Han Xin


Han Xin

Han Xin (zh-tsp|t=韓信|s=韩信|p=Hán Xìn) (?-196 BC), also known as Marquess of Huaiyin (淮陰侯), was a capable military commander who served under Liu Bang.

Early life and career

Han's father died early, and, like many Chinese at the time, he lived a childhood in destitution. It was believed that Han Xin was from a noble family, in which allowed him to carry a sword with him, which he did all the time during his younger years. It was said that once a hoodlum saw him with his sword and challenged him to use it to fight and decapitate him (the hoodlum) or crawl between his legs. Han Xin knew at that time that if he were to fight, he would be at a great disadvantage as the bully was much stronger and bigger. So instead of putting up a fight, he did as he was told. This incident, as he recalled later, was the best thing that could have happened to him because instead of letting his misfortunes handle his life, he used this event as a stepping stone toward achieving his ambitions. After a couple of years of striving, he was able to master the art of war and, not long after, became one of the greatest strategist of all time. "Restraint," he said, "must be practised as a child; denying it will cause your downfall." Once, when he was very hungry, an old lady gave him a meal. He promised to repay her for her graciousness after he became a powerful man, a suggestion she laughed off and even scorned at, she insisted that instead of just saying that he will repay her, he should do something about his life rather than not even being able to find his own meal.

During the rebellion against Qin (秦) rule, he initially served as a common soldier under Xiang Liang, then under Xiang Liang's nephew Xiang Yu (項羽), who was then the most powerful general in the war of resistance against Qin. (the head of the Great Chu (楚). Although he showed great military abilities, he was not trusted or promoted by Xiang, so he left Xiang's forces. After Qin fell and Xiang had divided the former Qin territories among many princes, Han Xin joined Liu Bang (劉邦) (who was made the Prince of Han under Xiang's division) in 206 BCE. Once, he violated an unspecified law and was about to be beheaded, when it was his turn, Han Xin said "I thought the king wanted heroes, in that case, why is he beheading heroes?". The officer in charge, Xiahou Ying (夏侯嬰) who was one of Liu Bang's most trusted generals, felt that there was something special about him and spared him and, in fact, recommended him to Liu. Liu was not impressed by Han and put him in charge of the army food storage. It was during this time that Han got acquainted with Liu's chief advisor/prime minister Xiao He, who became very impressed with him.

Most of Liu's forces were from the region of Chu (modern Jiangsu and Anhui), and they were not happy about following Liu to his Principality of Han (modern Sichuan, Chongqing, and southern Shaanxi). As Liu Bang burnt the connecting main pathway from Han to Qin, so to divert Xiang Yu's attention elsewhere, most of his followers think that Liu Bang was already content with his achievements and do not want to take the country anymore hence they deserted. This took place around 206 BC, in which Liu Bang's most trusted advisor was rumoured to have deserted as well. Liu Bang was shocked and lost with the news, and asked people to search for him, only to find out that Xiao He returned in his own accord two days later. He asked Xiao He, "Why did you choose to desert me? Don't you have faith in me anymore?". Xiao He replied, "My lord, i did not desert you but i went after Han Xin". Liu Bang was surprised with that answer and asked, "So many generals left, you did not pursue them, what is so special about this Han Xin." Xiao He said, "Han Xin's talent is one in a million, you will not be able to find another with such ability even after thousands of years."

Apparently, after failing to be promoted by Liu despite multiple recommendations by Xiao, Han decided to desert. Xiao heard that Han had left and immediately chased after him -- this famous event is remembered as "Xiao chasing Han under the moon" -- and returned only after two days with Han — during those two days, Liu, who was heavily dependent on Xiao for administration and advice, suffered an extreme panic attack because of his absence. When Xiao, upon his return, made another recommendation for Han, Liu accepted and made Han the commander-in-chief of his armed forces.

Han's masterplan for Liu Bang

Han recommended a step-by-step plan to strangle Xiang's Principality of Western Chu into submission. Under Han's recommendation, Liu prepared for war against Xiang. Liu's first aims were the three Qins—the Principalities of Yong, Sai, and Zhai, which Xiang had created for three surrendered generals of Qin out of former Qin territory. In the autumn and winter of 206 BC, Liu's forces, under Han, made surprise attacks against the three Qins and easily conquered them.

