Liu Pang’s victory removed his last rival for power in China and allowed him to establish the Han dynasty.
Established in the eleventh century b.c., the Chou dynasty had been seriously weakened after the loss of its capital city in 771. The dynasty reestablished itself to the east in Loyang in the central Chinese plains. It flourished for a time, but by the fourth century b.c. a number of rulers began to claim independence for their regions. Eight kingdoms emerged, and, although the Chou dynasty officially still existed, each of the kings strove to establish his own ruling line. The eight fought each other for a century and a half (401–256 b.c.) in what has come to be called the Era of the Warring States. In 256, a new ruler came to the throne of the westernmost state, Ch’in. As ruler, his title was Ch’in Shi Huang-ti. Between 230 and 221 b.c., Shi Huang-ti conquered his seven rivals and unified China into an empire. His reign was relatively brief, and he left behind no strong successor after his death in 210, so rebellions quickly began breaking out across the new empire.
Two men fought their way into contention to replace the falling dynasty. One was Hsiang Yu, a professional soldier described as a huge, uncultured man, but an outstanding military leader. His homeland was Ch’u, in modern east-central China, and had been the largest of the warring states. His main rival was Liu Pang, born a commoner but rising to hold a minor bureaucratic position in the administration of Shi Huang-ti.
Hsiang Yu established his reputation while leading Ch’u forces against those of the dying Ch’in Empire. That recognition brought support from other regions in rebellion, which were willing to follow him. He, along with his uncle, had started an uprising in the province of Ch’u in 209, and he soon led a growing army north-westward toward the capital city of Hsien-yang. Liu Pang, who had been raising forces in the north in modern Hubei province, marched to join Hsiang Yu in the fourth month of 208. Together they named a new king of Ch’u as a rival to the Ch’ins and then marched to relieve a Ch’in siege of Chu-lu; there Hsiang Yu scored a major victory that vaulted him to preeminent command of all the provinces arrayed against the Ch’in.
While Hsiang Yu was engaged at Chu-lu, the king of Ch’u had dispatched Liu Pang to attack the territory around the Ch’in capital at Hsien-yang. In that area, Liu Pang scored a number of victories, culminating with a battle at Lan-t’ien in the tenth month of 206. After that battle, the final Ch’in king fell into his hands, and that allowed Liu Pang to occupy the capital. The records indicate that Liu Pang was a wise and tolerant victor, and he began reforming some of the harsher Ch’in legal practices under which much of the population had suffered. All was peaceful in Hsien-yang until Hsiang Yu arrived 2 months later. He ordered the Ch’in king executed and then allowed his men to pillage the city after he had looted the treasury for himself and his officers. Such actions alienated Liu Pang, who for a time remained passive.
Hsiang Yu began reorganizing China, not along the Ch’in lines of centralized rule but by decreeing the creation of nineteen minor kingdoms, which were to operate within a confederacy, which he would lead. He was able to assume that position by killing the king he had recently enthroned in Ch’u. Liu Pang was awarded with one of the three kingdoms carved out of the original Ch’in territory, his being located in the southern part of the region, that is, the most remote. Probably Hsiang Yu was looking to distance himself from a leader who was a strong potential rival. That territory had been the region of Han, and Liu Pang named himself the king of Han. The reward of such a poor area in return for his services, as well as rumors that the advisors of Hsiang Yu were recommending that he have Liu Pang assassinated, motivated the new king of Han to challenge his former ally.
Liu Pang went on campaign in the fifth month of 206, beginning by conquering the other kingdoms of the west that had made up the old Ch’in homeland. As he advanced toward Loyang, word came that Hsiang Yu had murdered the king of Ch’u. That inspired Liu Pang to call for a general rising of the provinces to aid him in punishing a regicide. A quick strike at Hsiang Yu’s capital city of P’eng-ch’eng was a disaster, however, and Liu Pang found himself defeated by his enemy’s army. Only a timely storm covered his escape along with only a few dozen cavalry. Things looked grim; not only were the provincial kings beginning to join Hsiang Yu but also he had captured some of Liu Pang’s family, including his father. The only positive in this entire situation was the work of Liu Pang’s loyal generals, who continued to raise troops for him and seize provinces away from the main theater of battle.
Liu Pang’s luck did not improve. In a strike at Hsing-yang on the Yellow River, he once again found himself besieged and escaped with only a few men. Hsiang Yu was unable to take advantage of this because Liu Pang’s subordinate, General Han Hsin, was conquering provinces in the east. At one point, the enemy armies encamped for several months on either side of the Yellow River at Guangwu. Hsiang Yu threatened to execute Liu Pang’s father, but to no avail. Failing that, Hsiang Yu challenged his foe to determine everything in single combat, but Liu Pang knew that he was no physical match for Hsiang Yu. From a distance, however, Hsiang Yu was able to hit Liu Pang with a crossbow bolt that wounded but did not kill him. Liu Pang withdrew from the river to the nearby city of Chenggao, where Hsiang Yu once again besieged him.
