Hsiang Yu: The Tragic Hero
Confucius once said, “Study the past if you would divine the future”. The emphasis traditional Chinese culture has for centuries placed on history as an educational and guiding source is reflected in Ssu-ma Chien’s historical work, Shi Ji. Split into five categories – basic annals, chronological tables, treatises, hereditary houses and biographies – Shi Ji chronicles the history spanning an extensive time ranging from the original Yellow Emperor to the Han Dynasty. Of the five sections, ‘biographies’ remain the most intriguing. Ssu-ma Chien’s cogent yet vivid use of language not only gave insight into the character and fundamental worth of each subject, but also illustrated their particular virtues he deems that make each individual respectable and honorable.
In particular, Ssu-ma Chien highlights the importance of reputable traits such as bravery, determination and loyalty through a straightforward and didactic style of writing in his biography of Hsiang Yu. The cultural significance of this biography lays in the authenticity of Hsiang Yu, as reflected in the use of vivid, factual descriptions of Hsiang Yu’s rise and eventual downfall. By illustrating the flaws of Hsiang Yu alongside of his merits, his humanity is reflected, which not only makes him more accessible and relatable to the readers themselves, but also as a result of this instills in the readers the inspiration to emulate Hsiang Yu’s upstanding attributes. Ssu-ma Chien’s biography of Hsiang Yu is thus a notable piece of ancient Chinese literature because it transcends simply being a historical recount of events – it underscores the significance of nurturing and harboring virtuous qualities in our flawed selves, and embracing the notion that it is our vices and merits that determine our fate and how we influence those around us.
In the excerpt of Hsiang Yu’s biography as analyzed in this essay, it documents the circumstances surrounding Hsiang Yu’s death. The story begins with Hsiang Yu’s army trapped in a siege by the Han army and Hsiang Yu, recognizing the futility of the situation, weeps, sings and drinks with his concubine, Lady Yuh. However, despite the desolation, Hsiang Yu remounts his horse and leads his troops to break the encirclement. Hearing of this new development the next day, the King of Han orders the pursuit of Hsiang Yu and his men. At this point, Hsiang Yu’s army had dwindled from eight hundred to meager hundred or so horsemen. In addition, having been deceived by a farmer and misguided into a great swamp, Hsiang Yu once again found himself at the mercy of the Han army. By this time, the army’s numbers have reduced to twenty-eight men. Realizing he could not escape, Hsiang Yu delivers a moving speech in his resolve to spend his final moments fighting until his last breath. Splitting his army into three groups as a diversion tactic, Hsiang Yu successful breaks the siege, eliminating his enemies while only losing two men. However, as Hsiang Yu approaches Wu River, he reaches an impasse, as he is too ashamed to cross over to the east side of the Yangtze to his people. In his last efforts, Hsiang Yu bravely kills several hundred Han men, yet suffering severe wounds in the process. At an encounter with his old friend Lu Ma-t’ung, Hsiang Yu offers his head to Lu as a favor and slits his own throat, committing suicide. At the death of Hsiang Yu, the only remaining region refusing to submit was Lu, the area in which Hsiang Yu held reign. It was not until the presentation of Hsiang Yu’s severed head did the people surrender. However, instead of annihilating the citizens, the King of Han recognized the people of Lu’s strict honor and loyalty to their sovereign and spared them. In the last scene of this biographical excerpt, The King, further acknowledging Hsiang Yu’s bravery and virtue, buries Hsiang Yu in a respectable and grand ceremony and pardons all his associated family members.
From the extract, it is evident that Hsiang Yu not only possesses many valuable and respectable traits, but is also recognized and praised for them. Hsiang Yu’s straightforward, single-minded and brave qualities are the virtues Ssu-ma Chien highlights in his recount of the events surrounding Hsiang Yu’s death. Despite the encirclement Han soldiers have created around the meager number of Hsiang Yu’s people, and although Hsiang Yu realizes the situation as futile as “they could not escape”, he does not cower or waver. Instead, Hsiang Yu boldly proclaims to fight to his death as he eradicates his enemies. Every grim situation Hsiang Yu was circumscribed in, he demonstrates unshakable intrepidity. Even on the brink of demise, Hsiang Yu continues to display an unyielding attitude and valiantly offers his head to his enemies. This demonstration of such courage and determination is a mirror to Hsiang Yu’s exemplary virtues that have not only inspired his troops to place their faith in Hsiang Yu, but also instilled the same committed belief and gallantry in them. Their resultant strength emanating from this loyalty and conviction is reflected in their ability to have broken through the grasps of the Han army more than two times, despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered. It was not until the third engagement did Hsiang Yu and his men finally suffer defeat. Hence, the power that radiates from Hsiang Yu is indication of his worthiness and respectability.
