Friday, June 28, 2013

Han Xin I

In the third year of the reign of the Second Emperor, Zhang Han’s three hundred thousand Qin troops surrounded the Zhao army at Julu.[1] King Huai of Chu sent Song Yi and Xiang Yu to relieve the siege.

The army marched forth till Anyang[2], where, for the next forty days, it did nothing.


Xiang Yu stormed into the Commander-in-Chief’s tent. “Why haven’t we advanced yet?” he demanded of Song Yi. “Are you just going to sit here and watch Zhao fall?”

“Why the hurry?” Song Yi replied lazily. “What do we owe the King of Zhao, that we should fight Qin on his behalf? Don’t forget, the Qin army is more than four times the size of ours! And Zhang Han is no joke. Your uncle died when he attacked him-- against my advice, I’ll remind you.”

“And I’ll remind you that King Huai of Chu sent us here to save Zhao!” Xiang Yu retorted, anger barely kept in check. “So why aren’t you moving the troops?”

Song Yi said: “This is called strategy! Right now, the Qin army is busy fighting Zhao. If they win, their troops will be exhausted, and we can take the opportunity to attack them. If they lose, all the better. We can then invade west towards Xianyang and destroy the Qin once and for all. Why shouldn’t we let Qin and Zhao claw at each other for a while? This is called ‘destroying another’s soldiers without fighting’, understand?”

“I’ve read the military texts,” Xiang Yu said. “I don’t need you to teach me! There are two ways to win without fighting: ‘the best army strikes with strategy, and the next best attacks with diplomacy.’ Which way are you using? Are you relying on strategy? Diplomacy? No, you’re relying on the sacrifice of the state of Zhao! The Qin army’s too strong, and Zhao too recently restored, for Zhao to stand a chance. And you call this ‘destroying another’s soldiers without fighting?’ Whose soldiers, exactly, are you destroying?”

Song Yi smirked. “Your late uncle was right when he said that you read the military texts, but only by halves! Isn’t sacrificing Zhao to exhaust the Qin army our best strategy? Really, the ‘insights’ of the ignorant can’t be reasoned with!”

Song Yi’s last few words were muttered under his breath, almost to himself, but Xiang Yu heard.

“What did you say?” Xiang Yu snarled, hand going to the hilt of his sword. He moved to stand. “Say that again!” Suddenly, he felt someone gently hold back his sword hand. When he turned, he saw his bodyguard.

“Please calm down, general,” the bodyguard whispered. Xiang Yu glowered at his surroundings, then sat again.

“That’s right,” Song Yi said lightly. “It’s best if you indulge in that fiery temper away from my tent. And don’t forget, I’m the Commander-in-Chief, and you’re only the Deputy Commander. King Huai himself decreed it.”

Xiang Yu gritted his teeth. “If you aren’t going to go save Zhao, I will!”

Song Yi eyed him, then tapped his desk. “Guards!”

A soldier entered and bowed. “At your command, Commander-in-Chief.”

Song Yi said: “Tell the troops, from the generals to the footsoldiers, that they must take no initiative on their own. If anyone insists on disobeying orders like some fame-starved beast, execute them without exception.”

“Aye,” said the soldier, leaving purposefully.

Song Yi turned back to Xiang Yu and said: “Commander Xiang, I am simply using the authority that King Huai gave me. Surely you have no objections?”

Xiang Yu snorted. “King Huai, King Huai! Do you really consider that brat fit to sit on the throne of Chu?” He got to his feet and strode out.

Song Yi slammed his fist on his desk. “Xiang Yu!” he roared. “Don’t get too full of yourself. Just because you’re Xiang Liang’s nephew...”

But Xiang Yu had already left.


“King Huai? He’s not worth shit!” Xiang Yu spat groundward as he walked. “I dared to say that I could replace Qin Shihuang himself, when he was still alive. What’s Xiong Xin in comparison? If it weren’t for my uncle, he’d still be herding sheep for his landlord! And Song Yi tries to invoke his name to threaten me? Laughable! His incompetence will destroy Chu someday!”

The bodyguard walking behind him said: “Song Yi’s words weren’t without reason, though he was too short-sighted, too focused on immediate gain.”

Xiang Yu halted, turning to size up this bodyguard. “Halberd-Bearer Han Xin, you sound full of insights! Pray tell, then, how was Song Yi justified? How was he short-sighted?”

Han Xin could hear the mocking note in Xiang Yu’s words, but he’d chosen to speak, and could only continue. “Song Yi wanted to wait until Qin and Zhao exhausted each other, then seize the fisherman’s advantage.[3] There are advantages to this plan, yes, but I fear he’d lose more than he gained in the long term. First, if Song Yi’s plan were enacted, the State of Zhao will undoubtedly fall, and we would lose an ally. Second, others will say afterwards that Chu only cares about protecting itself, and not its allies. If our allies don’t trust us to defend them, will they allow us to lead them? When Qin falls and the others look for their new hegemon, Chu will have little to stand upon.”

Xiang Yu said: “Then what do you advise?”

Han Xin examined Xiang Yu, but could not read his expression. He hesitated, deliberating, but still spoke his mind in the end: “Our troops could make a big deal out of advancing, banners up and drums sounding. But we won’t actually attack the main Qin force just yet. Our main goal is to give the Zhao defenders new hope, make them willing to come out of the city and pit themselves against the Qin forces in one last great battle to the death. The Qin army has surrounded Julu for so long without making any gains, they’re like a bowstring that’s been kept stretched to its limit. Suddenly put new pressure on it, and it will reveal where it’s closest to snapping. Our army can use the opportunity to turn our feigned attack into a real attack, coordinate our efforts with the Zhao army to strike from both outside and within--”

“Hah!” Xiang Yu snorted coldly. “I’d thought you had some real insights, but it turns out you’re no different from Song Yi. The state of Zhao is about to fall, and you’re still droning on about feigned attacks!” Xiang Yu turned and pointed into the distance, in the direction of the Qin encampments. “Zhang Han is my mortal enemy, my indefatigable foe, the killer of my uncle. But I admire him! Do you know why? Because he’s brave and loyal and honorable, a general who’s earned every victory with skill and hard fighting. But you? Look at the ideas you’re trying to feed me! Do you want the men of Zhao to prod me in the spine and curse me? Song Yi’s plan isn’t worthy of a hegemon, but yours somehow is? Laughable!”

Han Xin knew that Xiang Yu hadn’t understood his plan. “General, that wasn’t what I was trying to say,” he tried to explain, patiently. “My plan is different from Song Yi’s--”

“Yes, you’re different from Song Yi, indeed,” Xiang Yu said, interrupting him with a wave of his hand. “You’re smarter than him. You’re smarter-- you won’t do anything to help, but you’re going to sound like you’ve done something to help! What kind of person do you take me for? You, I’ll say-- a false gentleman is worse than an openly petty man!” Xiang Yu left him in the dust, striding into the tent of Fan Zeng.

Han Xin remained where he stood, numb; Xiang Yu’s last words had wounded him to the heart. This wasn’t the first time he’d been insulted without reason, either. Xiang Yu had lashed out against every plan he’d tried to present, and even on the occasions where time and fact proved him right, Xiang Yi had given him no acknowledgment.



Xiang Yu entered Fan Zeng’s tent, shedding his armor and throwing his sword to the side. Scarcely had he sat down before he said: “I’ll kill that Song Yi--”

Shocked, Fan Zeng said: “Careful with your words, general.” He walked to the entrance and pulled the tent flap aside to check outside. Then he replaced the flap and asked: “What happened?”

