Chinese historical legend: 四面楚歌


Si Mian Chu Ge

Four Sides Chu(a kingdom/state in ancient China) Song

Songs of Chu on all sides/Surrounded by songs of Chu

“After the Chun Qiu (Autumn Spring) period in ancient China, when the seven kingdoms were fighting for control of China, the Qin army surrounded the army of the Chu, and the general of the Qin, Yong Li Zhao, came up with a military strategy called “si mian chu ge” to get the Qin army to surrender without having to sacrifice his soldiers. It worked like this: these people’s hometown is Chu, right, and every hometown has traditional songs. And when you hear these songs, you are reminded of your home and your family. So the Qin army sang songs from the Chu kingdom all day and all night, so it seemed to the Chu army like their hometown songs were coming from all four sides, like the music was surrounding them. And so the Chu army wanted to go home, didn’t want to fight anymore, and they surrendered.”

When I asked my informant to tell me any stories he knew, he insisted on first giving me a history lesson on ancient China to ground the stories. This legend is set during the Seven Warring States period (which lasted from about 475 BC to 220 BC) towards the end of Zhou Dynasty China. The Qin state eventually defeated the other six states, including Chu, and reunified China under the Qin Dynasty.

My informant wasn’t sure where he’d heard this legend, but believes that it might have been from his father, who is particularly interested in ancient Chinese history. My informant took a sort of nationalistic pride in the legend and seemed almost offended when I asked him whether he thought the legend was true. “Of course,” he said, “it doesn’t have anything to do with magic.” He found the story compelling because it showed that battles could be won without violence.

While the story does seem to endorse nonviolence, the fact that my informant ended his story with, “But I think the Chu army were all killed in the end, because the Qin general never took prisoners,” suggested a dissonance in the legend—we associate home with safety and comfort, but in this story, the Chu army’s home and loved ones were used against them.

I think that the Chinese take a lot of pride in their ancient history, before China came under Western influence. Westerners were able to impose their will on the Chinese partly because they had more military technology and power. This legend shows an instance in which a Chinese leader uses cunning rather than force to conquer enemies, which the Chinese might see as more noble or fair.