Battle of Gaixia

Battle of Gaixia
Part of the Chu-Han contention
Date 202 BC
Gaixia (in present-day Guzhen County, Anhui)[citation needed]
Result Decisive Han victory; the Han gain control of China and Liu Bang assumes the title of emperor
Han Western Chu
Commanders and leaders
Liu Bang
Han Xin
Xiang Yu
600,000–700,000 100,000
Casualties and losses
100,000-200,000 80,000 killed in action
20,000 captured
Battle of Gaixia
Traditional Chinese 垓下之戰
Simplified Chinese 垓下之战
Xiang Yu, the Hegemon of Western Chu

The Battle of Gaixia was a last stand fought in 202 BC during the Chu–Han Contention between the forces of Liu Bang (later Emperor Gaozu of Han) and Xiang Yu. The battle concluded with victory for Liu Bang, who proclaimed himself Emperor of China and founded the Han Dynasty. This is the last major battle of the Chu-Han Contention, ending with the suicide of Xiang Yu and the undisputed rule of Liu Bang.


The Han forces had won many major victories against the Chu, but they still only controlled part of China. Most of eastern China was under Chu control. Xiang Yu was able to regain his strength in this region and launch counterattacks at Liu Bang.

At this point, major disagreements had occurred between Liu Bang and his general Han Xin due to an argument over the control of the Han army. He refused to use many of Han Xin's plans and this worsened the problem. As a result, Han Xin withheld his forces in Qi when Liu Bang was under siege from Xiang Yu. Liu Bang was only able to avoid capture because of the assistance of another general, Zhang Liang.

When fighting, Xiang Yu neglected the logistic side of warfare. In this battle, Zhang Liang was successful in assaulting Xiang Yu's supply lines, which greatly reduced the Chu army's effectiveness. He was also able to keep the Han supply lines open.

Seeing tension between Liu Bang and Han Xin, Xiang Yu tried to persuade Han Xin to ally with him, or at least to stay neutral in this war. Xiang Yu warned Han Xin that he would be in grave danger if Liu Bang was victorious. Xiang Yu even offered to openly accept Han Xin's Qi as a third nation after Chu and Han. However, due to the past history between the two, Han Xin refused any diplomatic relationship with Xiang Yu.

Xiang Yu then threatened to kill Liu Bang's captured father and wife and have them cooked over a fire, to force Liu Bang to surrender. Liu Bang simply replied that since the two had sworn each other as 'brothers' (during the earlier years of the revolt against Qin Dynasty) he would be effectively cooking his own father, and joked that Xiang Yu should not forget to send him a cup of 'their' father's flesh to share as good brothers. At one point, Xiang Yu was about to capture Liu Bang. Finally Liu Bang agreed with everything that Han Xin requested, and Han Xin finally agreed to help. Later, with the arrival of Han Xin, Liu Bang was able to convince Xiang Yu to agree to a peace treaty. As a result, Liu Bang's father and wife were returned to him. Then, in October 202 BC, Xiang Yu started to move his forces back east.

The battle

Unbeknownst to Xiang Yu, this was a tactic from Han Xin. The Chu forces had sieged the Han fortress for a long time, leaving them tired. On top of that, Chu troops were getting less food than they needed to fight effectively. When news reached them that the war was over, and that there would be long term peace ahead, they were overjoyed.

Han Xin then led many attacks against the Chu forces. In anger, Xiang Yu tried to fight his way back to Liu Bang's fortress, but Han Xin had set up many traps and ambushes along the way. Finally Xiang Yu decided that a quick victory was no longer possible with his low morale troops, and decided to temporarily retreat back to the Chu capital and regroup there.

Han Xin knew that he could not let Xiang Yu return to the capital. Han Xin ordered his forces to increase the number of ambushes in order to force the Chu troops into a canyon area near Gaixia, where Xiang Yu could not move at will. As the ambushes increased, Xiang Yu became more and more certain that the main traps would await him inside the canyon. Although his troops were constantly ambushed, he insisted that his troops head straight back to the capital city through the main road as fast as they could, avoiding the side paths through the canyon.

Unfortunately for Xiang Yu, fortune turned against him. In one of the ambushes, Xiang Yu's wife, Consort Yu (虞姬), was captured by Han troops. Han Xin immediately ordered that she be taken into the canyon. Xiang Yu, without a choice, sent most of his worn-out forces back to the Chu capital, while he himself led a smaller force of 100,000 soldiers into the canyon to save his wife.


Xiang Yu hoped to save his wife quickly and retreat before becoming completely entrapped. However, Han forces, under Han Xin's orders, moved his wife deep into the canyon. By the time he finally reached them and saved his wife, Xiang Yu and his army were already too deep into the canyon to retreat safely.

Han Xin then proceeded with an "Ambush from Ten Sides" (十面埋伏).[1] Han Xin first fought Xiang Yu face to face, and then retreated. Xiang Yu immediately gave chase, but soon found himself trapped among the numerous Han army. Everywhere Xiang Yu led his forces, more ambushes and traps awaited them. With the repeated ambushes and encirclements, the Han troops began to elongate Xiang Yu's columns and disrupt their formation, allowing their decimation piecemeal. This not only caused heavy casualties for Chu, but also crushed the Chu army's morale, since escaping alive seemed impossible. By December 202 BC, the Chu troops were trapped without supply in the canyon.