Moreover, the “eight thousand sons from the land east of the river” that once devotedly followed Hsiang Yu is also testament to the impact and merit of Hsiang Yu, as recognized by those that followed him. This dedication is also ingrained amongst the citizens of Lu. Their refusal to submit and “willingness to fight to death for its acknowledged sovereign” reflects their allegiance to abide by the same honor Hsiang Yu possesses. The homage the inhabitants of Lu paid to Hsiang Yu to the very end further influenced and moved King of Han to also acknowledge Hsiang Yu’s worthiness and gave Hsiang Yu a dignified burial “appropriate to a Duke of Lu” (122). Hence, Ssu-ma Chien emphasizes the significance of how determination and moral certainty will diffuse and spread among those around you, infusing them with unwavering loyalty and spirit. As a consequence, this virtue will lead one to achieve great things, and elevate them to prominence, just as Hsiang Yu did by gaining the faith of his people through the maintenance of a steadfast and lionhearted persona – even Liu Pang, enemy of Hsiang Yu, was affected by Hsiang Yu’s qualities and gave his respects.
While Hsiang Yu’s repertoire of righteous traits runs long, he is not without fault and his downfall can be attributed to his own shortcomings. In his biography, Hsiang Yu, as a result of the multiple victories he garnered and relished in, was depicted as one who thinks highly of himself and one who boasts about his achievements. For example, on the eve of his death, Hsiang Yu proclaims to his remaining soldiers, “I have fought over seventy battles. Every enemy I faced was destroyed, every one I attacked submitted. Never once did I suffer defeat, until at last I became the dictator of the world” (120). Coupled with this arrogance, Hsiang Yu’s direct and bold personality descends into a less virtuous quality – rashness and recklessness. As a final gesture to his foreseeable and imminent doom, Hsiang Yu chooses to slaughter as many Han soldiers instead of crossing over to the east side of the Yangtze river. Refusing to retreat and face the people loyal to him, Hsiang Yu reflects displays an impetuous and proud temperament. However, Ssu-ma Chien chronicles Hsiang Yu’s death with dignity, attributing to the fact that his final hours was in tribute to his men, “I beg to fight bravely and win for your three victories. For your sake I shall break through the enemy’s encirclement, cut down their leaders and sever their banners” (120). This dedication thus showcases Hsiang Yu’s unwavering loyalty and dedication to his men, which prevents the readers from viewing Hsiang Yu with contempt, as they are reminded of his equally notable and laudable qualities. All in all, the way through which the reputable Hsiang Yu was lead to his defeat by his arrogance and lack of self-awareness epitomizes a tragic hero scenario – a virtuous man falling to his own limitations, but is ultimately somewhat redeemed. The true implication of this historical record is thus to allow the audience to identify and feel sympathy for Hsiang Yu and to reflect on mistakes he made, so as to avoid the same pitfalls.
Moreover, Ssu-ma Chien style of writing also suggests a hint of disapproval for Hsiang Yu and his lack of insight into his reasons of failure and tendency to blame everything other than himself. For example, on the brink of his demise, instead of attributing and accepting his personal failure, he repeatedly blames Heaven and not himself for his downfall, “It is because Heaven would destroy me, not because I have committed any fault in battle” (120) and “It is heaven that is destroying me” (121). The significance of an individual’s own action and will is an ever important and essential theme the historian prominently calls attention to. It is our own behavior, not the Heavens, that directs our course in life. Moreover, the weight Ssu-ma Chien places in this subject matter is a reflection and comparison to his own experiences. Suffering his own humiliation and setbacks, Ssu-ma Chien not only does not seek to end his life, but instead chooses to continue the greater task at hand – his historical work. If Hsiang Yu had returned to his people and continued his reign over those loyal to him, it would have mirrored Ssu-ma Chien’s ability to see the bigger picture by carrying on his duty as a historian. Ssu-ma Chien would have thus encouraged Hsiang Yu towards the path of realizing and undertaking in his greater purpose and responsibility above his own pride and honor. Hence, Ssu-ma Chien underlines and encourages those who read his work to accept and maintain their responsibilities and to constantly reflect and learn form others’ examples and mistakes with humility.
In conclusion, in the final hours of Hsiang Yu’s death, his actions demonstrated both his virtues and his flaws that reflected a multitude of moral lessons. Through vivid use of dialogue and succinct cogency, Ssu-ma Chien simultaneously illustrates a clear historical picture while subtly promoting the significance of virtuous behavior in oneself to rise to the ranks of distinction and eminence, just as Hsiang Yu did: despite being impetuous and presumptuous at times, Hsiang Yu’s main legacy shall remain and be that of a loyal, respected and fearless individual. Ssu-ma Chien’s depiction of Hsiang Yu as a great but imperfect man encapsulates Ssu-ma Chien’s ability to evoke thought in his readers. Just as Hsiang Yu fell by his own actions, we are all susceptible to the same oversights. Ssu-ma Chien’s intention is thus to acknowledge the weight of our conducts, as it can hoist us up or bring us down. On the other hand, Ssu-ma Chien’s realistic and pragmatic style also encompasses a large variety of readers, who are also afflicted with flaws, to identify and sympathize with the central figures in his work. By subtly encouraging audiences to evaluate each character and to mirror themselves in adjacent with these commendable yet relatable examples, Shi Ji thus not only functions as an excellent moral guide, but also as a precautionary tool. Hence, the reason that Ssu-ma Chien’s famed work, Shi Ji, continues to be regarded with reverence is a direct result of its acuity and edifying properties that timelessly teaches enduring lessons of the past that either encourages or prevents the same occurrences in the future.