The Battle of Red Cliffs, otherwise known as the Battle of Chibi(赤壁之战)was a decisive battle at the end of the Han Dynasty, immediately prior to the period of the Three Kingdoms in China. It was fought in the winter of 208/9 CE between the allied forces of the southern warlords Liu Bei and Sun Quan and the numerically superior forces of the northern warlord Cao Cao. Liu Bei and Sun Quan successfully frustrated Cao Cao's effort to conquer the land south of the Yangtze River and reunite the territory of the Eastern Han Dynasty. The allied victory at Red Cliffs ensured the survival of Liu Bei and Sun Quan, gave them control of the Yangtze (de Crespigny 2004:273), and provided a line of defence that was the basis for the later creation of the two southern kingdoms of Shu Han (蜀) and Eastern Wu (吳).
By the early 3rd century, the Han Dynasty, which had ruled China for four centuries (albeit with a 16-year interruption, dividing the dynasty into its Western and Eastern periods), was crumbling. Emperor Xian had been a political figurehead since 189, with no control over the actions of the various warlords controlling their respective territories. One of the most powerful rulers in northern China was the warlord Cao Cao, who, by the year 207, had unified northern China and retained total control of the North China Plain. He then completed a successful campaign against the Wuhuan in the winter of the same year, thus securing his northern frontier. Upon his return in 208, he was proclaimed to be the Imperial Chancellor of Han, a position that granted him absolute authority over the entire imperial government. Shortly afterwards, in the autumn of 208, his army began a Southern Campaign.
The Yangtze River in the area of Jing province (which roughly corresponded to modern Hubei and Hunan provinces) was key to the success of this strategy. If Cao Cao were to have any hope of reuniting the sundered Han empire, he had to achieve naval control of the middle Yangtze and command the strategic naval base at Jiangling as a means of access to the southern region (de Crespigny 2003). Two warlords controlled the regions of the Yangtze that were key to Cao Cao's success: Liu Biao, Governor of Jing Province, controlled the river west of the mouth of the Han, roughly encompassing the area around the city of Xiakou and all territory south of that region. Sun Quan controlled the river east of the Han and the southeastern territories abutting it. A third ally, Liu Bei, was living in refuge with Liu Biao at the garrison in Fancheng (modern Xiangfan), having fled from the northeast to the Jing Province following a failed plot to assassinate Cao Cao and restore power to the imperial dynasty.
The initial stages of the campaign were an unqualified success for Cao Cao, as the command of the Jing Province had been substantially weakened and the Jing armies exhausted by conflict with Sun Quan to the south. Factions had arisen supporting either of Liu Biao's two sons in a struggle for succession. The younger son prevailed, and Liu Biao's dispossessed eldest son, Liu Qi, departed to assume a commandery in Jiangxia. Liu Biao died of illness only a few weeks later, while Cao Cao was advancing from the north and, under these circumstances, Liu Biao's younger son and successor, Liu Cong, quickly surrendered. Cao Cao thus captured a sizeable fleet and secured the naval base at Jiangling. This provided him with a key strategic military depot and forward base to harbour his ships.
When Jing fell, Liu Bei quickly fled south, accompanied by a refugee population of civilians and soldiers. This disorganised exodus was pursued by Cao Cao's elite cavalry, and was surrounded and decisively beaten at the Battle of Changban (near the modern-day city of Dangyang in Hubei). Liu Bei escaped, however, and fled further east to Xiakou, where he liaised with Sun Quan's emissary Lu Su. At this point historical accounts are inconsistent; Lu Su may have successfully encouraged Liu Bei to move even further east, to Fankou (樊口). In either case, Liu Bei was later joined by Liu Qi and levies from Jiangxia. Liu Bei's main advisor, Zhuge Liang, was sent to Chaisang (柴桑) to negotiate forming a mutual front against Cao Cao with the state of Wu.
By the time Zhuge Liang arrived, Cao Cao had already sent Sun Quan a letter boasting of commanding 800,000 men and demanding Sun Quan's surrender. The faction led by Sun Quan's Chief Clerk, Zhang Zhao, advocated surrender, citing Cao Cao's overwhelming numerical advantage. However, on separate occasions, Lu Su, Zhuge Liang, and Wu's chief commander, Zhou Yu, all presented arguments to persuade Sun Quan to agree to the alliance against the northerners. Sun Quan finally decided upon war, chopping off a corner of his desk during an assembly and stating: "Anyone who still dares argue for surrender will be [treated] the same as this desk." He then assigned Zhou Yu, Cheng Pu, and Lu Su with 30,000 men to aid Liu Bei against Cao Cao.
Although Cao Cao had boasted command of 800,000 men, Zhou Yu estimated Cao Cao's actual troop strength to be closer to 220,000. Furthermore, this total included 70,000 impressed troops from the armies of the recently defeated Liu Biao, so the loyalty and morale of a large number of Cao Cao's force was uncertain. With the 20,000 soldiers that Liu Bei had gathered, the alliance consisted of approximately 50,000 marines who were trained and prepared for battle.
The Battle of Red Cliffs unfolded in three stages: an initial skirmish at Red Cliffs followed by a retreat to the Wulin battlefields on the northwestern bank of the Yangtze, a decisive naval engagement, and Cao Cao's disastrous retreat along Huarong Road.