To further decrease Chu morale, Han Xin used the "Chu Song from Four Sides" (四面楚歌) tactic. He ordered Han and captured Chu troops to sing Chu folk songs.[1] Xiang Yu thought that the Western Chu had been conquered while he had been trapped there, and his cause was lost.[1]

After this, Chu soldiers started to desert their camps and escape on their own. Initially Xiang Yu tried with force to stop his troops from leaving the ranks. But when the soldiers and his wife begged of him to let the soldiers go home, Xiang Yu sadly complied. On the same night, Xiang Yu's wife, at age 16, committed suicide, because she considered herself the primary cause of the fall of the Western Chu.

Around 800 of Xiang's soldiers remained with Xiang Yu, vowing to fight for him until the very end. Xiang Yu was impressed with their loyalty, and promised to lead them to safety. Most of the soldiers are believed the survivors of the original 8,000 followers of Xiang Yu to fight against Qin Dynasty. [2]

Xiang Yu's suicide

Han Xin successfully broke the spirits of the Chu troops, which broke the Chu ranks without a fight, as he expected. But the event had an advantage to Xiang Yu. When the Chu army size was still large, they could not move as they wanted, since they were easy to spot. But now Xiang Yu only had 800 men on horses, which allowed him to move much more easily. Xiang Yu was able to break through the traps and ambushes, and escaped the canyon with about a hundred men.

Eventually, Han Xin discovered in shock that Xiang Yu had escaped from the entrapped canyon. Upon discovering this, Liu Bang ordered 5,000 elite cavalry to chase down Xiang Yu. Liu Bang ordered the cavalry to not kill Xiang Yu, but to capture him.

Unfortunately for Xiang Yu, after he left the canyon, he soon got lost. He tried to ask local people for directions back to Chu, but they pointed him in the wrong direction, with this being possibly intentional given their loyalty towards Han. Xiang Yu then went into the swamps, costing him valuable time for escape. (The fact is disputed, as it is absent from certain Chinese historiographies, and most historians believe it to be fictional.) At the end, Han Xin's elite cavalry chased him to Wu River (烏江). There, Xiang Yu refused to surrender. Xiang Yu had an opportunity to use a local boatman to escape across the river back into Chu territory, but he had too much pride to do so.[citation needed] Instead, he tried to persuade the last 28 of his loyal soldiers to escape, but they all refused and wished to make a last stand against the soldiers that attempted to capture their lord alive. The 28 soldiers killed hundreds of Han Xin's soldiers in the battle.[3] Then, recognizing an old friend Lü Matong among the Han soldiers and realizing that his position was unescapable, he offered his head to Lü, knowing that the King of Han (Liu Bang) had placed a price of 1,000 gold ingots and the title of "Wanhu Marquis" (萬戶侯; lit. "marquis of 10,000 households") on his head. Xiang Yu then committed suicide by slitting his throat with his sword,[1]. A brawl broke out among the Han soldiers at the scene for the reward, and Xiang Yu's body was said to be dismembered and mutilated in the fight. The reward was eventually claimed by Lü Matong and five others.[4]


The death of Xiang Yu was a major blow to Western Chu. Cities of the Chu surrendered to Liu Bang, and Liu Bang treated all surrendering Chu forces with respect. Had Xiang Yu successfully retreated into Chu, he might have been able to stop or stall the Han advance.[5]

Soon after the death of Xiang Yu, Chu would fall to Han. Thus the Han Dynasty, one of the greatest Chinese dynasties, was established. Paul K. Davis writes, "Liu Bang’s victory removed his last rival from power in China and allowed him to establish the Han dynasty."[6]


  • Liu Bang first signed a peace treaty with Xiang Yu, and then ambushed Xiang Yu when he was making his way back to Chu. As a result, many people considered Liu Bang a deceitful man. But it was also possible that Han Xin forced Liu Bang to ignore the peace treaty as part of the deal for him to help Liu Bang. Han Xin had long wanted to defeat Xiang Yu in a decisive battle, as to prove that he was the better strategist. Before the battle, Han Xin's Qi turned down Xiang Yu's offer of an alliance, probably for the same reason. It seemed unlikely that Xiang Yu, being an intelligent man, would have accepted the peace treaty in the first place if Liu Bang was such a dishonest man.
  • Another debatable part of this story was Xiang Yu going into the canyon to save his wife, even though he knew it was a trap. Militarily, this was a horrible decision. However, it showed that Xiang Yu loved his wife much more than his empire. (Some books say his wife Yu Ji had already committed suicide in front of Xiang Yu before Xiang escaped with his troops after hearing the Chu songs.)
  • It was possible that the popular game xiangqi (Chinese Chess) was invented by Xiang Yu at the time of the peace treaty. One account stated that Xiang Yu invented xiangqi so that all future battles between Chu and Han can be fought over this game, hence no further human life losses needed to be sustained by either side.[citation needed] In another version of the story, Liu Bang invented xiangqi, not Xiang Yu. In a third version popularized by a recent book from David H. Li, it was Han Xin that invented the game. One common factor cited in these folklores is that in the game of xiangqi, the line which divides the board into 2 parts is marked "Chu River" on the black side and "Han Border" on the red side. There is, however, no historical documentation suggesting an actual origin in this era; the first written description of xiangqi's rules appeared much later, in the Tang dynasty.
  • According to some historians, the battle took place in either Lingbi County or in what is now Luyi County.[7][8]

See also