strength, and gave up and let Xiang Yu decide his own future.[1][3]

When Xiang became older, his uncle killed someone and they fled to Wu (present-day southern Jiangsu) to evade the authorities. At that time, Qin Shi Huang was on an inspection tour in that area and Xiang watched the emperor's procession pass by with his uncle. Xiang said, "I can replace him (Qin Shi Huang)." (彼可取而代之).[1] Xiang Liang was shocked and immediately covered his nephew's mouth with his hand. Since then, Xiang Liang began to see his nephew in a different light.

Rebellion against the Qin DynastyEdit

In 209 BC, during the reign of Qin Er Shi (successor of Qin Shi Huang), peasant rebellions erupted throughout China to overthrow the Qin Dynasty, plunging China into a state of anarchy. Yin Tong, Grand Administrator of Kuaiji, wanted to start a rebellion as well, so he invited Xiang Liang to meet him and discuss their plans. However, the Xiangs lured Yin into a trap and killed him instead, with Xiang Yu personally striking down dozens of Yin's men. Xiang Liang initiated the rebellion himself and rallied about 8,000 men to support him. Xiang Liang proclaimed himself Grand Administrator of Kuaiji while appointing Xiang Yu as General. Xiang Liang's rebel force grew in size until it was between 60,000 to 70,000. In 208 BC, Xiang Liang installed Mi Xin as King Huai II of Chu to rally support from those eager to help him overthrow the Qin Dynasty and restore the former Chu state. Xiang Yu distinguished himself as a competent military leader and powerful warrior on the battlefield while participating in the battles against the Qin forces.

Later that year, Xiang Liang was killed in the Battle of Dingtao against the Qin army led by Zhang Han and the military power of Chu fell into the hands of the king and some other generals. In the winter of 208 BC, another rebel force claiming to restore the Zhao state, led by Zhao Xie, was besieged in Handan by Zhang Han's troops and Zhao requested for reinforcements from Chu. King Huai II granted Xiang Yu the title of "Marquis of Lu" (魯公), and placed him second-in-command to Song Yi to lead an army to reinforce Zhao Xie. At the same time, the king placed Liu Bang in command of another army to attack Guanzhong, the heartland of Qin. The king promised that whoever managed to enter Guanzhong first will be conferred the title of "King of Guanzhong".

Battle of JuluEdit

Template:Main The Chu army led by Song Yi and Xiang reached Anyang, some distance away from Julu (in present-day Xingtai, Hebei), where Zhao Xie's forces had retreated to. Song ordered the troops to lay camp there for 46 days and he refused to accept Xiang Yu's suggestion to proceed further. Xiang took Song by surprise in a military conference and killed him on charges of treason. The other deputy generals were afraid of Xiang and let him become the acting-commander. Xiang sent a messenger to inform King Huai II and the king approved Xiang's command.

In 207 BC, Xiang's army advanced towards Julu and he sent Ying Bu and Zhongli Mo to lead the 20,000 strong vanguard army to cross the river and attack the Qin forces led by Zhang Han, while he followed behind with the remaining majority of the troops. In a decision which has become legendary in Chinese history, after crossing the river, Xiang ordered his men to sink their boats and destroy all but three days worth of rations, in order to force his men to choose between prevailing against overwhelming odds within three days or die trapped before the walls of the city with no supplies or hope of escape. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Chu forces scored a great victory after nine engagements, defeating the 300,000 strong Qin army. After the battle, other rebel forces, including those not from Chu, came to join Xiang out of admiration for his martial valor. When Xiang received them at the gate, the rebel generals were so fearful of him that they sank to their knees and did not even dare to look up at him.

