Yellow River, 207 BC
It’s late winter.
Amidst the bitter cold, Xiang Yu moves his army of 50,000 soldiers across the river to the northern shore, staging them for an attack against their much larger and more-established enemy. It's a strange scene to witness, as once upon the banks his men begin methodically setting fire to their boats and destroying their supplies. The men pack enough food to last them just a few days, gather their arms and begin the nearly 100-mile march northwest towards Julu.
This moment is centuries in the making.
China has endured hundreds of years of turmoil throughout what becomes known as the "Warring States" period. Many factions had battled for control across the continent, creating an ever-changing landscape as borders continually shift amidst the fighting. One faction emerges from the chaos: the Qin state, led by brutal - but brilliant - military commander Qin Shi Huang. Assuming control of the state after the passing of his father, it takes him only 9 years to do what no one during the generations before could: unify China.
While a unified nation seems positive on the surface, the Qin Dynasty does not rule on behalf of the people. Shi Huang's government is highly bureaucratic; all aspects of life are standardized, and everyone is categorized based on their perceived “value” to the empire. Under this harsh political philosophy - known as Legalism - religion is restricted, speech is suppressed, books are burned, scholars are executed, and common people are forced into manual labor on behalf of the government.
But Shi Huang’s rule is not without its accomplishments.
Utilizing his mandatory slave labor rotations, he orders the stringing together of the hundreds defensive positions to the north (built during the Warring States period) to secure their northern border, as well as ensure collection of taxes on incoming and outgoing trade. We know this project today as the Great Wall of China.
He also orders one of the largest art projects in the world. Thousands of laborers and craftsmen work to create thousands upon thousands of life-size sculptures of people, horses, chariots and weapons out of clay, bronze, copper and paint. He orders that the entirety of it will be buried with him upon his death in order to protect and serve him in the afterlife. This project is discovered in the 1970’s by farmers digging wells. We know it now as the Terracotta Army.
While these have become world-renowned tourist attractions, they are also symbols of abusive power.
"There's no end to what you can do when you don't give a f*ck about a particular people. That's where human greatness comes from: f*cking others over."
-Louis CK (sorry, it fit perfectly)
The Qin Dynasty accomplishes a great deal, but the abuse comes to a head in 209 BC.
It’s July when two army officers - Chen Sheng and Wu Guang - are on orders to lead their forces north and take control of defenses on the wall, but their march is delayed by heavy rainstorms and floods. Per Qin Legalist regulation, missing government duty is punishable by death - regardless of the reasoning. Rather than submit to execution, the two officers instead choose to fight for their lives. They begin with a rag-tag army of 900 peasants, which grows quickly to greater than 10,000 strong. The event becomes known the Dazexiang Uprising.
Chen and Wu’s movement may gain a great deal of traction up front, but is almost immediately quelled by the overwhelming size and superior tactics of the Qin ground forces. It ends a few short months later in December 209 BC, with the rebels killing their leaders in desperation, hoping for mercy from the empire. No mercy comes; all are slaughtered.
Yet, the uprising changes the political landscape across China; people now see cracks within the foundation of the empire, which are furthered by the unexpected death of Emperor Shi Huang (he is subsequently buried with his collection of life-size warriors). Although a new ruler is placed in control of the empire, multiple underground organizations begin to form in the shadows, plotting full-scale revolution. Violence breaks out across the various states; the empire falling into anarchy.
The people begin establishing their own local governments, muster armed militias (consisting primarily of peasants), and begin organized ground campaigns against Qin cities across the eastern provinces. Yet, once again, they all begin to face the might of the superior Qin military. This new, galvanized rebellion quickly finds itself on the verge of being destroyed.
It’s late in the year of 208 BC when Qin general Zhang Han - a brilliant tactician and military leader - defeats one of the largest rebel armies, commanded by legendary general from the Chu State, Xiang Liang. Liang perishes in the midst of the battle, issuing another heavy blow to the rebellion. Surviving rebel soldiers flee north and take up defensive positions in Julu. Han surrounds them, sets camp and begins a robust siege operation to wait-out the poorly supplied insurgents. All he has to do is be patient, and the remainder of the rebellion will slowly wither away.
Messengers are sent out to plea for reinforcements, hoping break the Qin army’s siege. Rebel leaders in Chu respond to the call, immediately dispatching a force north in support. Of the experienced military commanders available, it is Xiang Yu - a young man barely exposed to combat - who volunteers to lead the army. He is the only one to raise his hand.
