Chu–Han Contention

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Chu-Han Contention
Date 206–202 BC
Location China
Result Han victory
Belligerents
Han Western Chu
Commanders and leaders
Liu Bang
Han Xin
Cao Shen
Fan Kuai
Ying Bu
Peng Yue
Xiang Yu 
Long Ju 
Ji Bu
Zhongli Mo
Chu–Han Contention
Traditional Chinese 楚漢戰爭
Simplified Chinese 楚汉战争

The Chu–Han Contention (206–202 BC) was an interregnum between the Qin dynasty and the Han dynasty in Chinese history. Following the collapse of the Qin dynasty in 206 BC, Xiang Yu split the former Qin Empire into the Eighteen Kingdoms. Two major contending powers, Western Chu and Han, emerged from these kingdoms and engaged in a struggle for supremacy over China. Western Chu was led by Xiang Yu, while the Han leader was Liu Bang. During this period of time, some of the other kingdoms also fought battles against each other and/or against Han or Western Chu. These battles were largely independent of the main conflict between Western Chu and Han. The war ended in 202 BC with total victory for Han, after which China was unified under the Han dynasty with Liu Bang as the dynasty's first emperor.

Background[edit]

Timeline of events
Year Events
207 BC
  • A coalition rebel army led by Xiang Yu defeats Qin forces led by Zhang Han at the Battle of Julu.
  • End of the Qin dynasty.
    • The last Qin emperor Ziying surrenders to Liu Bang.
  • Liu Bang's army occupies the Qin capital Xianyang.
206 BC
  • Feast at Hong Gate
  • Xiang Yu's army occupies Xianyang and sacks the city.
  • Xiang Yu promotes King Huai II of Chu to "Emperor Yi of Chu", and moves the emperor to Chen County.
  • Xiang Yu divides the former Qin Empire into the Eighteen Kingdoms.
    • Xiang Yu declares himself "Hegemon-King of Western Chu".
    • Liu Bang is granted the title of "King of Han".
  • Han Xin leaves Western Chu and joins Han.
  • Rebellion in Qi
    • Tian Rong conquers the Kingdom of Qi. Qi's ruler Tian Du flees to Western Chu.
    • Tian Rong conquers the Kingdom of Jiaodong and kills its ruler Tian Fu.
  • Xiang Yu kills Han Cheng (King of Hán).
  • Zhang Liang joins Han.
  • Liu Bang appoints Han Xin as a general.
  • Tian Rong sends Peng Yue to conquer the Kingdom of Jibei and kill its ruler Tian An.
  • Ying Bu (King of Jiujiang) kills Emperor Yi of Chu.
  • Han forces secretly pass through Chencang.
Start of the Chu–Han contention
Year Events
206 BC
  • Zhang Han (King of Yong) is defeated by Han forces. He retreats to Feiqiu.
  • Dong Yi (King of Di) and Sima Xin (King of Sai) surrender to Han.
  • Zang Tu (King of Yan) kills Han Guang (King of Liaodong).
  • Xiang Yu appoints Zheng Chang as the King of Hán.
  • Zhao Tuo proclaims himself "King Wu of Nanyue".
  • Shen Yang (King of Henan) surrenders to Han.
  • Rebellion in Zhao
    • Chen Yu conquers the Kingdom of Changshan. Zhang Er (King of Changshan) flees to Han.
    • Chen Yu helps Zhao Xie (King of Dai) become the King of Zhao, and replaces Zhao Xie as the King of Dai.
  • Hán Xin conquers the Kingdom of Hán with support from Han. Zheng Chang surrenders.
205 BC
  • Xiang Yu attacks Tian Rong. Tian Rong retreats to Pingyuan and is killed there. Xiang Yu appoints Tian Jia as the King of Qi.
  • Wei Bao (King of Wei) surrenders to Han.
  • Sima Ang (King of Yin) is captured by Han forces.
  • Tian Jia is defeated by Tian Heng (Tian Rong's younger brother).
    • Tian Jia is killed by Xiang Yu after joining Western Chu.
    • Tian Heng helps Tian Guang (Tian Rong's son) become the King of Qi.
  • Battle of Pengcheng
  • Peng Yue joins Han.
  • Battle of Jingsuo
    • Liu Bang occupies Xingyang. Han forces start building supply routes linking Xingyang and Aocang.
  • Liu Bang names his son Liu Ying as his crown prince.
    • Han forces flood Feiqiu. Zhang Han commits suicide.
  • Battle of Anyi
  • Han Xin conquers the Kingdom of Dai and captures its chancellor Xia Shuo.
  • Battle of Jingxing
  • Han Xin receives the surrender of the Kingdom of Yan.
  • Ying Bu (King of Jiujiang) defects to Han.
204 BC
  • Western Chu attacks Han supply lines.
  • Xiang Yu dismisses Fan Zeng after falling for Chen Ping's ruse. Fan Zeng dies of illness on his journey home.
  • Battle of Xingyang
  • Yuan Sheng advises Liu Bang to attack the cities of Wan and Ye.
  • Peng Yue defeats Chu forces at Xiapi.
  • Xiang Yu turns back to attack Peng Yue. Liu Bang uses the opportunity to seize Chenggao.
  • Xiang Yu defeats Peng Yue, conquers Xingyang, and besieges Liu Bang in Chenggao.
  • Liu Bang breaks out of the siege and escapes to Zhao. Liu Bang takes over Han Xin and Zhang Er's command of the Han army in Zhao.
  • Gong Ao (King of Linjiang) dies and is succeeded by his son Gong Wei.
  • Liu Bang sends Li Yiji to Qi to persuade Tian Guang (King of Qi) to surrender.
  • Battle of Si River
  • Han Xin attacks Qi and conquers Lixia and Linzi (Qi's capital). Li Yiji is executed by Tian Guang.
  • Battle of Wei River
    • Long Ju is killed in action.
    • Tian Guang is killed while trying to escape. Tian Heng proclaims himself the King of Qi.
  • Liu Bang appoints Zhang Er as the King of Zhao.
203 BC
202 BC
End of the Chu–Han contention
Year Events
202 BC
Further information: History of the Han dynasty

