“Books are only useful in helping me remember my name. Mastering swordsmanship allows me to face only one opponent, so it’s not worth learning. I want to learn how to defeat 10,000 enemies.”
Xiang Yu was born into a military family in the Chu state in China. He did not see much value in academic work and only learned the basics of military strategy.
As a young boy he saw his people defeated by the army of the Qin state, which unified China and established the Qin Dynasty.
By the time Xiang Yu had reached his early twenties the Qin dynasty was fighting to suppress peasant uprisings. He was a tall, strong warrior and proved himself in battles against the Qin. He rose through the ranks of the rebel forces until, by 208BC, he was second in command to Song Yi.
The Chu army was sent to help another rebel army, from the Zhao state, in their battle against the Qin. The rebels armies met in Anyang, but they did not move on to attack the Qin. Song Yi ordered the army to wait and they sat for 46 days and still no order came to attack the Qin.
Xiang Yu could not stand to wait and called a meeting with Song Yi. The meeting was a trap and Xiang Yu accused Song Yi of treason and killed him. With the other generals now scared of Xiang Yu he took overall control of the rebel army.
He said that the time for waiting was over and ordered them to proceed to the Qin city of Julu. His army crossed the river that separated them from Julu and once over the river Xiang Yu ordered his men to sink their boats and destroy nearly all their food, leaving enough for just three days.
Xiang Yu’s boat burning strategy gave his men no choice and they fought with skill and passion and over nine long battles finally defeated the much larger Qin army.
When news of the victory spread, rebel soldiers from other states came to join Xiang Yu and his victorious army. The 200,000 men in the defeated Qin army were not so lucky as Xiang Yu showed his evil side when he ordered that they should all be killed. His chosen method of execution was to have them all buried alive.
The boat burning strategy is a classic example of changing the rules of the game. By eliminating a strategy, that of retreating, Xiang Yu forced his men to fight and changed the outcome of the game.
You don’t always have to play the game that others expect you to play.