“This is a Hongmen Banquet” — “这是鸿门宴啊!”. This is a pretty fun idiom as this is jam packed with ancient history. Basically, you would use this idiom to describe a situation where it appears to be festive, celebratory, fun, an opportunity for pacification, but it is really a situation that is dire, dangerous, or even deadly. A situation that is created under false pretenses, expressed with a lie through one’s teeth, harboring ulterior motives. This resembles a trojan horse, but much more involved than a trojan horse as conspirators put on a continuous facade to lower suspicions, lower defenses, and do damage.
Let’s dive into the story.
Around the later part of 3rd century BC, at the time when Rome is fighting Carthage during the 2nd Punic Wars, the State of Qin had overtaken other states in China during the period of the 7 Warring States.
Liu Bang, before he became the Emporer of Han and ruled over all of China, rose up as a leader of one of the many rebellious factions against Qin. He joined forces with another prominent leader named Xiang Liang out of the Chu city of Wu. Xiang Liang installed King Huai II as the ruler of the Chu state.
Xiang Liang died in the Battle of Dingtao and King Huai II promoted Xiang Liang’s nephew Xiang Yu as Duke. King Huai II then made a directive for Liu Bang and Xiang Yu: whoever enters the Qin homeland, Guanzhong, will be granted “King of Guanzhong”. Guanzhong was known as one of the richest areas in China at the time.
As Xiang Yu is making his way to the Qin homeland, he got caught up at the Battle of Julu against the Qin army. During this time, Liu Bang made his way to Xianyang through Wu Pass through the Qin Mountains. He conquered the pass and was able to enter and capture Xianyang City, the capital of Qin, with the last Qin Emperor surrendering to Liu Bang.
Here, we start the story of the contention between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. Liu Bang instructed his troops to block passes to Xianyang City including the Hangu Pass to prevent pillaging and chaos. Xiang Yu, hearing that Liu Bang had made it to Qin homeland first, hastily made his way to the Qin homeland but was stopped at Hangu Pass by Liu Bang’s troops
Liu Bang (39 years old) and Xiang Yu (26 years old) at the Hongmen Banquet
司马迁 — Sima Qian records the story in 史记 — Records of the Grand Historian.
I pulled the translated story from ctext.org and modified the text for readability, particularly on naming and removing irrelevant characters.
Annals of Xiang Yu
Annals of Xiang Yu: [Xiang Yu's troops] came to Hangu Pass in former Qin territory. The pass was guarded by (Liu…
Supplemental Character List
Cao Wushang — mole within Liu Bang’s army.
Fan Zeng — advisor to Xiang Yu
Xiang Bo — Chu’s Chief Minister of the Left, Xiang Yu’s uncle, friend of Zhang Liang
Zhang Liang — Marquis of Liu, serving under Liu Bang
Xiang Zhuang — Sword dance performer
Fan Kuai — Liu Bang’s stableman
Xiang Yu’s troops came to Hangu Pass. The pass was guarded by Liu Bang’s soldiers so Xiang Yu could not get through. Apart from this, it was said that Liu Bang had already occupied Xianyang City. Xiang Yu hence got fiercely angry, so he ordered to have the blockage attacked. Then he got through the pass and marched towards Xianyang City. Liu Bang’s troops were stationed in Bashang; he did not have the chance to meet Xiang Yu. A military officer of Liu Bang, Cao Wushang, secretly sent a messenger to Xiang Yu, saying: “Liu Bang intends to be king of Guanzhong and possess all the treasures of Qin.”
Xiang Yu broke out into a rage and said: “Prepare my soldiers tomorrow morning. I will destroy Liu Bang’s army!” At that time, Xiang Yu had 400,000 men stationed in Hongmen, Liu Bang had 100,000 men in Bashang.
Fan Zeng, advisor to Xiang Yu, said to Xiang Yu: “When Liu Bang was in Shandong, he was very greedy for treasures and beauties. But today in Guanzhong, treasures are untouched, women are intact. This reveals his tremendous ambition. I had his Qi observed, and it is like dragon and tiger, in five colors — this is the Qi of the Son of Heaven. Strike him at once and do not miss!”
Chu’s Chief Minister of the Left Xiang Bo, Xiang Yu’s uncle, was a friend of Zhang Liang, Marquis of Liu. Zhang Liang worked for Liu Bang at the time. Xiang Bo rode out to Liu Bang’s camp under the cover of the night, met Zhang Liang privately, told him about the assault and asked him to escape, saying: “You will die if you stay.”
Zhang Liang said: “I was appointed as Liu Bang’s servant by the king of Han. Now that Liu Bang is in danger, it is not justifiable for me to escape. I have to warn him.”
So Zhang Liang came to Liu Bang and told him everything. Liu Bang was surprised and scared, he asked: “What should I do?”
Zhang Liang asked: “Who gave you the idea to block Hangu Pass?”
Liu Bang said: “Someone told me to guard the pass and keep off other lords in order to be king of the Qin territory. I took that advice.”
Zhang Liang asked: “Can your troops match Duke Xiang Yu’s troops?”
