Battle of Gaixia
The Battle of Gaixia (Kai-hsia) in China in December 202 BCE established
the Han dynasty in power. In 256 BCE a new ruler, Zheng (Cheng), had come to power in the westernmost Chinese state of Qin (Ch’in). He took the ruling name of Qin Shi Huangdi (Ch’in Shih-huang-ti) and between 230 and 221 conquered his rivals in the remaining seven Chinese states. He then united China under the Qin (Ch’in) dynasty, which gave its name to China. The emperor divided China into administrative districts, standardized weights and measures, ordered a widespread disarmament, and melted down the weapons. “The First Emperor,” as he is known, died in 210. His tomb, with its 7,000 thousand life-size terra-cotta soldiers (discovered in 1974), is an important source of information about the period.
With no strong hand at the seat of power, rebellions soon overtook the Qin dynasty; two individuals emerged as chief claimants to replace the Qin. They were Liu Bang (Liu Pang), a former peasant who had risen to be a bureaucrat under Qin Shi Huangdi, and Xiang Yu (Hsiang Yü), a professional soldier from Chu (Ch’u), the largest of the previous states and located in east-central China. Xiang established his military reputation leading Chu forces against the Qin beginning in 209 BCE. Liu meanwhile raised forces in northern China, in present-day Hubei (Hupeh) Province, against the Qin. In 208 he joined Xiang in establishing a new ruler in Chu as a rival to the Qin. Xiang then marched to the city of Ju Lu (Chu-lu) to raise a siege by Qin forces. Xiang’s victory there gave him command of all forces opposing the Qin.
The new Chu ruler meanwhile dispatched Liu to attack territory around the Qin capital of Xianyang (Hsien-yang). There Liu Bang won a number of victories, the most important being at Lantian (Lan-t’ien) in late 206. As a consequence, Liu captured the last Qin ruler and secured the capital. Liu then set up a new administration, winning the support of the peasants through reforms.
A few months later Xiang arrived at Xianyang. He promptly executed the last Qin ruler, seized the treasury for his own benefit, and allowed his soldiers to loot. Liu opposed these actions but kept quiet. Xiang reorganized China, eschewing the strongly centralized Qin state in favor of a confederation of 19 kingdoms. Xiang cemented his position by ordering the execution of the Chu ruler he had recently installed in power. Xiang assigned Liu one of the 19 new kingdoms, the most remote of the 3 kingdoms carved from former Qin territory. It was known as the Western Han region, and Liu styled himself the “King of Han.”
Liu decided to challenge his former colleague, however, because he believed that he had not been adequately compensated for his services and because there were rumors that Xiang sought his assassination. In mid-206 Liu took up arms against Xiang. Liu first conquered the other two kingdoms of the former Qin territory. He used the murder of the Chu king to brand Xiang a regicide and to rally the other kingdoms against him. Liu then advanced on Xiang’s capital of Pengcheng (P’eng-ch’eng), only to have his army virtually annihilated. Liu escaped with only several dozen cavalry. He suffered another major defeat along the Huang He (Huang Ho, Hwang Ho, Yellow River), again escaping with only a few of his men. The only positives for Liu were victories achieved by his generals in the eastern provinces.
The two opposing armies then encamped for some months on opposite sides of the river at Guangwu (Kwangwu). Although Liu rejected Xiang’s call for single combat, Xiang did wound Liu with a crossbow bolt, whereupon Liu withdrew to nearby Xingyang (Hsing-yang). Xiang laid siege to the city. Liu’s generals were so successful in harassing Xiang’s supply lines, however, that Xiang was forced to take much of his force to deal with them. This allowed Liu to defeat the remainder of Xiang’s troops at Xingyang, whereupon Xiang returned. Liu again refused battle and withdrew into the mountains. Xiang then offered to split China with Liu Bang, who agreed. Ziang took the west, and Liu took the east.
This arrangement did not last. Liu’s advisers convinced him that he had the support of most provincial leaders. That and reports of the weakening of Chu forces led Liu to take up arms again. The decisive confrontation occurred at Gaixia (Kaihsia), in present-day Anhui (Anhwei) Province, beginning in December 202. There Xiang and some 100,000 men constructed a walled camp, which Liu and a reported 300,000 men surrounded. Over the ensuing weeks a series of attacks at different points along the defenses brought success.
Early one morning at the end of December, Xiang and 800 cavalry broke out, hoping to avoid defeat and capture. Liu sent 5,000 horsemen in pursuit. Xiang reached the Wujiang (Wu-kiang or Wu) River with only 100 men and was cornered by the Han cavalry. Xiang then led a series of forays against his enemy. Although he and his men killed a number of the Han each time, his own force grew steadily smaller. Knowing that the end was near, Xiang committed suicide.
All Chu territory now surrendered to Liu except the city of Lu. Liu invested that city, which refused to submit until Liu rode out with the head of Xiang. Impressed with the courage of the defenders, Liu treated the city honorably, allowed Xiang’s body to be buried with full honors, and refused to execute any of the family of his defeated foe.
Liu’s victory removed the last threat to his power and enabled him to establish the Han dynasty under the imperial name of Gaozu (Kao Tsu). A highly effective emperor, Gaozu ruled until 195 BCE, reforming the administration and embracing Confucianism. He and his successors also expanded the territory of the empire.
Davis, Paul K. 100 Decisive Battles: From Ancient Times to the Present. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1999.
Sima Qian. Record of the Great Historian: Han Dynasty I. Translated by Barton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
Twitchett, Denis, and Michael Lewis. The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 1. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.