Chu-Han contention

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The Chu-Han contention (楚漢相爭 or 楚漢春秋, 206–202 BC) was a post-Qin Dynasty interregnum period in China. During this period the rebel kings derived from the collapse of Qin Dynasty formed two camps fighting each other. One camp was headed by Liu Bang, King of Han while the other was headed by Xiang Yu, King Ba of Chu. Several minor kings also fought independent wars against each other during that period. The war ended with total victory of Liu Bang, who claimed himself the emperor and established the Han Dynasty.


Origin of the War

In 221 BC, the Qin Dynasty annexed all the other states in China to form the first united Chinese Empire. However, the political unification did not immediately result in a unified national identity of all Chinese people. In some former state territory, sympathy to the old state still prevailed. This might not be a huge problem had the Qin Dynasty been able to consolidate its rule over all China for a long period of time. However, Qin's rule was extremely unpopular and unbearable to most Chinese people. Insurrection followed and the Qin Dynasty collapsed within 30 years of the unification. During the collapse of Qin, many rebels rallied local people to their support under the banners of the old states. The result was that, when the Qin Dynasty ended, China was divided into many kingdoms, many with the old Warring State kingdom name and with a relative of the old royal family in throne.

At that moment, the future of China was not clear. Some people, especially many descendants of the old ruling families of the old kingdoms thought the Warring States would be restored and China would be divided again among these kingdoms. However, most of the common people were tired of the endless war and hoped a united empire could end it.

Among these kingdoms, the strongest was Chu. Xiang Yu, the chief of Chu army, won the support of most of the kings following his heroic Julu Campaign and became the de facto leader of all the kings, although the throne of Chu was still in the hands of the figurehead King Huai of Chu. In 206 BC, it was obvious that the fate of China lied in his hands. However, although a brilliant military leader, Xiang Yu was incompetent in politics. Being placed in a position to create a post-Qin order of China, he made several unwise moves:

  • First, after the bulk of the Qin army (around 200,000 soldiers) surrendered to him, Xiang Yu ruthlessly slaughtered them all. Most of them were from the Qin homeland, Guanzhong. By doing this, Xiang Yu won the hatred of the people of Guanzhong, who later would remain loyal to Liu Bang in the following war.
  • Second, Xiang Yu murdered Emperor Yi of Chu, the nominal leader of all the rebel kings. By doing so, Xiang Yu was considered by many as having committed regicide. This gave many people an excuse to turn against him.
  • Fourth, Xiang Yu realigned many kingdoms to reward his favorites, a move which angered many others. Several disgruntled kingdoms soon rebelled against him. Those who were rewarded were also too busy consolidating their own rule to support Xiang Yu in the following war.

The last reason was the direct cause of Chu-Han Contention. It all started with the Qi rebellion.

Political Situation at the Start of the War

In 206 BC the Qin Dynasty ended. China was divided into six kingdoms with the same name of the old Warring States, namely Chu, Qi, Hán (Han), Wei, Zhao and Yan. The Qin government was overthrown and who should rule Qin remained undecided. According to the promise made by King Huai of Chu, the nominal leader of all the kings, whoever occupied Guanzhong (the Qin homeland) first should be rewarded with the kingdom of Guanzhong. This would make Liu Bang the rightful king of Guanzhong. The people of Guanzhong also supported Liu Bang, who, though a Chu, treated the Qin people kindly and righteously. However, Xiang Yu suspected that Liu Bang was not loyal to him. He was also afraid that if Liu Bang was made the King of Guanzhong, he would become too strong for Xiang Yu to be comfortable. When Xiang Yu moved his army into Guanzhong and met Liu Bang, Liu Bang knew it was impossible for him to oppose Xiang Yu and gave in. Xiang Yu then gave Guanzhong to several surrendered Qin generals, thereby creating the Kingdoms of three Qin. Liu Bang was only awarded with the relatively desolate Kingdom of Han.

