Battle of Red Cliffs — An Ancient Chinese Warfare

The Battle in Red Cliffs is a textbook case demonstrating how small kingdoms could defeat a superpower.

In the 3rd century in China, the once strong empire Han Dynasty, that dominated the land of Far East for nearly 400 years, was crumbling and torn apart.

Cao Cao, the last prime minister of the dying dynasty with an ambition to replace Han monarch, ruled the vast areas in the central plains and northern China.

Ink painting of Red Cliffs

Red Cliffs, the battleground of the three kingdoms, ink painting by Wu Yuanzhi, of the 12th century

Yet in the southeast of the middle and lower reaches of Yangtze River, the most fertile land in China, a new kingdom named Wu was rising.

And to the southwest in today’s Sichuan, a Shu Kingdom was also forming.

Facing the challenge to his dream for power, Cao Cao decided his troops must return to the Yangtze River, which would enable him to access to the southern region.

So in the autumn of 208, he personally led about half a million marine troops sailing downstream aiming to crush the Wu Kingdom.

When Wu learned the news, the opinions in the ruling circle were sharply divided. Most military generals wanted to fight back but some scholar officials prefered to surrender.

Zhuge Liang, the top political and military advisor from Shu Kingdom, saw clearly that once Wu was destroyed by the superpower, the next target would be Shu, the weakest and poorest among the three. Hence he toiled hard to persuade Wu to form a strategic partnership with Shu against their common threat.

His hard work paid off. With the help of Zhou Yu, Wu’s Commander-in-Chief, a military alliance between two kingdoms was established with the objective to thwart Cao Cao’s plan to return to Yangtze River.

Borrow the Arrows

Beijing Opera The Battle of Red Cliffs:
Cao Cao, the leader of Wei Kingdom, played by Meng Guanglu;

Zhuge Liang, the top advisor from Shu Kingdom, played by Yu Kuizhi; 
Zhou Yu, the command-in-chief of Wu Kingdom, played by Li Hongtu.

Soon, superpower’s naval force arrived at Wu Kingdom’s doorsteps, which looked pretty awesome.

“My responsibility covers all the land I can see, from Yellow River to Yangtze River, from Mt Zhongnan to Mt Yandang, and beyond. In the name of Han, I order you to surrender to the representative of the establishment chosen by the Heaven,” Cao Cao demanded solemnly from his flagship.

Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu toasted to each other in their small boat. “What do you think you are Cao Cao?” Zhuge Liang laughed after emptied his cup, “Ask your own soldiers, does anyone not know you are a usurper of the Han. Do you want me to elaborate in details what you’ve done to the emperor, to the empress and to the princes?”

The mentioning of Han PM’s mental torture of the emperor, the killing of the empress and princes, and his ambition to replace the Han with his own dynasty made Zhuge Liang’s comments particularly galling to Cao Cao.

“You try to demonize me and that’s really ugly,” Cao Cao slammed. “I think in a lot of ways the communications that come out of you, they are quite insulting! — Commanders,” he shouted out to his generals, “Hear my order, be ready to fight tonight!”

Yet the fight didn’t take place that night as Wu armies declined to take up the challenge. Wu was economically advanced but militarily weak and didn’t have a large arsenal to combat the naval force in that scale.

On the other hand, Cao Cao’s navy was unfamiliar with the local terrains, therefore Cao Cao had to wait for the optimal time and suitable location to land his fleet and conquer the kingdom.

Then one morning, amid a heavy fog that fell upon the river, boats from Wu somehow emerged in front of Cao Cao’s ships and about to breach the containment.

Unable to assess the scale of the attack with no time to conduct further investigation, Cao Cao hurriedly instructed his men to fire arrows at the boats.

It didn’t take long to transform the vessels into edgehog-like beasts.

The boats turned around and swiftly sailed away. Cao Cao’s soldiers couldn’t resist but enjoyed a shot on the fleeing force until the targets faded into fog.

“Thanks Cao Cao, for your general provision of arsenal!” from the thick clouds, came a spell of laugher and the words of appreciation.

That morning the allied force harvested 100,000 arrows.

Farewell to Hero

Beijing Opera The Battle of Red Cliffs:
Zhou Yu, the command-in-chief of Wu Kingdom, played by Ye Shaolan;
Huang Gai, a Wu general, played by Shang Changrong.

However, weapons shortage was not the only problem the allied force faced. For one thing, they only had mere 50,000 troops together while Cao Cao’s army was about ten time stronger.

Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang burned the midnight oil to conduct SWOT analysis, and eventually discovered a big weakness in the enemy’s mighty naval force.

Cao Cao’s soldiers were mainly from north where rivers are few and land is dry, seasick was a common problem among those unaccustomed with living on ships. In order to reduce boat-swing, Cao Cao chained his ships from stem to stern to make super vessels (like giant aircraft carriers ~_^).

Thus a grand master plan to win the war was formulated:

If allied force could send vessels to collect arrows from Cao Cao, what should stop them from sending fireboats to blaze the ships that chained together?

Huang Gai, a Wu general, self-recommended to be the arson.

It was a high risk mission. At the river bank, Zhou Yu offered Huang Gai a wine and urged him to return in one piece.

Shortly after Guang Gai left, Zhou Yu suddenly realised a massive hole in the war plan: there would be no wind from the east in the winter to sail Huang Gai’s ships upstream towards Cao Cao’s fleet.

And that was allegedly the time when Zhuge Liang lodged a formal application to heaven for purchasing a spell of east wind.

Borrow the East Wind

Beijing Opera Borrow the East Wind:
Zhuge Liang, the top advisor of Shu Kingdom, sung by Li Shaochun;.

According to the only universal law of cause & consequence (karma), when you paid enough tributes and made great contribution to the Heaven and the world under it, you may gain credit which can be used to purchase some superior power that mortals usually do not have access to.

Traditionally throughout Chinese history, there were many highly cultivated Daoists who would return to the mundane world to help save the situation in the time of crisis, both out of their consciousness and due to the requirement to complete the final assignment in cultivation.

Zhu Geliang was one of them.

When he was called by the Shu kingdom that was trying to restore Han heritage, he was already in the halfway to an immortal domain. But he decided to answer the call.

This clip demonstrates an application process for access to a higher power, and approach is still used by Chinese Daoists today.

In the process, the main applicant Zhuge Liang, donning a robe embroidered with symbols of tai chi and Eight Trigrams and holding a seven star Dragon Spring sword, walked along an invisible path of the Polar Constellations in the guid of Daoist melody.

Tribute to Enemy Soldiers Died in the Battle

Beijing Opera The Battle of Red Cliffs:
Zhuge Liang, the top advisor from Shu Kingdom, played by Yu Kuizhi.

The mission was a great success and Cao Cao’s super fleet was destroyed in fire at the Red Cliffs.

This decisive battle transited China from a chaotic post-Han period into Three Kingdom Era.

But Zhuge Liang’s heart was in pain. Despite the allied force had defeated the most powerful naval force under the heaven of the time, the massive loss of lives in Cao Cao’s force broke so many families — the parents who lost their son, the wives who lost their husband and the children who lost their father.

In the moonlit night, he offered three cups of wine to the river: the first cup presented to the east wind along the river that allowed the peace and prosperity in the east of Yangtze to be maintained; the second to the bright moon above the river, expressing his hope for Han heritage to be restored; and the third to the flow in the river, mourning all those buried in the water.

The Memory of Red Cliffs

Kun Opera Song The Memory of the Ancient Battle at the Red Cliffs:
Lyrics: Song Dynasty poet Su Dongpo (1037 – 1101)
Singer: Guan Dongtian

800 years later, one of China’s greatest poets and statesmen Su Dongpo, of Northern Song dynasty, visited the Red Cliffs and composed this most recited verse about the battle on the Yangtze River:

大江东去
浪淘尽
千古风流人物
The great river eastward flows
Sweeping away all distant heroes

故垒西边
人道是
三国周郎赤壁
In the west beyond the fortress
Rising Red Cliff of Three Kingdoms
Where Marshal Zhou Yu
Defeated Cao Cao’s powerful marines

乱石穿空
惊涛拍岸
卷起千堆雪
江山如画
一时多少豪杰
Scraggy rocks piercing clouds
Roaring waves smashing the coasts
Producing a thousand flakes of snow
The charming land attracts countless heroes

遥想公瑾当年
小乔初嫁了
雄姿英发
羽扇纶巾
谈笑间
樯橹灰飞烟灭
By then Zhou Yu was in his prime
Holding his young wife in his arms
In full majestic splendour
Are Zhuge Liang’s fan and head cover
While they drank and laughed
Cao Cao’s ships went up in flames

故国神游
多情应笑我
早生华发
人生如梦
一尊还酹江月
A journey to the past in spiritual
I must be over sentimental
Life is like a transient dream
I toast to the moon reflection in stream