Starting his career
Fan Zeng was a native of Juchao (present-day Yafu Street, Juchao District, Chaohu City, Anhui). He had a keen interest towards military strategy and politics. In 207 BC, when Fan Zeng was about 70, he left home to meet Xiang Liang, who had rebelled against the Qin Dynasty like many others, and was accepted by Xiang Liang as an advisor.
Serving Xiang Yu
After Xiang Liang died, Fan Zeng continued serving his nephew, Xiang Yu, as an advisor. Xiang Yu respectfully addressed Fan Zeng as his "Second Father" (亞父; Yafu). Since then, Fan Zeng had been planning and formulating strategies for Xiang Yu to overcome his rivals. In 206 BC, Fan Zeng followed Xiang Yu as their army entered Guanzhong (heartland of the Qin Dynasty), where Fan Zeng noticed that Liu Bang would become a future threat to Xiang Yu. Fan Zeng constantly urged Xiang Yu to kill Liu Bang then, but Xiang did not heed his advice.
During the Feast at Hong Gate, Fan Zeng ordered Xiang Yu's cousin Xiang Zhuang to pretend to perform a sword dance and use the opportunity to kill Liu Bang, who was invited by Xiang Yu to attend the feast. However, Xiang Yu listened to his uncle Xiang Bo, a close friend of Liu Bang's strategist Zhang Liang, and he spared Liu's life, allowing Liu to leave safely. Fan Zeng was furious and exclaimed:
Alas! This brat is not worthy enough to make plans with me. The Duke of Pei (Liu Bang) will definitely be the one who seizes the empire away from King Xiang (Xiang Yu). We will all become his (Liu Bang's) prisoners.
Retirement and death
In 204 BC, Xiang Yu's forces besieged Liu Bang at the Battle of Xingyang and Liu requested for an armistice. Xiang Yu agreed but Fan Zeng strongly opposed his decision, telling him that he would regret if he accepted the peace treaty. Xiang Yu listened to Fan Zeng and continued attacking Liu Bang. Liu Bang's strategist Chen Ping used a scheme to trick Xiang Yu into believing that Fan Zeng had the intention of betraying him. Xiang Yu fell for the ruse and dismissed Fan Zeng. Fan Zeng made up his mind to leave Xiang Yu and he said:
The final outcome is obvious. Take good care of yourself. Please allow me to retire in peace.
Fan Zeng died of illness on his journey home and was buried by Xiang Yu's followers at Pengcheng (彭城; present-day Xuzhou). His tomb is still present today. After Xiang Yu's death and downfall, Liu Bang remarked that it was a pity that Xiang had a capable Fan Zeng to help him, but he did not use Fan well.
- Sima Qian. Records of the Grand Historian, Volume 7.
- Chinese history - Western Han (206 BC - AD 9) Recruiting Talent to Rejuvenate the Han Dynasty
- Fan Zeng Tomb - an attraction of Xuzhou, Jiangsu