During the Battle of Julu, most of the kings sent troops to support Xiang Yu. As a result, Xiang Yu was in command of the united force of several kingdoms. After overthrowing the Qin Dynasty, Xiang Yu thought that he should rewarded the service of the generals of those kingdoms who fought along his side. Therefore he divided all the kingdoms to give these generals their own kingdom. The Kingdom of Qi was divided into three kingdoms, Yan, Hán, Wei, Zhao each into two, Qin into the aforementioned three Qin and Han. In his own kingdom, Chu, Xiang Yu made King Huai of Chu an emperor (Emperor Yi of Chu), and virtually exiled him to a remote place. Xiang Yu then made himself the King of Chu (King Ba of Chu) and created three more kingdoms from the southwestern part of Chu territory. Generally, Xiang Yu gave the best territories to his favorites, at the expense of the original rulers. This certainly would not make him popular among them. Moreover, several generals who thought they should be made kings but were ignored by Xiang Yu also felt envious.

Those who felt robbed included Liu Bang, King of Han, Wei Bao, King of Wei, Han Guang, King of Liaodong, Chen yu, Lord Cheng'an, Peng Yue and Tian Rong. They would soon insurrect against Xiang Yu.

Start of the War: Qi Rebellion

During the collapse of the Qin Dynasty, the Kingdom of Qi was restored and now the king was Tian Shi. The prime minister of Qi was Tian Rong. Tian Rong refused to help Xiang Yu in several occasions during the war against Qin Dynasty. Therefore Xiang Yu disliked Tian Rong a lot. During the realignment of the kingdoms, Xiang Yu divided the kingdom of Qi into three kingdoms: Kingdom of Qi, Kingdom of Jibei and Kingdom of Jiaodong. The best part of the three,Kingdom of Qi was awarded to Tian Du, a Qi general who had disregarded Tian Rong's order and helped Xiang Yu. Tian Shi was demoted to the King of Jiaodong, a much desolate and poor territory. Kingdom of Jibei was awarded to another Qi general, Tian An. Tian Rong was left with no kingdom. In fall 206 BC, Tian Rong rose up against Xiang Yu. He quickly deposed Tian Du, and killed both Tian An and Tian Shi. After reuniting Kingdom of Qi, Tian Rong made himself the King. At that time Peng Yue was also left without any fief, so Tian Rong named Peng Yue his chief of army and ordered him to attack Chu.

The Kingdom of Qi lied just north of Xiang Yu's core territory: Pengcheng. For the next year Xiang Yu would concentrate his army in the effort to suppress Qi rebellion. Therefore he was unable to intervene at Guanzhong when Liu Bang insurrected before long.

Occupation of Guanzhong by Liu Bang

In winter 206 BC, Liu Bang decided to reclaim his rightful territory: Guanzhong. At that time Guanzhong was ruled by the Kings of Three Qin: Zhang Han, King of Yong, Sima Xin, King of Sai and Dong Yi, King of Di. These three kings were all old Qin generals. They surrendered their army to Xiang Yu when it was obvious the Qin's fall was inevitable. Xiang Yu ruthlessly slaughtered all the surrendered soilders, but spared the lives of these three generals and later awarded them Guanzhong. The people of Guanzhong considered these three kings to be traitors who gained their kingdom by sacrificing the sons, brothers and husbands of the Qin people. On the other hand, Liu Bang was regarded by many Guanzhong people to be their ideal ruler.

Without the support of Qin's people, the Kingdom of Sai and Kingdom of Di were soon conquered by Han. The Kingdom of Yong was reduced to a few cities. Now that he occupied the strategic territory of Guanzhong, Liu Bang had a solid rear area and a reliable logistic base.

Development in Other Kingdoms

Chen Yu, Lord Cheng'an was only awarded a territory of mere three counties by Xiang Yu while his rival Zhang Er was made the King of Zhao. Feeling robbed, Chen Yu jumped at the opportunity of Qi Rebellion. With help from Qi troops, Chen Yu managed to depose Zhang Er from the Zhao throne in the first month of 205 BC. Xie, King of Dai was restored to the Zhao throne by Chen Yu, while Chen Yu himself was awarded the Kingdom of Dai.