In 221 BC, the Qin state unified China by conquering the other six major states and established the Qin dynasty. However, the dynasty lasted 16 years only as its rule was extremely unpopular due to its oppressive policies. In 209 BC, Chen Sheng and Wu Guang led the Dazexiang Uprising to overthrow Qin. Although the uprising was crushed, several other rebellions erupted consecutively all around China over the next three years. Many rebel forces claimed to be restoring the former six states and numerous pretenders to the thrones of the states emerged, resulting in the formation of many insurgent states. In 206 BCE, the last Qin emperor Ziying surrendered to Liu Bang, bringing an end to the Qin dynasty.

Among all the rebel forces, the most powerful one was the Chu kingdom. Xiang Yu, a Chu general, won the support of many other rebel leaders after his victory at the Battle of Julu, and served as the de facto leader of all the insurgent forces. Upon the collapse of the Qin dynasty, Xiang Yu divided the former Qin Empire into the Eighteen Kingdoms, each governed by a vassal king, and gave King Huai II of Chu a more honorific title, "Emperor Yi of Chu". However, the emperor was merely a puppet ruler, as the power of Chu was in the hands of Xiang Yu. About a year later, Xiang Yu relocated Emperor Yi to the remote Chen County (郴縣; present-day Chenzhou, Hunan), effectively sending the puppet ruler into exile. He secretly ordered Ying Bu (King of Jiujiang) to murder Emperor Yi while the emperor was on his way to Chen County.

During the division of the Eighteen Kingdoms, Xiang Yu appointed some rebel generals as vassal kings, even though these generals were subordinates of other lords, who should rightfully be the kings instead. Besides, the Guanzhong region was granted to three surrendered Qin generals, even though the land was rightfully Liu Bang's, according to an earlier promise by Emperor Yi. Liu Bang was sent to the remote Bashu region (巴蜀; in present-day Sichuan) instead and was granted the title of "King of Han" (漢王). Xiang Yu proclaimed himself "Hegemon-King of Western Chu" (西楚霸王) and ruled nine commanderies in the former Liang and Chu territories, with his capital at Pengcheng (彭城; present-day Xuzhou, Jiangsu).