Xiang Yu said: “Song Yi is refusing to aid Zhao. When I asked him to send out troops, he pulled rank on me.”

“Ah.” Fan Zeng paced a few steps, then sat back down. “Did he tell you his reason?”

“Yes. The same old ‘wait until the Qin troops exhaust themselves before attacking’ speech.”

Fan Zeng asked: “And how do you see things?”

Xiang Yu said: “Qin is strong and Zhao is weak, that’s obvious. Julu’s going to fall any day now. When that happens, the Qin troops will have Zhao’s granaries to replenish their own, and that will make them even stronger. What opportunity is there to be had in waiting?”

“Oh--” Fan Zeng stroked his grizzled beard, muttering to himself.

Impatient, Xiang Yu asked: “Foster Father, are you agreeing with Song Yi too?”

“No,” Fan Zeng said, shaking his head. “Song Yi’s plan might win us a bit of short-term gain, but we’d lose Zhao as an ally, as well as Chu’s reputation as a responsible leader, hindering our state’s long-term expansion. The best tactic would be to...”

Fan Zeng was prepared to mutter on before noticing Xiang Yu’s strange expression. “Ah-Ji[4], what’s wrong?”

Xiang Yu said: “Foster Father, what you said... how come what you said sounds so much like what he said?”

“Who? Who had such insight?” Fan Zeng asked, surprised.

“Oh! He’s the one outside right now-- my bodyguard, Han Xin. He joined my uncle’s army two years ago. He’s been accompanying me since my uncle died.”

Fan Zeng asked: “What did he say, exactly?”

Xiang Yu relayed his conversation with Han Xin.

“To think that you have such a talent right under your command!” Fan Zeng seized Xiang Yu’s hand impassionedly. “Wonderful! This is a gift from heaven, Ah-Ji. You must use him to his full potential.”

“Foster Father, leave off him.” Xiang Yu tugged his hand loose. “I don’t want to use him.”

Fan Zeng, shocked, asked: “Why?”

Xiang Yu said: “Foster Father, you haven’t heard what he did while he lived in Huaiying. Some thug trying to pick a fight confronted him in public and told him: ‘If you’re not afraid of death, take out your sword and give me a good stab with it. If you’re too much of a coward, then crawl away through my legs.’ And what do you think happened? He actually crawled between the man’s legs! The whole street was laughing at him, and he still acted as if nothing had happened. When I first heard the story, I couldn’t believe my ears: how could anyone this cowardly exist?”

Fan Zeng squinted at him. “You think he’s a coward?”

“Of course! If someone like him couldn’t be called a coward, who can?”

Fan Zeng said: “But if he were truly a coward, would he have joined your uncle’s rebellion? Two years ago, your uncle had not possessed the military strength we possess today.”

For a moment, Xiang Yu was speechless.

“To receive humiliation is not the fault of the victim,” Fan Zeng continued. “And after all, a caterpillar folds itself with the intent of extending itself forward. If he’s able to endure what few others would be able to endure, it only shows that he has uncommon ambitions.”

Xiang Yu said: “It’s not just that. I... actually, he’s tried to present strategies to me more than once. But I keep on feeling that his ideas are too underhanded. They aren’t right for a warrior.”

Fan Zeng looked at Xiang Yu for a long time, then sighed. “Ah-Ji, I owe your uncle the debt of recognition, of discovery. Before he died, he told me to aid you to the best of my ability, and I cannot shirk that duty. So there are certain things I must say. I hope you won’t take them the wrong way.”

Xiang Yu said: “How could I? My uncle told me to call you ‘Foster Father’ with the expectation that I’d treat you like my own father. Say what’s on your mind, Foster Father.”

Fan Zeng said: “Ah-Ji, you have an open, generous nature. I admire you for it, but at the same time, I fear for you. Your personality is not that of a successful ruler!”

“Foster Father, I don’t understand.”

Fan Zeng said: “No great man has ever risen without putting the ends before the means. All those heroes, all those towering figures of history have had a cold, heartless side. Some are just better at hiding it than others. There is no such thing as mercy in war, and no such thing as justice in politics. If they’d tried to obey every decree of their morals and honor, they’d never have accomplished anything. Duke Xiang of Song tried to fight his battles by the creed: ‘a gentleman does not take advantage of the crises of others.’ He nearly paid for it with his life.”[5]

“I’m hardly that grandmotherly,” Xiang Yu protested. “I’m fine with using strategy. I just don’t like using poisonous, treacherous tricks to get my way.”

Fan Zeng said: “Tricks are just another type of tool. How can a tool be moral or immoral? If a dirty trick works, it’s a good trick! Use it!”

Xiang Yu said: “But if we scheme and conspire our way to success, how can we keep the righteous name we’re fighting under?”

Fan Zeng said: “Duke Huan of Qi brought nine states together in alliance and established order under heaven. Who can question that he was just and righteous? But do you know how he came to power? He killed his own brother Jiu for the title of duke! The righteousness of a cause doesn’t come from the path you walk in the struggle, but in its end goal. For example, when your uncle helped Xiong Xin onto the throne of Chu, wasn’t that a tactic used for the sake of overthrowing Qin’s tyranny? You yourself know he’s little more than your uncle’s puppet. But he has the Chu royal blood, and he’ll allow us to gather more people to our cause, so your uncle used him as a figurehead.”

Xiang Yu, displeased to hear his uncle Xiang Liang being used in comparison, said: “That’s not the same.”

Fan Zeng said: “How is it not the same?”

Xiang Yu, unable to come up with anything, could only say: “Either way, I don’t want future generations to say that I bought my success with petty schemes.”

Fan Zeng said: “What’s wrong with petty schemes? ‘A man who steals a belt clasp is executed; a man who steals a kingdom is crowned.’ This is the way it’s always been. If you’re aiming to become a hegemon, as long as you succeed, who has the right to question the tactics you use on the way?”

Xiang Yu had nothing to say in refutation. He could only keep silent, but his expression showed that he hadn’t taken anything to heart. Fan Zeng, seeing it, sighed. He stood and made his way to the exit, to allow Xiang Yu to calm down and mull over his words in solitude. But as he lifted aside the tent flap, his hand hesitated. He looked outside contemplatively for a while before letting the tent flap fall. Turning his head, he said to Xiang Yu: “That man, Han Xin. Are you sure you don’t wish to use him?”

“I’m sure,” Xiang Yu said.

Fan Zeng sighed. “Talented people are hard to find. I hope you’ll reconsider. But if you truly don’t want to use him, you should watch him carefully.”

“Why?” Xiang Yu asked, surprised.

“His capabilities are too terrifying. If someone else manages to recruit him, we’ll have no end of trouble in the future.” Warning spoken, Fan Zeng left.

Someone else recruit him? No end of trouble in the future? Xiang Yu found it laughable. Who would recruit a coward willing to crawl through people’s legs?

Foster Father really made a big deal out of nothing at times.

Xiang Yu didn’t bother devoting any more thought to the matter of Han Xin. He had tomorrow’s big plan to consider, after all...


Early the next morning, Xiang Yu requested a private audience with Song Yi. No one was sure what exactly took place in the tent, but not too long after he’d entered, Xiang Yu strode back out with Song Yi’s severed head held in his dripping hand.