In the meantime Zang Tu, King of Yan killed the former King of Yan Han Guang, King of Liaodong and reunited the Kingdom of Yan.

In the Kingdom of Hán, Xiang Yu killed Cheng, King of Hán and replaced him with Zheng Chang.

Battle of Pengcheng and Lingbi

In the first month of 205 BC, Xiang Yu had Emperor Yi of Chu assassinated. This was soon used as an excuse by Liu Bang to rally people against Xiang Yu.

After consolidating his base at Guanzhong, Liu Bang moved his army east of Hangu Pass to conquer the Henan area. Soon, the prefect of Nanyang and Henan fell into Liu Bang's hands. After that Han conquered the Kingdom of Wei and Kingdom of Yin and replaced Zheng Chang, King of Hán with Han Xin (Xin, King of Hán) (not to be confused with the other Han Xin, who was later known as Marquess of Huaiyin). Han's territory was now directly adjacent to Chu's.

Xiang Yu was at that moment busy with Qi. In the fourth month of 205 BC Xiang Yu defeated Tian Rong soundly in Chengyang and the latter was soon killed by some local people. However, Xiang Yu failed to follow suit and appease the Qi people. Tian Heng, younger brother of Tian Rong rallied Qi people against Chu invaders, and the war remained indecisive in Qi.

Meanwhile Liu Bang had mustered a huge force (around 560,000 soldiers) with the help of the other kings. In the eighth month of 205 BC, the united force of Han, Zhao, Sai, Di, Hán and Wei captured Pengcheng, the capital of Chu, when Xiang Yu was fighting in Qi.

Despite the success, Liu Bang did little to advance. The coalition force spent most of its time drinking and partying in Pengcheng. This gave Xiang Yu an opportunity. Leaving a general to command the rest of Chu army in Qi, Xiang Yu took a hand-picked force of 30,000, sneaked back to Pengcheng and surprised Liu Bang and his coalition force. Panicked, many Han soldiers jumped into a river nearby and were drowned. When the defeated Han army moved south, Xiang Yu chased them to Lingbi and forced the bulk of them into another two rivers. An estimated 100,000 Han soldiers were lost. Liu Bang himself was pursued by Chu troops and was so frightened that he attempted to abandon his two children, later Emperor Hui of Han and Princess Yuan of Lu to lighten his chariot. Liu Bang's father and wife (later Empress Dowager Lü) were both captured by Chu troops.

After the Battle of Pengcheng and Lingbi, Han lost all its territory gains in Chu, and most of the kings defected to the camp of Xiang Yu.

Recovery of Han

Liu Bang reorganized his defeated army in Yingyang. With the reinforcements from Guanzhong, Liu Bang managed to stop Xiang Yu's advance and the war became a stalemate. In the ninth month of 205 BC, Han annexed the Kingdom of Yong, thus finally solidifying its hold on Guanzhong. In the meantime, Liu Bang realized that it was extremely hard to beat Xiang Yu head on. Therefore, he decided to employ a roundabout strategy suggested by Zhang Liang. In this plan, Liu Bang would deploy his own troops in Yingyang stalling Xiang Yu, while letting Han Xin and Peng Yue attack the rear area of Chu to weaken its line. Liu Bang would also rally Ying Bu, King of Jiujiang against Xiang Yu, thus pressuring Chu from the south.