The combined Sun-Liu force sailed upstream from either Xiakou or Fankou to Red Cliffs, where they encountered Cao Cao's vanguard force. Plagued by disease and low morale due to the series of forced marches they had undertaken on the prolonged Southern Campaign, Cao Cao's men could not gain an advantage in the small skirmish which ensued, so Cao Cao retreated to Wulin (north of the Yangtze River) and the allies pulled back to the south.
Cao Cao had moored his ships from stem to stern, possibly aiming to reduce seasickness in his navy, which comprised mostly northerners who were not used to living on ships. Observing this, divisional commander Huang Gai sent Cao Cao a letter feigning surrender and prepared a squadron of capital ships described as mengchong doujian (蒙衝鬥艦). The ships had been converted into fire ships by filling them with bundles of kindling, dry reeds, and fatty oil. As Huang Gai's "defecting" squadron approached the midpoint of the river, the sailors applied fire to the ships before taking to small boats. The unmanned fire ships, carried by the southeastern wind, sped towards Cao Cao's fleet and set it ablaze. Within a short time smoke and flames stretched across the sky, and a large number of men and horses either burned to death or drowned.
Following the initial shock, Zhou Yu and the allies led a lightly armed force to capitalise on the assault. The northern army was thrown into confusion and was utterly smashed. Seeing the situation was hopeless, Cao Cao then issued a general order of retreat and destroyed a number of his remaining ships before withdrawing.
Cao Cao's army attempted a retreat along Huarong Road, including a long stretch passing through marshlands north of Dongting Lake. Heavy rains had reduced the track to a thick mire, making the road so treacherous that many of the sick soldiers had to carry bundles of grass on their backs and use them to fill the road, to allow the horsemen to cross. Many of these soldiers drowned in the mud or were trampled to death in the effort. To the misery of Cao Cao's army, the allies, led by Zhou Yu and Liu Bei, gave chase over land and water until they reached Nan Commandery (南郡). Combined with famine and disease, this decimated Cao Cao's remaining forces. Cao Cao then retreated north to his home base of Ye, leaving Cao Ren and Xu Huang to guard Jiangling, Yue Jin stationed in Xiangyang, and Man Chong in Dangyang.
The allied counterattack might have vanquished Cao Cao and his forces entirely. However, the crossing of the Yangtze River dissolved into chaos as the allied armies converged on the riverbank and fought over the limited number of ferries. To restore order, a detachment led by the allied general Gan Ning established a bridgehead in Yiling to the north, and only a staunch rearguard action by Cao Ren prevented further catastrophe.
A combination of Cao Cao's strategic errors and the effectiveness of Huang Gai's ruse had resulted in the allied victory at the Battle of Red Cliffs. Zhou Yu had previously observed that Cao Cao's generals and soldiers comprised mostly cavalry and infantry, and few had any experience in naval warfare. Cao Cao also had little support among the people of Jing province, and thus lacked a secure forward base of operations. Despite the strategic acumen Cao Cao had displayed in earlier campaigns and battles, in this case he had simply assumed that numerical superiority would eventually defeat the Sun and Liu navy. Cao's first tactical mistake was converting his massive army of infantry and cavalry into a marine corps and navy: with only a few days of drills before the battle, Cao Cao's troops were ravaged by sea-sickness and lack of experience on water. Tropical diseases, to which the southerners had long been immune, also plagued the soldiers of the north with the debilitating effects of sickness rampant in Cao Cao's camps. Although numerous, Cao Cao's men were already exhausted by the unfamiliar environment and the extended southern campaign, as Zhuge Liang observed: "Even a powerful arrow at the end of its flight cannot penetrate a silk cloth".
The uncharacteristically poor preparation and miscalculations displayed by Cao Cao during this campaign may have been partly due to the recent death of his strategist and advisor Guo Jia. Cao Cao himself had commented: "Had Guo Jia been with us, I would never have got into such trouble". Another key advisor, Jia Xu, had recommended after the surrender of Liu Cong that the overtaxed armies be given time to rest and replenish before engaging the armies of Sun Quan and Liu Bei, but Cao Cao disregarded the advice. Cao Cao's own thoughts regarding his failure at Red Cliffs suggest that he held his own actions and misfortunes responsible for the defeat, rather than the strategies utilised by his enemy during the battle: "...it was only because of the sickness that I burnt my ships and retreated. It is out of all reason for Zhou Yu to take the credit for himself."
By the end of 209, the post Cao Cao had established at Jiangling fell to Zhou Yu. The borders of the land under Cao Cao's control contracted about 160 kilometres (100 miles), to the area around Xiangyang. Liu Bei, on the other hand, had gained territory by taking over the four commanderies south of the Yangtze River. Sun Quan's troops had suffered far greater casualties than Liu Bei's in the extended conflict against Cao Ren following the Battle of Red Cliffs, and the death of Zhou Yu in 210 resulted in a drastic weakening of Sun Quan's strength in the Jing province. Liu Bei also occupied the Jing province that Cao Cao had recently lost—a strategic and naturally fortified area on the Yangtze River that Wu claimed for itself. The control of Jing provided Liu Bei with virtually unlimited access to the passage into Shu and important waterways into Wu, as well as dominion of the southern Yangtze River.
Never again would Cao Cao command so large a fleet as he had at Jiangling, nor would a similar opportunity to destroy his southern rivals present itself again. The Battle of Red Cliffs and the capture of Jing province by Liu Bei confirmed the separation of Southern China from the northern heartland of the Yellow River valley, and also foreshadowed a north-south axis of hostility which would resonate for centuries.