The Battle of Red Cliffs, otherwise known as the Battle of Chibi, was a decisive battle fought at the end of the Han dynasty, about twelve years prior to the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history. It was fought in the winter of AD 208 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), and provided a line of defence that was the basis for the later creation of the two southern states of Shu Han and Eastern Wu. The battle has been called the largest naval battle in history in terms of numbers involved.
By the early third century, the Han dynasty, which had ruled China for almost 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 warlords in China was Cao Cao, who, by 207, had unified northern China and retained total control of the North China Plain.
If Cao Cao was 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.
Two warlords controlled the regions of the Yangtze that were key to Cao Cao’s success: Liu Biao, the Governor of Jing Province, and Sun Quan who 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.
Although Cao Cao had boasted command of 800,000 men, Zhou Yu estimated Cao Cao’s actual troop strength to be closer to 230,000. Furthermore, this total included 80,000 impressed troops from the armies of the recently deceased 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 (烏林) 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 chained 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. 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 defeated. 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 made 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.
The allied counterattack might have vanquished Cao Cao and his forces entirely without the staunch rearguard action by Cao Ren preventing further catastrophe. Cao Cao then retreated north to his home base of Ye.
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 that would resonate for centuries.