Liu Bang remained silent for a while, and then said: “Of course we cannot, what should I do?”
Zhang Liang said: “Please go and tell Xiang Bo that you dare not betray Duke Xiang Yu.”
Liu Bang asked: “How do you know Xiang Bo?”
Zhang Liang answered: “We were old friends in the Qin times, he was guilty of murder and I saved his life. So today he came to save mine in emergency.”
Liu Bang asked: “Who of you is older, you or Xiang Bo?”
Zhang Liang said: “He is elder than me.”
Liu Bang said: “Call him in for me. I will treat him as my elder brother.”
Zhang Liang went out and invited Xiang Bo. So Xiang Bo came in to see Liu Bang. Liu Bang honored him with a toast and promised him a marriage, saying: “After I came to Guanzhong, I dare not touch anything. I sealed the treasury and waited for the Duke Xiang Yu. I guarded the pass only to restrain bandits and for security. I have been expecting the Duke day and night, how could I betray him? Please tell the Duke that I dare not do such unvirtuous things!”
Xiang Bo promised, and he said to Liu Bang: “Tomorrow you have to apologize to Duke Xiang Yu early.”
Liu Bang said: “Yes.” So Xiang Bo rode back to the camp of Duke Xiang Yu in the night, and told Duke Xiang Yu what Liu Bang had said.
Xiang Bo said: “If it were not for Liu Bang, how could you so easily come to Guanzhong? It is not a noble thing to kill a man of merit. We had better treat him well.” Duke Xiang Yu agreed.
The second day, accompanied by one hundred cavalrymen, Liu Bang came to meet Duke Xiang Yu in Hongmen. Liu Bang apologized: “The Duke and I fought side by side against Qin. The Duke fought on the northern side of the Yellow river, and I fought on the south. I did not expect that I could be the first to break into Guanzhong and defeat Qin, and finally meet the Duke here. There must be a petty man trying to casts a bone between the Duke and me.”
Duke Xiang Yu said: “This is all because of your officer, Cao Wushang. Otherwise I would not have done this. ”Duke Xiang Yu invited Liu Bang to a feast on that day. Duke Xiang Yu and Xiang Bo sat facing the East. Fan Zeng sat facing the South. Liu Bang sat facing the North. Zhang Liang sat beside Liu Bang facing the West. Fan Zeng glanced several times at Duke Xiang Yu, holding the jade on his girdle to hint that it was time to take action. Duke Xiang Yu remained silent and did not react. Fan Zeng stood up, came out and found Xiang Zhuang, said to him: “The Lord has not the heart to kill. You should go in and toast, then ask to do a sword performance, and kill Liu Bang on his seat. Otherwise we all will be his prisoner one day.”
So Xiang Zhuang went in and toasted, then he said: “The Lord drinks with Liu Bang, but there is no entertainment in the army, please allow me to do a sword performance.”
Duke Xiang Yu said: “Approved.” Xiang Zhuang drew his sword and danced. Xiang Bo also drew his sword and danced along, protecting Liu Bang obscurely with his body. Xiang Zhuang had no chance.
At this moment, Zhang Liang went out to the gate and found Fan Kuai. Fan Kuai asked: “How is the situation?”
Zhang Liang said: “Very dangerous! Xiang Zhuang is doing a sword performance, intending to kill Liu Bang!”
Fan Kuai said: “This is urgent! Let me in, I will save him with my life.” Fan Kuai broke through the gate with shield and sword. The guards tried to stop him. He crashed the guards to the ground with his shield. Then he rushed in to the hall, stood facing the west with the mantle on his shoulders, his eyes opening so wide that the brow ridge was about to break up.
Duke Xiang Yu touched his sword and asked: “Who is this?”
Zhang Liang said: “This is Liu Bang’s stableman, Fan Kuai.”
Duke Xiang Yu said: “A hero! Bestow wine on him!” Fan Kuai was then given wine. He gave thanks on his knees, then stood up and drank it all. Duke Xiang Yu said: “Bestow pork on him!” He was then given raw pork. Kuai laid his shield on the ground, put the pork on it, cut the pork with his sword and ate. Duke Xiang Yu asked: “Hero! Can you drink again?”
Fan Kuai answered: “Even death will not scare me, how would wine! The emperor of Qin was as cruel as tiger and wolf, killing and torturing the people without an end. So the people revolted against him. King Huai made the agreement with all lords that the first who broke into Guanzhong should be king. Since Liu Bang defeated Qin and took over Xian Yang City, he kept nothing for himself. He sealed the palace and waited for the King’s arrival. He ordered his men to guard the pass only to prevent bandits and emergencies. You did not award such a man of merit, but instead trusted lies and tricks, intending to kill him. This is the same behavior as the dead Qin. I suggest your highness not do this.”
The King did not answer him, instead he only said: “Sit.” Fan Kuai then took the seat beside Zhang Liang. After a while, Liu Bang got up and went out to the washroom, and asked Fan Kuai to come with him.
