Background

Between 209 BC and 206 BC, rebellions erupted throughout China to overthrow the Qin dynasty. Some of these insurgent forces claimed to be restoring the former six states which were annexed by the Qin state in a series of wars from 230–221 BC. Liu Bang and Xiang Yu were two prominent leaders who emerged from among the rebels. In 208 BC, Xiang Yu and his uncle Xiang Liang installed King Huai II as the nominal ruler of the Chu state while they were actually the ones in power. In late 208 BC, Xiang Liang was killed in action at the Battle of Dingtao so the Chu military came under King Huai II’s control. King Huai II sent Xiang Yu and Liu Bang to lead two separate forces to attack the Qin heartland of Guanzhong, and promised that whoever entered that region first would be granted the title of “King of Guanzhong”.

In late 207 BC, Liu Bang’s rebel army conquered Wu Pass and seized control of Guanzhong and the Qin capital Xianyang. The last Qin emperor Ziying surrendered to Liu Bang, marking the end of the Qin dynasty. After occupying Xianyang, Liu Bang gave strict orders to his men, forbidding them from looting and pillaging the city and harming the civilian populace. Liu Bang also sent troops to garrison at Hangu Pass to block Xiang Yu from entering Guanzhong. Around the time, Xiang Yu’s force had just defeated a Qin army led by Zhang Han at the Battle of Julu. When Xiang Yu arrived at Hangu Pass, he was displeased to hear that Liu Bang had already occupied Guanzhong, so he attacked and conquered the pass, pushing on to west of Xishui (戲水). Liu Bang and his army were based in Bashang (霸上) then. The strengths of Xiang Yu and Liu Bang’s forces then were estimated to be 400,000 and 100,000 respectively.

Prelude

Cao Wushang (曹無傷), a defector from Liu Bang’s side, secretly sent a messenger to Xiang Yu’s camp, telling Xiang that Liu Bang was planning to declare himself “King of Guanzhong” in accordance with King Huai II’s earlier promise, while Ziying would be Liu’s chancellor. Cao Wushang also added that Liu Bang had seized all the riches of Xianyang for himself. Xiang Yu was furious when he heard this and planned to attack Liu Bang. Xiang Yu’s advisor Fan Zeng felt that Liu Bang posed a threat to his lord so he urged Xiang Yu to eliminate Liu Bang as soon as possible.

One of Xiang Yu’s uncles, Xiang Bo, shared a close friendship with Liu Bang’s advisor Zhang Liang. Xiang Bo feared for his friend’s life so he sneaked to Liu Bang’s camp to warn Zhang Liang about the peril he was in, telling Zhang to flee. Liu Bang was shocked when Zhang Liang related the news to him, and he sought advice from Zhang to avoid danger.

Feast

The following day, Liu Bang brought around 100 men with him to meet Xiang Yu at Hong Gate (鴻門), where Xiang had prepared a banquet to entertain him. Liu Bang expressed that he managed to enter Guanzhong first because of sheer luck, and apologised to Xiang Yu for robbing him of his glory while extolling Xiang’s valour in battle. Liu Bang also explained that the misunderstanding was caused by vile words from someone plotting to sow discord between him and Xiang Yu. Xiang Yu then pointed out that it was Cao Wushang who told him about Liu Bang’s supposed intentions. He invited Liu Bang to partake in the banquet.

During the banquet, Fan Zeng made signals and hinted many times to Xiang Yu to kill Liu Bang, but Xiang ignored him. Fan Zeng then summoned Xiang Yu’s cousin Xiang Zhuang, instructing him to pretend to perform a sword dance to entertain the guests and find an opportunity to assassinate Liu Bang. Xiang Zhuang started dancing after Xiang Yu approved, but Xiang Bo offered to join the performance and he blocked Xiang Zhuang with his body whenever the latter thrust his sword towards Liu Bang.

Liu Bang’s escape

Liu Bang later said that he needed to use the latrine so he left the banquet with Fan Kuai. Shortly after, Xiang Yu sent Chen Ping to call Liu Bang back to the feast. Liu Bang felt that he should bid Xiang Yu farewell but Fan Kuai opposed his decision.

Fan Kuai was essentially reminding Liu Bang that their lives were in Xiang Yu’s hands and they should escape as soon as they had a chance. He then chose a horse for Liu Bang to ride and Liu escaped, with Fan Kuai, Xiahou Ying, Jin Jiang (靳疆) and Ji Xin accompanying him on foot.

Liu Bang had Cao Wushang executed after returning to his camp.

Wikimedia

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