Devastating Defeat for Chinese Warlord in Largest Naval Battle in History
The largest naval battle in history occurred in the winter of 208/9 AD as part of the war for control of China. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers fought - some estimates suggest that the exact number is closer to one million combatants. The battle proved to be the final nail in the coffin of the Han Dynasty in China. By 220 AD, China would be ruled by a tripartite of states: Wei, Shu, and Wu. Yet where exactly the battle took place is a matter of historical controversy, and has been for at least 1,350 years. Regardless of the location of the Red Cliffs, the battle fought there will live on in infamy.
Cao Cao the Northern province warlord, as portrayed in Beijing opera ( CC BY 3.0 )
Cao Cao, Lord of War
After 400 years of glorious rule, the Han Dynasty was a shell of its former self and much of the land within the Han Empire was in fact ruled by local warlords. For the discussion of the Battle of Red Cliff, the most important of those warlords is Cao Cao, who ruled a large area in northeastern China. In 207, after a series of wars, Cao Cao had united the North China Plain under his rule. The North China Plain is the largest alluvial plain in China – approximately 158,100 square miles (409,500 square kilometers) of fertile, sediment-rich soil in the Yangtze River delta. Cao Cao’s successes won him the position of Chancellor of the imperial court. In effect, this gave Cao Cao control over the entire Han government. Having gained control of the empire, Cao Cao now sought to reclaim Han territories and reestablish imperial rule. In the fall of 208, he turned his war to the south.
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Cao Cao statue at the Government Office of Prime Minister Cao Cao ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Cao Cao’s Opposition
Up the Yangtze River (to the south of Cao Cao’s holdings) were the provinces of Jing and Eastern Wu. Jing was controlled by Governor Liu Biao and currently playing host to the political refugee and military genius Liu Bei. (For sake of clarity, note that Liu Bei is the more important character in this war. Liu Bei will be remembered down through the ages as the ideal benevolent ruler.) Eastern Wu was under the control of the warlord Sun Quan. Both of these provinces stood in Cao Cao’s way of resurrecting the Han China. In Jing province was the crucial port city and strategic naval base Jiangling, located roughly halfway up the Yangtze River. In addition, the province also contained the mouth of the Han River. The Eastern Wu comprised the Han River as well as much of the eastern Han holdings. Cao Cao decided to attack Jing first.
Lui Bei’s War Alliance
A longstanding war between Jing and Wu greatly weakened Governor Liu Biao’s army and Cao Cao was able to conquer the province quickly and without significant casualties. The Governor died in the conflict and command of the remaining Jing warriors fell to Liu Bei. The General was forced to flee the city, ultimately ending up in the city of Xiakou. There he began to negotiate an anti-Cao Cao alliance between Jing and Wu. Around the same time, Wu leader Sun Quan had received a letter from Cao Cao in which the Chancellor boasted that he commanded an army of 800,000 men ready to go to war for the Emperor. This blatant attempt to intimidate Sun Quan is regarded by many historians as an exaggeration, however, it is agreed that Cao Cao did most likely have an impressive fighting force of between 200,000 and 300,000 men. Sun Quan agreed to ally with Liu Bei. Together they managed to recruit a ragtag army of about 50,000-80,000 southerners.
Liu Bei, from Thirteen Emperors Scroll, 7 th century ( Public Domain )
The South’s Home Advantage
“The South did not wait helplessly for the invasion to begin. The southern generals formulated their tactics, knowing how best to take advantage of Cao Cao’s bloated troop numbers” (Dzhak, 2016). Although Cao Cao had a clear numerical majority, the southern forces were not completely helpless. War is not won by numbers alone. For starters, about half of Sun Quan’s men were experienced mariners – this was the first time on the water for the vast majority of Cao Cao’s men. Second, the southern lowlands were host to a number of tropical diseases to which the local southern soldiers had immunity but wrecked havoc on the invading northerners. Third, Cao Cao did not do a very good job supplying his huge army - a vital aspect of any war campaign. Finally, Sun Quan’s army enjoyed the home field advantage. As if all of this was not bad enough, the weeks leading up to the battle were rainy and damp.