To carry out this plan, Han Xin had to conquer the Hebei area (north of Huanghe River, including Kingdoms of Wei, Zhao, Dai and Yan). In the eleventh month of 205 BC, Han Xin conquered the Kingdom of Wei, thus solidifying the Han's line from north. In the first month of 204 BC Han Xin led his army into the Kingdom of Zhao, together with the deposed King of Zhao, Zhang Er. In the decisive battle in Jingjing Pass, Han Xin deliberately stationed his troops with their backs to a river, forcing them to fight for their survival and won the battle soundly against the united force of Zhao and Dai. Both Zhao Xie, King of Zhao and Chen Yu, King of Dai were killed in action. Han Xin then restored Zhang Er back to the throne of Zhao, with Dai united with Zhao. The Kingdom of Yan soon acknowledged the leadership of Han. Chu tried to intervene in Zhao, but their assault went fruitless. The result was that Han now had a reliable ally north of the Yellow River in Zhao and could now attack Chu's flank from the north.

Other parts of the plan also materialized when Sui He managed to persuade Ying Bu, the King of Jiujiang, to turn against Xiang Yu. In the meantime Tian Heng finally drove the Chu army out of Qi.

Chu Striking Back

Now facing Han's aggression from multiple theaters, the balance appeared to be ticking away from Chu. However, Xiang Yu would not give it up without a fight. In the third month of 204 BC the Chu army led by Long Qie drove Ying Bu out of the Kingdom of Jiujiang, removing the threat from the south. Xiang Yu then concentrated his effort in beating Liu Bang in Yingyang. In the seventh month of 204 BC Xiang Yu managed to encircle Liu Bang in Yingyang, but Liu Bang made another lucky escape and withdrew back to Guanzhong, leaving Yingyang besieged by the Chu army.

Although Liu Bang had been beaten squarely, Peng Yue now appeared to be the main trouble. Waging a guerrilla war against Chu for several months, Peng Yue severely undermined Chu's supply line. When Peng Yue defeated a Chu force in Xiapi, southeast to Pengcheng, Xiang Yu had had enough. He decided to handle Peng Yue himself. The campaign against Peng Yue went well, but in the west front Liu Bang attacked again and destroyed the Chu army in Chenggao, just west of Yingyang. Xiang Yu had to move his troops again to the west front. In the ninth month of 204 BC Xiang Yu captured Yingyang and defeated Liu Bang again in Chenggao. Liu Bang abandoned his own army and fled alone to the barracks of the Zhao army commanded by Han Xin and Zhang Er. In dramatic fashion Liu Bang seized control of the Zhao army.

Battle of River of Si

With the Zhao army in hand, Liu Bang was able to regroup and stop the Chu army from attacking either Guanzhong or Hebei. Again trying to weaken Xiang Yu's flank, Liu Bang sent general Liu Jia (later King of Jing) to help Peng Yue in Liang (southeastern part of Kingdom of Wei), which endangered the supply line of Chu army. Xiang Yu again decided to handle Peng Yue himself, and left Cao Jiu, Marquess of Haichun, to defend Chenggao. When Xiang Yu left, he warned the Marquess of Haichun to concentrate on defense and not to fight with the Han troops.

At first the Marquess of Haichun followed Xiang Yu's instructions strictly. He stationed his troops inside Chenggao and ignored the challenges from the Han army. However, when Liu Bang sent an envoy to taunt him, the Marquess of Haichun was furious and mobilized his troops to attack Liu Bang. While crossing the So river, Liu Bang ambushed him and completely defeated the Chu troops. Chenggao fell into the hands of Liu Bang. Liu Bang soon captured Aocang and its enormous storage of food. Now the Han army would not have to worry about supply problems.

Xiang Yu, on the other hand, again defeated Peng Yue in Liang. However, the loss of Chu troops in Chenggao made Chu's strategic position extremely unfavorable.

Conquest of Qi by Han Xin

When Liu Bang was attacking the Chu army in Chenggao, he also made diplomatic attempts to win the support of Qi. The King of Qi was convinced by the Han envoy and decided to lean towards the Han side.

Han Xin, however, had other thoughts. Having received an early order from Liu Bang to conquer Qi and no order to rescind it, Han Xin decided not to care about the actual political stand of Qi. He invaded Qi in the first month of 203 BC.

Qi was caught unprepared from an invasion from Han Xin. Most of its territory fell to Han Xin in a few weeks. Qi had to resort to its former enemy, Chu. Xiang Yu sent Long Qie's army to help Qi.