For a while, under Han's plan, Liu feigned satisfaction with merely the original territories that he was promised by Xiang's predecessor Emperor Yi of Chu -- the former lands of Qin. However, that did not last long. Once Xiang was occupied with a war of resistance by the Principalities of Qi (modern Shandong) and Zhao (modern central Hebei), Liu, by Han's planning, fostered a resistance by remnants of the Principality of Han (modern western Henan — same pinyin spelling, but different character than Liu's own principality — same character as Han Xin's family name) and conquered the Principalities of Western Wei (modern southern Shanxi) and Yin (modern northern Henan and southern Hebei). Instead of following Han's plan of eventually strangling Western Chu into submission, however, Liu decided to make a full frontal assault on the Western Chu capital of Pengcheng (彭城) (in modern Xuzhou, Jiangsu), capturing it in summer 205 BC. Xiang, who was occupied in a war with Qi, quickly withdrew and attacked Liu's forces, nearly annihilating it. Liu barely escaped with his life.

After this near disaster, Liu decided to further implement Han's plan, which was supported by Liu's trusted military strategist Zhang Liang. He gave Han command of a large force and commissioned him to conquer the principalities to the north of Western Chu and, should that fail, force them to join Liu's coalition against Western Chu. According to this masterplan, Western Chu would be facing attack from every side and would be strangled.

Northern campaign

Han's forces left Liu's territory in the autumn of 205 BC. His first target was Western Wei, which, by that point, had again rebelled and aligned itself with Western Chu. Han devised the strategy of confusing Western Wei forces into cornering itself at the borders while he made a surprise attack on the capital of Western Wei, Anyi (安邑, in modern Yuncheng, Shanxi) (a strategy that would later be echoed by German World War II strategies in the Battle of France). Western Wei fell easily.

Han's next targets were the Principalities of Zhao and Dai (modern northern Shanxi and northwestern Hebei), which were in a close alliance with Chen Yu (陳餘), the Prince of Dai, who served as the prime minister of Zhao. In late autumn 205 BC, Han defeated Dai forces, and then prepared to invade Zhao. In winter 205 BC, Han, at the Battle of Tao River, employed another unusual but brilliant strategy, the dangerous tactic of pitching camp with a river behind his forces. It caused his forces to have nowhere to retreat and fight to the death; they routed Zhao forces, killing Chen, and captured Zhao Xie, the Prince of Zhao. With Han's recommendation, Liu made Zhang Er, the new Prince of Zhao, Han's second-in-command and promoted Han to prime minister (相國), thus, sharing the post with Xiao. The Principality of Yan (modern Beijing, Tianjin, northern Hebei, and western Liaoning) was intimidated into submission as well.

In autumn 204 BC, under Liu's orders, Han prepared for an invasion of Qi. Even though Liu's diplomat Li Yiji (酈食其) had already persuaded Qi to join Liu's coalition, Han, jealous of Li's ability to convince Qi to capitulate without a fight, decided to attack Qi anyway. It resulted in Li Yiji's death as he is boiled to death(one of the cruel execution created during the Qin Dynasty). In winter 204 BC, Han defeated Qi forces, which were caught unprepared, at Lisha (歷下, in modern Jinan, Shandong). Belatedly, Xiang sent his general Long Qie (龍且) to come to Qi's aid, but Han defeated the joint Qi and Western Chu forces at the Battle of Wei River, killing both Long and Tian Guang (田廣), the Prince of Qi, in battle. (At that battle, Han used another revolutionary strategy: he used a temporary dam to lower the water level of the river to trick the arrogant Long into crossing the river to attack him, and then, as Long's forces were on the riverbed, opened the temporary dam and drowned Long's forces.) Han then requested Liu to make him the Prince of Qi. Reluctantly (concerned that Han may rebel), Liu agreed.

Liu's concerns might have been partially correct. Xiang had sent his diplomat Wu She (武涉) to try to persuade Han to defect from Liu and form an alliance with Xiang. Still bearing a grudge over Xiang's earlier refusal to promote him, Han refused. Han's advisor Kuai Che (蒯徹) also tried to persuade him to become independent of Liu, reasoning with him that he has shown himself to be so brilliant a military leader that he could not be possibly trusted. Han, however, was grateful for Liu's trust in him and was unwilling to rebel. Kuai left, disappointed.

Participation in the campaign of Xiang Yu's destruction

Han Xin then continued to lead his forces to press Xiang. According to a hypothesis by David H. Li, during a lull in the fighting in the winter of 204 BC-203 BC, Han Xin developed the earliest form of Chinese Chess Xiangqi to prepare for an upcoming battle against Xiang (this game, Li argues, led to the origins of chess). But to this date, it's still an arguable fact as to the origin of Xiangqi, Chinese Chess.