Xiang Yu announced: “Song Yi was conspiring in secret with the state of Qi against Chu’s best interests. The King of Chu had ordered me to kill this traitor.”

Once the subordinate generals recovered from their initial shock, they found that no one amongst them dared voice half a word against such a brazen act.

It just so happened that Song Yi had previously sent his son to Qi to become its chancellor at a time of trouble for the Chu army. It was plausible that Song Yi had ties to Qi. That he was a traitor to Chu, however, was more of a stretch. But he was dead now, and no one was about to offend someone like Xiang Yu over a dead man. A few particularly astute sycophants even praised Xiang Yu: “Your uncle had been the first to support King Huai of Chu, and today, you’ve eliminated a wily traitor for our state. Your family is truly the foundation upon which Chu stands!”

Xiang Yu sent a messenger to bring the news to King Huai, who had no choice but to confirm the edict he never wrote. He granted Xiang Yu the rank of Commander-in-Chief that was previously Song Yi’s.

Immediately, Xiang Yu ordered the Chu troops across the Zhang River to break the siege of Julu.

Once they reached the other bank, Xiang Yu commanded his soldiers to hack apart the boats they’d used with axes, smash their cooking vessels, burn their tents. Each soldier brought only three days’ worth of food with them. A signal: there would be no retreat.

This unprecedented order would be immortalized as “smashing the cooking vessels and sinking the boats,”[6] and it roused the Chu army’s fighting spirit to its peak. Fearlessly, each man fighting with the fury of ten, it drove attack after attack into the great Qin army.

The Qin army’s supply corridors broke down.

The seemingly impenetrable Qin ranks began to crumple.

The Qin officer Su Jiao was killed; the Qin officer Wang Li was captured; the Qin officer She Jian was driven to self-immolation.

The Qin general, Treasurer Zhang Han-- vanquisher of Zhou Wen and Chen Sheng and Xiang Liang-- asked Xiang Yu for terms of surrender.

Realizing that the Qin army remained a sizeable force, and that the Chu army was running out of supplies, Xiang Yu decided to accept his request. The two agreed to meet at Yinxu[7], south of the Huan River.

At Yinxu, Zhang Han informed Xiang Yu that he was surrendering not because of the results of a single battle-- in reality, he still had a good two hundred thousand troops left-- but because the government he served was no longer worth his loyalty.

“I don’t know if the Qin of today is ruled by the Yings or the Zhaos!” Zhang Han raged. “Zhao Gao’s killed practically every capable minister in court! First General Meng Tian, then Chancellor of the Right Feng Quji and General Feng Jie, then Chancellor of the Left Li Si. It’s going to be my turn next.” Zhang Han pointed to a person behind him. “You recognize Sima Xin, I believe?”

“Yes.” Xiang Yu nodded. “When my uncle and I were hiding amongst the commoners, my uncle was once arrested and thrown into prison. He was the prison warden of Liyang at the time. He saved my uncle’s life.”

Zhang Han said: “Now he’s my Chief Secretary. I sent him to Xianyang ten days ago to report on the battle-- Sima Xin, you can tell him yourself.”

Sima Xin said: “Yes. I went to Xianyang and tried to see the emperor. Zhao Gao made me kneel outside the palace for three days, but I never saw a sign of His Majesty. Later, I heard that Zhao Gao had learned of the seriousness of the situation, and feared that the emperor would find out and investigate. He was planning to use our General and these frontline troops as his scapegoats. I rode day and night in a rush to return here, taking every shortcut I could find. Only now have I learned that Zhao Gao sent troops out to ambush me en route. They would have killed me if I’d gone by the main roads.”

Zhang Han said: “Commander Xiang, you see the futility of selling our lives for this kind of government? I killed your uncle, and I do not dare expect you to forgive me. All I ask of you is this: when you take Xianyang, capture Zhao Gao and cut the flesh off of that traitor, scrap by scrap, to relieve the hatred in my heart! If you do so, I will go to my execution praising your name.”

Having said that, Zhang Han knelt and prostrated himself in front of Xiang Yu.

Gazing upon his great and worthy enemy, forced to such straits by his corrupted rulers, fallen to such lows, Xiang Yu couldn’t help but take pity on him. He helped Zhang Han up. “Stand! I won’t kill you. You fought my uncle only because you and he each loyally served an opposing side. If you’re willing to turn your back on Qin and serve Chu, then that should be a stroke of great fortune for my state. Come stay in the Chu army and help me!”

Xiang Yu not only dismissed Zhang Han’s past aggressions, but also gave him the title of King of Yong, and named two Qin officers to aid him: Sima Xin became his Commander-in-Chief, Dong Yi his Prefectural General. He took in the two hundred thousand Qin prisoners of war and set forth for Guanzhong, the Land Within the Passes, Qin’s heartland.

No one questioned that Xiang Yu had the authority to name kings. The Battle of Julu had confirmed his unparalleled standing amongst the lords and kings of the states. He would sweep into the Qin heartland, capture Xianyang, become the undisputed hegemon under heaven-- of that, no one had any doubt. Many addressed him as “Great King” in advance.

Things went as planned. The residual glory of Xiang Yu’s victory at Julu smoothed his way considerably. On the road to Qin, to guard against any future risks, Xiang Yu ordered the two hundred thousand Qin soldiers buried alive. No one dared to argue, although his Foster Father seemed to disapprove. Nonetheless, Xiang Yu’s spirits were high.

But an unexpected piece of news disrupted his good cheer: Liu Bang, the Duke of Pei, had beaten him to Xianyang.

Who was Liu Bang, anyway? Xiang Yu still remembered how he’d come to Xiang Liang the previous year, begging for troops with an expression like somebody just died. Back then, he’d lost his own hometown, Fengyi, and didn’t have the military strength to retake it. He’d gathered a hundred scruffy cavalry and ridden over to plead for assistance. Xiang Liang had generously granted him five thousand troops, saving the bastard.

Every time he thought of the agreement King Huai had made with his generals, Xiang Yu’s heart seethed.

“The first to enter Guanzhong receives kingship over it.”

King of Guanzhong, King of Guanzhong, the same thing as King of Qin. Who was Liu Bang to compete with him for such a venerated title, the title that the First Emperor had previously held?

How could it be so? How did he get into Guanzhong?

Xiang Yu soon heard: Liu Bang bribed his way through Nao Pass, to the south of Xianyang. The news drove Zhao Gao to desperation; he murdered the Second Emperor and named the emperor’s nephew Ziying as King of Qin. Ziying proceeded to murder Zhao Gao. While Xianyang roiled in the ensuing chaos, Liu Bang took the opportunity to slip in.


When Xiang Yu reached Hangu Pass, Liu Bang’s banners already hung from the ramparts. The gates were shut, and the gatekeeper declared: no one was allowed to enter Guanzhong without the Duke of Pei’s permission.

Xiang Yu flew into a rage. “I waded in blood at Julu, holding back the bulk of the Qin army. You reaped the benefits, and now you want to keep Guanzhong to yourself? Attack!”

Unable to resist the onslaught, Liu Bang’s garrison soon fled.

Once Hangu Pass was his, Xiang Yu proceeded to camp his army at Hong Gate outside Xianyang. Not far to the southwest was Bashang, where Liu Bang’s troops were encamped. Tomorrow, Xiang Yu thought. Tomorrow, I’m going to go over there and teach Liu Bang a lesson.

