Chu-Han Contention, 206-202 BC

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The Chu-Han Contention (206-202 BC) was a civil war that followed the collapse of the Qin Dynasty, and that saw Liu Bang, the founder of the Han dynasty, defeat Xiang Yu, the leader of the revolt that had overthrown the Qin.

The harsh rule of the Qin triggered a series of revolts across the country, starting in 209, the year after the death of the First Emperor. Amongst the main rebel leaders were Xiang Yu, an aristocrat from the former kingdom of Chu, and Liu Bang, a peasant who had become a bandit, before rising to command a sizable army. Xiang Yu was the better military leader, and his army had defeated the main Qin armies. This left the capital exposed, and in 206 Liu Bang occupied it, accepting the surrender of the king of Qin, the last member of that dynasty. Liu Bang spared this unfortunate short-lived ruler, but he was soon executed by Xiang Yu.

Map showing the Eighteen Kingdoms, 206-202 BC
Map showing the
Eighteen Kingdoms,
206-202 BC

Xiang Yu was acknowledged as the leader of the revolt. He decided to split the empire into nineteen kingdoms. He would be King of Chu and hegemon-king (over-king), while the rest of China would be split into the Eighteen Kingdoms. Liu Bang was expecting to be given Qin, but that area was split into three, each of which was given to a former Qin general. Instead Liu Bang was made King of Han, the area to the south of Qin. Many of the other newly created kings had been significant figures in the last days of the warring kingdoms replaced by the Qin.

Unsurprisingly this arrangement led to an immediate civil war. The conflict between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu was the most significant, but several other kings went to war with each other. Xiang Yu was forced to abandon his plans to return home to Chu, and instead attempted to restore order.

Liu Bang opened hostilities in 206 BC by invading the three Qin kingdoms. He launched a surprise attack on the southern of the three Qin kingdoms, Yong.  Zhang Han, king of Yong, advanced to attack him, but was defeated in battles at Ch’ents’ang and Haochih. Zhang Han then retreated to his capital of Fei-ch’iu, where he was besieged (206-205 BC). Sima Xin, king of Sai and Dong Yi, king of Di, both submitted to Liu Bang early in 205 BC. Fei-ch’iu held out well into the year, but despite Liu Bang’s setbacks elsewhere was eventually forced to surrender.

This gave Lib Bang a solid base of operations for the rest of the war. His cause was helped later in the year when Xiang Yu had his puppet king of Chu murdered, allowing Liu Bang to disguise his revolt as a legitimate campaign against a regicide.

In 205 BC Liu Bang attempted to conquer Xiang Yu’s heartland by capturing his capital at Pengcheng. At first things went well. Xiang Yu had been advised that Liu Bang would probably stop after conquering Qin, and so he moved north to deal with a revolt in Qi. He won a victory at Chengyang, but his harsh behaviour only triggered a renewed revolt. When Liu Bang occupied Pengcheng Xiang Yu left part of his army in Qi, and led a picked force back south. Liu Bang was defeated in a disastrous battle at Pengcheng. Only a freak storm allowed him to escape, and his father and wife were both captured in the retreat that followed.

Elsewhere things went rather better for Liu Bang. One of the reasons for his eventual success was his ability to pick able subordinates, and then to trust them. Xiao He and Han Xin, who had been left in command in the west, raised a fresh army. Han Xin defeated the kingdom of Wei, and then won a battle at Jingzing, defeating Zhao.  

Liu Bang moved his main base to Xingyang (Hsing-yang), on the Yellow River, close to the Ao granary, but in the spring of 204 BC Xiang Yu besieged him in Xingyang, and once again Liu Bang was forced to escape at the head of a handful of men.

Despite these military setbacks Liu Bang still held large parts of China, and his able supporters once again raised new armies. After a standoff close to Yuan (south of Xingyang), Xiang Yu was forced to move east after one of his other armies was defeated at Hsia-p’ei (Wade-Giles). This allowed Liu Bang to move north, defeating Xiang Yu’s army at Chenggao. Xiang Yu returned west, stormed Xingyang and then besieged Liu Bang at Chenggao. Once again Liu Bang was forced to escape at the head of a small band of followers.

Elsewhere Liu Bang’s general Han Xin won a major victory at the battle of the Wei River, and in 203 was made king of Qi as a reward.  Han Xin’s successes forced Xiang Yu to leave the fighting around Chenggao to his generals, and move east to try and restore control. His commanders had strict orders not to fight any battles until Xiang Yu returned. Liu Bang attempted to force a battle by taunting them, but at first this approach failed. Eventually the Chu commanders lost their temper and marched out of the city, only to suffer a major defeat while crossing the Si River.

Xiang Yu was forced back to the area to try and restore the situation, but a stalemate soon developed. Xiang Yu’s army was short of supplies and he was worried about the victorious Han army at large in Qi, on his northern border. He now accepted the peace terms that Liu Bang had first offered during the siege of Xingyang. Under the treaty of the Hong Canal Liu Bang was to rule in the west and Xiang Yu in the east. Liu Bang’s wife and father were returned to him and the two armies began to withdraw into their newly allocated areas.

Liu Bang soon broke the agreement and attacked the Chu (as at the start of the Chu-Han Contention the early chronicles make his advisor’s responsible for this breach of trust). Late in 203 BC Liu Bang summoned his allies and then advanced to Guiling. Somewhat to his surprise neither Han Xin nor Peng Yue turned up, and in November Xiang Yu won a victory at Guling.

Once again Liu Bang turned to his advisors, and they recommended that he offer both men rewards to supporting him. Peng Yue was to become King of Wei, while Han Xin’s newly acquired kingdom of Qi was to be expanded towards the coast (and to include Han Xin’s home town).

This did the trick and both men sent large armies. Liu Bang was also able to convince Xiang Yu’s commander-in-chief to rebel against him. The combined Han, Wei, Qi and rebel armies surrounded Xiang Yu at Gaixia. Faced with overwhelming odds, and believing that a large number of the enemy troops were from his own kingdom of Chu, Xiang Yu seems to have lost his nerve. He escaped from the trap at the head of a small cavalry force, but was hunted down and apparently chose to make a dramatic last stand rather than escape. Eventually he killed himself and his body was beheaded.  

The death of Xiang Yu doomed the Chu cause. His brother made a short-lived attempt to continue the fight, but soon surrendered. A few months after the war Liu Bang declared himself to be the first emperor of the Han dynasty, which would last (with one short interruption) for the next 400 years.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (30 January 2011), Chu-Han Contention, 206-202 BC , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/wars_chu_han_contention.html

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