With the severe defeats that he suffered on multiple fronts, Xiang Yu and Liu Bang settled for a peace-treaty negotiation. Taking into account of the endless battles over a span of 8 years, which result in countless casualties of war, Xiang Yu then decided to take a step back.

With Han Xin on the side of Liu Bang and the rebel of Ying and Peng, peace is the only way out for both parties as war has torn the country apart. In autumn 203 BC, Xiang Yu reached an agreement peace with Liu, setting the boundary of their principalities at Hong Canal (modern Jialu River), ceding the territories to the west of Hong to Liu, and returning Liu's father Liu Zhijia and wife Lü Zhi (whom he had captured in the Battle of Pengcheng) to Liu.

Persuaded by Zhang and another strategist Chen Ping (陳平), however, Liu reneged on the peace treaty only two months after it was signed and summoned Han Xin and Peng Yue to join him. It is fear that Xiang Yu will turn his back and strike on Liu Bang once given the chance, and acting first is the better choice even if it's not the best.

However, Han Xin is rather a petty and arrogant person(taking into account of his campaign in Qi); Peng, who was formerly under Xiang Yu, was not much better. Neither Han Xin nor Peng arrived immediately, however, so Liu was forced to bribe them by promising to make Peng the Prince of Liang and giving large portions of Western Chu territories to Han. Both then joined the campaign. However, this caused both of them to be sore in the eyes of Liu Bang.

Under Han Xin's command, in winter 203 BC, Liu's forces surrounded Xiang's forces at the Battle of Gaixia. Xiang fought his way out but later committed suicide at Wujiang (烏江, in modern Chaohu, Anhui). In 202 BC, according to his promise, Liu, who would soon proclaim himself Emperor of Han Dynasty (later known as Emperor Gao), made Han the Prince of Chu, giving him the majority of Xiang's former territory.

As Prince of Chu, Han Xin showed both gratefulness to those who had shown him kindness and graciousness to those who had previously offended him. For the old lady who had given him a meal, he gave her a gift of 240,000 Chinese ounces (liang 兩, roughly 2,500 pounds) of gold in gratitude. For the hoodlum who had forced Han to crawl between his legs, Han commissioned him as the chief-of-police of his capital (in modern Huaian, Jiangsu).

Demotion and death

After Liu became Emperor, he began to become suspicious of the powerful princes -- all of whom were considered a threat to the Han empire -- and found excuses to have them removed, Han Xin not exempted. In winter 202 BC, under the guise of an imperial gathering at Chenqiu (陳丘, in modern Zhoukou, Henan), Han was summoned to a meeting and captured, stripped of his principality, and demoted to Marquess of Huaiyin with no military authority.

In 198 BC or 197 BC, Liu commissioned Chen Xi (陳豨), the Marquess of Yangxia, a friend of Han, to be the commander of the northern border forces to defend the empire against Xiongnu. Once Chen reached the borders, however, he rebelled. Liu left the capital to lead an expedition force against Chen. While he was away from the capital Chang'an in 196 BC, Empress Lü heard rumors that Han was involved in Chen's conspiracy and was ready to raise a rebellion against her. Lü acted preemptively and had Han executed, along with close relatives of his father, his mother, and his wife.

Impact on Chinese history

Despite his tragic death, Han was regarded as one of the greatest generals in Chinese history (if not the best), often used as the example by which future generations praised their own generals. His strategies were required studies for all aspiring generals.

Two commonly known Chinese idioms are derived from Han's career. The idiom "secretly passing Chencang" (暗渡陳倉) refers to the surprise attack Han made against Yong and is now commonly used for "secret conduct/rendez-vous".The idiom "Han Xin's army headcount" (韓信點兵), usually followed by "the more the better" (多多益善), refers to a conversation that Han had with Liu sometime after his demotion to the Marquess of Huaiyin. Liu was asking Han how large of a force, in Han's opinion, Liu could personally command. Han noted that Liu was capable of commanding 100,000 men. Liu then asked Han how large of a force Han himself could command. Han said, "For my army headcount, the more the better." Although Han then qualified his remarks by noting that Liu's strong point was "commanding the generals" (i.e., administration and decision-making), Han's remarks did not make Liu any more satisfied with him and may have contributed to his demise.

When Han Xin became a successful general, he returned to visit the old woman who gave him food and rewarded her. He also rewarded the bullies who forced him to crawl under their legs, claiming that "Without them, I wouldn't be who I am today."

Han is also regarded by some as the "Alexander the Great of the East": he was never defeated, and he basically took over all of China while Liu Bang's main force was bogging Xiang Yu down.


Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.