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The Battle of Red Wall
Also known as the Battle of Red Cliff

Battle described in Luo Guan Zhong's epic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The epic takes place in the 2nd century A.D., China, and depicts the struggles of three men, Tsao Tsao (Cao Cao), Liu Pei (Liu Bei) and Sun Chuan (Sun Quan), all of who formed empires from the remnants of the imperial Han.

The battle takes place between the forces of Sun Chuan and Tsao Tsao, Chuan joined on the behest of Liu Pei. Almost all engagements of the campaign and of the battle itself where fought on water. It is important for many reasons. One being because it slowed Tsao Tsao's advance for the first time. Also because the famed advisors of both the future empires of Shu and Wu participated. Lastly, because of the hate Chou Yu, the advisor of Sun Chuan, bore for Zhu Ge Liang, the advisor of Liu Pei, a second battle was brewing among the allies.

The warlord Liu Pei was forced to flee to the Chiangling area when the Ts'ai clan took control of the lands of Liu Biao. As those now in control of the area quickly came under the sway of Tsao Tsao (Liu Pei and Tsao Tsao had a long standing enmity), Liu Pei found himself chased by the massive forces of Tsao. Pei was burdened down with thousands of common people who fled with him to Chiangling, while Tsao followed with 100 (or more) legions. (Rumored in legend to be equivalent to 1,000,000 men.)

Reluctantly abandoning the citizens to the mercy of Tsao, Liu Pei was forced to flee from battle. He sent his advisor Zhu Ge Liang (also known as Zhuge Liang, Chuko Liang and Kung-Ming) to the east to request help from Sun Chuan. Zhu Ge Liang was able to convince Sun Chuan's Lu Su to help Liu Pei, but Sun Chuan himself was still unsure. So Chuan sent for his external and military advisor, Chou Yu (Zhou Yu). Chou Yu, was tricked by Zhu Ge Liang into believing that Tsao desired only two things. The widow of the last ruler, Sun T'se (Sun Ce) (Sun T'se had died young so it is reasonable to assume his wife was still young) and the sister of Chou Yu himself, both considered great beauties of the day. Hearing this, Chou Yu agreed and convinced Sun Chuan to send troops to stop Tsao. Unfortunately Chou Yu later also realized he had been tricked by Zhu Ge Liang and that combined with Liang's refusal to join Sun Chuan would cause him to hate the other.

Chou Yu, letting his emotions get the best of him several times attempted to get Zhu Ge Liang killed and even once decided on a plan to assassinate Liu Pei. Zhu Ge Liang realizing the assassination plan rushed to the rescue of his lord, but before entering the command tent noticed the figure of Kuan Yu (Guan Yu), knowing that Liu Pei's blood brother would let nothing ill happen, Liang went away. As did happen, Chou Yu, knowing he would surely be killed by Kuan Yu, never gave the order.

Chou Yu started with an advance to the north towards Tsao, while Tsao himself moved south to meet Chou Yu. In the first skirmish of the battle, Kan Ning (Gan Ning) an officer under Chou Yu, dealt the forces of Tsao a defeat, causing them to fall back. The two forces where now arranged on the opposite sides of a great river. Now came the less visible battles. A smuggled letter caused Tsao to kill his only truly skilled naval officers, officers pretended to desert from both sides, all acting as spies, among them was Pang Tung who went to Tsao's side with a specific plan. He would get Tsao to chain his ships together, so that the unskilled sailors among Tsao's forces could better maneuver. This plan was accepted and Tsao's army was doomed.

One of the only times Zhu Ge Liang and Chou Yu agreed in the whole campaign was that the final confrontation would involve fire. When seeing the maneuvers of Tsao's huge host of ships, Chou Yu fell seriously ill (most likely of stress). It seemed he had realized the one impossible part of his plan. No wind from the southeast was possible in midwinter. Zhu Ge Liang promised to perform a ritual that would call up the wind.

