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Artist's impression of Han Xin (1921)
|General of the Western Han dynasty|
Han Xin (died 196 BC) was a military general who served Liu Bang (Emperor Gaozu of Han) during the Chu–Han Contention and contributed greatly to the founding of the Han dynasty. Han Xin was named as one of the "Three Heroes of the early Han dynasty" (漢初三傑), along with Zhang Liang and Xiao He.
Han Xin is best remembered as a brilliant military leader for the strategies and tactics he employed in warfare, some of which became the origins of certain Chinese idioms. In recognition of Han Xin's contributions, Liu Bang conferred the titles of "King of Qi" on him in 203 BC and "King of Chu" in the following year. However, Liu Bang feared Han Xin's growing influence and gradually reduced his authority, demoting him to "Marquis of Huaiyin" in late 202 BC. In 196 BC, Han Xin was accused of participating in a rebellion and lured into a trap and executed on Empress Lü Zhi's orders.
Han Xin lived a childhood in destitution as his father died early. He was despised by those around him as he often relied on others for his meals. He had a keen interest in military strategy and spent his time studying military treatises and practising sword techniques.
Once, when he was suffering from hunger, he met a woman who provided him with food. He promised to repay her for her kindness after he had made great achievements in life, but it was rebuffed by her. On another occasion, a hooligan saw Han Xin carrying a sword and challenged him to either kill him or crawl through between his legs. Han Xin knew that he would become a criminal if he killed him, hence instead of responding to the taunts, he crawled through between the hooligan's legs and was laughed at.
Several years later, after becoming the King of Chu, Han Xin returned to his hometown and found the woman who fed him and rewarded her with 1,000 taels of gold. Han Xin also found the hooligan and instead of taking revenge, he appointed the hooligan as a zhongwei (中尉; equivalent to a present-day lieutenant). He said, "This man is a hero. Do you think I could not have killed him when he humiliated me? I would not become famous even if I killed him then. Hence, I endured the humiliation to preserve my life for making great achievements in future."
Service under Xiang Yu
In 209 BC, Han Xin joined Xiang Liang's rebel army when rebellions erupted throughout China to overthrow the Qin dynasty. Han Xin continued serving Xiang Yu (Xiang Liang's nephew) after Xiang Liang was killed in action at the Battle of Dingtao. He was not placed in high regard and worked as a sentry and prepared meals. He constantly proposed strategies to Xiang Yu but was ignored. In 206 BC, Han Xin deserted Xiang Yu's army and went to join Liu Bang.
Service under Liu Bang during the Chu–Han Contention
Initially, after joining Liu Bang's army, Han Xin was not given any important roles. Once, he violated military law and was due to be punished by execution. When it was his turn to be beheaded, Han Xin saw Xiahou Ying (one of Liu Bang's trusted generals) and said, "I thought the king wanted to rule an empire. Why is he killing valiant men then?" Xiahou Ying was surprised and spared Han Xin's life and recommended him to Liu Bang. Liu Bang was not impressed with Han Xin and put him in charge of food supplies. During that time, Han Xin met Xiao He (one of Liu Bang's chief advisors), who recognised his talent.
In 206 BC, Liu Bang was granted the title of "King of Han" by Xiang Yu after the latter divided the former Qin Empire into the Eighteen Kingdoms, and was relocated to the remote Bashu region (in present-day Sichuan). Some of Liu Bang's men became discontented after spending months in Bashu (in present-day Sichuan) and deserted. Meanwhile, Han Xin was expecting Xiao He to recommend him to Liu Bang, but he had not received news for a long time so he became disappointed and left as well. When Xiao He heard that Han Xin had left, he immediately rushed to find Han and bring him back, and did not manage to inform Liu Bang in time. Xiao He eventually caught up with Han Xin and managed to persuade Han to go back with him. This event gave rise to the saying, "Xiao He chases Han Xin under the moonlight" (蕭何月下追韓信). In the meantime, Liu Bang had a nervous breakdown after hearing a rumour that Xiao He had also deserted him. While he was relieved when he saw Xiao He returning with Han Xin, he angrily asked Xiao, "Of all those who deserted, why did you only choose to go after Han Xin?" Xiao He then strongly recommended Han Xin to Liu Bang, saying that Han's talent was unmatched. Liu Bang accepted Xiao He's suggestion and held a special ceremony to appoint Han Xin as a general.
