Consort Yu of Western Chu – The star-crossed romance of a King and his consort

consort yu
(public domain)

Consort Yu was known to be one of the most beautiful women in China. She was an imperial concubine to Xiang Yu, the Hegemon-King of Chu. King Xiang Yu was King Liu Bang’s rival for the throne of China. Consort Yu accompanied him through all her husband’s battles and shared in his victories and defeats. They inevitably lost, and Liu Bang would become the first Emperor of the Han Dynasty. Their heartbreaking love story has moved people’s hearts for thousands of years.

Consort Yu was born around 224 B.C.E.[1] It had once been assumed that Yu was her surname.[2] However, modern-day historians believe that Yu was her first name because she is often called “Beauty Yu.”[3] She was from Shuyang County. She was known to be the most beautiful woman in China.[4] Her older brother joined King Xiang Yu’s army. This was how she met King Xiang Yu. King Xiang Yu fell in love with Yu, married her, and made her his imperial consort. She often accompanied him on his military battles as he fought against the Han army.[5] King Xiang Yu and King Liu Bang were battling each other to conquer all of China. The two rivals had different political beliefs about how China should be governed.[6] King Liu Bang believed in a centralized empire.[7] However, King Xiang Yu believed in a federation of states.[8]

In 202 B.C.E., King Xiang Yu was besieged at the Battle of Gaixia in Western Chu.[9] He feared there was no victory, and he was surrounded on all sides by the Han army.[10] King Xiang Yu’s soldiers were losing their morale and did not have the heart to continue the battle.[11] Many defected to the Han army.[12] He was distraught about his situation and feared that the Han army would capture him and his wife.[13] King Xiang Yu went into his tent and drank with Consort Yu. Then, he composed a song to express his sorrow.[14] The song went:

“My strength uprooted mountains,

My spirit overshadowed the world;

But the times are against me

And my horse can gallop no more,

What can I do?

Yu, Yu,

What is to become of you?”[15]

Consort Yu was desolate after hearing her husband’s song.[16] She knew that as long as she was alive, she would only impede her husband’s escape.[17] If she was dead, King Xiang Yu may have a chance to escape.[18] Consort Yu took out her sword and performed a graceful sword dance for her husband.[19] She then sang her response to King Xiang Yu’s song. It went:

“Han soldiers stepped onto Chu land.

The songs of Chu are echoed everywhere.

Your Majesty in despair

How can I hope to live on?”[20]

Her song and dance brought tears to King Xiang Yu’s eyes.[21] The soldiers that had watched her dance were also moved.[22]After she finished her dance, she slew herself.[23] King Xiang Yu was heartbroken that his wife had died in his arms, but he did not want her death to be in vain. Therefore, he made his last attempt at escape.[24]

King Xiang Yu took eight hundred men with him and moved south.[25] Once King Xiang Yu reached the Wu river, he was ambushed by the Han army. King Xiang Yu realized there was no escape.[26] There were two choices ahead of him. He could let himself be captured by the Han army or commit suicide.[27] King Xiang Yu chose the latter option and followed his wife’s example.[28] He committed suicide with his own sword.[29] Consort Yu is buried in Dingyuan County in Anhui Province.[30] Her tomb is named Tomb of the Beauty.[31] Her stele is in Lingbi District and attracts thousands of visitors who come to pay their respects.[32]

The tragic love story between King Xiang Yu and his wife, Consort Yu, has attracted the minds of the popular imagination. Many songs have been sung about Consort Yu in the Tang Dynasty, and many poems have been written about her in the Song Dynasty.[33] There have been many television series, movies, and plays about the star-crossed lovers.[34] Yet, the most popular story about Consort Yu comes from the famous opera, Farewell, My Concubine.[35] The opera has been adapted into an award-winning movie in 1993 in which Gong Li plays the famous consort.[36] Through popular culture, Consort Yu’s sacrifice will never be forgotten.


McMahon, K. (2013). Women Shall Not Rule: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Han to Liao. NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

Seal, G. (2001). Encyclopedia of Folk Heroes. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO.

Su, Z. & Shen, Lidong. (2015). “Yu, Consort of the Hegemon-King of Chu.” Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Antiquity Through Sui, 1600 B.C.E. – 618 C.E. (L. X. H. Lee, Ed.; A. D. Stefanowska, Ed.; S. Wiles, Ed.). NY: Routledge. pp.236-237.

Xiaoming, Z. & Cheng, W. trans. (2015). “Yu Ji”. Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century. (B. B. Peterson, Ed.). London: Routledge. pp.49-51.

[1] Xiaoming and Cheng, 2015

[2] Su and Shen, 2015

[3] Su and Shen, 2015, p. 236

[4] Xiaoming and Cheng, 2015

[5] Su and Shen, 2015

[6] McMahon, 2013

[7] McMahon, 2013

[8] McMahon, 2013

[9] Su and Shen, 2013

[10] Su and Shen, 2013

[11] Su and Shen, 2013

[12] Seal, 2001

[13] Su and Shen, 2015

[14] Su and Shen, 2015

[15] Su and Shen, 2015, pp. 236-237

[16] Su and Shen, 2015

[17] Seal, 2001

[18] Seal, 2001

[19] Seal, 2001

[20] Su and Shen, 2015, p. 237

[21] Su and Shen, 2015

[22] Su and Shen, 2015

[23] Xiaoming and Cheng, 2015

[24] Xiaoming and Cheng, 2015

[25] Xiaoming and Cheng, 2015

[26] Su and Shen, 2015

[27] Su and Shen, 2015

[28] Xiaoming and Cheng, 2015

[29] Xiaoming and Cheng, 2015

[30] Xiaoming and Cheng, 2015

[31] Xiaoming and Cheng, 2015

[32] Su and Shen, 2015

[33] Xiaoming and Cheng, 2015

[34] Xiaoming and Cheng, 2015

[35] Su and Shen, 2015

[36] Su and Shen, 2015

About Lauralee Jacks 151 Articles
I am a former elementary teacher in Tennessee. I have a bachelor’s degree in Liberal and Civic Studies from St. Mary’s College of California, a master’s in Elementary Education from the University of Phoenix, and a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the College of Saint Mary. Because my family are from East Asia, I have a passion for historical Chinese and Korean television shows. I always wanted to separate fact from fiction in dramas. Writing articles from History of Royal Women gives me a chance to dig deeper and explore these royal women as they might have been in real life. Also, it gives me a chance to look at the history and culture of where my family originated. I love researching East Asian royalty because they rarely get enough attention in the West often being overshadowed by European royalty. I find these royal women to be just as fascinating and their stories deserve to be told. Thus, I am excited to write for History of Royal Women!

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