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  • James Houser

208 AD - The Battle of Red Cliff

Updated: May 21, 2021

NOVEMBER 18: 208 AD. China, once united under the Han Dynasty for four centuries, has collapsed into turmoil as regional warlords vie for power. One warlord in particular, Cao Cao, has made puppets out of the Han family and dominates the north. Today, he makes his bid for total domination in the Battle of Red Cliff. Will the fracturing China be united once again under a warlord widely known as an evil genius? Or will the empire remain split into Three Kingdoms?

I have reviewed the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period back when my posts weren’t regularly breaking 3500 words. For that refresher, you can look elsewhere on the website.

If not, I’ll catch you up, of course! It’s what I do.

The Han Empire had ruled most of modern China for almost four centuries, becoming China’s “classical” civilization in the same way that the Roman Empire (which flourished at roughly the same time as the Han) became the classical civilization for the West. However, the cracks had begun to show late in the 100s AD, and by the 190s they were rapidly widening. The Han suffered from a succession of weak emperors, plagues, rebellions, and famines across the land which gradually decreased public trust in the Emperor’s right to rule. One particularly dangerous rebellion in the 180s – the Yellow Turban Rebellion – saw the Emperor forced to delegate military and political power to his regional governors in order to suppress a peasant-based religious maelstrom that swept the countryside. Though the Yellow Turbans were defeated, the devolution of power had begun.

Court intrigues in the capital finally led to the total breakdown of central authority, and a warlord named Dong Zhuo seized the capital city of Luoyang – and with it, control of the Empire – in 189 AD. Dong Zhuo proved to be an oppressive bully, a poor leader and massively corrupt to boot. Soon Dong was executing people at whim, and his cavalier behavior finally provoked a backlash in 190 AD. The local warlords who had become so powerful in the disintegrating Empire formed a coalition under the leadership of Yuan Shao, a prominent general, and by 190 overthrew the corrupt and wicked Chancellor. Though Dong Zhuo fled to the mountain fortress of Chang’an, one of China’s old capitals, he had been virtually removed from the center of power, and he was assassinated by his subordinate Lu Bu in 192. Forces of Yuan Shao’s coalition reoccupied Luoyang, but their victory was hollow, since Dong had left the city a burnt-out shell and had taken the puppet Emperor with him.

The Coalition against Dong Zhuo had prevailed. The enemy was cast from his seat of power. But this alliance would never land its killing blow. Any victorious alliance will inevitably run into the same problem: the divergent interests of the allies themselves. The Coalition was no exception, and several of its members now looked at each other as the greater threat since Dong Zhuo had been overthrown. The next two decades would be a period of constantly changing sides, ruthless civil war, and outright chaos, as every warlord sought to outmaneuver all the others and gain the central authority in China. This is the period known in Chinese history as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, since the division of China would coalesce around three figures leading their separate kingdoms: Cao Cao, Sun Quan, and Liu Bei.

I’m going to give it to you straight: the Three Kingdoms is IMPOSSIBLE to describe in a single post. Believe me, I thought about it. Too much stuff happens in too short of a time to even begin to describe the whole period. What makes it even more frustrating for the English-language reader is that the whole story is so embedded into Chinese culture that all the heroes and villains of the story are more or less household names. This is mainly due to the historical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” a highly dramatized and embellished version of this period written in the 14th Century that stamped itself onto public consciousness in a way rivalled MAYBE by the Bible in Western Civilization. Even the most skeptical of atheists immediately understands the mental image of Noah’s Ark, Moses and the Ten Commandments, or Samson and his hair. Think of how pervasive those images and stories are in the West, and you get an idea of how overwhelming the Three Kingdoms saga is in China. To this date there are still cartoon and live-action depictions, songs, freaking action figures, comic books, and plays depicting the figures, events, and stories of the Three Kingdoms. It is China’s great historical epic.

So, yeah, imagine me trying to sum up “Bible” in a single post.

The upshot of all this craziness, though, was that three warlords eventually emerged from the turmoil to become the heads of the eponymous Three Kingdoms. Cao Cao, Liu Bei, and Sun Quan were drastically different people, but it was their conflicts that would decide the immediate future of China.