It’s personal for Xiang Yu. Xiang Liang - the Chu general killed in battle with Qin forces - was more than an icon for the rebellion; he was Yu's uncle and mentor, having raised him after his father passed away at age 9.
As a child, Liang taught Lu both academics and combat, but Lu always protested: "Books are only useful in helping me remember my name. Mastering swordsmanship allows me to face only one opponent, so it's not worth learning. I want to learn how to defeat thousands of enemies." It is this attitude which makes Liang nearly give up on developing the young Xiang Lu.
This changes a couple years later in 221 BC, when Liang brings Lu to see the emperor of the newly united Qin Dynasty - Qin Shi Huang himself. Although only 11 years old at the time, Xiang Lu looks up at Liang as the emperor’s procession passes by, stating solemnly, “I can replace him.” Shocked, Liang covers Lu’s mouth and removes him from the crowd for fear of their lives. Seeing the fearlessness in Xiang Lu, Liang continues to mentor the young warrior throughout the Qin Dynasty.
Now, over a decade later, Xiang Lu is hungry for revenge; both for his uncle and his people. Thus, he rallies his men and begins leading them north.
It’s just past New Year’s in 207 BC when Xiang Lu and his force of roughly 50,000 soldiers reach the banks of the mighty Yellow River; the last obstacle standing between them and Zhang Han’s army of well over 400,000.
Xiang Lu knows the upcoming battle is about more than personal vengeance; the entirety of the revolution rests on defeating the Qin army and rescuing their fellow rebels in Julu. He needs his men to be relentless; to find a level of determination within them they have never known.
On the eve of the crossing, Xiang Lu explains to his officers that once they make it to the other side, they are to shed everything they don’t need to survive past 3 days. They are also ordered to dismantle and burn every ship used to cross the river.
“Break the cauldrons and sink the boats.”
-Chinese proverb inspired by the crossing
This decision tells every soldier one thing, and one thing only: defeat the Qin army quickly and decisively, or face death.
Xiang Lu and his rebels waste no time, quickly traversing the 100-mile distance.
Lu approaches Julu, finding he is not the first rebel army to answer the call for help. Others have arrived in the region, but remain on the high ground in fear, reluctant to engage the massive Qin army. What they are about to witness places them in a state of sheer awe.
The Chu rebels suddenly appear over the hills to the south, and immediately pour into the valley; Xiang Lu leading from the front on horseback. They engage the Qin without hesitation.
They single-handedly win 9 consecutive engagements throughout the day. The Qin endure over 100,000 casualties before retreating from the battlefield, allowing the rebels to capture all of their supplies and freeing the now-starving rebels held-up in Julu. The remaining rebels who refused to fight join Xiang Lu. Shamed by their own cowardice, the commanders drop to their knees and refuse to look up as they request permission to join Lu’s army.
“Pit the strength of one against ten.”
-Chinese proverb inspired by the day's battle.
Han retreats west, but doesn’t make it far before he is caught, out-maneuvered and surrounded by Lu. After enduring even greater losses, the Qin general surrenders his remaining 200,000 men, who have lost all will to fight against the unrelenting rebels. The Qin empire falls shortly after when fellow general from the rebel state of Han - Liu Bang - surrounds their capital. Although the victorious commander, Liu Bang allows Xiang Lu to be the one to bring the empire to an end. He enters the city, executes the emperor, and burns his palace to the ground.
A new unified government rises from the ashes of rebellion: the Han Dynasty. This new government maintains an emperor, but decentralizes his authority to localities in order to empower the people. They make wide advances in agriculture, manufacturing, technological advancements, expand individual rights (including women’s rights), privatize currencies, and remove religious restrictions. The Han Dynasty will last for over 4 centuries, and becomes known as the “golden age” of China. To this day, the majority of people in China proudly identify themselves as the Han people.
Thus, the Battle of Julu becomes a key turning point in Chinese political and cultural history. When time was of the essence, Xiang Lu took measures to ensure his men would not only muster whatever they could to achieve victory, but would do so without hesitation. Without burning his ships on the northern shore of the Yellow River, history would most likely have been written very differently.
This example of sheer tenacity and fearlessness in the face of impossible odds is what earns Lu and his Chu rebels their place within the saga of “Burn the Ships.”
Get some. Cheers.