With that expectation in mind, he peacefully fell asleep.

Only for his night to be interrupted by two messengers claiming urgent business, one after the other.

The first came from Liu Bang’s camp, claiming to secretly represent his Minister of War of the Left, Cao Wushang. Liu Bang had dark designs on the kingship over Guanzhong, the messenger said. He planned to name the surrendered king Ziying his Chancellor, take the contents of the Qin palaces and treasury for himself, and turn against the other states. But Liu Bang only had a hundred thousand troops at Bashang. If Xiang Yu wanted to attack, Cao Wushang would happily cooperate with him from the inside.

It was good news to Xiang Yu. The other states’ troops, plus his own, easily amounted to four hundred thousand soldiers, and Liu Bang wasn’t known for his military prowess. But he disliked the messenger’s conspiratorial air, and so sent him off with only a few platitudes.

The second visitor came from his own camp-- one of his uncles, Xiang Bo. Strangely, Xiang Bo had roused him in the middle of the night to furiously heap praise upon Liu Bang. “If Liu Bang hadn’t broken through Guanzhong’s defenses first, could you have entered so easily? He’s done all that good work, and now you want to attack him? That’s too dishonorable!”

Xiang Yu found it amusing. What was with everyone tonight? One of Liu Bang’s subordinates wanted him to attack Liu Bang; one of his own subordinates wanted him not to attack Liu Bang.

“Third Uncle, what’s going on with you? Are you hiding something from me? You can tell me the truth.”

Reluctantly, Xiang Bo admitted that he’d gone to Liu Bang’s camp earlier. He’d heard that Xiang Yu planned to attack Liu Bang the next day, and had suddenly remembered that his old friend was now working for Liu Bang. He didn’t want his friend to share the the same fate as the Duke of Pei, and had wanted to persuade him to flee the camp with him.

“Who’s your friend?”

“Zhang Liang.”

“Zhang Liang?” Xiang Yu started. “The assassin at Bolang Sands?”

“Yes, that was he. Afterwards, he went into hiding at Xiapi. I met him there.”

“And what happened earlier? Did you manage to persuade him?”

“No. He refused to leave Liu Bang to die, no matter what I said.”

Xiang Yu sighed, his face showing his admiration and regret.

Xiang Bo admitted, even more reluctantly, that Zhang Liang had next dragged him to meet the Duke of Pei himself. Under those unspeakably awkward conditions, Zhang Liang had actually managed to talk Xiang Bo into a marriage agreement between his daughter and Liu Bang’s son. He’d finished by asking Xiang Bo to say a few good things about Liu Bang in front of Xiang Yu.

“Great King, Liu Bang will come in person tomorrow to plead for forgiveness. Wait a little before you attack, at least until he’s explained. Don’t just listen to the others’ side of the story. Give Liu Bang a chance...”

“Fine, fine!” Xiang Yu, torn between anger and laughter, waved a hand. “I get your point. Let’s see how sincere he is in pleading for forgiveness tomorrow, then!”

“Utterly sincere, I assure you,” Xiang Bo said on behalf of his new in-laws.


Early the next day, Liu Bang indeed came with a hundred riders to Hong Gate to apologize.

Liu Bang’s tone was humble, his attitude fearful. He framed all his measures for gaining popularity with the populace-- the laws he’d set down, sparing Ziying’s life-- as ways of spreading Xiang Yu’s good name.

Xiang Yu sighed. “You know, it wasn’t my idea to doubt you so. Your subordinate Cao Wushang was the one who warned me about you.”

Fan Zeng, listening nearby, couldn’t believe his ears. How could Xiang Yu be this foolish?

But next came even more unbelievable words from Xiang Yu. He was requesting that Liu Bang stay for dinner!


At the feast, Fan Zeng repeatedly sent meaningful looks in Xiang Yu’s direction, even raised the jade adornment on his belt as a signal, but Xiang Yu didn’t respond.

Fan Zeng got up and left the tent. Outside, he paced impatiently back and forth.

A young officer passed by. Fan Zeng pulled him to one side.

“Xiang Zhuang, do you know whom your cousin has invited over for dinner?”

Xiang Zhuang said: “I’ve heard it’s Liu Bang.”

“Correct!” Fan Zeng said through gritted teeth. “We were planning to attack him yesterday, and now, with a few pretty words, we’re suddenly all friends again. Earlier, at the banquet, I’d tried to get our Great King to send in his guards and take care of everything. But he’s too soft-hearted to strike. We’ll have to do it for him.”

“Are... are you sure this is appropriate?” Xiang Zhuang sounded reluctant. He may have been Xiang Yu’s cousin, but he was still his subordinate, and didn’t have the authority to take initiative on his own.

“Does it matter?” Fan Zeng asked impatiently. “This is to protect our Great King. If he decides he wants to hold someone responsible, I’ll take all the blame. Take your sword and go in. Tell them you’re going to perform a sword dance. Kill Liu Bang where he sits!”

Xiang Zhuang said: “As you say.” He hurried forth.

Fan Zeng was preparing to return to the tent when he saw someone out of the corner of his eye. He slowed his steps. There stood a Halberd-Bearer, leaning apathetically against a fence, a stalk of wild grass between his teeth. He was gazing towards the distant mountains, and his expression was bleak and lonely.

Fan Zeng took a step towards him, but immediately changed his mind.

No, he had more important business to take care of than the comforting of a disillusioned soul. He’d take care of it later. Try to persuade Ah-Ji once more to use the talents of this guard, Han Xin.

Fan Zeng reentered the main tent.

A little later, Xiang Zhuang entered the tent as well, his ceremonial sword in hand.

A little after that, Zhang Liang hurried out, heading towards the camp entrance, where Liu Bang’s hundred escorts waited.

Zhang Liang pulled an impressively tall, muscular warrior out of the group. “Xiang Zhuang calls it a sword dance, but he’s aiming towards our Duke of Pei,” he told him as they rushed back towards the main tent. “If it weren’t for Xiang Bo blocking his way, the Duke of Pei would have died already... when you enter, remember, Xiang Yu is the one sitting to the east. Don’t anger him. Just tell him this...” Han Xin, leaning on his fence, watched Zhang Liang leading that warrior towards the tent with a hint of a smile on his face.

A good plan! He nodded to himself. Xiang Yu was a rough, simple-hearted warrior type, and he liked rough, simple-hearted warrior types in turn. A clever-tongued dissembler would only rouse his ire, but sending in a crude, loud warrior to shout and argue might just save Liu Bang’s life.

This Zhang Liang is formidable, indeed!

An hour or so later, Liu Bang left the tent leaning on the warrior’s shoulder, as if he were too drunk to stand. But once they left the camp, he seemed to awaken in an instant. He straightened and asked the warrior: “Now what? We can’t leave, and we can’t stay. Fan Zeng won’t rest until he’s killed me.”

The warrior said: “Of course we leave. What else do we do, stay here on their cutting board and wait for them to bring down the cleaver?”

“But...but how am I supposed to explain why I left to Xiang Yu?” Liu Bang said.

The warrior said: “You’re still worrying about this sort of thing now? What’s the point of fancy manners when you’re running for your life? Brother Xiahou, get the Duke of Pei’s horse. We don’t need the cart. My lord, hurry and get on the horse!”