Initial stages[edit]

Rebellions in Qi and Zhao[edit]

In 206 BC, Xiang Yu appointed Liu Bang as the "King of Han" by Xiang Yu and gave him Bashu (巴蜀; in present-day Sichuan) as his domain. Liu Bang had about 30,000 troops under his command then and several thousand civilians with him. After reaching his destination, Liu Bang ordered the gallery roads leading into Bashu to be destroyed as a precautionary move against any possible attack from the rear and to trick Xiang Yu that he had no intention of leaving Bashu.

Meanwhile, in the former Qi state, Tian Rong (Qi's chancellor) was unhappy with Xiang Yu's allocation of Qi territories, so he rebelled against the vassal kings of Jiaodong, Qi and Jibei (collectively known as the Three Qis). Tian Rong conquered the Three Qis and instated Tian Fu as the King of Qi, but took over the throne himself later. Tian Rong put Peng Yue in charge of his army and ordered Peng to attack Western Chu. Tian Rong also sent troops to support another rebellion in the former Zhao state, led by Chen Yu, a former Zhao vice-chancellor. In 205 BC, Chen Yu overthrew Zhang Er (King of Changshan), seized Zhang's domain and installed Zhao Xie (King of Dai) on the throne of Zhao. Xiang Yu felt threatened by the rebellions in Qi and Zhao so he led his forces to attack Tian Rong.

Han conquest of the Three Qins[edit]

While Xiang Yu was away suppressing the rebellions, Liu Bang used the opportunity to attack the Three Qins in Guanzhong. Liu Bang's general Han Xin ordered his men to pretend to repair the gallery roads in order to put Zhang Han (King of Yong) off guard, while secretly making advances through Chencang (陳倉; present-day Chencang District, Baoji, Shaanxi). Zhang Han was taken by surprise and defeated by the Han forces in two consecutive battles. Taking advantage of the victory, Liu Bang proceeded to conquer Longxi (隴西), Beidi (北地) and Shangjun (上郡). Liu Bang also sent his men to fetch his family in Pei (沛; in present-day Xuzhou, Jiangsu). Upon hearing news of Liu Bang's attacks, Xiang Yu sent an army to Yangxia (陽夏) to intercept the Han army, and appointed Zheng Chang as the "King of Hán" to help him cover his flank. In Yan, Zang Tu killed Han Guang (King of Liaodong), seized Han Guang's lands and proclaimed himself the ruler of a unified Yan state.

Battle of Pengcheng[edit]

Main article: Battle of Pengcheng

In 205 BC, after establishing his base in Guanzhong, Liu Bang advanced his forces east of Hangu Pass to conquer the Henan region. Sima Xin (King of Sai), Dong Yi (King of Di) and Shen Yang (King of Henan) surrendered to Liu Bang. Zheng Chang (King of Hán) refused to submit to Liu Bang and was defeated by Liu's general Han Xin in battle. He was replaced by Hán Xin as the King of Hán. Zhang Er (former King of Changshan) came to join Liu Bang after losing his domain to Zhao Xie and Chen Yu. In the third month, Liu Bang attacked Henei (河內) with help from Wei Bao (King of Western Wei). When Liu Bang received news that Emperor Yi of Chu had been murdered on Xiang Yu's order, he held a memorial service for the emperor, accused Xiang of committing regicide, and used that incident as political propaganda to justify his war against Western Chu.

In the fourth month of 205 BC, Xiang Yu defeated Tian Rong at Chengyang (城陽) and the latter was killed during his retreat to Pingyuan. Although the Qi kingdom had surrendered to Western Chu, Xiang Yu did not appease the people and instead allowed his troops to loot and plunder Qi territories. Tian Rong's younger brother Tian Heng installed Tian Guang (Tian Rong's son) on the Qi throne, and continued to lead resistance against Chu. Meanwhile, Liu Bang had mustered an army of about 560,000 men with support from the surrendered vassal kings. In the eighth month, Chu's capital Pengcheng (彭城; present-day Xuzhou, Jiangsu) fell to the coalition forces led by Liu Bang. When Xiang Yu received news that Liu Bang had occupied Pengcheng, he led 30,000 troops back to retake Pengcheng. Liu Bang was caught off guard and his army suffered heavy casualties and his family was captured by Chu forces. After the battle, Han lost its territorial gains in Chu and its allies.