The defeated Zhang Han sent his deputy Sima Xin to Xianyang to request for reinforcements and supplies from the emperor. Zhao Gao deceived the emperor and the emperor dismissed Zhang's request. Zhao even sent assassins to kill Sima on his return journey later, but Sima managed to escape and return to Zhang. In dire straits, Zhang and his 200,000 troops eventually surrendered to Xiang in the summer of 207 BC. Xiang perceived the surrendered Qin troops as disloyal and a liability, and had them executed by burying them alive at Xinan. Zhang, along with Sima and Dong Yi, were spared from death. Xiang appointed Zhang as "King of Yong", while Sima and Dong were respectively conferred the titles of "King of Sai" and "King of Di".

Feast at Hong GateEdit

Template:Main After his victory in the Battle of Julu, Xiang prepared for an invasion on Guanzhong, the heartland of the Qin Dynasty. In the winter of 207 BC, the last Qin ruler Ziying surrendered to Liu Bang's army in Xianyang (capital city of Qin), bringing an end to the Qin Dynasty. When Xiang arrived at Hangu Pass, the eastern gateway to Guanzhong, he saw that the pass was occupied by Liu's troops, a sign that Guanzhong was already under Liu's control. Liu's general Cao Wushang sent a messenger to see Xiang, saying that Liu would become King of Guanzhong in accordance with King Huai II's earlier promise, while Ziying would be appointed as Liu's Chancellor. Xiang was furious after hearing that. At that time, he had about 400,000 troops under his command while Liu only had a quarter of that number.

As strongly encouraged by his advisor Fan Zeng, Xiang invited Liu to attend a banquet at Hong Gate and intended to kill Liu during the feast. However, Xiang listened to his uncle Xiang Bo (a friend of Liu's strategist Zhang Liang) instead and spared Liu's life. Liu escaped later under the pretext of going to the latrine.

Xiang paid no attention to Liu's presumptive title and led his troops into Xianyang in 206 BC. Xiang ordered the execution of Ziying and his family, as well as the destruction of the Epang Palace by fire. It was said that Xiang would leave behind a trail of destruction in the places he passed by, and the people of Guanzhong were greatly disappointed with him.[4]

Despite advice from his subjects to remain in Guanzhong and continue with his conquests, Xiang was insistent on returning to his homeland in Chu. He said, "To not return home when one has made his fortune is equivalent to walking on the streets at night in glamorous outfits. Who would notice that?"[1][5] One of his followers said, "It is indeed true when people say that the men of Chu are apes dressed in human clothing."[1][6] Xiang had that man boiled alive when he heard that insult.[1]

Division of the empireEdit

Template:See also After the downfall of the Qin Dynasty, Xiang offered King Huai II the more honourable title of "Emperor Yi of Chu" and announced his decision to divide the former Qin empire. Xiang declared himself "Hegemon-King of Western Chu" (西楚霸王) and ruled nine commanderies in the former Liang and Chu territories, with his capital city at Pengcheng (present-day Xuzhou). In the spring of 206 BC, Xiang divided the empire into eighteen kingdoms, to be granted to his subordinates and some leaders of the former anti-Qin forces. He moved some of the rulers of other states to more remote areas and granted the land of Guanzhong to the three surrendered Qin generals, ignoring Emperor Yi's earlier promise to appoint Liu Bang as king of that region. Liu was moved to the remote Hanzhong area instead and given the title of "King of Han" (漢王).

Xiang appointed several generals from the rebel coalition forces as regional kings, even though these generals were subordinates of other lords, who should rightfully become the kings in place of their followers. Xiang also left out some other important rebel leaders who did not support him earlier, but did contribute to the overthrow of Qin. In winter, Xiang moved Emperor Yi to the remote area of Chen County (present-day Chenzhou, Hunan), effectively sending the puppet emperor into exile. At the same time, he issued a secret order to the regional kings in that area and had the emperor assassinated during his journey (205 BCE). The emperor's death was later used by Liu Bang as political propaganda to justify his war against Xiang Yu.