Liu Bang said: “No, no, not yet. This isn’t a matter of manners. He hasn’t killed me yet because he doesn’t have an excuse. If I leave suddenly, doesn’t my disrespect give him the excuse he’s looking for? Even if I make it back to Bashang, I can’t run from him forever.”

“Who cares about all that?” the warrior said frantically. “Every day you survive is a good thing.” The warrior was about to shove Liu Bang onto the horse, but Liu Bang still hesitated.

At that point, Zhang Liang left the tent, too, and hurried over. He said to Liu Bang: “My lord, you leave first with Fan Kuai, Xiahou Ying, Ji Xin, and Lei Qiang as your escort. Keep the rest of the men here to avoid making too big of a commotion. I’ll take care of saying farewells. Fan Kuai,” he addressed to the warrior, “you’re in charge of the Duke of Pei’s safety.”

The warrior thumped his chest. “Aye! As long as I’m here, no one will dare harm a hair on the Duke of Pei’s head!”

Zhang Liang turned back to Liu Bang. “My lord, did you bring anything suitable when you came here?”

Liu Bang understood, and pulled two brocade boxes from his escort’s saddlebags, handing them to Zhang Liang. “Here’s a pair of jade discs and a pair of jade dippers. You’ll have to give them to King Xiang and his Foster Father in my name, as an apology.”

Zhang Liang took the boxes and asked: “How many li is the shortest route from here to Bashang?”

Liu Bang thought for a moment. “Only twenty, if we take the side roads.”

Zhang Liang said: “Good, now hurry!”

Liu Bang mounted his horse; Zhang Liang took a whip and lashed it hard across the horse’s rump. The horse sped away like an arrow shot from a bow, and Fan Kuai and the rest of the escort swiftly followed.

Zhang Liang watched their silhouettes recede and disappear into the night. He finally exhaled, slowly, standing there a while longer. Then he headed back towards the banquet.

Suddenly, he heard someone softly say beside him: “Ai! The tiger has been allowed back to its mountain. The land won’t know peace from now on!”

Zhang Liang startled, nearly dropping the boxes. He looked for the source of the voice, and saw a guard leaning lazily by the fence, a halberd hugged to his chest and a grass stalk sticking out of the corner of his mouth. He was looking at Zhang Liang, not quite smiling.

Zhang Liang walked towards him. “May I inquire as to your name, sir?”

The guard finally spat out the grass stalk. “I’m just a footsoldier-- Halberd-Bearer Han Xin.”

Zhang Liang said: “I will pay you a visit in a few days’ time.”

With that said, Zhang Liang gave Han Xin a long, measuring look, before heading towards the main tent.

Xiang Yu was already half-drunk when Zhang Liang entered. “Where’s the Duke of Pei? Does he really... need that long to... to go to the outhouse?” he asked, eyeing him slantwise.

Zhang Liang bowed and said: “The Duke of Pei found himself incapacitated from the wine, and could not bid farewell in person. He bid me to offer you, Great King, this pair of white jade disks; and to offer General Fan Zeng this pair of jade dippers.”

Xiang Yu raised a hand to prop up his forehead. “Then where... is the Duke of Pei now?”

Zhang Liang said: “The Duke of Pei heard that you intended to blame him for his mistakes and chose to leave alone. He should be at Bashang already.”

A servant distributed the two boxes to Xiang Yu and Fan Zeng.

Xiang Yu took out the jade disks, looked at them for a while, then set them down.

Fan Zeng threw aside his box. The brocade box fell to the ground; two delicate jade dippers tumbled out, rolling on the carpet. Fan Zeng drew his sword and smashed the jade to shards. Then he sheathed his sword and walked out, face dark. When he passed Zhang Liang, he growled: “Well! You’re a fearsome one!”

Zhang Liang’s expression didn’t change.

A servant brought Xiang Yu a bowl of water. Xiang Yu took the cloth from the bowl, wrung it out, and wiped his face.

They could hear Fan Zeng’s harangue through the sides of the tent. “Useless boy! Failure!”

Xiang Zhuang’s voice held a pleading note. “Foster Father, I...”

“Silence!” Fan Zeng ruthlessly interrupted. “If you couldn’t even do such a small thing, what can you aspire to? Bah! The one to steal all of King Xiang’s great work one day will be Liu Bang! All we can do now is wait to be taken prisoner!’

Zhang Liang looked at Xiang Yu.

Xiang Yu was idly wiping his face and hands, as if he hadn’t realized that Fan Zeng’s anger was also directed at him. Once he was finished, he tossed the washcloth back into the bowl and dismissed the servants.

“Zhang Liang,” Xiang Yu said, his voice so calm and steady that Zhang Liang suspected he’d only pretended to be drunk. “You’re the one who attacked Qin Shihuang at Bolang Sands ten years ago?”

“Yes,” Zhang Liang said.

Xiang Yu examined Zhang Liang. The legendary assassin of Bolang Sands had a face as delicate and beautiful as a woman’s. “One really can’t judge a person by their appearance.” He sighed. “To tell the truth, I admire you greatly. It takes more courage to become an assassin than to become a rebel.”

“It was nothing, a thing of the past.” Zhang Liang’s voice held no enthusiasm or pride, but instead, hinted at an ineffable melancholy. “And my attempt failed.”

Xiang Yu nodded, his opinion of Zhang Liang rising even further: to do such a fearsome thing, and think nothing of it. “You’re bidding farewell in Liu Bang’s name. Aren’t you afraid that I’ll do to you what Liu Bang feared I’d do to him?”

Zhang Liang raised his head. “I have done nothing to wrong you, Great King,” he said, expression full of surprise. “Why should I fear? You would not willfully kill an innocent.”

“Willfully kill an innocent!” Xiang Yu couldn’t help but laugh. “You’re claiming to be an innocent? Did you really think I was so drunk that I couldn’t notice the games you were playing under my nose? That boar of a man-- his name was Fan Kuai or something-- weren’t you the one who brought him in? You probably taught him most of the lines he yelled at me.”

Zhang Liang laughed, too. “If you truly hadn’t been drunk, you would have seen that your men initiated the games. I had no choice but to play along.”

Xiang Yu said: “Yes. That was why I let Liu Bang go. There’s no point in shooting someone in the back.”

Zhang Liang bowed. “The Duke of Pei and I will never forget your virtue and generosity, Great King.”

Xiang Yu said: “No need to thank me. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to kill him, but that I didn’t want to use such underhanded methods! If I meet him on the battlefield in the future, I’ll give him a fight to remember.”

Zhang Liang said: “But have you not resolved your differences with the Duke of Pei? Why would we ever meet on the battlefield? You overthink, Great King.”

“Enough of this!” Xiang Yu said. “Everyone knows exactly how much was resolved. But let’s not talk of that for now. Do you know why I told Liu Bang about Cao Wushang? Because I have no respect for a man willing to sell out his master for glory! I respect loyal, courageous men like you. Are you willing to stay in my camp and work for me?” Xiang Yu’s eyes burned with passion.

Zhang Liang smiled craftily. “But if I choose to stay, would I be a loyal man anymore?”

Xiang Yu, surprised, took a long time before speaking: “Is it any wonder you made Xiang Bo’s head spin after a few words!”

“Fine, I can’t out-talk you. But if I remember correctly, you’re from Hann, and my uncle’s officially made you a minister of the Hann court. If you’re a loyal man, surely you should be in King Cheng of Hann’s court, not Liu Bang’s camp!”

