Joshua J. Mark
published on 19 December 2012
The Battle of Gaixia (202 BCE, also known as Kai-Hsia) was the decisive engagement of the Chu-Han Contention (206-202 BCE) at which Liu-Bang, King of Han, defeated King Xiang-Yu of Chu to found the Han Dynasty. After the death of Shi Huangti, the first emperor of a united China, his son Qin Er Shi took the throne and ruled so poorly that the country erupted in rebellion. Shi Huangti (formerly Ying Zheng of the state of Qin) had conquered the warring states of Chu, Han, Qi, Wei, Yan and Zhao to found the Qin Dynasty and ruled his empire rigorously. Qin Er Shi, who was ill-equipped to follow his father, was assassinated after three years and his nephew, equally inept, ascended the throne. During the years between Shi Huangti’s death (210 BCE) and 206 BCE, the former subject states battled the toppling Qin regime, and sometimes each other, for supremacy. After the final defeat of the Qin army, two generals emerged victorious: Liu-Bang of the state of Han and Xiang-Yu of the state of Chu.
Liu-Bang and Xiang-Yu were equally skilled commanders and had each contributed significantly to the defeat of the Qin forces. Xiang-Yu had fought in more engagements while Liu-Bang was responsible for the final victory. Xiang-Yu was of noble birth and had taken the title `King of Western Chu’ after assuming command of the troops. Liu-Bang was a commoner (though some sources cite him as a prince) but was raised to noble status by Xiang-Yu who conferred upon him the title `King of Han’ with all attendant power. Xiang-Yu, claiming victor’s rights and the superior position, then set about the redistribution of land and the ordering of the states but, in doing so, gave away lands which belonged to Liu-Bang. When Liu-Bang contested this decision he was ignored and, feeling dishonoured by his former ally, rallied his forces and attacked Xiang-Yu.
Between 206 and 202 BCE, the forces of the Han and the Chu battled each other with the additional states allying themselves now with one and now with the other. Shi Huangti had conquered the states by ignoring the old rules of chivalry concerning warfare and conducting a programme of total war; this lesson was not lost on either Liu-Bang or Xiang-Yu. The Chu-Han Contention claimed thousands of lives and destroyed vast areas of farmland as well as urban areas.
Battles between the Han and the Chu forces raged until 203 BCE when Xiang-Yu negotiated a peace known as the Treaty of Hong (also known as the Treaty of Hong Canal). Under the terms of the accord, China would be divided between the Han and the Chu. Liu-Bang signed the treaty but desired the same unification, and attendant glory, which Shi Huangti had achieved and, breaking the agreement, resumed hostilities. Xiang-Yu drove Liu-Bang back behind the defences of Han and besieged the central fortification. Liu-Bang orchestrated a three-pronged attack on Western Chu through the combined forces of the generals King Han Xin of Qi and Peng Yue of the province of Liang. Xiang-Yu was forced to drop the siege to defend his homeland. Liu-Bang, however, had ordered Han Xin to circle back and harass the Chu forces during their march. Han Xin did far more than that and successfully ambushed Xiang-Yu and his army repeatedly. His goal, however, seems to have been to manipulate the large Chu force into the canyon at Gaixia where their numbers would work against them and they could be destroyed.
Xiang-Yu’s young concubine, Yuji (born Yu Miaoyi), who always travelled with him on campaign, was captured during one of these engagements and Han Xin quickly conveyed her to Gaixia. He positioned his captive, and the bulk of his troops, deep in the canyon but situated other groups of warriors along the route. Xiang-Yu, knowing he was walking into a trap, mobilized his forces to save the woman he loved. He sent most of his army on toward his capital at Pengcheng and, with 100,000 warriors, marched for Gaixia.
Once Xiang-Yu’s forces had fully entered the canyon, Han Xin deployed his troops in the “ambush from ten sides” and decimated the army. Xiang-Yu and his remaining forces fought on until nightfall, rescuing the Consort Yuji. Through the darkness then, Liu-Bang and Han Xin ordered their men and the captured enemy soldiers to sing the native songs of Chu. These songs reminded the remaining Chu forces of their homes and their families and further demoralized the army. Men began deserting in the darkness and headed for their homes. Xiang-Yu rose to stop them but, at the request of Yuji, relented and those who wished to were allowed to leave. He then sat drinking with Yuji and is said to have composed the lament, `The Song of Gaixia’ (which is still sung today). Listening to the songs of his native land sung by the enemy throughout the night, Xiang-Yu believed that Western Chu must have fallen to the Han and his cause was lost. With Yuji, he sang his lament, alternating verses with her (according to the historian Sima Qian). Yuji performed the sword dance as she sang and then, blaming herself for the Chu defeat, and wishing to save Xiang-Yu from further disaster through his love for her, she killed herself with his sword. Though surrounded by enemy forces, with his troops steadily deserting him, Xiang-Yu ignored the pleas of his counselors and buried Consort Yuji, erecting a large mound over her grave to prevent desecration.
By morning, Xiang-Yu had less than 800 men under his command but, with these fewer numbers, he was able to maneuver more easily and fought his way back out of the canyon of Gaixia. He headed directly for Pengcheng, the Han forces following quickly at his heels, and reached the Wu River where they caught up with him. A fierce battle ensued in which most of the Chu forces were slaughtered. Xiang-Yu fought to the end and, when he understood he would soon be captured, committed suicide by slitting his own throat with his sword. He was thirty years old.
Liu-Bang then proclaimed himself emperor, founding the Han Dynasty which would rule China from 202 BCE to 220 CE. He was known as the Emperor Gaozu and governed with his wife, the Empress Lu-Zhi. In time, he became suspicious of his old allies Peng Yue and Han Xin and had them both executed, under the pretext of spreading sedition, in 196 BCE. To divert blame from himself, he had the order come from Lu-Zhi.
The battle is among the most famous in Chinese history and the merits of the two antagonists, as well as their faults, are still debated. The story of Xiang-Yu and Yuji is the subject of the 1993 CE novel Farewell My Concubine by Lilian Lee, and the 1993 CE film by Chen Kaige of the same name, and has also been adapted as a popular opera. A feature film on the Chu-Han Contention, The Last Supper, written and directed by Chuan Lu, was released in 2012 CE, depicting the battle and the story of Xiang-Yu and Yuji. The Tomb of the Concubine, Consort Yu’s grave, is a highly regarded tourist attraction nine miles (15 km) east of modern Suzhou City in Lingbi County. The Chinese phrase, “surrounded by Chu songs” is derived from the Battle of Gaixia and refers to anyone in a hopeless situation.
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Battle of Gaixia Books
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221 BCE - 206 BCE
210 BCEDeath of Emperor Shi Huangti. His son, Qin Er Shi, ascends to rule.
210 BCE - 206 BCEChina steadily rises in rebellion against collapsing Qin Dynasty.
203 BCEXiang-Yu initiates Treaty of Hong Canal, Liu-Bang breaks treaty.
202 BCELiu-Bang founds the Han Dynasty, becoming Emperor Gaozu.