Battle of Jingsuo[edit]

After their defeat at Pengcheng, the strength of the Han forces decreased drastically. Liu Bang's family members were captured by Chu forces and kept as hostages. Besides, many of the vassal kings who had surrendered to Liu Bang earlier defected to Xiang Yu's side after Liu Bang's defeat. Moreover, the Qi and Zhao kingdoms, which were previously at war with Chu, also requested to make peace with Chu.

Upon reaching Xiayi (下邑; east of present-day Dangshan County, Suzhou, Anhui), which was defended by his brother-in-law, Liu Bang reorganised his troops for a retreat. When he arrived at Yu (虞; present-day Yucheng County, Shangqiu, Henan), Liu Bang sent an envoy to meet Ying Bu (King of Jiujiang). Ying Bu agreed to join Liu Bang and he rebelled against Western Chu. Xiang Yu sent Long Ju to lead an army to attack Ying Bu.

In the sixth month of 205 BCE, Liu Bang named his son Liu Ying as his crown prince, and ordered him to defend Yueyang (櫟陽; present-day Yanliang District, Xi'an, Shaanxi). Shortly after, Han forces conquered Feiqiu (廢丘; present-day Xingping, Shaanxi), which was guarded by Zhang Han. Zhang Han committed suicide.

On another front, Ying Bu was unable to defeat Long Ju so he gave up on Jiujiang and went to join Liu Bang. Liu Bang reorganised his army, which now included reinforcements from Guanzhong (sent by Xiao He) and Han Xin's troops. Liu Bang's forces attacked Chu at Jing County (京縣; around present-day Xingyang, Zhengzhou, Henan) and Suoting (索亭; near present-day Xingyang, Henan) and scored a victory, driving Xiang Yu's forces east of Xingyang.

Northern front[edit]

Battle of Anyi[edit]

In 205 BC, Wei Bao (King of Wei) left Liu Bang on the pretext of visiting an ill relative and secretly returned to his domain. He pledged allegiance to Xiang Yu and rebelled against Liu Bang. Liu Bang sent Li Yiji to persuade Wei Bao to surrender but Wei refused, so Liu ordered Han Xin to lead an army to attack Wei.

Wei Bao stationed his army at Puban (蒲阪) and blocked the route to Linjin. Han Xin tricked Wei Bao into believing that he was planning to attack Linjin (臨晉), while secretly sending a force from Xiayang (夏陽) to cross the river and attack Anyi (安邑; present-day Xia County, Yuncheng, Shanxi). In the ninth month, Wei Bao personally led an attack on Han Xin but lost the battle and was captured. Wei Bao surrendered. Liu Bang accepted Wei Bao's surrender and appointed him as a general. In the ninth month, Han Xin led his army to attack the Kingdom of Dai with support from Zhang Er (former King of Changshan), and scored another decisive victory against Dai, capturing Dai's chancellor Xia Shuo in battle.

Battle of Jingxing[edit]

Main article: Battle of Jingxing

After achieving victory over the Dai kingdom, Han Xin and Zhang Er led an army to attack the Zhao kingdom at Jingxing Pass. Zhao Xie (King of Zhao) and his chancellor Chen Yu led a 200,000 strong army to resist the Han forces. The Zhao general Li Zuoche proposed a plan to trap Han Xin within 10 days: Li Zuoche would lead 30,000 men to disrupt Han Xin's supply route and block his return route, while Chen Yu would defend the frontline firmly and prevent Han Xin from advancing. However, Chen Yu refused to accept Li Zuoche's plan.

The evening before the battle, Han Xin sent 2,000 horsemen, each carrying a flag of the Han army, to station near the Zhao camp. The next morning, Han Xin feigned defeat in a skirmish with Zhao forces, luring them to follow him, while his 2,000 men proceeded to capture the Zhao camp. Meanwhile, the Zhao soldiers retreated after failing to conquer Han Xin's fort, and were surprised to see that their camp had been overrun by Han forces. The Zhao army fell into chaos and Han Xin seized the opportunity to launch a counterattack and scored a victory. Chen Yu was killed in action while Zhao Xie and Li Zuoche were captured.

