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 Xiang Yu 
Chu–Han Contention
Simplified Chinese 楚汉战争
Traditional Chinese 楚漢戰爭

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, Xiang Yu split the former Qin Empire into the Eighteen Kingdoms. Two prominent contending powers, Western Chu and Han, emerged from these principalities 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, several minor kings from the Eighteen Kingdoms also fought battles against each other. These battles were independent of the main conflict between Chu and Han. The war ended with total victory for Han, after which Liu Bang proclaimed himself "Emperor of China" and established the Han Dynasty.

Background[edit]

Timeline of events
Year Events
207 BC
  • Xiang Yu's forces defeated the Qin army, led by Zhang Han, at the Battle of Julu.
  • End of the Qin Dynasty.
    • The last Qin emperor Ziying surrendered to Liu Bang.
  • Liu Bang's army occupied the Qin capital Xianyang.
206 BC
  • Feast at Hong Gate
  • Xiang Yu's army occupied Xianyang and sacked the city.
  • Xiang Yu promoted King Huai II of Chu to a more honorific title of "Emperor Yi of Chu", and moved the emperor to Chen County.
  • Xiang Yu divided the former Qin Empire into the Eighteen Kingdoms.
    • Xiang Yu declared himself "Hegemon-King of Western Chu".
    • Liu Bang was granted the title of "King of Han".
  • Han Xin left Western Chu and joined Han.
  • Rebellion in Qi
    • Tian Rong conquered the Kingdom of Qi. Qi's ruler Tian Du fled to Western Chu.
    • Tian Rong conquered the Kingdom of Jiaodong and killed its ruler Tian Fu.
  • Xiang Yu killed Han Cheng (King of Hán).
  • Zhang Liang joined Han.
  • Liu Bang appointed Han Xin as a general.
  • Tian Rong sent Peng Yue to conquer the Kingdom of Jibei and kill its ruler Tian An.
  • Ying Bu (King of Jiujiang) killed Emperor Yi of Chu.
  • Han forces passed through Chencang secretly.
Start of the Chu–Han contention
Year Events
206 BC
  • Zhang Han (King of Yong) was defeated by Han forces and retreated to Feiqiu.
  • Dong Yi (King of Di) and Sima Xin (King of Sai) surrendered to Han.
  • Zang Tu (King of Yan) killed Han Guang (King of Liaodong).
  • Xiang Yu appointed Zheng Chang as King of Hán.
  • Zhao Tuo proclaimed himself "King Wu of Nanyue".
  • Shen Yang (King of Henan) surrendered to Han.
  • Rebellion in Zhao
    • Chen Yu conquered the Kingdom of Changshan. Changshan's ruler, Zhang Er, fled to Han.
    • Chen Yu installed Zhao Xie (King of Dai) as the King of Zhao, and became the King of Dai himself.
  • Hán Xin conquered the Kingdom of Hán with support from Han. Zheng Chang surrendered.
205 BC
  • Xiang Yu attacked Tian Rong. Tian Rong retreated to Pingyuan and was killed there. Xiang Yu appointed Tian Jia as King of Qi.
  • Wei Bao (King of Wei) surrendered to Han.
  • Sima Ang (King of Yin) was captured by Han forces.
  • Tian Jia was defeated by Tian Heng (younger brother of Tian Rong).
    • Tian Jia was killed by Xiang Yu after joining Western Chu.
    • Tian Heng installed Tian Guang (Tian Rong's son) as the King of Qi.
  • Battle of Pengcheng
  • Peng Yue joined Han.
  • Battle of Jingsuo
    • Liu Bang occupied Xingyang. Han forces started building supply routes linking Xingyang and Aocang.
  • Liu Bang named his son Liu Ying as crown prince.
    • Han forces flooded Feiqiu. Zhang Han committed suicide.
  • Battle of Anyi
  • Han Xin conquered the Kingdom of Dai and captured its chancellor Xia Shuo.
  • Battle of Jingxing
  • Kingdom of Yan surrendered to Han Xin.
  • Ying Bu (King of Jiujiang) defected to Han.
204 BC
  • Western Chu attacked Han supply lines.
  • Xiang Yu dismissed Fan Zeng after falling for Chen Ping's trick. Fan Zeng died of illness during his journey home.
  • Battle of Xingyang
  • Yuan Sheng advised Liu Bang to attack the cities of Wan and Ye.
  • Peng Yue defeated Chu forces at Xiapi.
  • Xiang Yu turned back to attack Peng Yue. Liu Bang used the opportunity to seize Chenggao.
  • Xiang Yu defeated Peng Yue, conquered Xingyang, and besieged Liu Bang in Chenggao.
  • Liu Bang broke out of the siege and escaped to Zhao. Liu Bang took over Han Xin and Zhang Er's command of the Han army in Zhao.
  • Gong Ao (King of Linjiang) died and was succeeded by his son Gong Wei.
  • Liu Bang sent Li Yiji to Qi to persuade Tian Guang (King of Qi) to surrender to Han.
  • Battle of Si River
  • Han Xin attacked Qi and conquered Lixia and Linzi (Qi's capital). Li Yiji was executed by Tian Guang.
  • Battle of Wei River
    • Long Ju was killed in action.
    • Tian Guang was killed while trying to escape. Tian Heng proclaimed himself King of Qi.
  • Liu Bang appointed Zhang Er as King of Zhao.
203 BC
202 BC
End of the Chu–Han contention
Year Events
202 BC

In 221 BC, the Qin state unified China by conquering the six other 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 Daze Village 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 BC, 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 a 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 area of Chen County (郴縣; present-day Chenzhou, Hunan), effectively sending the puppet ruler into exile. He issued a secret order for the vassal kings around that area to murder the emperor.

