Xiang Yu (232-202 BC) was the most important leader of the rebellion that toppled the Qin Dynasty, but was unable to secure his own power and was defeated by Liu Bang in the Chu-Han Contention (Wade-Giles: Hsiang Yu).
Unlike Liu Bang, who came from a peasant family, Xiang Yu was a member of the old Chinese aristocracy that had been forced from power by the First Emperor. Xiang Yu’s family had served the kings of Chu. His grandfather, Xiang Yan, was a Chu general who was killed in 223 BC during the Qin conquest of Chu. Xiang Yu’s father died while he was young, and he was raised by his uncle Xiang Liang. The young Xiang Yu thus grew up in a position of some comfort and power, but this ended after the triumph of Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor, when his family was forced into exile.
The Qin dynasty barely outlived its founder. In 209 BC revolts broke out against the Second Emperor, Qin Er Shi. Xiang Liang became the leader of the revolt in Kuaiji (the southern part of Chu and the south eastern part of the Qin Empire).
In an attempt to bolster his position Xiang Liang found a member of former royal family of Chu, Mi Xin (a grandson of King Huai I of Chu). Mi Xin was installed as King Huai II, although the power remained with the Xiang family. At this point the Qin dynasty still had some powerful armies, and Xiang Liang was killed at the battle of Dingtao. For a brief period King Huai II actually had some authority, but this didn’t last. In 207 BC the Qin besieged the king of Zhao at Julu. He called for help, and King Huai decided to send an army. Xiang Yu, then in his early 20s, was appointed as ‘second general’. If this wasn’t enough of a snub, he had also been passed over for command of the army sent to attack the Qin heartland, which instead went to Liu Bang.
Xiang Yu responded by killing Song Yi, the ‘first general’, taking command of the army and defeating the Qin at the battle of Julu. In the aftermath of this battle the Qin general Zhang Han decided to change sides. Soon after this Liu Bang entered the Qin heartland. The Second Emperor committed suicide and was succeeded as King of Qin by his nephew. He surrendered to Liu Bang, ending the Qin Dynasty.
King Huai II had decreed that the rebel leader who captured the Qin heartland would be rewarded by being made its king. Xiang Yu didn’t agree, believing that King Huai hadn’t earned the right to make that sort of decision. Instead he led his army into Qin, where he killed the captive king. Xiang Yu was now the real power in China, but he failed to take advantage of his situation. Instead of setting himself up as the new Emperor, Xiang Yu decided to try and recreate the system believed to have been in place before the Warring Kingdoms period. In this system China was divided between a number of kingdoms, each of which acknowledged the supremacy of the hegemon king. Xiang Yu created nineteen kingdoms. He became hegemon king of Western Chu, while King Huai was ‘promoted’ to become Emperor Yi of Chu and then assassinated.
The new system was a total failure. Revolts broke out before Xiang Yu had reached his kingdom, and the resulting Chu-Han Contention dragged on into 202 BC. Xiang Yu won most of the battles, but was unable to concentrate on the defeat of Liu Bang, founder of the Han dynasty. Eventually in 203 BC exhaustion forced him to agree to the treaty of the Hong Canal, in which the two men agreed to split China between them. Soon after this Liu Bang broke the treaty and led an invasion of Chu. After an initial defeat Liu Bang won the final battle of the war at Gaixia (202 BC), and in the aftermath of this battle Xiang Yu committed suicide. He had been a successful general but a poor politician, with a reputation for failing to reward successful subordinates.