Battle of Wei River[edit]

Main article: Battle of Wei River

In 204 BC, the Yan kingdom surrendered to Han Xin, and Zhang Er was appointed as the King of Zhao. Xiang Yu constantly sent his armies to attack Zhao but Han Xin and Zhang Er managed to hold their positions. Xiang Yu then turned its attention towards Xingyang, where Liu Bang was stationed. Liu Bang was forced to retreat to Chenggao, where he was besieged by Xiang Yu. Eventually, he had no choice but to head north of the Yellow River to join Han Xin. In a surprise move, Liu Bang took over Han Xin and Zhang Er's command of the army in Zhao. He then ordered Han Xin to lead an army to attack the Qi kingdom.

Just as Han Xin was preparing to attack Qi, Liu Bang sent Li Yiji to persuade Tian Guang (King of Qi) to surrender, without informing Han Xin. Tian Guang decided to surrender and ordered his troops to withdraw from Lixia (歷下; present-day Lixia District, Jinan, Shandong). However, Han Xin was not aware that Tian Guang had the intention of surrendering, so he followed Kuai Tong's advice to attack Qi. Han Xin's army conquered Lixia and arrived at Qi's capital Linzi. Tian Guang thought that Li Yiji had lied to him so he had Li executed, after which he retreated to Gaomi and requested aid from Western Chu. Meanwhile, Han Xin conquered Linzi and continued to pursue retreating Qi forces to Gaomi.

Xiang Yu sent Long Ju to lead a 200,000 strong army to help Tian Guang. The allied forces of Qi and Chu lost to Han in the first battle. Someone advised Long Ju to avoid engaging Han Xin directly and focus on strengthening their defences, while asking Tian Guang to rally support from the Qi cities that had fallen to Han. In that case, the Han army would eventually be deprived of supplies and be forced to surrender. However, Long Ju rejected the plan and insisted on attacking Han Xin. In 203 BC, on the night before the battle, Han Xin sent his men to dam the Wei River (濰水) with sandbags. The next morning, after a skirmish with Long Ju's forces, Han Xin feigned retreat, luring Long to follow him. When about a quarter of the Chu army had crossed the river, Han Xin signalled for his men to open the dam, drowning many Chu soldiers and isolating Long Ju with only a fraction of his forces. Taking advantage of the situation, Han Xin launched a counterattack. Long Ju was killed in action and the rest of the Chu army disintegrated as Han Xin continued pressing the attack. Tian Guang fled. Han Xin pursued the retreating enemy forces to Chengyang (城陽).

After his victory, Han Xin swiftly took control of the Qi territories and thereafter sent an envoy to Liu Bang, requesting that Liu appoint him as the King of Qi. At the time, Liu Bang was besieged in Xingyang by Xiang Yu, and he was eagerly waiting for reinforcements from Han Xin. He was furious when he received Han Xin's request. However, eventually, acting on the advice of Zhang Liang and Chen Ping, Liu Bang reluctantly approved Han Xin's request. At the same time, Xiang Yu felt worried after he lost Long Ju, so he sent Wu She to attempt to persuade Han Xin to rebel against Liu Bang and declare himself king. However, despite urging from Kuai Tong, Han Xin firmly refused to betray Liu Bang. Han Xin later organised an army to move southward and attack Western Chu.

Battle of Chenggao and the Treaty of Hong Canal[edit]

On the southern front, Liu Bang's forces started building supply routes from Xingyang to Aocang (敖倉). In 204 BC, after sustaining losses from Chu attacks on the routes, the Han army was running short of supplies. Liu Bang negotiated for peace with Xiang Yu and agreed to cede the lands east of Xingyang to Western Chu. Xiang Yu had the intention of accepting Liu Bang's offer, but Fan Zeng advised him to reject and urged him to use the opportunity to destroy Liu Bang. Xiang Yu changed his mind and pressed the attack on Xingyang, besieging Liu Bang's forces inside the city. Liu Bang heeded Chen Ping's suggestion to bribe Xiang Yu's men with 40,000 catties of gold for them to spread rumours that Fan Zeng had the intention of betraying Xiang Yu. Xiang Yu fell for the ruse and dismissed Fan Zeng.

In late 204 BC, while Xiang Yu was away suppressing the rebellion in the Qi kingdom, Li Yiji advised Liu Bang to use the opportunity to attack Western Chu. Han forces conquered Chenggao and defeated the Chu army, led by Cao Jiu, at a battle near the Si River. Liu Bang's forces advanced further until they reached Guangwu (廣武). Chu forces led by Zhongli Mo were trapped by the Han army at the east of Xingyang. Following Han Xin's victory in the Battle of Wei River, the Chu army's morale fell and it ran short of supplies months later. Xiang Yu had no choice but to request for an armistice and agree to release Liu Bang's family members, who were being held hostage by him. Chu and Han arrived at the Treaty of Hong Canal (鴻溝和約), which divided China into east and west under their respective domains.