Sun Quan was the son of Sun Jian, a great general who had been part of the Coalition against Dong Zhuo. Sun Jian was a brilliant, ambitious figure, and it was his forces that had driven Dong Zhou from Luoyang. During his search of the ruined city, Sun Jian had allegedly discovered the Imperial seal and gave it to his boss, Yuan Shu. When new wars broke out between the former members of the coalition, Sun Jian had allied with Yuan Shu’s faction in southern China, and had been one of his bravest commanders until his untimely death in battle in 191 AD. With Yuan Shu’s faction crumbling, Sun Jian’s two sons Sun Ce and Sun Quan had begun to carve out their own state, and after Sun Ce’s death in 199 AD Sun Quan had assumed control over most of southern China.

In simple terms: Sun Quan was the heir to an impressive military family, but he was the first one to take power in his own right. Sun Quan was a calculating and shrewd ruler, a tall man with bright eyes and a long face. He was younger than his rivals Cao Cao and Liu Bei, but he made up for this with a careful choice of subordinates and a willingness to listen to good advice. Building up his strength in the south along the Yangtze River, Sun Quan was assembling an impressive faction with great generals, especially the talented and tough Zhou Yu. Among his family, which with the exception of Sun Quan had always produced headstrong and impetuous adventurers, was his aggressive sister Lady Sun who is believed to have led troops in battle.

While Sun Quan was busy unifying the south, the more powerful and populous north was coming under the control of the era’s greatest warlord, Cao Cao. In the Romance and in Chinese drama, Cao Cao is always depicted as a villain, a clever servant of evil who manipulates and schemes his way to victory. Since Chinese popular culture is firmly on the side of Liu Bei in the broader narrative, Cao Cao inevitably becomes the “bad guy.” But Cao Cao was probably the best thing FOR China at the time, since only he really stood a chance of ending the chaos and reunifying the Empire. A military genius, Cao Cao was ruthless and could be quite brutal – but he had a strong pragmatic streak about him and ultimately produced a well-ordered realm wherever he ruled. He was also, up until Red Cliff, almost uniformly successful.

Cao Cao, like Sun Quan’s father Sun Jian, had also started out as one of the chief generals of the Coalition Against Dong Zhuo. When the alliance had fallen apart, however, Cao Cao was left under the command of Yuan Shao, the original leader of the coalition. Yuan Shao was principled and a well-known military leader – hence his leadership of the alliance – but also naïve and often indecisive in a crisis. It was this indecision that helped lead the coalition to break apart, and alienated the talented and ambitious Cao Cao at the worst possible moment. When the alliance did fall apart, Yuan Shao would come into conflict with his brother, Yuan Shu, to the south – and Cao Cao was growing uneasy under the thumb of Yuan Shao, who he increasingly considered to be incompetent.

The Han Emperor Xian had been wandering the wilderness for several years after the assassination of his captor Dong Zhuo. It was Cao Cao’s army that recovered the Emperor and spirited him away to Cao Cao’s home province. With the Emperor in his custody, Cao Cao was able to manufacture imperial proclamations and claim legitimacy that no one else in China could seem to gain. Cao Cao displayed his diplomatic and political skills thoroughly; he always behaved with outward deference to the Emperor and rigorously performed all the court ceremonies to a T. But the Emperor was not in charge. Cao Cao was. And Cao Cao had designs on the rest of China.

After spending most of the 190s maneuvering for position within Yuan Shao’s alliance, Cao Cao finally came out in open opposition to his former leader and mentor in the Battle of Guandu in 200 AD. Cao Cao won a stunning victory, totally overthrowing Yuan Shao and making himself the dominant military power in North China. Cao Cao went from victory to victory, stabilizing the northern frontier against barbarian raiders and subduing every other faction in the region. By 207 AD, Cao Cao had supreme control over northern China, and was turning his eye south with the goal of reunifying the old Empire under his (cough) I mean, the Emperor’s rule. There was only one issue with his game plan, and that was Liu Bei.

Liu Bei is the designated hero of the Three Kingdoms story, but in the histories he doesn’t come off so well. Unlike the Sun family or Cao Cao, he didn’t participate in the Coalition against Dong Zhuo, and only had a position as a local warlord. He was initially allied to Yuan Shu, and when Cao Cao came out in open opposition to Yuan Shao allied with the devious warlord. For a time, Liu Bei and Cao Cao were close allies and even friends, but soon Liu Bei came to fear Cao Cao’s power. Liu Bei allied with Yuan Shao instead just in time for Cao Cao to blow Yuan Shao out of the water. After a series of further defeats, Liu Bei led a column of refugees and soldiers south, seeking shelter from the rampaging forces of Cao Cao. Cao Cao, furious that Liu Bei had escaped him, pursued.