Conquering the Three Qins
After his appointment, Han Xin analysed the situation for Liu Bang and devised a plan for Liu to conquer Xiang Yu's Western Chu kingdom. In late 206 BC, Liu Bang's forces left Hanzhong and prepared to attack the Three Qins in Guanzhong. Han Xin ordered some soldiers to pretend to repair the gallery roads linking Guanzhong and Hanzhong, while sending another army to secretly pass through Chencang and make a surprise attack on Zhang Han. Zhang Han was caught off guard and the Han forces emerged victorious, proceeding to take over Sima Xin and Dong Yi's kingdoms. The strategy employed by Han Xin, known as mingxiu zhandao, andu Chencang (明修棧道, 暗度陳倉; lit. "appearing to repair the gallery roads while making secret advances through Chencang"), became one of the Thirty-Six Stratagems.
Battle of Jingsuo
After the conquest of the Three Qins, Liu Bang allowed Han Xin to lead an army to attack Zhang Han's remnant forces in Feiqiu, while he personally led an army to attack Chu's capital of Pengcheng (present-day Xuzhou, Jiangsu), capturing it in 205 BC. Xiang Yu turned back from his campaign in the Qi kingdom to retake Pengcheng and defeated Liu Bang by surprise in the Battle of Pengcheng. Liu Bang retreated to Xingyang after his defeat. Xiao He was placed in charge of Guanzhong and he sent Han to lead reinforcements to help Liu Bang. Han Xin defeated Chu forces in the Battle of Jingsuo and drove them east of Xingyang.
In late 205 BC, Liu Bang put Han Xin in command of an army and sent him to conquer the rival kingdoms in northern China. Han Xin's first target was Western Wei, ruled by Wei Bao, who defected to Xiang Yu's side after initially surrendering to Liu Bang. Han Xin tricked Wei forces into cornering themselves at the border and made a surprise attack on Anyi (present-day Xia County, Shanxi) with another force, scoring victory and capturing Wei Bao in battle. Shortly later, Han Xin proceeded to conquer the Dai kingdom and captured Dai's chancellor, Xia Shuo.
Han Xin's army advanced further to attack the Zhao kingdom. He scored another tactical victory against the 200,000 strong Zhao army with a smaller force in the Battle of Jingxing. After his victory, Han Xin sent a messenger to Zang Tu (King of Yan) asking for his surrender, and Zang Tu agreed to submit to Liu Bang.
In late 204 BC, Liu Bang ordered Han Xin to lead an army to attack the Qi kingdom. However, Liu Bang later sent Li Yiji to persuade Tian Guang (King of Qi) to surrender, without informing Han Xin. Kuai Tong advised Han Xin to proceed with the invasion because if Li Yiji succeeded in persuading Qi to surrender, his contributions would outshine Han Xin's. Hence, Han Xin ordered an assault on Lixia and went on to capture Qi's capital of Linzi. Tian Guang already had the intention of surrendering but the attacks angered him and he felt betrayed by Li Yiji and had Li executed. In the meantime, Xiang Yu sent Long Ju to lead an army to reinforce Tian Guang. Han Xin achieved another decisive victory against the combined forces of Qi and Chu at the Battle of Wei River. Han Xin later sent a messenger to Liu Bang, requesting that Liu appoint him as the acting King of Qi. At that time, Liu Bang was trapped in Xingyang by Xiang Yu and Han Xin's request angered him, because he was expecting Han to come to his aid. However, Zhang Liang and Chen Ping cautioned Liu Bang against rejecting the request, because Han Xin may become discontented and would rebel, putting them in a dangerous situation. Liu Bang reluctantly agreed to Han Xin's request.
Meanwhile, Xiang Yu sent Wu She to persuade Han Xin to declare independence from Liu Bang and form an alliance with him, in hope of losing an opponent on the northern front. Kuai Tong also strongly urged Han Xin to rebel against Liu Bang, warning him that Liu was starting to distrust him because he wielded too much power. However, Han Xin refused to renounce his loyalty to Liu Bang.