Shortly after the death of Emperor Yi, Xiang had Han Cheng (King of Han) put to death and seized Han's lands for himself. Several months later, Tian Rong (Chancellor of Qi) took control over the Three Qis (Jiaodong, Qi and Jibei) from their respective kings and reinstated Tian Fu as the King of Qi, but he took over the throne himself afterwards. Similarly, Chen Yu, a former co-Chancellor of Zhao, led an uprising against the King of Changshan, Zhang Er, and seized Zhang's domain and reinstalled Zhao Xie as the King of Zhao.

Chu–Han contentionEdit

Template:Main In 206 BC, Liu Bang led his forces to attack Guanzhong. At that time, Xiang was at war with Qi and did not focus on resisting the Han forces. The following year, Liu formed an alliance with another five kingdoms and attacked Western Chu with a 560,000 strong army, capturing Xiang's capital city of Pengcheng. Upon hearing that, Xiang led 30,000 men to attack Liu and defeated the latter at the Battle of Pengcheng, with the Han army suffering heavy casualties.

Liu Bang managed to escape after his defeat with Xiang's troops on pursuit. The Han forces retreated to Xingyang and defended the city firmly, preventing the Chu troops from advancing west any further, but only managed to hold on until 204 BC. Liu's general Ji Xin disguised himself as his lord and surrendered to Xiang, buying time for Liu Bang to escape. When Xiang learnt that he had been fooled, he was furious and had Ji burnt to death. After the fall of Xingyang, the Chu and Han forces were divided on two fronts along present-day Henan. However, Xiang's forces were not faring well on the battlefront north of the Yellow River, as the Han army led by Han Xin defeated his troops in every single battle. At the same time, Liu's ally Peng Yue led his men to harass Xiang's rear.

By 203 BC, the tide has turned in favour of Han. Xiang managed to capture Liu's father after a year-long siege and he threatened to boil Liu's father alive if Liu refused to surrender. Liu remarked that he and Xiang were sworn brothers,[7] so if Xiang killed Liu's father, he would be guilty of patricide. Xiang requested for an armistice, known as the Treaty of Hong Canal, and returned the hostages he captured back to Liu as part of their agreement. The treaty divided China into east and west under the Chu and Han domains respectively.

Shortly after, as Xiang was retreating eastwards, Liu renounced the treaty and led his forces to attack Western Chu. Liu sent messengers to Han Xin and Peng Yue, requesting for their assistance in forming a three-pronged attack on Xiang, but Han and Peng did not mobilize their troops and Liu was defeated by Xiang at the Battle of Guling. Liu retreated and reinforced his defenses, while sending emissaries to Han and Peng, promising to grant them fiefs and titles of regional kings if they would join him in attacking Western Chu.

Defeat and downfallEdit

Template:Main In 202 BC, Han armies led by Liu Bang, Han Xin and Peng Yue attacked Western Chu from three sides and trapped Xiang's army, which was low on supplies, in the Battle of Gaixia. Liu ordered his troops to sing folk songs from the Chu region, to create a false impression that Xiang's native land of Chu had been conquered by the Han forces. The morale of the Chu army plummeted and many of Xiang's troops deserted in despair. Xiang sank into a state of depression and he sang the famous Song of Gaixia. His concubine Consort Yu committed suicide. The next morning, Xiang led about 800 of his remaining elite cavalry on a desperate attempt to break out of the encirclement, with 5000 enemy troops hot on pursuit.

After crossing the Huai River, Xiang was only left with a few hundred soldiers. They were lost in Yinling and Xiang asked for directions from a farmer, who directed him wrongly to a swamp. When Xiang reached Dongcheng, only 28 men were left, with the Han troops still following him. Xiang made a speech to his men, saying that his downfall was due to Heaven's will and not his personal failure. After that, he led a charge out of the encirclement, killing one Han general in the battle. Xiang then split his men into three groups to confuse the enemy and induce them to split up as well to attack the three groups. Xiang took the Han troops by surprise again and slew another Han general, inflicting about 100 casualties on the enemy, while he only lost two men.