Okay. Let’s take a breath here. For one thing, God that’s a lot of names, right? And I’m just trying to introduce the three main actors in today’s drama. I want to make a brief aside here: it is REALLY hard to describe history when the intended audience has no context whatsoever. The complex story of the Three Kingdoms is imbedded in Chinese history, as I said, so any of these names you’re utterly confused by are as familiar to the Chinese as, say, George Washington or Julius Caesar. Cao Cao is a villain. Liu Bei is good and virtuous. Sun Quan is devious and lies in the grey area of morality. These are rock-solid tropes that Westerners just do not know, which should go to show you how foreign and somehow alien most of Chinese history is to the Western observer. There are basic assumptions that we simply do not have. So if you’re confused, you should be. Hell, I’m a little confused with this story sometimes.

But if you’re confused, imagine explaining the Civil War or the Revolution, with their deep and rich casts of characters, to some foreign observer. Imagine explaining the complexity of Robert E. Lee or Thomas Jefferson and their difficult legacy to someone who doesn’t even know why the Revolution or Civil War happened. Then, perhaps, you’ll have an idea of how we view the Three Kingdoms.

Okay, on to the battle itself.

In 208, Cao Cao finally returned from his long campaigns to secure northern China. The intimidated Emperor granted him the title of Chancellor, which granted Cao Cao absolute authority over the Imperial government. Cao Cao knew what his next mission had to be: the conquest of the south. To reunite the Empire, he had to seize the valley of the Yangtze River, the great waterway that dominates southern China from Shanghai to the borders of Tibet. (Shanghai didn’t exist then, though.) The only obstacle in Cao Cao’s path was Liu Bei’s faction, which stood between him and the gathering forces of Sun Quan.

Liu Bei was caught by surprise and blown out by Cao Cao’s onslaught in early 208 AD. He was driven from Jing Province and fled to the south, accompanied by a long column of refugees and harassed by Cao Cao’s cavalry all the way. Only the machinations of Liu Bei’s master strategist, the eccentric and brilliant Zhuge Liang, helped to avoid total defeat and allow Liu Bei to escape. In desperate straits, Liu Bei sent Zhuge Liang to rendezvous with the southern faction of Sun Quan, once his inveterate enemy. Liu Bei and Sun Quan would never be friends – and after Red Cliff, they would even be bitter rivals – but right now Cao Cao was a great threat to both of them. Only together could they defeat the great warlord of the north.

When Zhuge Liang arrived at Sun Quan’s court, the clever and cautious warlord was uneasy about allying against the great armada coming at him from the north. Cao Cao had sent Sun Quan a missive demanding his surrender and claiming an army of 800,000 men. Cao Cao’s conquest of Jing Province, near the modern city of Wuhan, had given him command of the great river port of Jiangling, where he had begun to construct a massive fleet. Soon Cao Cao would float this powerful body of warships and march his great land army down the Yangtze River and into Sun Quan’s territory unless his rival submitted.

Zhuge Liang, as Liu Bei’s diplomat, made trenchant points to Sun Quan: if you have the force to resist Cao Cao, you should break with him immediately, and if you don’t you should surrender immediately. Anything else is indecisive waffling, and that is what killed Yuan Shao. Though many of Sun Quan’s advisors rejected this as a false choice, Sun Quan’s general Zhou Yu realized that the time to make a choice was now. He agreed with the strange young strategist, and it was Zhou Yu’s and Zhuge Liang’s partnership that would truly win the oncoming Battle of Red Cliff. Sun Quan finally agreed to ally with Liu Bei in resisting Cao Cao, obviously hoping he wouldn’t regret this choice. Too many backstabbings from would-be “allies” had occurred in the recent anarchy for him to ever be entirely comfortable. He was right.

Sun Quan chopped off a corner of his desk when his advisors argued against his decision for war, stating that “Anyone who still dares argue for surrender will be treated like this desk.” He sent Zhou Yu with 30,000 men to ally with Liu Bei’s 20,000. Though Cao Cao boasted 800,000 men, this was a gross exaggeration; there was no way he had more than around 250,000, and a good number of those were forced conscripts who could not be relied on in open battle. Still, this was a significant discrepancy: 50,000 against 250,000 is nothing to shake a stick at.

