The Battle of Red Cliffs

We’ve been exploring a historical narrative

– by Jason Zheng Dongyao

I am a military man – a soldier in Liu Bei`s army. As one of the witnesses of a famous battle – The Red Cliffs Battle, I think it is necessary to record this impressive event.

When I had just joined the army, I heard that Cao Cao had already unified many warlords in northern China. I saw many generals in the camps, and they were very nervous then. Now, I know the reason why they were all under enormous pressure. Cao Cao was going to attack our lands in order to govern the whole of China. We had no chance to win the battle, and many people panicked. I was also perplexed about my future until we received a letter from Sun Quan.

Figure 1. The map of three kingdoms. Cao Wei was a country governed by cao cao.
Shu Han was a country governed by Liu Bei
and dong wu was governed by sun quan.

Not only were the people in Liu Bei’s regions under pressure, but Sun Quan’s men also felt the same. They knew that Cao Cao would eventually conquer them, too, after he wiped out Liu Bei’s military force. As a result, Sun Quan sent one of his most reliable generals, Lu Su, to our lands and tried to ally with us. In the beginning, Liu Bei refused the collaboration with Sun Quan because he thought Sun Quan was also one of the warlords who rebelled against the Han Dynasty. However, his extraordinary military counselor, Zhuge Liang, suggested that Liu Bei ally with Sun Quan because they needed a strong alliance to win the battle against Cao Cao. Besides, Lu Su promised that if the emperor of the Han Dynasty established his own new government (the emperor of the Han Dynasty was captured by Cao Cao at that time), they would definitely give the lands back to the Han government. Eventually, Liu Bei and Sun Quan formed a strong alliance and were ready to fight with Cao Cao.

Even though Sun Quan and Liu Bei combined their military forces, the military forces gap between the Sun Liu alliance and Cao Cao was not negligible. Cao Cao claimed he had 800 thousand soldiers in his army, but in truth, he only had 50 thousand men. After the battle of Chibi, I knew it was a lie. He only had 200 thousand soldiers, which was still a significant number for us. Everything was adverse to us except one important weakness in Cao Cao’s troops. Since Cao Cao’s soldiers were mainly from the northern parts of China, most of them could not get used to taking ships and could not swim. Cao Cao used enormous, stable iron chains to connect all his ships so the ships wouldn`t shake violently from the collision of sea waves. To be honest, it was an excellent solution to address the weakness of Cao Cao’s troops. He would definitely win the war if his opponent was not Zhuge Liang.

In order to win this battle, Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu (another famous wise general in Sun Quan’s camp) presented a strategy. When Zhuge Liang knew Cao Cao had adapted this action, he decided to use fire as his weapon. He wanted to use the ships that were full of oil to crash Cao Cao’s ships. To achieve this goal, one of Zhou Yu’s man who is called, Huang Gai, wanted to be the captain of those ships. Huang Gai pretended he was surrendering to Cao Cao so he could lead the oil ships to Cao Cao’s army. Whereas it is challenging to get the trust of Cao Cao. Based on that, Zhou Yu punished and humiliated Huang Gai in public (They planned to do it), so Huang Gai had a reason to join Cao Cao. Cao Cao was glad that Huang Gai could join his troops. Cao Cao wouldn’t know this trust killed his dream of unifying China.

The night Cao Cao’s troops reached Chi Bi, Huang Gai led his ships toward Cao Cao’s army. Cao Cao thought that the ships were full of Huang Gai’s men, so he didn’t set any defense. Everything acted normal until Cao Cao realized that the ships of Huang Gai’s ships didn’t stop but accelerated. When Cao Cao ordered his archers to stop the ships, everything was too late. The oil ships crashed Cao Cao’s front ships successfully. Maybe Cao Cao didn’t think the suicide attacks will not destroy his 800 thousand armies at that moment, but he must be desperate when he saw Zhuge Liang let his archers use fire to ignite their arrows. The burning arrows lit the black sky and fell to Cao Cao’s ships. Because the oil ships had already crashed into the front ships of Cao Cao’s troops, the front ships were burning at an unbelievable speed. Cao Cao finally realized how stupid his decision was when the fire expanded like a monster. Using iron chains to connect every ship helped Cao Cao’s men overcome the uncomfortable feeling of taking ships, but it also prevented Cao Cao’s ships from separating. There was no way to get rid of the fires. Cao Cao watched the fire act like a demon, killing his men and extending. People were screaming and fell into the sea. Just like what I have mentioned before, they were not able to swim. Many of Cao Cao’s people were drowned, burned, or killed by the soldiers from the Sun Liu alliance. It is just like the end of the world is coming. Cao Cao retreated immediately; he abandoned his elite army.

Image 2. The battle of Chibi. As you can see, because of Cao Cao’s error, all his armies were On fire.

After this battle, Cao Cao had to train his troops again. He needed several years to do that, so there is no such big battle anymore. I returned to my hometown and started recording my life in the army. This is the first chapter of the whole three-kingdom period. Liu Bei, Cao Cao, and Sun Quan couldn’t conquer each other and had relatively stable and strong governments. This balanced situation lasted for many, many years.