Liu Pang’s subordinates were so successful in liberating provinces that Hsiang Yu had conquered and harassing his supply lines, that Hsiang Yu was forced at one point to take a part of his army to recover some of his losses. While Hsiang Yu was gone, Liu Pang’s army provoked a battle with the remaining besiegers and defeated them. Hearing of that, Hsiang Yu marched his men back, but Liu Pang refused to give battle, retreating into the mountains. Hsiang Yu at this point (203 b.c.) offered Liu Pang a deal: divide China between them, with Liu Pang being lord of the west and Hsiang Yu being lord of the east. Liu Pang agreed and received his hostage relatives in return. The agreement was short-lived. Liu Pang’s subordinates convinced him that the tide had turned and that many of the provincial leaders now supported him. That, plus the fact that the Ch’u forces were exhausted from their continued marching and were short on supplies, convinced Liu Pang to return to the east for a final battle.
The confrontation took place at Kai-hsia, in modern Anhui province. For the first time, some of Liu Pang’s subordinates hesitated to join him, but with assurances that they would be rewarded with provinces of their own after the war, they marched. At Kai-hsia, Hsiang Yu built himself a walled camp, which Liu Pang’s forces surrounded in the twelfth month of 202. The only relatively contemporary account describes Liu Pang in command of 300,000 men and Hsiang Yu in charge of 100,000. The battle started with General Han Hsin attacking the Ch’u center, but failing to break through. He withdrew, and Generals Kong and Bi attacked from the flanks. As the Ch’u army began to flater, Han Hsin renewed his attack in the center, and the enemy retreated to its camp.
After a night of drinking and tears with his wife, Hsiang Yu gathered 800 cavalry and broke out of his surrounded camp in the early morning darkness. The following morning, when Liu Pang learned what had happened, he dispatched 5,000 cavalry in pursuit. Hsiang Yu crossed the Huai River at the head of only 100 horsemen. Lost, he stopped and asked a farmer for directions. He was tricked and rode into a swamp, where the Han cavalry cornered him. Surrounded, Hsiang Yu was defiant. He swore to his men that Heaven was against him and that nothing he had ever done in battle had warranted such a fate. To prove his worthiness, he told his men, “For your sake I shall break through the enemy’s encirclements, cut down their leaders, and sever their banners, that you may know it is Heaven which has destroyed me and no fault of mine in arms” (Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty I, pp. 45–46).
Promising to kill an enemy general, he divided his remaining men into four squadrons, each to ride down from their encircled hilltop in a different direction, and then reassemble on the east side. His charge scattered the Han cavalry, and he did kill a general and then rejoined his men. They formed into three groups this time, and the returning Han horsemen did not know which group Hsiang Yu was in, so they divided into three groups as well and again surrounded them. Another charge resulted in Hsiang Yu killing a colonel and a reported 50 to 100 men. Again regrouping, he found that his force had lost only 2 men. This running battle drifted southward toward the Yangtze River. There a boatman offered to aid his escape, but Hsiang Yu would not delay Heaven’s judgment. He gave the man his horse, which he had ridden in 5 years of combat, and then led his men dismounted back to face the Han. After a fierce fight and being wounded numerous times, Hsiang Yu was surrounded. Knowing a price was on his head as a reward, he removed it with his own sword.
After Hsiang Yu’s death, all of his domain of Ch’u surrendered, except for the city of Lu. Liu Pang set out with his entire army to capture the city, which refused to submit. Moved by their courage, Liu rode up to the city walls with Hsiang Yu’s head. Upon seeing that, they surrendered and were treated with honor. He also buried the dismembered body of Hsiang Yu with full honors and refused to execute any of his family.
After the battle, Liu Pang’s subordinates urged him to take the title huang-ti, emperor. He accepted the title, and thus he began the Han dynasty, taking the throne name Kao-ti. He was regarded as a good emperor, reigning until 195. After a few years of struggle, he had inherited the united empire formed by Ch’in Shih Huang-ti, and he and his successors improved and expanded it.
Although at first anti-intellectual, Kao-ti realized over time the benefits of wise men, and he overturned the ban on books that Shih Huang-ti had implemented. Kao-ti embraced the teachings of Confucianism; he saw in it the means to rule well. Confucius taught that a good leader would inspire his people, and so Confucian scholars in a bureaucracy, leading the administration, should be the path to a secure and prosperous country. The bureaucracy that administered China until the twentieth century began here and survived through multiple successive dynasties. Kao-ti attempted to retain the administrative organization of the Ch’in emperor, keeping the country divided into provinces overseen by appointed imperial governors. He had to keep his promise, however, to reward his generals. He did so, but over time transferred them around until they became more governors than lords.
The most successful of the Han emperors was Wu Ti (147–81), who extended Han borders well to the west. He was successful in defeating the Hsiung-nu, driving them westward across Asia’s steppes until they arrived a few hundred years later in western Europe as the Huns. The Han dynasty also revived and expanded the trade with the west along the famous Silk Road. Securing that trade route, as well as mounting military and exploratory expeditions, Han envoys reportedly traveled as far as Parthia (modern Iran), where the Roman Empire occasionally fought. The dynasty that Liu Pang established in the wake of his victory at Kai-hsia consolidated the beginnings of the empire that Shih Huang-ti instituted, handing down to later dynasties a unified population, which to this day call themselves the “people of Han.”
Grousset, René. The Rise and Splendour of the Chinese Empire. Translated by Anthony Watson-Gandy and Terence Gordon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953; Sima Qian. Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty I. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993; Twitchett, Denis, and Michael Loewe. The Cambridge History of China, vol. 1. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.