Chinese historical legend: Xiang Yu wang

“At the end of the Qin Dynasty, there were a lot of uprisings because people got tired of having to leave home to work on the emperor’s construction projects, and Liu Bang and Xiang Yu were two rebel leaders. So after the Qin Dynasty got overthrown, they have to fight each other to see who would rule China. And there were a lot of battles, but finally Xiang Yu got defeated. Liu Bang knew Xiang Yu would pass by this boulder by this river, so he wrote Xiang Yu wang, death to Xiang Yu, on the boulder in honey. And because there was honey, ants swarmed over the words, so it looked like the ants were forming the words. And when Xiang Yu saw it, he thought it was a message from the gods that he should die, so he committed suicide and Liu Bang became emperor and founded the Han Dynasty.“

My informant thinks he learned this story from his father, who is interested in ancient Chinese history.

This legend is built around real historical events. Xiang Yu did commit suicide after his defeat, although the truth value of the part with the ants and the honey is uncertain. The legend shows that Xiang Yu was honorable and faithful to the gods’ will, which is partly why Xiang Yu is now commonly viewed as a tragic historical figure. The legend also portrays Liu Bang as being an adept manipulator—he won by using his understanding of his opponent’s motivations—and the Chinese value cleverness over physical force.