“Certainly! But the Duke of Pei has ‘borrowed’ me from the King of Hann,” Zhang Liang said helplessly, “and it’s not my place to do anything about it.”

Xiang Yu burst into guffaws. The story of how Liu Bang had shamelessly conned the King of Hann into handing over Zhang Liang was a popular joke amongst the rebels.

“Oh, you!” Xiang Yu laughed. “Fine, you don’t have to come up with any more excuses. Everyone has their own desires, and there’s no point in forcing you to stay. But I do want to know this: what makes Liu Bang so worth your loyalty? Is he a more virtuous ruler than me?”

“King Wu was a virtuous ruler, but in the end, Yi and Qi did not come to serve him,” Zhang Liang said, neither apologetic nor supercilious.

Xiang Yu laughed again, comfortably. Zhang Liang had actually compared him to King Wu of Zhou, vanquisher of the tyrannical Shang and founding king of the Zhou Dynasty, an impressively flattering analogy. And if King Wu of Zhou hadn’t pressured those two pedants, Bo Yi and Shu Qi, into serving him, then what right did he have to pressure the clever strategist in front of him?

“Go back, then, ‘Bo Yi,’” he said, in good humor. “I’m not your match.”

Either way, that battle wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.

Xiang Yu waved his troops into Xianyang, taking over all operations as if he were the King of Guanzhong. To avenge the deaths of his grandfather Xiang Yan and his uncle Xiang Liang at the hands of Qin generals, he ordered the execution of every descendant of the Qin royal family. That included the surrendered King of Qin, Ziying.

Ziying had been King of Qin for only forty-six days. He was not the sort of weak, incompetent ruler one associated with the end of dynasties, but a man much like his grandfather, the First Emperor. As his grandfather neatly eliminated Lao Ai[8] so many years earlier, so he’d planned and executed the swift death of Zhao Gao. In forty-six days, just forty-six days, he’d shown the potential of a great ruler. But he had the misfortune of being handed an empire diseased to its very marrow. He’d known the undeserved shame of a white noose tied around his neck[9], of bowing his head and offering surrender, and now he would be buried with his empire.

And so the Qin people grieved for Ziying’s fate. Story had it, though, that Ziying showed neither fear nor rage when he heard his sentence pronounced, as if he’d long expected such a day to come. All he said was: “Please relay these words to your Great King: you cannot repay cruelty with cruelty.”

No one knew if the words reached Xiang Yu’s ears. He’d ordered his men to plunder all the treasures of Xianyang, to be brought east to Pengcheng[10]-- he’d decided that Pengcheng would be his new capital. He loathed Xianyang; to him, the place overflowed with hatred and evil. He would put the whole place to the torch and return east with his loot and his women, let his homeland see him in all his power and glory.

Simultaneously, Xiang Yu began the process of assigning titles and territories to the various rebels. He himself became the Hegemon-King of West Chu.

Ah! It was a delightful feeling, to hold the reins of all under heaven in his hands, Xiang Yu thought cheerfully.

As for that irritating Liu Bang, well, didn’t the decree go “The first to enter Guanzhong receives kingship over it?” Hah! He’d get the territory of Bashu.[11] A land where the birds don’t lay eggs, it was said, long used by the Qin as a dumping ground for exiled criminals, but it technically lay “within the passes.” Let him rot there!

Xiang Bo must have gotten a lot out of Liu Bang, because he once again pestered Xiang Yu on his in-law’s behalf. To shut him up, Xiang Yu added Hanzhong[12] to Liu Bang’s territories and gave him the title of King of Han. It wasn’t as if this mudfish could make much of a wave either way!


Han Xin walked out of the mansion that had belonged to the Qin Imperial Censor.

A group of laughing, chattering soldiers passed by him, arms full of expensive-looking vessels and valuables. Someone asked him: “Hey, Guard Han, how come you haven’t grabbed anything?”

Han Xin tapped the massive engraved-gold wine-jar cinched between the soldier’s arms. “All these things are too heavy for me,” he said lightly. “I’m not strong enough to lift them.”

Laughing, the soldiers left him, carrying their loot.

Han Xin stepped into the street, his strides slow and his heart heavy.

It was the same, no matter where he went. They weren’t in the palace, and they weren’t in any of the ministers’ and nobles’ residences that he’d checked. Qin’s legislations, maps, petitions, records... someone had already taken every written item of worth.

Liu Bang truly hid ambition!

It looked like the war would continue. Han Xin didn’t fear war; his talents lay in that area, after all. But if he couldn’t play any worthwhile role in them, what would be the point of even the fiercest and fieriest war?

“Child, do you know what is the greatest pain in this world?”  his master asked, looking not at him, but at the horizon.

“Of course. It’s not having anything to eat. It’s going hungry!” he’d answered, playing with a stalk of grass.

Master had looked at him, then, smiling. Then he shook his head and turned his gaze back towards the horizon. “It’s not having a worthy opponent! Remember this, child. When you have no true foes left under heaven, you will be the loneliest, most pain-ridden person in the world.”

Wrong! Both he and his master had been wrong. Not having an opponent wasn’t the greatest pain, and hunger was only another pain of the flesh, nothing more. This was the worst pain of them all: knowing that there existed no one under heaven who could be his competitor, but not having the qualifications to compete in the first place. He unhappily kicked at a pebble, sighing.

Suddenly, an irresistible urge welled into his mind.

He pulled aside a passerby who looked like a local. “Could you tell me how to get to the Military Minister’s residence?”

“Military Minster?” The passerby stared at him. “You’re asking about the Military Minster’s residence?”


The passerby eyed him strangely, then pointed ahead. “Follow this road straight to the end, then turn right. Cross that patch of woods, and you’ll be there.”

“My thanks,” Han Xin said.

“You’re welcome.” The passerby continued onwards, though he occasionally turned his head to look at Han Xin with a puzzled expression.

Han Xin followed the passerby’s instructions and walked forward.

You must be mad, he thought to himself. Why are you even going there? Just because your master once said that stranger’s name in front of you, more than a decade ago?

What was he hoping to see? His master sitting there, stroking his white beard, smiling at him: Child, do you believe that I’m the Qin Military Minister now?

Absurd! He shook his head, laughing at himself.

But he still walked on.

Someone as high-ranking as the Military Minister might have military texts at their residency. What’s to lose by taking a look? he thought, trying to justify his actions.

He reached the end of the road, turned right, cut through the patch of woods.

As he left the trees, he stilled, at a loss.

It had once been a grand mansion, he could tell.

A formidable stone lion still guarded the gate. Strands of yellowed grass poked through the crevices between its claws, swaying in the winter air. A bird-- some sort of finch-- stood on the lion’s head. When it saw him approach, it flew off in a flurry of wings.

The vermillion-painted doors stood ajar. Much of the color on them had fallen off in flakes, and the courtyard within was overgrown with waist-high weeds. Han Xin pushed the doors open a little farther, startling at the hideous creaks they produced, and stepped over the threshold. A wild hare burst from a clump of grass and escaped in a few swift bounds.

No wonder that person earlier had looked at him so strangely. The residence had been abandoned for years.

He carefully made his way down the main hall; every floorboard either shifted under his feet or was missing altogether. He observed his surroundings carefully as he went, though he didn’t know what he was looking for. This was just another abandoned house, full of mold and cobwebs and dust, and a few curious rats. Their bright little eyes tracked him from the dark corners, as if pondering their intruder’s intent.

Beyond a few more ruined walls was open space.