End of the war[edit]

In 203 BC, while Xiang Yu was retreating eastward, Liu Bang, acting on the advice of Zhang Liang and Chen Ping, renounced the Treaty of Hong Canal and ordered an attack on Western Chu. He also requested assistance from Han Xin and Peng Yue to form a three-pronged attack on Xiang Yu. However, Han Xin and Peng Yue did not mobilise their troops and Liu Bang was defeated by Xiang Yu at Guling (固陵; south of present-day Taikang County, Zhoukou, Henan). Liu Bang retreated and reinforced his defences. At the same time, he also sent messengers to meet Han Xin and Peng Yue, and promised to give them land and titles if they helped him attack Chu.

Battle of Gaixia[edit]

Main article: Battle of Gaixia

Three months later, in 202 BC, Han forces led by Liu Bang, Han Xin and Peng Yue attacked Western Chu from three directions. The Chu army was running low on supplies and Xiang Yu was trapped in Gaixia (垓下; southeast of present-day Lingbi County, Suzhou, Anhui). Han Xin ordered his troops to sing Chu folk songs to create a false impression that Chu had fallen to Han forces. The Chu army's morale plummeted and many soldiers deserted.

Xiang Yu attempted to break out the siege and was left with only 26 men when he reached the northern bank of the Wu River (near present-day He County, Chaohu City, Anhui). He made a last stand and managed to slay several Han soldiers before eventually committing suicide.

Aftermath[edit]

After Xiang Yu's death, the rest of Western Chu surrendered to Han, and China was unified under Han rule. Liu Bang granted Peng Yue, Ying Bu and Han Xin the titles of "King of Liang", "King of Huainan" and "King of Chu" respectively. Months later, at the urging of his followers and vassals, Liu Bang declared himself Emperor and established the Han dynasty. He built his capital in Luoyang (later moved to Chang'an) and named Lü Zhi his empress, and Liu Ying as the crown prince.

Although Liu Bang initially handsomely rewarded his subjects who helped him become the Emperor, he gradually became suspicious of them over time and started to doubt their loyalties towards him. Han Xin was demoted from "King of Chu" to "Marquis of Huaiyin" in late 202 BC. He was subsequently arrested and executed by Empress Lü in 196 BC for allegedly plotting a rebellion with Chen Xi. In the same year, Liu Bang believed rumours that Peng Yue was also involved in the plot, so he demoted Peng to the status of a commoner. Peng Yue and his family members were subsequently executed on Empress Lü's orders.

Cultural references[edit]

  • Xiangqi (Chinese chess) is often seen as an allegory to the Chu–Han Contention. The middle section of the chess board that divides the players' sides is called the "Chu–Han border" (楚河漢界; lit. "Chu river and Han border"). The red and black sides represent Han and Chu respectively.
  • Two well known music pieces for the pipa depict the Battle of Gaixia from different perspectives — Shi Mian Mai Fu (十面埋伏; Ambush from Ten Sides) and Ba Wang Xie Jia (霸王卸甲; The Hegemon-King Takes Off His Armour).
  • Some chengyu (Chinese idioms) and proverbs originated from the events in the Chu–Han contention. Some examples are listed as follows:
    • "Breaking cauldrons and sinking boats" (破釜沉舟): Originated from the Battle of Julu.
    • Feast at Hong Gate (鴻門宴)
    • "Pretending to repair the gallery roads while secretly passing through Chencang" (明修棧道, 暗度陳倉): Originated from a strategy by Han Xin to capture the Three Qins.
    • "Fighting a battle with one's back facing a river" (背水一戰): Originated from the Battle of Jingxing.
    • "Ambush on ten sides" (十面埋伏): Originated from a strategy by Han Xin to wear down Xiang Yu's forces.
    • "Surrounded by Chu songs" (四面楚歌): Originated from the Battle of Gaixia.

Film[edit]

Television[edit]

Video games[edit]

References[edit]