Han Xin was born in the first year of the Western Han Dynasty in Huaiyin. Poor in his youth, he once begged food from a washer woman who bleached clothes. He was bullied and endured the humiliation of crawling between someone’s legs. Later he became the military commander under Xiang Yu. Although Zhang Liang recommended him to Liu Bang as a man of talent, Liu Bang did not employ him. Instead it was Xiao He who pursued him under the moonlight and erected a platform to appoint him as general. At that time the states of Han and Chu were at war, and Han Xin led his troops east on a military campaign. Overtly he commanded his men to build plank roads but secretly he shipped his troops to Chencang. At the showdown at Gaixia, the Chu armies were reminded of home and were subsequently defeated in battle. At Wujiang the Overlord of Chu cut his own throat, hence Chu was vanquished and Han emerged victorious. Han Xin asked to be made Lord of the three united states, thereby planting the seeds of disaster. Insatiably greedy, Han Xin was unlike Zhang Liang who kept a low profile after victory was won. His failing was his eagerness to trust people and his indecisive and irresolute character. In the end he was beheaded by the Empress Lu. Alas, for his widespread fame; what a pity that ultimately all his efforts were irrevocably lost!
In the Han Dynasty, there were three men of talent under Liu Bang: Zhang Liang, Xiao He and Han Xin. Han Xin was then a political heavyweight whose actions had immense impact on the lives of the masses. But his personality changed when he rose from poverty to wealth and honor. In times of poverty he was resourceful, but when he became rich and honorable he got muddle-headed and allowed his fame and position to go to youth, to the extent that he had no food to eat. Everywhere he went he carried a precious sword with him. In olden times, a sword was used as a weapon; they didn’t have the revolvers or handguns of today. He was fond of resorting to arms, so he carried his sword everywhere. But he couldn’t earn enough to sustain his livelihood, and an old washer woman who bleached clothes for a living gave him food.
When he was strolling through the streets one day, a bunch of ruffians said to him, “The reason you carry a sword with you must be to kill people. If you dare, use your sword and put an end to my life. If you don’t dare to kill me, you have to leave by walking between my legs.” Because he was extremely poverty-stricken, Han Xin didn’t dare to start a fight with the ruffians, so he went down on all fours and left shamefaced by crawling through the ruffian’s robe. He was mocked by these mean youths for being useless. But at that time, when he was very poor, he endured the humiliation silently.
Later Han Xin went on to be a military commander of the Overlord of the state of Chu [Xiang Yu], and he was in charge of frontline defense. At that time, the Overlord of Chu and Liu Bang had allied to attack the state of Qin, and they had a sworn agreement that whoever reached Xianyang first would become King. Liu Bang arrived first, and when the Overlord of Chu arrived afterward, he wanted to vie for the position. Because Liu Bang’s military might could not compare to that of Xiang Yu, he capitulated and Xiang Yu sent him to Sichuan to be Lord of Central Han.
The Overlord of Chu then had a wise and resourceful adviser under him, Fan Zeng, who had given him three exhortations before he had gone to battle:
1) If Han Xin could be employed as a general, he should be thus used; if not, he should be killed. This person, if left unemployed, would become a cause of disaster and an obstacle.
2) No matter what, do not let Liu Bang go to Sichuan to be Lord of Central Han; he should be killed. No one but he will vie with you for the position of Emperor.
3) When you have reached Xianyang, do not return to the state of Chu.
But the Overlord of Chu did not heed his advice:
1) He did not kill Han Xin, who was then a general under him.
Zhang Liang once disguised himself as a Buddhist monk and went to Han Xin’s military camp. He told Han Xin that with the present chaotic situation, he was trying to find buyers for his three swords. The first, he said, was the Sword of the Emperor for which he had already found a buyer. The second, the Sword of the Prime Minister, was also taken. The third, the Sword of the Marshal, was still available and he felt that Han Xin was the most qualified person to possess it. At that time, there was a person by the name of Han Sheng, who had derided the Overlord of Chu as a “monkey trying on hats”. The monkey, in its eagerness to wear a hat, would ruin it. There are many twists to this saga. In a fit of rage the Overlord of Chu wanted Han Sheng killed. [A section on the tape is unclear at this point.] At that time, Zhang Liang took the opportunity to spread rumors to goad the Overlord of Chu into returning to his country. He taught a bunch of children to sing the song, “There is now a man behind a wall who rings a bell. A sound is heard but no person is seen. Not returning to one’s hometown at the height of wealth and honor is like walking in the night attired in brocade.” When one walks in the dark, no one can see what one wears and the finery on a person is left unadmired. Zhang Liang further said to the children, “If anyone asks you who taught you this song, you should say it was a little boy dressed in red.”
Having conquered Xianyang, while on his rounds to check on the condition of the populace, the Overlord of Chu heard the children singing this song. Upon inquiry he learnt that it was a little boy who had taught them to sing this song and that they had been rewarded for their efforts. Pondering over the song, the Overlord of Chu thought to himself, “The ‘man’ refers to me, and ‘ringing a bell behind a wall’ refers to my widespread fame. ‘A sound is heard but no person is seen’ refers to the fact that although everyone has heard of my name, none has seen me in person. ‘Not returning to one’s hometown at the height of wealth and honor is like walking in the night attired in brocade’: I may have conquered Xianyang, but who knows of my valorous deed? Therefore I must return to Chu.”
In the day Zhang Liang spread his rumor and Han Xin was commanded to kill Han Sheng, not knowing that the rumormonger was among them. Zhang Liang recommended Han Xin to Liu Bang as a man of talent, but Liu Bang did not use him; instead it was Xiao He who pursued the departing Han Xin under the moonlight, erected a platform and gave him the position of general. On the surface Han Xin ordered his men to construct plank roads to deceive people in thinking that they were leaving on a military campaign, but secretly he was shipping his soldiers from Chencang to attack the Overlord of Chu, finally trapping him in the city of Gaixia. Zhang Liang commanded his men to blow flutes and hearing the strains of their country melodies, the armies of Chu became homesick, lost their fighting spirit and were subsequently defeated by the Han armies.
After gaining military power and restoring peace to the various regions, Han Xin went to Liu Bang to ask to be conferred as the ‘fake’ Emperor of the three united states, so as to protect the country and to ensure that chaos would not overtake the land. Upon hearing his request, Liu Bang flew into a huge rage. Zhang Liang, who was seated next to him, kicked him in the leg and Liu Bang instantly got the idea. “Why be conferred as the ‘fake’ emperor?” he said. “I’ll make you the real emperor.” Han Xin,however, was unaware of the real situation. He had a military aide who gave him this advice, “It is very dangerous now to be the Emperor of the three united states; your merit overshadows your ruler’s and Liu Bang is bound to kill you.” But Han Xin was confident that his meritorious services in battle were great and paid no heed to his advice.
Before his death, Han Xin said, “I regret not having listened to Kuai Che’s advice and now I die at the hands of a woman (the Empress Lu).” Han Xin was a person of unsurpassed intelligence, but fame and honor made him muddle-headed. Having restored peace to the country, he should not have asked to be emperor; this was his greatest mistake. He could not see the situation clearly but was indecisive and irresolute and hence Liu Bang later gradually distanced himself from him and the Empress Lu had him killed. He himself came to regret his actions. In times of poverty he was tolerant but when he achieved wealth and fame he lost his former patience and became reckless.
To be continued