Cao Cao cites a poem before the Battle of Red Cliffs, portrait at the Long Corridor of the Summer Palace, Beijing ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The most fatal affliction that plagued the northern army was seasickness. Eventually, it got so bad that the commander decided to lash all of the boats together, forming one giant barge, in an attempt to reduce the rocking. This worked but reduced the navy’s maneuverability. A portion of the army remained on the ship while the rest disembarked and camped on the northern bank of the Yangtze River; the forces of Liu Bei and Sun Quan camped on the southern bank, known locally as Chibi (Red Cliffs).
“When the southern leaders saw that Cao Cao had tied his ships together, they came up with a plan. One of the generals [General Zhou Yu] wrote a letter saying that he wanted to change sides and surrender to Cao Cao. He then sent his ships across to join Cao Cao's fleet. However, it was just a trick. The ships weren't filled with soldiers, but with kindling and oil. They were fire ships! As the ships approached the enemy they were set on fire. The wind carried them directly into Cao Cao's fleet.” (Duckster, 2017).
One type of ship used in the battle - the mengchong leather-covered assault warship designed to break enemy lines. ( Public Domain )
Devastation for Cao Cao
Chaos ensued. Thousands died in the flames but even more drowned in the river as they attempted to escape. Before long, the fire spread to the camp on the riverbank. And the worse was yet to come. Out of the dark, smoke-filled night emerged Liu Bei’s army, ready to pick off any survivors. Only a portion of the southern army participated but in the confusion, the northern army could not know this and thought that the entire southern army was staging an attack. The morale of the Cao Cao’s army broke almost immediately. Soldiers broke rank and scattered, many seeking refuge in the dense swamps surrounding the river. The rain of the past few days had swollen the marsh waters and many northerners drowned. Others struggled to make their way through the dark, overgrown wetland and were easily run down by southern cavalry to be killed or captured.
A mural showing chariots and cavalry, from the Dahuting Tomb of the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 AD), located in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China ( Public Domain )
As the war progressed, Cao Cao and a rump force regrouped at Jiangling. Sun Quan’s army quickly followed and fought the decisive Battle of Jiangling. After this, Cao Cao retreated back to the north. The war was over and his province lost 99 miles (160 km) as a result of the campaign. Nonetheless, Cao Cao remained a powerful warlord and in 220, when the Han Emperor officially abdicated, Cao Cao’s northern territories became the state of Wei. Liu Bei took over the Jing providence and lands ceded by Cao Cao, forming the state of Shu. These states combined with Sun Quan’s Wu state to usher in the Three Kingdoms period of China.
Engravings on a cliffside near Chibi City, possible location of the Battle of Red Cliff. The engravings are at least a thousand years old. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The exact location of the southern bank called Chibi or Red Cliffs is unknown. The battle site was not marked for posterity and local names of places change over the centuries. The Battle of Red Cliffs was immortalized in the Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms , written in the 14 th century by Luo Guanzhong. More recently, a film depicting the Battle of Red Cliff was released by the Beijing Film Studio. The film broke box office records in China when it opened in July 2008.
Top image: Cao Cao cites a poem before the Battle of Red Cliffs, portrait at the Long Corridor of the Summer Palace, Beijing ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Duckster. “Ancient China.” Ducksters Educational Site , Ducksters Educational Site, 2017, www.ducksters.com/history/china/battle_of_red_cliffs.php.
Dzhak, Yulia. “The End of the Han Dynasty - Battle of Red Cliffs.” WAR HISTORY ONLINE , WAR HISTORY ONLINE, 3 June 2016, www.warhistoryonline.com/ancient-history/end-han-dynasty-battle-red-cliffs.html/2.
History Express. “Largest Naval Battles in History - the Battle of Red Cliffs.” YouTube, YouTube, 2 Feb. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=rKAqCCjz4tQ.