The ensuing Battle of Red Cliff, like most of the Three Kingdoms era, is so wrapped up in drama, legend and “common knowledge” that it’s difficult to tell fact from fiction. It consisted of Cao Cao’s attempt to break past the blocking position set up by the allied armies of Liu Bei and Sun Quan. It was a big, bloody battle, waged by boats on the river and armies on the land over a period of many days. The actual tactical details are obscure, but it is clear that the battle went badly for Cao Cao from the beginning and only got worse as time went on.

Cao Cao, for all his military ability, had gotten overconfident. He had built a fleet from scratch and crewed it with his infantry and cavalry, convinced that the sheer force of his numbers would be sufficient to overwhelm his enemies. The problem was that none of his troops, in contrast to those of Liu Bei and Sun Quan, had any experience in seamanship or river fighting. The Yangtze is a BIG river, big enough to fight naval battles in, and it was almost as important to learn the ways of the river as it is to learn the ways of the ocean. It didn’t help that Cao Cao was already operating at the end of his logistical tether. His seizure of Jing Province from Liu Bei had been an enormous conquest on its own, and the region still was not secure; impatient to end the war, Cao Cao plowed ahead without securing his position. The result was that he moved too far too fast and his momentum slowly burned out. Zhuge Liang later commented, “Even a powerful arrow at the end of its flight cannot penetrate silk cloth.”

There’s actually a principle of Carl von Clausewitz that refers to this same phenomenon – the rapid deterioration of offensive force the farther it goes – known as the “culmination point.” But we’ll talk about that when we talk about the 1941 Battle of Moscow in December.

The Allied fleet sailed upriver to meet the superior force of Cao Cao, who was both sailing his fleet down the river and marching an army overland along the Huarong Road. When the two forces finally clashed at Red Cliff in autumn of 208 AD, Cao Cao’s force was already suffering from disease, fatigue and starvation; the southern campaign had outrun its supplies and exhausted its fighters. Cao Cao’s navy and army fought the Allied forces to a standstill in the first stage of the battle, and both sides fell back to regroup.

Cao Cao chained his ships together in order to keep his navy together during the coming autumn storms. It is also likely that seasickness was infecting his inexperienced seamen, and this was his attempt to reduce the motion of the ships. But chaining the vessels together was a critical error, since Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu had spotted an opportunity to ruin the Northern fleet. A low-ranking commander named Huang Gai sent Cao Cao a letter claiming that he wanted to surrender, but actually stocking a handful of ships with flammable items like oil and dry grass. The crewmen sailed the “surrendering” ships towards Cao Cao’s chained vessels, tacked them to the southeastern wind, then set them ablaze before rowing away in their small boats. The fire ships cascaded down the Yangtze, plowing into Cao Cao’s ships sheltering below Red Cliff. The whole river was soon aflame, with men and horses together all immolated in the massive blaze. Cao Cao himself barely escaped death or injury.

Zhou Yu, capitalizing on the success of the fire ship attack, led his small army against Cao Cao’s ground forces on the north side of the river. Cao Cao saw no choice but to order a retreat, destroying his remaining ships and leading his broken, demoralized army back along the same long and barren road that they had taken to Red Cliff. Zhou Yu and Liu Bei’s armies harassed them the whole way, so that by the end of the year Cao Cao’s power in the south had been utterly broken. He returned north after the defeat at Red Cliff, leaving a few trusted generals to hold the land he had captured.

The victory at Red Cliff marked Cao Cao’s final opportunity to defeat the southern warlords and reunify China. After this, Liu Bei would regain his strength and Sun Quan would be the inveterate opponent of the northern warlord. Though Cao Cao and his descendants would rule the north for some time, they would never reunify China.

After they had defeated Cao Cao at Red Cliff, though, the alliance of Sun Quan and Liu Bei fell apart almost immediately. Liu Bei retook his old territories in southwest China, while Sun Quan dominated the southeast. With Cao Cao still dominant in the north, China had fallen into three power blocs that would dominate the land from 220 to 280 AD: the Three Kingdoms. If Cao Cao had won at Red Cliff, the Three Kingdoms might never have come into being – but they did, and his failure marked four centuries of disunion and weakness within China.

China would not be unified under a stable dynasty until the rise of the Tang in the 620s AD. This was China’s Dark Age, an era of disunion, chaos, and instability. Villain though he was, if Cao Cao had won at Red Cliff it might have been prevented. But it wasn’t. China would undergo 400 years of civil war before a stable government would emerge once again. Romance it might have been, but the Three Kingdoms was China’s version of the Fall of the Roman Empire: more tragedy than romance.

Sometimes, maybe the villain really should win.

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