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Li Yiji was from Gaoyang, Chenliu (near present-day Kaifeng, Henan). He joined Liu Bang in around 207 BCE when Liu rebelled against the Qin dynasty. Liu Bang's rebel army was preparing to attack the city of Chenliu, when Li Yiji came to Liu's camp and requested to see Liu, identifying himself as a Confucianist scholar. Liu Bang disliked scholars and did not want to meet Li Yiji. Li Yiji was furious and he shouted at the sentry, "You go in and tell the Duke of Pei (Liu Bang) that I'm a drinker from Gaoyang, not a scholar!" Liu Bang was pleased when he heard that a drinker wanted to meet him and he immediately prepared a feast to welcome Li Yiji.
Li Yiji chided Liu Bang for his rude behaviour upon meeting the latter. Liu Bang was embarrassed and he apologised, and then asked Li Yiji for ideas on how to conquer Chenliu. Li Yiji returned to Chenliu and attempted to persuade the magistrate to surrender to Liu Bang, but the magistrate refused. Li Yiji then led his men to kill the magistrate and sent a messenger to Liu Bang. Liu Bang led his army to attack Chenliu and the Qin soldiers gave up when they saw that the magistrate had been killed. Liu Bang gained more than 10,000 new troops and many supplies after conquering Chenliu.
In 204 BCE, during the Chu–Han Contention, when Liu Bang was besieged by Xiang Yu's forces in Xingyang, Li Yiji suggested to Liu Bang to recreate the former states of the Warring States period and install the descendants of their royal families on their respective thrones. This plan was intended to help Liu Bang gain the support of the vassal states' rulers, who would help him in the war against Xiang Yu. Liu Bang initially applauded Li Yiji's idea, but he dismissed Li's plan later after listening to Zhang Liang's opinion that the states were more likely to support Western Chu instead as Chu was superior to Han in terms of military might.
Later that year, Li Yiji volunteered to persuade the rival Qi kingdom to surrender to Liu Bang. He travelled to Qi and managed to convince Tian Guang (King of Qi) to submit to Liu Bang. However, Liu Bang's general Han Xin, who was initially ordered to attack Qi, was unaware of the change in plan. Following the advice of Kuai Tong, Han Xin made a surprise attack on Qi and conquered Lixia and Linzi (the Qi capital). Tian Guang felt that Li Yiji had betrayed him and he had Li boiled alive.
After Liu Bang was proclaimed "Emperor" and had established the Han dynasty, he granted the title of "Marquis of Gaoliang" (高粱侯) to Li Yiji's son, Li Jie (酈疥).
Drinker from Gaoyang
The Chinese term gaoyang jiutu (Chinese: 高陽酒徒; pinyin: Gāoyáng jǐutú; literally: "drinker from Gaoyang"), which originated from the remark made by Li Yiji when Liu Bang refused to see him, is used to describe someone who indulges heavily in alcohol and behaves in a wanton and unrestrained manner.
- Note that Li Yiji's given name 食其 is pronounced "Yìjī" and not "Shíqí" in Mandarin. The Chinese character 食, when used in a person's name, is pronounced "Yì". The Chinese character 基 did not exist during the Han dynasty, and the 土 radical was only added later, so 其 is pronounced "jī" in ancient Chinese just like 基 in modern Chinese.