Facing a numerically superior united force of Qi and Chu, Han Xin pretended to withdraw, then built a dam to hold back the flow of a river and tricked his opponent into crossing it. While the Chu and Qi troops were crossing the river, he released the water held back by the dam. Most of them were drowned. Long Qie was killed in action.

Han Xin built on his success and conquered all of Qi soon afterwards. He then asked Liu Bang for this kingdom as his award. Liu Bang was struggling against Xiang Yu's force and thirsted for Han Xin's help. He was furious of Han Xin's request, believing it as a blackmail. However, he gave in to Han Xin and create him King of Qi, because he was afraid that Han Xin would defect to Chu.

End of the War

While Han Xin was conquering Qi, Liu Bang and Xiang Yu were confronting each other in Guangwu. After several months, the Chu army was out of supplies. Xiang Yu tried to force Han's army into a decisive battle, but Liu Bang would not give him the chance. The fall of Qi shook Xiang Yu deeply. Brave as Xiang Yu was, his situation was nearly hopeless. In a desperate move to improve his position, Xiang Yu tried to persuade Han Xin to defect to his side. At that point the strength and strategic value of the Kingdom of Qi made it the deciding factor of the war. Be it Han or Chu, whoever had the support of Han Xin and his kingdom would certainly win. Han Xin remained loyal to Han and rejected this offer. He later rejected another suggestion that he remain neutral and virtually make China divided into the three kingdoms of Han, Chu and Qi. Xiang Yu's fate was sealed.

Only one obstacle remained in Liu Bang's way. Liu Bang's father and wife were still held as hostage in Chu's barracks. After reaching a peace treaty with Xiang Yu for the return of these two hostages, this obstacle was removed.

In the first month of 202 BC, Liu Bang broke the peace treaty and attacked Xiang Yu again in Guling. Fighting for his own survival, Xiang Yu won another battle against Han troops. This victory proved to be nothing but a tactical one. When Peng Yue and Han Xin sent their troops alongside Liu Bang, the outcome of the war was finally decided.

In the third month of 202 BC, Xiang Yu found himself besieged in the city of Gaixia, by the coalition force of Han and the other kings. Jiujiang fell to Ying Bu and Liu Jia the preceding month, and most of the Kingdom of Chu was occupied by Han army. When he heard the besieging troops singing songs in the Chu accent, Xiang Yu knew his kingdom had fallen. Defiant to the very end, he broke out of the siege and fled to the bank of Yangtze River in heroic fashion, where he committed suicide.

After beating Xiang Yu, Liu Bang made Peng Yue King of Liang and Ying Bu King of Huainan. Han Xin was also moved from King of Qi to King of Chu. Chu's former territory was now ruled by these three kings.

In the fourth month of 202 BC, upon the petition of all the kings, Liu Bang claimed himself Emperor of Han. This was the start of the Han Dynasty.


The Chu-Han Contention ended with Liu Bang's total victory. China was reunited under the new Han empire, which was to become one of the strongest empires in the history of the world.

This war did not eliminate all the kingdoms within China. However, most of the old ruling families of these kingdoms were no longer on the throne, and the kings were mostly former commoners. The old noble families would still be a factor in Han Dynasty politics, but their role would never be as significant as in the past.


Xiang Yu won almost every battle he participated in, but still lost the war. Later he was often depicted as a fallen hero.

On the contrary, although he suffered defeat after defeat, Liu Bang fought on and finally won it all. Later in Chinese literature he was often used as an example to advise people to never give up, just like the story of Robert the Bruce in Western literature.

The expression "Bei shui yi zhan" (背水一战), literally fighting with the river at your back, was often used to mean "either win or die". This expression came from the battle of Jingjingkou, in which Han Xin deliberately stationed his troops facing the enemy, with their backs to the river, leaving no escape route. The knowledge that there was no way out but victory or death inspired the soldiers to fight harder.

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