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This is a Chinese name; the family name is Chen.

Chen Sheng (Traditional Chinese: 陳勝) (d. 209 BC or 208 BC (around the new year), known in some sources as Chen She (陳涉), was the leader of the first rebellion against Qin Dynasty during the reign of Qin Er Shi, following the death of Qin Shi Huang.


Start of the rebellion

Chen Sheng was born in Yangcheng (陽城, in modern Dengfeng, Henan). In 209 BC, he was a military captain along with Wu Guang when the two of them were ordered to lead 900 soldiers to Yuyang (漁陽, in modern Beijing) to help defend the northern border against Xiongnu. Due to storms, it became clear that they could not get to Yuyang by the deadline, and according to law, if soldiers could not get to their posts on time, they would be executed. Chen and Wu, believing that they were doomed, led their soldiers to start a rebellion. They (falsely) announced that Ying Fusu, the beloved elder son of Qin Shi Huang and elder brother of Qin Er Shi, who had wrongly been forced to commit suicide, and Xiang Yan (項燕), a beloved general of Chu, had not died and were joining their cause. They also declared the reestablishment of Chu.

Using 900 men to resist an empire seemed to be a suicidal move, but the people, who had felt deeply oppressed by the Qin regime, joined Chen and Wu's cause quickly. More than 20,000 men joined. Soon, there were people asking Chen to declare himself the Prince of Chu. Against the advice of Zhang Er (張耳) and Chen Yu (陳餘), Chen declared himself as such, rather than, as according to their advice, seek out a descendant of Chu's royal house to be the prince.

Downfall and death

Chen, setting his capital at Chenqiu (陳丘, in modern Zhoukou, Henan), then commissioned various generals to advance in all directions to conquer Qin territory. Among these were Wu Guang, whom he created Acting Prince (假王) of Chu and Zhou Wen (周文), whom he ordered to head west toward Qin proper; his friend Wu Chen (武臣), whom he ordered to head north toward the old territory of Zhao (modern Hebei); and Zhou Fu (周巿), whom he ordered to head northeast toward the old territory of Wei (modern eastern Henan and western Shandong). However, none of these generals returned. After initial defeats Qin forces regrouped under general Zhang Han. Wu Guang was assassinated by generals under him; Zhou Wen was defeated by Qin forces; Wu Chen was initially successful but then declared himself the Prince of Zhao and became independent of Chu; and Zhou Fu supported a descendant of the royal house of Wei to be the Prince of Wei, also independent of Chu. A major reason why Wu Chen and the generals who assassinated Wu Guang broke away was that Chen was paranoid as a prince: generals were executed at any sign of infidelity, even by rumors. Chen's ruthlessness and constant defeats in battle made it harder and harder for him to gather followers. Chen was greatly weakened, and as he suffered losses at the hands of Qin's army, he led an expeditory force himself to try to gather reinforcements, but he was assassinated by his guard Zhuang Jia (莊賈) in winter 209 BC-208 BC. His rebellion ended just 6 months after it started.

Chen was often idealized by versions of history promulgated by the People's Republic of China (PRC) historians as a great leader of the peasants against intolerable oppression of the Qin nobility and bourgeois. However, that perception is not reality. Chen's decisions, while motivated by his desire to overthrow Qin, was also often motivated by self-interest and self-aggrandization. He also failed to take in good advice and overly estimated himself. As the Song Dynasty historian Sima Guang wrote in his Zizhi Tongjian:

When Chen Sheng first became the Prince of Chu, his relatives and friends all arrived to join him, as did his father-in-law. But when his father-in-law arrived, Chen treated him as an ordinary guest and only made a slight bow and did not kneel to him. His father-in-law became angry and stated, "You are leading a rebellion and falsely claiming the title of a prince, but you are arrogant toward your elders: You surely cannot last." He turned to leave without further discussion, and even though Chen knelt to ask for his forgiveness, he ignored Chen. Later, when there were more and more relatives and friends arriving, they were discussing the stories when Chen was young. Someone suggested, "The old friends and guests of Your Royal Highness are foolish and often liked to talk in vain; they will damage your image and hurt your reputation." Chen executed a good number of his old friends, and therefore his friends began to leave him and not follow him. Chen made Zhu Fang to be his examination minister and Hu Wu to be the head of his guard, to be in charge of intelligence and security. When the generals conquered cities and returned, the two of them often criticized and nit-picked on the commands issued by those generals or their acts; often, if they felt the commands or the acts were not lawful, they would arrest the generals. Chen considered those who are strict to be the most faithful ones. The ones that Chen did not like were either given over to courts martial or personally punished by Chen. The generals had no affection for Chen, and this led to his downfall.(初,陳涉既為王,其故人皆往依之。妻之父亦往焉,陳王以眾賓待之,長揖不拜。妻之父怒曰:「怙亂僭號,而傲長者,不能久矣!」不辭而去。陳王跪謝,遂不為顧。客出入愈益發舒,言陳王故情。或說陳王曰:「客愚無知,顓妄言,輕威。」陳王斬之。諸故人皆自引去,由是無親陳王者。陳王以硃防為中正,胡武為司過,主司群臣。諸將徇地至,令之不是,輒系而罪之。以苛察為忠,其所不善者,弗下吏,輒自治之。諸將以其故不親附,此其所以敗也。)

While PRC historians may quibble with Sima's characterization of Chen, it appears to be quite correct. He claimed the title of prince only months after the start of his rebellion, without a sufficient foundation, and once he did he effectively became stuck in Chenqiu and could not firmly hold territories that were conquered, because the people in the territories did not view him with great affection. While he had his role in the downfall of Qin, he should not be viewed as a hero.

Note: throughout this article, wang (王) has been translated as "prince." It can also be translated as "king," and is often done so in the Warring States context.


Chen Sheng appears to be the person who coined the Chinese proverb, "How can a brambling understand the ambitions of a swan!" (燕雀安知鴻鵠志), a saying that figures prominently in Chapter 4 of the classic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

See also

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