Life in Ancient China

The Dance of Death

Wicked Warriors and Evil Emperors tells how rebels Liu Bang and Xiang Yu destroyed the Qin Dynasty. But the moment the last Qin ruler was dead, they faced a new enemy - each other.

After Liu Bang captured the Qin capital, Xiang Yu invited him to a banquet to 'celebrate'. The top officials from both rebel armies came to Xiang Yu's tent. But neither side trusted the other. After all, they'd both betrayed the Emperor.chariot cartoon

The two groups sat down to eat and drink together. As they scoffed their wine and raw pork, Xiang Yu's chief adviser ordered some 'entertainment'. But it wasn't just a bit of innocent music. He called for a sword dance.

A soldier of Xiang Yu's drew his sword and began to dance. The blade whistled through the air in deadly arcs. The soldier moved closer and closer to Liu Bang.

Another officer, who was secretly on Liu Bang's side, could see what was going to happen. He drew his sword too, and joined in. He danced between Liu Bang and the soldier, protecting Liu Bang from the blade.

Liu Bang was caught in a dangerous position. If he got up and left, that would insult Xiang Yu, who had more men than he did. But if he stayed where he was, how long would it be before that dancing sword found its target?

Perhaps he was nervous, or he'd had a lot to drink. Liu Bang needed to go to the toilet. He excused himself from the tent. One of his officers followed him out.

'Sir, they're playing with knives. And we're the meat!' said the officer. 'Forget about good manners. Get out of here!'

Liu Bang took his advice and made a run for it. He unhitched a horse from his chariot and rode off bareback. He didn't go along the main road, but cross-country, to avoid being caught.  

Meanwhile Liu Bang's officer waited as long as he could, to give his leader time to escape. Then he went back to the banquet tent and made excuses to Xiang Yu.

'Liu Bang is too drunk. He can't keep going with this banquet,' said the officer. 'I'm very sorry. He's unable to say goodbye to you himself.' The officer presented Xiang Yu and his chief adviser with beautiful jade gifts.

'So where is Liu Bang?' Xiang Yu asked.

The officer replied, 'He feared you would be angry with him, sir. He has returned to his camp.'

When Xiang Yu's adviser heard this, he took out his sword and smashed his jade in half. 'That b-!' he swore. He turned to his leader. 'He'll take the world from you!'  

The chief adviser was right. Having escaped one of the deadliest parties in history, Liu Bang eventually became China's next Emperor.

Illus © Terry Denton. Used with permission.

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