Xiang retreated to Wu River (near present-day He County, Chaohu City, Anhui) and the ferryman at the ford prepared a boat for him to cross the river, strongly encouraging him to do so because Xiang still had the support of the people from his homeland in the south. Xiang said that he was too ashamed to return home and face his people because none of the first 8,000 men from Jiangdong who followed him on his conquests managed to survive. He refused to cross and ordered his remaining men to dismount, asking the ferryman to take his beloved war horse Zhui (騅) back home.

As he refused, his remaining men decided to stay, but Xiang ordered them to go back on the boat.

In another account of Xiang's death, before his suicide, he saw an old friend Lü Matong among the Han soldiers. Xiang said, "I heard that the King of Han (Liu Bang) had put a price of 1000 gold and the title of Marquis of Wanhu[8] on my head. Take it then, on account of our friendship."Template:Citation needed Xiang then committed suicide.

A brawl broke out among the Han soldiers at the scene due to the reward offered by Liu Bang, and Xiang's body was said to be dismembered and mutilated in the fight. The reward was eventually claimed by Lü Matong and five others. After the death of Xiang, Western Chu surrendered and China was united under Liu Bang's rule, marking the start of the Han Dynasty. Liu held a grand state funeral for Xiang in Yicheng (in present-day Shandong), with the ceremony befitting Xiang's title of "Marquis of Lu". Xiang's relatives were spared from death, including Xiang Bo, who saved Liu's life at the Feast at Hong Gate, and they were granted titles of marquesses.Template:Citation needed

Song of GaixiaEdit

The Song of Gaixia (垓下歌)[9] was written by Xiang while he was trapped by Liu Bang's forces at Gaixia (in present-day Lingbi County, Anhui).


Song of Gaixia


My strength plucked up the hills,
My might shadowed the world;


But the times were against me,
And Dapple[10] runs no more;


When Dapple runs no more,
What then can I do?


Ah, Yu, my Yu,
What will your fate be?


Historian Sima Qian, author of Records of the Grand Historian, described Xiang as someone who boasts about his achievements and thinks highly of himself. Xiang preferred to depend on his personal abilities as opposed to learning with humility from others before him. Sima felt that Xiang had failed to see his own shortcomings and to make attempts to correct his mistakes, even until his death. Sima thought that it was ridiculous when Xiang claimed that his downfall was due to Heaven's will and not his personal failure.[1]

Liu Bang's general Han Xin, who was one of Xiang's opponents on the battlefield, made a statement criticizing Xiang: "A man who turns into a fierce warrior when he encounters a rival stronger than he is, but also one who is sympathetic and soft-hearted when he sees someone weaker than he is. Neither was he able to make good use of capable generals nor was he able to support Emperor Yi of Chu, as he killed the emperor. Even though he had the name of a conqueror, he had already lost the favour of the people."[11]

The Tang Dynasty poet Du Mu mentioned Xiang in one of his poems Ti Wujiang Ting (題烏江亭): "Victory or defeat is common in battle. One who can endure humiliation is a true man. There are several talents in Jiangdong, who knows if he (Xiang Yu) can make a comeback?"[12] However, the Song Dynasty poet Wang Anshi had a different opinion, as he stated: "The warrior is already tired after so many battles. His defeat in the Central Plains is hard to reverse. Although there are talents in Jiangdong, are they willing to help him?"[13] The Song Dynasty female poet Li Qingzhao wrote: "A hero in life, a king of ghosts after death. Until now we still remember Xiang Yu, who refused to return to Jiangdong."[14]

Mao Zedong also mentioned Xiang once, saying that "We should use our remaining strength to defeat the enemy, instead of thinking about achieving fame like the Conqueror."[15] In 1964, Mao also pointed out three reasons for Xiang's downfall: Not following Fan Zeng's advice to kill Liu Bang at the Feast at Hong Gate and letting Liu leave; Adhering firmly to the terms of the peace treaty (without considering that Liu Bang might betray his trust); Building his capital city at Pengcheng (present-day Xuzhou).

