psychotic dictator, poet
Shan Yu was a psychotic dictator and poet.
According to Derrial Book, Shan Yu "...fancied himself quite the warrior poet. Wrote volumes on war, torture, the limits of human endurance." Shepherd continues to tell Simon Tam that Shan Yu said, "Live with a man 40 years. Share his house, his meals. Speak on every subject. Then tie him up, and hold him over the volcano's edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man."
Adelai Niska was also apparently familiar with the works of Shan Yu, and was fond of alluding to the poet's writings about meeting one's "true self" whilst torturing his victims.
Behind the scenes
Shanyu, or Chanyu, was the title used by the rulers of the Xiongnu, a nomadic Altaic people. Thus Shan Yu may be named after Modu Chanyu the Hun, though he does not appear to be the same individual.
Shan Yu is also probably based on Xiang Yu, a Qin Dynasty era Chinese military leader and political figure.
In popular culture, Shan Yu is also the villain in the Disney movie Mulan.