The Last Supper (2012): Xiang Yu Overthrows the Qin in order to…protect Diversity?

I’ve been listening to the lectures given by Prof. Ou Fan Leo Lee (李歐梵) for his Coursera course Classics of Chinese Humanities: Guided Readings from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.1 I quite like the design of this very short course which, instead of discussing the most common classic texts or issues, gives you four little self-contained units that offers Prof. Lee a chance combine an introduction of some key introductory themes but also his own unique argument-driven ideas.

The first unit is on “The True Face of Hero”2 and uses Sima Qian’s “The Basic Annals of Xiang Yu” as its main text to discuss what Prof. Lee sees as a good example of a (tragic) heroic warrior tradition in Chinese literature that is often overshadowed by more dominant Confucian narratives of loyal ministers.3

Xiang Yu (項羽) was a military figure who rose out of chaos of the rebellions against the Qin dynasty and, together with a band of allies, including Liu Bang, the founder of the Han dynasty, brings about the ultimate destruction of the Qin before himself being killed by Liu Bang. The final part of the unit traces the long cultural legacy of the story of the rise and fall of Xiang Yu, whose final farewell to his consort is the story behind the play 霸王别姬, which is at the heart of the famous Chinese film Farewell my Concubine. There are a number of other films that more directly tell the story of Xiang Yu, including The Great Conqueror’s Concubine (西楚霸王), White Vengeance (鴻門宴) and The Last Supper (王的盛宴)

From the standpoint of the cultural history, two of the best remembered moments in the story of the rivalry between Xiang Yu and Liu Bang is the attempt to kill the latter at the “Feast at Hong Gate” and the final farewell and suicide of Xiang Yu and (though this is not included in Sima Qian’s version, as far as I can see) his consort.4

On the other hand, I think that what your typical document-loving historian finds most moving in the story, is Sima Qian’s claim for the contrast between the conduct of Liu Bang and Xiang Yu when each of them enter the capital of the defeated Qin: Xianyang. The former enters the capital before Xiang Yu can get there, supposedly much thanks to the fact that he, “forbade his men to plunder or seize prisoners” on his way there, leading to the rapid surrender of Qin forces. Once there, Sima Qian has him say that he did not, “lay a finger on a single thing,” “sealed up the storehouses containing Qin’s treasures and wealth,” and proclaim an end to the harsh laws of the empire.5 When Liu Bang turns over the capital at the arrival of the huge army of his lord, the grumpy Xiang Yu “led his troops west and massacred the inhabitants of Xianyang, the capital city, killing Ziying, the king of Qin, who had already surrendered, and setting fire to the palaces of Qin; the fire burned for three months before it went out. Then he gathered up all the goods, treasures, and waiting women, and started east.”6

In her wonderful work on The Five Confucian Classics, Michael Nylan argues that the famous “Burning of the Books legend” that claims that, under the Qin dynasty, there was a vast loss of classic texts and annals “does not bear close scrutiny.”7 Instead, she argues, we should pay more attention to the huge loss of texts that undoubtedly occurred at this later moment in 206 BCE when Xiang Yu burned the imperial palaces, and presumably, the imperial library. In Sima Qian’s account of Xiang Yu, though clearly he had some sympathy for the tragic hero, there are also plenty of other descriptions of massacres he ordered, as there are, though fewer in number, for Liu Bang.

Which brings me to the 2012 film, The Last Supper, the English title being a reference not to Jesus but the Hong gate banquet (unless there is a Judas reference here, but there too many Judases to make this a meaningful reference). The most unfortunate omission in the depiction of the famous banquet, I thought, was the Sima Qian’s claim that Liu Bang slipped away from the banquet of death when he stepped out to use the latrine. Instead of reproducing this great vulgar and humorous moment of the classic history, the film has Liu Bang explain that he pretended to be drunk and ran off. However, more interestingly, the director Lu Chuan, who also made the remarkable Nanjing massacre film City of Life and Death (南京!南京!), offers an entirely new take on Xiang Yu. When Xiang Yu executes the last ruler of the Qin, he delivers the following speech as he divides the spoils of the former empire among his generals:


“This was the Qin king’s palace. Many people have suggested that I live here. I cannot. I will burn it down to avoid the possibility that someone will become another Qin Emperor. We didn’t overthrow the Qin to make another Qin emperor. The Qin Emperor unified the world and demanded that all must wear the same color, ride the same carriages, and write the same [characters/language]. He wanted to take the thousands upons thousands of different hearts of the world and turn them into one…”

This depiction of Xiang Yu as a generous proponent of decentralized rule is entirely at odds with Sima Qian’s critique of Xiang Yu’s arrogant desire to “make himself a dictator.” Later on Sima Qian has Gao Qi and Wang Ling tell Liu Bang that, unlike the new Han emperor, Xiang Yu, “was jealous of worth and ability…No matter what victories were achieved in battle, he gave his men no reward; no matter what lands they won, he never shared with them the spoils. This is why he lost possession of the world.”8 Sima Qian claims Xiang Yu’s reason for not staying in Xianyang was due to his yearning to return home to his home in the southern kingdom of Chu.

Instead, in the movie version Xiang Yu murders his way to the northwest to overthrow the Qin wants in order to reverse the massive standardization campaigns of the empire. His goal, rather than winning heroic valor, military glory, and feeding his insatiable hunger for power, is a destruction of the insidious cultural hegemony of the empire.

I can’t help but wonder if there is a far more contemporary political message being made here through the speech of this new Xiang Yu. Instead of the Qin, is it the Communist party’s goal of “uniting the hearts of the people” that is the real target here, especially with respect to the control over art? As Mao puts it in the 1942 “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art,”

“The purpose of our meeting today is precisely to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy, and that they help the people fight the enemy with one heart and one mind.” (帮助人民同心同德地和敌人作斗争)

Just as Xiang Yu’s speech is warming up to this theme, the film turns away to the reflections of Liu Bang on the affair as we see him prance through a field of memory. Curiously, if you watch closely you’ll notice a gap between what you can make out as Xiang Yu’s voice fades and Liu Bang’s comes in and what is in either the Chinese or English subtitles (at least the ones I could find). The last key audible phrase of Xiang Yu’s speech, and the one that is most biting politically, is completely left out of the transcript:

他要把天下千千萬萬顆不一樣的心,變成一個 “He wanted to take the thousands upons thousands of different hearts of the world and turn them into one…”

  1. Neat tip: if you have the Coursera app on your phone, you don’t need to watch the videos of the lectures, which is nice if you just want to listen to the lectures while at the gym or going for a run. It plays the videos fine when the phone is in another app, or “sleeping,” and even automatically starts the next lecture in a set when one is finished.  

  2. Indefinite and definite articles are so often dropped in the English spoken in Hong Kong, elsewhere in overseas Chinese English, and indeed many variants of English, I’ve almost stopped noticing it. I confess, I hope it is something that will spread to English everywhere (except for optional emphasis) as it would certainly make the language easier to learn.  

  3. You can find this in Burton Watson’s translation in Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty I, 17-48.  

  4. The story of the banquet is told in Watson’s translation of Sima Qian’s history on pp30-32, and briefly again in “The Basic Annals of Emperor Gaozu” p63. The farewell, in Sima Qian’s version, is on pp44-45.  

  5. Watson’s translation, in Xiang Yu’s annals on p29 and in Gaozu annals pp61-62  

  6. Xiang Yu annals, p33  

  7. Nylan, Michael. The Five Confucian Classics. Yale University Press, 2014, 29.  

  8. “Basic Annals of Xiang Yu p48 “Basic Annals of Emperor Gaozu” p76  

1 Comment

  1. Konrad,

    Nice post. I agree that there might be some modern implications in making Xiang Yu a diversity maven, but there may also be some classical stuff. I did not have much time to look for things, but Lewis Early Chinese Empires p.19 confirms what I sort of remember, that Xiang Yu was trying to create some sort of confederacy of states, with himself, I guess, as a hegemon (霸) of sorts. Liu Bang was the one who wanted a unified empire. Not quite diversity in the modern sense, but not Qin either.

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