Xiang is popularly viewed as a leader who possesses great courage but lacks wisdom, and his character is aptly summarized using the Chinese idiom "Yǒu Yǒng Wú Móu" (有勇無謀)[16], meaning 'has courage but lacks tactics', 'foolhardy'. Xiang's battle tactics were studied by future military leaders while his political blunders served as cautionary tales for future rulers.Template:Citation needed Another Chinese idiom, "Sì Miàn Chǔ Gē" (四面楚歌; literally: surrounded by Chu songs), was also derived from the Battle of Gaixia, and used to describe someone in a desperate situation without help. Another saying by Liu Bang, "Having a Fan Zeng but unable to use him" (有一范增而不能用), was also used to describe Xiang's reliance on his advisor Fan Zeng and failure to actually listen to Fan's advice.Template:Citation needed

Historian John Keay cites Xiang Yu as the most accomplished general in Chinese history.[17]

In popular cultureEdit

Xiang's might and prowess in battle has been glorified in Chinese folk tales and poetry, especially in his final battle.[18] However, his ambitions ended with the collapse of Western Chu, his defeat by Liu Bang, and death at the early age of 30. He is also the subject of films, television, plays, Chinese operas, video games and comics. His classic image is that of a heroic and brave, but arrogant and bloodthirsty warrior-king. His romance with his concubine Consort Yu and his suicide have also added a touch of a tragic hero to his character.

Xiang is also depicted as a ruthless leader, in sharp contrast to his rival, Liu Bang. He was a mass murderer, ordering the massacres of entire cities when they refused to surrender and put up strong resistance. The most notorious example of his cruelty was when he ordered the 200,000 surrendered Qin troops to be buried alive after the Battle of Julu,[19][20] and the gruesome methods of execution he employed against his enemies and critics. Conversely, Liu is portrayed as a shrewd and cunning ruler who can be brutal at times.[21] However, Liu did forbid his troops from looting the cities they captured and he spared the lives of the citizens, earning their support and trust in return. Xiang's story became an example for Confucianists to advocate the idea that leaders should rule with benevolence and not govern by instilling fear in the people.

In Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, Sun Ce is nicknamed "Little Conqueror" (小霸王) and is often compared favorably to Xiang by his contemporaries. In Chinese history, Sun is best remembered for his conquests in the Jiangdong region that laid the foundation of the state of Eastern Wu in the Three Kingdoms era. In Water Margin, another of the Four Great Classical Novels, Zhou Tong, one of the 108 outlaws, is nicknamed "Little Conqueror" for his resemblance to Xiang in appearance.

The Meng Ch'iu, an eighth-century Chinese primer, contains the four-character rhyming couplet: "Ji Xin impersonates the Emperor". It referred to the episode in the Battle of Xingyang when Ji and 2,000 women disguised themselves as Liu Bang and his army, to distract Xiang in order to buy time for Liu to escape from the city of Xingyang.[22]

A famous Beijing opera, Bawang Bieji (霸王别姬; The Conqueror bids his concubine farewell), depicts the events of Xiang's defeat at the Battle of Gaixia. The title of the play was borrowed as the Chinese title for Chen Kaige's award-winning motion picture Farewell My Concubine. "The Works of Xiang Yu" are a central theme in the Firefly episode, "War Stories", which deals with sadism and torture.

In the last episode of the 2001 Hong Kong TV series A Step into the Past, the son of Xiang Shaolong, the time traveling protagonist, says he wants to change his name to "Yu" (literally means "feather") because he admires the flying birds. His father is shocked to realize that his son is actually the future Hegemon-King of Western Chu.

Xiang is one of the 32 historical figures who appear as special characters in the video game Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI by Koei. He is also featured as a non-playable character (NPC) in the action RPG Prince of Qin.



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