Battle of Gaixia
In 203 BC, Liu Bang came to an armistice with Xiang Yu, known as the Treaty of Hong Canal, which divided China into west and east under their respective domains. Shortly after, Liu Bang renounced the treaty and led an attack on Xiang Yu's forces, which were retreating east. Liu Bang sent messengers to request assistance from Han Xin and Peng Yue in forming a three-pronged attack on Western Chu, but Han Xin and Peng Yue did not mobilise their troops, and Liu Bang was defeated by Xiang Yu in the Battle of Guling.
Liu Bang retreated back to his territory and strengthened his defences, while sending messengers to Han Xin and Peng Yue again, promising to grant them land and titles if they helped him defeat Xiang Yu. Han Xin and Peng Yue brought their armies to meet Liu Bang in late 203 BC, and Han suggested using a strategy of "ambush on ten sides" (十面埋伏) to weaken Xiang Yu's forces before making a final assault. The plan succeeded and by 202 BC, Xiang Yu was trapped in Gaixia and surrounded by Han forces on all sides. He attempted to break out of the encirclement and eventually arrived at the bank of the Wu River, where he made a last stand before committing suicide.
After Xiang Yu's death, China was unified under Liu Bang's rule, and Liu granted Han Xin the title of "King of Chu" in recognition of his contributions. Months later, Liu Bang was proclaimed "Emperor" and became historically known as "Emperor Gaozu of Han".
In 202 BC, Zhongli Mo (one of Xiang Yu's generals), who was wanted by the Han government, came to Han Xin and requested for refuge. On account of their past friendship, Han Xin protected Zhongli Mo and let him stay in his house. When Emperor Gaozu heard that Zhongli Mo was hiding in Han Xin's fief, he ordered Han to arrest Zhongli, but Han refused.
A year later, Gaozu heard rumours that Han Xin was plotting a rebellion. Chen Ping proposed to Gaozu to lure Han into a trap and capture him, on the pretext of ordering him to attend a meeting in Chen (present-day Huaiyang, Henan). Meanwhile, Zhongli Mo committed suicide to prevent Han Xin from getting into trouble. Han Xin brought Zhongli Mo's severed head to meet Gaozu later and explain his innocence, but Gaozu ordered Han to be arrested. Han Xin exclaimed, "It is true when people say: The hunting dog becomes food as well after it is used to hunt game; a good bow is discarded when there are no birds left for shooting; an advisor dies after he helps his lord conquer a rival kingdom. Now that the empire is in place, I no longer serve any purpose!" Although Gaozu pardoned Han Xin and released him later, he still demoted Han from "King of Chu" to "Marquis of Huaiyin".
After his demotion, Han Xin knew that Gaozu was beginning to distrust him and become more wary of him, because Han Xin had proven himself to be such a brilliant military leader that he even had the ability to seize Gaozu's empire for himself. Hence, Han Xin claimed to be ill and stayed at home most of the time to reduce Gaozu's suspicions. Around 197 BC, Chen Xi (Marquis of Yangxia) met Han Xin before leaving for Julu, requesting for Han's support in an uprising against the Han dynasty. Not long later, Chen Xi rebelled and Gaozu personally led an army to suppress the rebellion.
While Gaozu was away, Empress Lü Zhi heard rumours of Han Xin's involvement in the rebellion, and she plotted with Xiao He to lure Han into a trap. Han Xin was arrested and executed in a torturous manner in Changle Palace, along with his mother, wife and close relatives. Han Xin's clan was exterminated on the empress's orders as well. Upon his return from his campaign, Gaozu expressed both glee and regret when he learnt of Han Xin's death. He asked the empress for Han Xin's last words, which were, "I regret not listening to Kuai Tong's advice."
In legend, Gaozu once promised Han Xin that if he "faced Heaven and stood firm on Earth" (頂天立地; i.e. remained loyal) to the Han Dynasty, he would not have Han Xin killed by any weapon used by soldiers. Hence, when Han Xin was executed, he was hung inside a great bell and pierced to death with swords made from wood or bamboo. As such, when he died, Han Xin was neither "facing Heaven" (because his body was covered by the bell) nor "standing firm on Earth" (because he was suspended inside the bell), and was not killed by any weapon used by soldiers (soldiers do not use wooden or bamboo swords).