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 agreement, which stated that the person who conquered Xianyang first would receive the title of "King of Guanzhong". Liu Bang was sent to the remote Bashu region (巴蜀; in present-day Sichuan) instead and 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 Liu Bang was appointed "King of Han" by Xiang Yu and given the land of 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, and rose in rebellion against the vassal kings of Jiaodong, Qi and Jibei (collectively known as the Three Qis). Tian Rong conquered the Three Qis and reinstated 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, the King of Changshan, and seized Zhang's domain and reinstalled Zhao Xie (King of Dai) on the throne of Zhao. Xiang Yu felt threatened by the rebellions in Qi and Zhao and led an army to attack Tian Rong.

Han conquest of the Three Qins[edit]

While Xiang Yu was away to suppress 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 "King of Hán" to help him cover his flank. In Yan, Zang Tu killed Han Guang (King of Liaodong) and seized Han's lands and proclaimed himself ruler of the unified Yan state.

Battle of Pengcheng[edit]

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, and replaced with Hán Xin. 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 orders, he held a memorial service for the emperor, accusing Xiang of committing regicide, and using 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 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 force 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 most of the kings who surrendered to Han earlier defected to Chu.

Battle of Jingsuo[edit]

After their defeat at Pengcheng, the strength of the Han forces decreased drastically. Liu Bang's family was captured by Western Chu forces and kept as hostages, and many of the vassal kings who surrendered to Liu Bang earlier defected to Xiang Yu's side. Besides, the Qi and Zhao kingdoms 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, the King of Jiujiang. Ying Bu agreed to join Liu Bang's side and rebelled against Western Chu. Xiang Yu sent Long Ju to lead an army to attack Ying Bu.

In the sixth month of 205 BC, Liu Bang named his son Liu Ying as 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, and Zhang committed suicide.

On another front, Ying Bu was unable to defeat Long Ju and decided to give up, and he went to meet Liu Bang with Sui He. 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 Western 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 returned to his domain. Subsequently, Wei Bao 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 and was accepted by Liu Bang 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]

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]

In 204 BC the Yan kingdom surrendered to Han Xin, and Zhang Er was appointed as 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, and forced Liu to retreat to Chenggao. Liu Bang was besieged in Chenggao and 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 military in Zhao, and ordered Han 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, and followed the advice of Kuai Tong to launch an attack. Han Xin's army conquered Lixia and arrived at Qi's capital Linzi. Tian Guang thought that Li Yiji had lied to him and he had Li killed, thereafter 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 proposal and insisted on taking on 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 force. 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 and Han Xin continued pursuing the retreating enemy to Chengyang (城陽).

After his victory, Han Xin swiftly took control of the Qi territories and he sent an envoy to Liu Bang, requesting that Liu let him be the acting King of Qi. At that time, Liu Bang was besieged in Xingyang by Xiang Yu, and eagerly waiting for reinforcements from Han Xin, but Han made a request to be the acting-'King of Qi' instead, which greatly angered Liu. However, Liu Bang reluctantly approved Han Xin's request after listening to advice from Zhang Liang and Chen Ping. At the same time, Xiang Yu became worried after losing Long Ju and he sent Wu She to persuade Han Xin to rebel against Liu Bang and declare himself king. However, despite additional 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[edit]

On the southern front, Liu Bang's forces started building supply routes from Xingyang to Aocang (敖倉). In 204 BC, Xiang Yu led an attack on the routes and the Han army started to run 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. Xiang Yu changed his decision and pressed the attack on Xingyang, besieging Liu Bang's forces inside the city. To lift the siege, Liu Bang followed 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. Xiang Yu fell for the trick 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 low on supplies months later. Xiang Yu had no choice but to request for an armistice and agreed to release Liu Bang's family members, who were held hostage by him. Both sides came to the Treaty of Hong Canal (鴻溝和約), which divided China into east and west under the Chu and Han domains respectively.

End of the war[edit]

In 203 BC, while Xiang Yu was retreating eastward, Liu Bang, following 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 in forming 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, while sending messengers to Han Xin and Peng Yue, promising to grant them fiefs and titles of vassal kings if they joined him in attacking Chu.

Battle of Gaixia[edit]

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

Aftermath[edit]

After the death of Xiang Yu, the rest of Western Chu surrendered to Han and China was unified under Liu Bang's 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 of China" and named his dynasty "Han". He built his capital in Luoyang (later moved to Chang'an) and named Lü Zhi his empress, and Liu Ying as crown prince.

Although Liu Bang initially handsomely rewarded his subjects who helped him become emperor of China, he gradually became suspicious of them 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 killed on Empress Lü's orders in 196 BC after Liu Bang suspected him of being plotting a rebellion with Chen Xi. Similarly in that year, Liu Bang believed rumours that Peng Yue was also involved in the rebellion and he demoted Peng to the status of a commoner. Peng Yue was later executed on Empress Lü's orders and his clan was exterminated.

Cultural references[edit]

  • 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; literally "Chu river and Han border"). The red and black sides represent Han and Western 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 Chinese idioms and proverbs originated from the events in the Chu–Han contention. Some examples are listed as follows:
    • "This child can be taught" (孺子可教), originated from the meeting between Zhang Liang and Huang Shigong.
    • "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.
    • "Travelling at night in glamourous garments" (錦衣夜行), taken from a quote from Xiang Yu.
    • "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.
    • "Success and downfall are both due to Xiao He" (成敗蕭何), a reference to Han Xin's rise to prominence, and his downfall, which were both due to Xiao He.

Film[edit]

Television[edit]

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