Weeds had smothered most of the little garden, but a few exotic flowers and shrubs still poked out from underneath, a remainder of the owner’s past luxurious lifestyle.

He didn’t walk towards those, but rather, towards the bulky, crude form of a scholartree.[13]

During the summer, this tree would have provided the coolest shade in the garden, and its pale yellow blossoms would have attracted buzzing bees and butterflies of every hue. But now, it was the plainest plant in the garden. With its leaves lost to the winter winds, the scholartree’s thick branches were nothing to look at.

So why was he drawn towards it?

Was it because he’d first met his master under a scholartree?

The old man had sat under a tall scholartree, stooping a little, gazing into the distance. Occasionally, he picked up a twig and used it to draw lines on the ground. His movements were both casual and heavy with intent.

No one had wondered where this old stranger had come from, or who he was. Who cared? People were busy with their own matters.

A child ran in front of the old man, chasing a cricket, now perched at the intersection of two lines on the old man’s diagram. He’d quieted his breath, raised his hand to pounce. Good, now don’t move...

The child’s hand faltered, unmoving even as the cricket escaped.

The diagram on the ground had entranced him.

He pushed aside weeds, making his way to the scholartree.

How many years had it been since anyone last sat under it for shade? Ten? Twenty? Was it lonely? On cold, empty nights, would it reminisce of past nights of music and song? Did it remember its master, whom the King of Qin had received as an equal, allowed the same meals and dress as he? Did it know why that legendary man had later disappeared without a trace?

Suddenly, he stopped in his tracks.

His heart leapt in his chest.

A man sat under the tree, his back to Han Xin. His hair was white, and his back was a little stooped.

A cold breeze blew past Han Xin, and he shivered. Who was he? Why would he appear in this long-abandoned residence, unless...

“Who is it?” The man turned.

He was a lean-faced, sharp-gazed old man.

Han Xin let go of his breath. No ghost, but an ordinary person. But it was not his master, either. He felt a pang of disappointment.

The old man examined him head to toe. “There’s nothing here for you,” he said coldly. “You came too late. They’d taken everything worth taking more than a decade ago, unless you’re interested in tiles and bricks.”

Han Xin was nonplussed, but quickly understood. This man was one of the old ministers of Qin, and thought him another of the Chu soldiers looting their way through the region. “Sir, you misunderstood, I’m not here to--”

“I suggest you pay a visit to Zhao Gao’s residence,” the old man said. “That’s a good place. It’ll take a fortnight to get all the gold and jewels out of there.”

Han Xin smiled helplessly. Explanations were useless, it seemed. After a bit of thinking, he bowed and said: “My name is Han Xin. If you don’t mind me asking...”

“I’m not afraid of telling you.” The old man’s voice was chill. “My name is Zhong Xiu, and I am the Grand Historian of Qin.”

Han Xin said: “May I ask, Grand Historian Zhong, where this place’s owner--”

“Long gone.” Zhong Xiu’s voice became even colder and more hostile.

There were two ways to interpret “long gone,” and Han Xin didn’t know which was correct. He wanted to inquire further, but the old man looked less than obliging. Han Xin could only sigh. “A pity.”

“A pity?” Zhong Xiu sneered. “If he were still here, could your swarm have conquered Xianyang?”

Han Xin was at a loss.

Everyone knew of the slaughters that Xiang Yu had ordered in the name of vengeance. Any Qin officials that hadn’t fled in time now huddled fearfully in hiding. But this old man didn’t even bother to hide his contempt for the invaders.

Han Xin could feel a growing admiration for this prickly old man.

He shouldn’t have, by all reason. The Qin Empire was cruel and tyrannical and hated throughout the land. How could he admire a Qin official so loyal to his dynasty even now?

Maybe the reason lay in the growing difficulty of telling which side was the righteous one. The facts are there: when impoverished, oppressed rebels win the power of life and death over their oppressors, they only exceed their former rulers in cruelty and savagery.

Han Xin silently sat across from Zhong Xiu.

Between them was a near-circular slab of stone, covered in wilted scholartree leaves. Han Xin brushed them away. A thin layer of lichen covered the stone, as well as a strange diagram of lines...

“You understand these?” The old man looked doubtfully at the dirt-covered boy.

“How could I not? This is a really fun game! Too fun!” The child enthusiastically took a twig and drew a little circle in the diagram. He squatted there, propping up his chin, looking at the old man expectantly.

The old man examined the circle the boy had drawn, a hint of surprise showing on his face. But he didn’t say anything. He took up a twig and drew a dot in the diagram, then eyed the boy.

It had to be a coincidence! He was only a child.

“You understand these?” Zhong Xiu asked Han Xin, puzzled.

Han Xin slowly extended a finger and scraped out a little circle on the lichen-covered stone. Qian-nine.[14]

No matter how he expanded later, he needed to claim this spot first.

His master had said: A Qian of all nines to govern all under heaven.

Zhong Xiu looked at the stone slab, then at Han Xin. He, too, extended his finger and drew a dot on the lichen.


Yes, he’d learned the game too, knew that only yielding could counter strength.

All sixes for eternal virtue to conclude all greatly.

The child continued to draw circles on the diagram, but it became more and more difficult to draw the next. After twenty or so steps, the child had to ponder a long time before putting down his move. His head hunched down; his heart filled with regret and shame.

It had looked so easy earlier! Who knew the game would get so hard?

The child finally ran out of moves. He threw aside his twig, and with effort, admitted: “I... I lost.” He turned to leave, not daring to raise his head.

“Stay!” the old man commanded. “Come here.” His voice held a formidable edge that demanded obedience.

The child walked back, head lowered, preparing himself for a lecture, or perhaps a mocking, for his earlier presumption.

The old man pointed at the ground with his twig. “Who taught you the ‘game of eight palaces?’”

The child flushed red. “No... no one taught me.” Of course the game was meant for only insiders. He wanted to go hide in a hole.

“No one?” The old man squinted, his gaze shifting from the child to the ground. “...Ten...twenty...thirty, thirty-one. No one taught you, and you made thirty-one moves. Thirty-one!” The old man raised his head and closed his eyes. “The best of them managed twenty-eight moves against me. You never learned the game, and you made thirty-one.”

The old man reopened his eyes and tossed aside his cane. He seized the child’s arms and said, shaken: “Child, this game has many more strategies. Do you want to learn?”

Zhong Xiu lost. Astonished, he looked at the grooves on the stone slab, then at Han Xin. “Where... where did you learn this game?”

Han Xin asked: “Did the Military Minister play this often?”

Zhong Xiu said: “Yes. Of course, he used tokens then. He often played the game against himself, since so few could manage even twenty moves against him.”

Han Xin asked: “At the most... what was the largest number of moves anyone managed?”

“Twenty-eight moves,” said Zhong Xiu. “That was Meng Tian.”

The best of them managed twenty-eight moves against me.

Coincidence, it had to be a coincidence.

“Your Military Minister.” Han Xin inhaled deeply. “When he spoke... did he have a Daliang accent?”

Zhong Xiu looked at Han Xin, realization dawning on his face. “The Military Minister was from Daliang.”

Han Xin’s head spun.

Ah! The name his master had let slip had been real? His name truly had been Wei Liao? The great minister of the Qin Dynasty, author of the famed Wei Liaozi? Impossible!