Some Chinese idioms and sayings originating from the events in Han Xin's life are listed as follows:
- Shame of crawling through between someone's legs (胯下之辱): Used to describe a humiliating incident. This idiom originated from the incident when Han Xin was bullied by a hooligan. See above for more information.
- When Han Xin selects his troops, the more the better (韓信點兵，多多益善): Originated from a conversation between Han Xin and Liu Bang. Liu asked Han, "How many men do you think I can command?", to which Han Xin replied, "A maximum of 100,000." Liu Bang asked, "What about you?", and Han Xin replied, "The more the better." Liu Bang said, "So that means I cannot defeat you?" Han Xin explained, "No, my lord, you command generals while I command soldiers."
- Both success and failure are due to Xiao He, life and death are due to two women (成敗一蕭何, 生死兩婦人): Xiao He helped Han Xin become a general, which enabled Han to put his talent to good use. However, Han Xin's downfall was also due to Xiao He. In his early days, Han Xin was given "life" by the old woman, who provided him with food. His death was due to Empress Lü Zhi.
Sima Qian commented on Han Xin as follows:
I've been to Huaiyin (present-day Huai'an, Jiangsu), and the locals told me that when Han Xin was still a commoner, his ambition was very different from ordinary people's. When his mother died, he was too poor to give her a proper funeral. However, he found a scenic area, on high and flat ground and capable of housing thousands, and buried her there. I've personally been to his mother's grave and it was exactly like what the locals described to me. If Han Xin was more modest and unassuming, did not boast about his achievements, and not been so egoistic, he would have attained fame, glory and wealth. In that case, his contributions to the Han dynasty would be comparable to those of the Duke of Zhou, Duke of Shao, and Jiang Ziya, and his descendants would be proud of him. However, Han Xin did not change himself for the better. Instead, when peace and stability had been restored in the empire (China), he plotted a rebellion and caused his clan to be implicated and exterminated. Is this not Heaven's will?
Sima Guang commented on Han as follows:
Many people would think that Han Xin was the first person to propose the grand plan for unifying China: he started his plan together with (Emperor) Gaozu in Hanzhong, conquered the Three Qins, led a northern campaign to attack the kingdoms of Wei, Dai, Zhao, Yan and Qi, moved south to destroy Chu in Gaixia. As such, he is seen to have contributed greatly to the founding of the Han Dynasty. When we look at how he rejected Kuai Tong's suggestion to declare independence, and how he received Gaozu at Chen (present-day Huaiyang, Henan), how can we say he had the intention of rebelling? The reason for his rebellion was that he felt unhappy about losing his nobility title. Lu Wan was merely Gaozu's neighbour, yet he was appointed King of Yan, while Han Xin only received the title of a marquis and could only have audiences with Gaozu. Is this not an example of how Gaozu treated Han Xin unfairly? I think that Gaozu did treat Han Xin unfairly when he lured Han into a trap and captured him, but Han was also at fault, which led to his downfall. When Gaozu was at war with Xiang Yu in Xingyang, Han Xin had just conquered the Qi kingdom and did not turn back to support Gaozu, and instead requested to be appointed as acting King of Qi. Besides, during the Battle of Guling, Han Xin did not keep his promise to help Gaozu, and caused Gaozu to lose the battle. Since then, Gaozu had the intention of killing Han Xin but did not do so as he was not powerful enough yet. When Gaozu's empire came into place, Han Xin no longer served any purpose.
Han Xin 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 a playable character of the "Paladin" class in the action RPG Prince of Qin.
Notes and references
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Han Xin.|
- Ban Gu et al. Book of Han, Volume 31.
- Sima Qian. Records of the Grand Historian, Volume 92.
- Ban Gu et al. Book of Han, Volume 34.
- Sima Guang. Zizhi Tongjian, Volume 12.
|King of Qi
203 BC – 202 BC
as Hegemon-King of Western Chu
|King of Chu
202 BC – 201 BC
|New title||Marquess of Huaiyin
201 BC – 196 BC