Highlights of Chinese Culture and History

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Raising the Standard of Revolt

The First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty forced large numbers of civilians to work on the building of the Great Wall, his luxurious palace and his mausoleum, bringing untold suffering on the people. He was, however, out-Heroded by the Second Emperor, who killed his elder brother Fu Su and many ministers in order to usurp the throne. After he took the throne, the Second Emperor recklessly increased levies and corvees. He was such a tyrant that of a total population of 20 million, every one in ten was pressed into labor service. As a result, many families were broken up and thousands of people lost their lives. All this had stirred up intense hatred and indignation among the people. The country was like a tinderbox and uprisings and revolt were everywhere.

In July, 29 B.C., two Qin army of officers were herding a group of 900 miserable poor peasants to the frontier of Yuyang for guard duties. Before their departure, the officers had picked two strong-bodies, worldly-wise peasants as leaders of the group. One of the two was named Chen Sheng and the other, Wu Guang. When they got to Dazexiang of Qixian County, they found themselves unable to move on because of a continuous rain, which lasted for several days on end, rendering the roads impassable. Hence it would anyway be impossible for them to arrive at their destination in time. But according to the law of the Qin Dynasty, any delay of this kind was punishable by death. The poor souls were filled with desperation.

This set Chen Sheng thinking and he said to Wu Guang, "The Second Emperor murdered his next of kin to seize power. He surely had no mercy for men like us. People hated him to the marrow of their bones. If we call on the people to revolt against him in the name of Prince Fu Su and General Xiang Yan of the State of Chu, we are sure to get their support." He then added, "Yuyang is still thousands of miles away from here and surely we will be late. Even if we hurry and do arrive there , we are in for death; on the other hand, if we should desert and get caught, our fate can be no better. So why not revolt at once and try our luck." Wu Guang accepted the idea without demur. They discussed what steps to take to stage an uprising.

In order to win the support of the people, they capitalized on the latter's superstitious beliefs. They got a piece of silk and wrote three red characters on it: "King Chen Sheng." Then they stuffed it into the inside of a fish. They had some soldiers buy the fish. When the latter cut it up, they were very much surprised at the red characters on the piece of silk. Furthermore, Wu Guang stealthily hid himself at   midnight in an old temple near where they were quartered. He first imitated the cry of foxes and then shouted, "The State of Chu will rise, Chen Sheng will be King." The soldiers became even more astonished. The next day, when they saw Chen Sheng, they all pointed at him behind his back and whispered to each other about those strange happenings.

One day, Wu Guang deliberately provoked the Qin officers and was severely beaten. This surely made the soldiers very angry. Wu snatched at the chance and killed the officer on the spot. In the meantime, Chen had killed the other officer. Chen Sheng and Wu Guang then gathered together all the men and said, "Since we are caught in a heavy rain, we are already behind time. We cannot make light of our own lives. If one has to die, he has got to die like a man. Are the princes and lords and prime ministers born leaders...?" Hardly had he finished when the crowd shouted in unison: "Right. We will follow you." and unanimously they elected Chen and Wu leaders of the uprising.

They took a solemn oath under heaven to overthrow the Qin Dynasty with concerted efforts. Hearing the news, peasants nearby sent grain to them in token of support. Young men volunteered to join the revolt one after another. They chopped down trees to make wooden clubs for weapons and whittled bamboo stalks to make poles for their standards. On the banners were inscribed "Chu". Before long, they captured Dazexiang Village and Qixian County. The rebel force quickly grew into a large army with six to seven hundred war chariots, over one thousand cavalrymen and tens of thousands of foot soldiers. The army then conquered Chen County and established the first revolutionary regime of peasants in the history of China. Chen Sheng was made king and Wu king presumptive and the state was called "Zang Chu." This was the first large-scale peasant uprising in Chinese history and people use the phrase "Raise the standard of rebellion" to describe how Chen and Wu had started the uprising.

When the revolting troops closed in on Xiangyang, the Qing capital, the Second Emperor of the Qin Dynasty became panic-stricken and ordered his armies in various parts of the country to launch a counter-offensive against the rebels. As a result of split in his own ranks, Chen Sheng was assassinated by some traitors and Wu was killed by his subordinates too.

Though the rebel leaders were dead, the flames of rebellion kindled by them against the Qin were sweeping across the country. Before long, the rebel army led by Liu Bang stormed and occupied Xiangyang. The feudal autocracy of the Qin which had lasted for barely 15 years was swept away by the relentless waves of peasant uprising.


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