As Liu Bang has come out, Duke Xiang Yu ordered a lieutenant to call him back in. Liu Bang said to Fan Kuai: “I came out without saying goodbye, what should I do now?”
Fan Kuai said: “The most powerful never mind small matters; the most polite never care about small etiquette. Now they are knife and chopping block, we are fish in between, why need we say goodbye?”
So Liu Bang decided to leave. He ordered Zhang Liang to stay and apologize for him. Liang asked: “Have you brought anything here?”
Liu Bang said: “I have a pair of white jade for the Lord, and a pair of jade pecks for Fan Zeng. They were angry so I dare not give them. Please deliver the gifts for me.”
Zhang Liang said: “Yes.”
At that time, the camp of Duke Xiang Yu was in Hongmen, and the camp of Liu Bang was in Bashang, 40 li from each other. Liu Bang discarded his chariot and rode alone, followed by Fan Kuai and three others with swords and shields in their hands. They took a shortcut at the foot of the mountains. Liu Bang told Zhang Liang before they left: “It is only 20 li to our camp through this path. You go back in when you estimate that we have arrived.” Liu Bang reached his camp after a while.
Zhang Liang went back in to the hall and apologized: “Liu Bang has drunk too much, he cannot say his farewells. He ordered me to give this pair of white jade to the Lord, and this pair of jade pecks to the high general.”
Duke Xiang Yu asked: “Where is Liu Bang?”
Liang said: “He heard that the Lord intended to blame him for his fault, so he left and should have arrived in his camp.”
Duke Xiang Yu accepted the jade and put it on the table. Fan Zeng took the jade pecks, put them on the ground and broke them with his sword, saying to Xiang Yu: “Ah! You idiot, I cannot help you! It shall be Liu Bang who will defeat you. We all will be imprisoned by him!”
Upon arriving in his camp, Liu Bang executed Cao Wushang.
Liu Bang would later go on to defeat Xiang Yu as his advisor, Fan Zeng had predicted and later became the first Han Emporer of all of China.
It appears that 鸿门宴 has been used for quite some time. Within the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, there are 2 instances of this used. The first instance is when Liu Bei and Cao Cao had met. Two of Liu Bei’s generals hearing of the meeting came to join the meeting where Cao Cao references the Hongmen Banquet, Xiang Zhuang(the sword dance performer instructed to kill Liu Bang), Xiang Bo (Xiang Yu’s uncle that was trying to pacify the situation between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu), and Fan Kuai (Liu Bang’s stableman that burst in during the Hongmen Banquet after hearing the plotted assassination).
天雨方住，見兩個人撞入後園，手提寶劍，突至亭前，左右攔擋不住。操視之，乃關、張二人也。原來二人從城外射箭方回，聽得玄德被許褚、張遼請將去了，慌忙來相府打聽；聞說在後園，只恐有失，故衝突而入。卻見玄德與操對坐飲酒。二人按劍而立。操問二人何來。雲長曰：「聽知丞相和兄飲酒，特來舞劍，以助一笑。」操笑曰：「此非鴻門會，安用項莊、項伯乎？」玄德亦笑。操命：「取酒與『二樊噲』壓驚。」關、張拜謝。 — 《曹操煮酒論英雄，關公賺城斬車胄》
The shower had passed, and there appeared two men rushing through the garden, both armed. In spite of the attendants, they forced their way to the pavilion where sat the two friends. They were Guan Yu and Zhang Fei.
The two brothers had been outside the city at archery practice when Cao Cao’s invitation had come so peremptorily. On their return they heard that two officers had arrived and led away Liu Bei to the Prime Minister. They hastened to his palace and were told their brother was with his host in the grounds, and they feared something had happened. So they rushed in.
Now when they saw their brother quietly talking with Cao Cao and enjoying a cup of wine, they took up their usual places and meekly stood waiting.
“Why did you come?” said Cao Cao.
“We heard that you, Sir, had invited our brother to a wine party, and we came to amuse you with a little sword play,” said they.
“This is not a Hongmen Banquet,” replied Cao Cao. “What use have we for Xiang Zhuang and Xiang Bo of old?”
Liu Bei smiled. The host ordered wine to be served to the two “Fan Kuais” to allay their anxiety. — In A Plum Garden, Cao Cao Discusses Heroes; Using The Host’s Forces, Guan Yu Takes Xuzhou
Here the second instance:
Let me know if you find some idiom that reflects 鸿门宴 in the Western canon. One incident found in Western ancient history is that of Philip II of Macedon. However, Phillip II was actually assassinated at the banquet for his daughter’s wedding reception. Although Liu Bang escaped the assassination plot at 鸿门宴, the modern use of 鸿门宴 also describes situations where one is anticipating being betrayed or framed by someone who is putting up the facade.
What immediately comes to mind from studying 鸿门宴 is the notion of flattering. There is a certain suspicion to be had for those who butter you up to later cook you, who fatten you up to later serve you as a feast. I recall reading Cicero’s passage about Friendship in that there is “no greater pestilence to friendship than flattery”. True friends are honest with each other to the point that it can hurt as uncovering the truth sometimes does.
Your non-Flattering Friend,