Was there anything more ridiculous? Wei Liao had aided the King of Qin-- the future First Emperor-- in destroying the six other states and uniting the land. He’d served but one, and was in turn served by ten thousand. He’d possessed such wealth and power, yet suddenly tossed everything aside to go wandering amongst the commoners, to pass all his extraordinary work to an impoverished child. What was he doing? Didn’t he realize that those incredible strategies and schemes could prove more than enough to topple the empire he’d created?

Ah, that vow! That strange vow.

“Child, swear to me, in the name of heaven and earth!” The old man’s withered fingers clutched the boy’s shoulders, and his eyes bored into the boy’s. He said, one word at a time: “You will never use the knowledge I gave you unless chaos comes to the land.”

He understood it now. His master had set down the vow as a safety measure for his empire.

Suddenly, he recalled that it had taken three years as student and teacher before his master had ever smiled at him. He’d admired his master with all the fire in his heart; the old man had appeared into his life out of nowhere and brought him a wondrous, beautiful new world. A world, he’d realized upon contact, that he’d been waiting for all his insignificant life. The childish games of his peers lost any attraction in comparison. He’d been so grateful to his master, hungrily learned the profound knowledges that none of his playmates could have comprehended in a lifetime’s study. His master was the greatest, wisest person he’d ever known, and he’d craved his approval-- even an offhand word of praise, an acknowledging look. He’d never gotten any. On the contrary, he’d noticed that, upon seeing the speed at which his studies progressed, his master’s gaze instead held a hint of wariness.

His heart pricked with pain: his master had been guarding against him, even then.

He understood, but he couldn’t understand. If his master had feared him so, then why did he choose to teach him?

“I didn’t expect him to mean what he said.” Zhong Xiu sighed and stood. “Who knew he’d actually carry out his plans,” he murmured to himself.

“What did you say, sir?” Han Xin asked.

Zhong Xiu waved his hand dismissively. “Nothing. Just a few things of the distant past, of no concern to you.”

Han Xin asked: “Sir, do you know what all this is about?”

Zhong Xiu was silent. A moment later, he began to walk away.

“Why? Sir. Your Military Minister... why did he teach me?”

Zhong Xiu said: “You don’t need to know. You’ve obeyed your oath, and that’s enough. The time of chaos has come. Go do as you wish!” He turned his head, looking at the slab carved with the “game of eight palaces,” then at Han Xin. “Do you know? You’ve already exceeded your master. The Military Minister chose the right person; all under heaven will know your name. Young man, that should be enough!” He continued walking.

Han Xin rushed forward to cut him off. “But what’s the reason for all he did? Sir, can’t you tell me?”

Zhong Xiu’s gaze swept him coldly. “Are you ordering me?”

Han Xin took a few steps back and knelt. “No, I’m pleading with you,” he said honestly. “You’re my master’s friend. I wouldn’t dare treat you disrespectfully. But I can’t be at peace if I don’t know the reasons behind this, and with things as they are, whom can I ask but you?”

Zhong Xiu sighed. “Get up,” he said. “You don’t need to be like this. There’s no reason not to tell you, though I doubt you’ll believe it all. If you insist on knowing, follow me. It’s a long and absurd tale, and I’ll recount it at my own home.”


Outside, the cold winds howled, but the room glowed with warmth. A pot of millet wine steamed on a brazier, filling the room with its fragrance. The millet wine of Qin was strong stuff; it went down like coursing fire and burned heartily in the belly. Han Xin set down his wine cup, waiting.

Zhong Xiu took a small sip of his wine. He turned the cup slowly between his fingers, his eyes fixed on some point in the distance.

The bronze Vermillion Bird lamp burned steadily. Occasionally, the flame jumped a little, sending the shadows in each direction shivering with it. But Zhong Xiu’s gaze never shifted, as if it had crossed beyond the moment, to a place far, far away...



Part of the reason I personally dislike Xiang Yu so much is the romanticizing he gets, and I appreciate that Will of Heaven doesn't do that. The brutality of the Qin Dynasty is well-known even outside of China, but that doesn't lessen the brutality of its fall.

I've seen three live-action adaptations of the Feast at Hong Gate made in the last three years or so. The two movies, to be honest, make this novel look like a paragon of historical accuracy, even with the magitech rocket launchers. White Vengeance's version was basically Yu-gi-oh set in ancient China, and the less said about The Last Supper, the better. I tried to watch that one twice, but I couldn't last to the halfway point. Legend of Chu and Han had a fairly good (and sane) take, but not good enough to justify slogging through sixty or so episodes for.

And yes, by all accounts, Zhang Liang actually did look like a woman. It's in the historical records. Whoever does the casting for the various live-action adaptations doesn't seem to keep that in mind; many of his unsurprisingly numerous fangirls do.
[1] Julu is located in southern modern-day Hebei Province. After Zhang Han captured the Zhao capital Handan, to Julu's south, the King of Zhao and his army retreated to Julu.
[2] Anyang is a city and county at the northernmost extreme of modern-day Henan Province, on the other side of the Zhang River from Julu.
[3] This refers to a fable about a heron who'd snapped up a clam, only for the clam to clamp itself onto the heron's beak. They struggled, each unwilling to let the other go. After both sides were too worn out to fight any longer, a fisherman came along and scooped up both the heron and the clam for supper.
[4] Xiang Yu's birth name is Ji, so Ah-Ji is a very affectionate and fatherly way of addressing Xiang Yu.
[5] Despite his military failings, Duke Xiang of Song is sometimes considered one of the Five Hegemons of the Spring and Autumn Period. When he attacked the state of Zheng and met enemy reinforcements crossing a river, he thought it ungentlemanly to attack them until they'd fully crossed. He was badly injured in the battle that followed, and died not long afterwards. His state did not survive to the Warring States Period.
[6] This is a much pithier four-character idiom, or chengyu, in Chinese: 破釜沉舟. It describes giving yourself no chances to retreat from a tough course you're determined to take.
[7] Yinxu is the ruins of the capital of the Shang Dynasty, located in modern-day Henan Province, near Anyang. It's a tourist attraction nowadays.
[8] Lao Ai was the illicit lover of the then-King of Qin's mother, who disguised himself as an eunuch to sneak into her palace. He used her influence to rise to great political power, all the while fearing that the teenaged King of Qin would find out. After he was exposed, Lao Ai tried to stage a coup. The King of Qin promptly crushed the coup, had Lao Ai torn apart by chariots, and killed his two half-brothers fathered by Lao Ai.
[9] The noose is a symbol of surrender.
[10] Pengcheng is located in northwestern modern-day Jiangsu Province, and had been part of Chu before Qin unified China. The flat terrain that surrounds it makes it much more difficult to defend compared with Guanzhong.
[11] Bashu is modern-day Sichuan Province, located in southern China. The name comes from the two independent non-Han Chinese kingdoms, Ba and Shu, in the region before it was conquered by the state of Qin.
[12] Hanzhong is located in southwestern modern-day Shaanxi Province, linking Bashu with the Xianyang region.
[13] The scholartree (Styphnolobium japonicum), also known as the Japanese pagoda tree, is a member of the legume family. It's used in Chinese traditional medicine, and its flowers are a common source of honey.
[14] This game doesn't seem to be a real one, but Qian is the first hexagram in the Book of Changes. Nine is a yang changing/old yang line. I assume by the context that all the lines are nines.
[15] Kun is the second hexagram in the book of Changes, paired with Qian. Six is a yin changing/old yin line.

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