When the wind had not appeared at the time desired by Chou Yu, he finally had his reason to kill Zhu Ge Liang and dispatched troops to do just that. They caught up to Liang, but he escaped across the river and to his lord Liu Pei. It seems that he had requested Liu Pei to send Chou Yun (Zhou Yun) for just this reason, after Liu Pei's earlier visit to Chou Yu.

Chou Yu now began the attack. He dispatched two units first, as they had the furthest to travel.

  1. Kan Ning (Gan Ning) and two of the false deserters where ordered to move under false battle flags of Tsao, to penetrate the supply depot of Tsao. Their signal would be a torch, at which point they would attempt to burn the depot.
  2. T'aishih Tzu was to lead two companies to Huangchou and cut off Tsao's communications with Hofei. These two where dispatched ahead of the others.
  3. Next came Lu Meng, who was ordered to move to support Kan Ning and to attack on the latter's signal.
  4. Another force was sent to the borders of Iling and also told to attack as soon as Kan Ning's signal was seen.
  5. A fifth and sixth division where sent to the Hanyang and while the fifth would fall on the troops there, the sixth would act as support.

Another false deserter, Huang Kai (Huang Gai) was sent with fire ships to Tsao's side. Four fighting ships where also ordered to guard him. Four divisions of 100 ships where established for the main attack. As the preparations where under way, a message came from Sun Chuan himself, ordering Lu Hsun to go to Ch'ihuang, where Marquis Chuan himself would support the forces. The forces then settled down to wait for dusk. In fact, the southeast wind did rise as promised by Zhu Ge Liang. By the time the forces advanced across the river, the wind was almost a full gale. As the false deserter Huang Kai approached the naval camp of Tsao Tsao, he prepared his fire ships. Tsao, believing him truly to be a deserter did not grasp the trick until too late. The small fast ships of Huang Kai, now fully aflame flew like arrows into Tsao's ships. With the now strong wind, the ships or Tsao's armada, laden with men, caught fire quickly. Huang Kai was wounded trying to get to Tsao. By slowing Kai, Tsao Tsao was able to flee the ships, with as many men as he could gather.

Meanwhile Kan Ning had reached the supply depot, lighting the torch he proceeded in his attack. The signals started and Tsao's men found themselves attacked on almost all sides. Fleeing in headlong panic, Tsao and his troops headed for protection. At every turn he met troops of Liu Pei or Sun Chuan.

Of Tsao's immense legions and large group of officers very few returned alive. For the rest of his life Tsao was now irrevocably denied his desire to unite China. The south was safe, Liu Pei would soon expand far to the west and Sun Chuan would finish his conquest of the southeast. The formation of the three kingdoms was now a fact.


Note :: All name in parentheses () are alternate spellings, or in some cases familiar names that are used very often in the novel.

The events culminating in the Battle of Chibi (also known as the Battle of Red Cliff) comprise some of the finest stratagems in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms epic. Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu, master strategists who served under different lords, pitted their wits against each other and against the Wei kingdom. Herein lies an account of the events leading up to the ruse, “Borrowing Arrows”.

Relevant Characters

Kingdom of Shu

Zhuge Liang. AKA the Sleeping Dragon or the Hidden Dragon. In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, he is portrayed as the most brilliant military strategist of the time. He served under Liu Bei, a distant member of the Han dynasty.

Kingdom of Wu

Zhou Yu. Sworn brother to Sun Ce, the previous lord of the Wu. On the deathbed of Lady Sun, the mother of the Sun Quan (the current leader), she advised Sun Quan to rely on Zhou Yu for external affairs. A great and respected strategist in his own right, his inability to surpass Zhuge Liang vexed him to his death. Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Wu army during the Battle of Chibi.

Lu Su. A counsellor to Sun Quan. Although his wisdom pales when juxtaposed with that of Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu, he was the sole voice among the civilian officials that contested the Wei kingdom’s demand for surrender.

Kingdom of Wei

Cao Cao. Styled as the Emperor of the Wei Kingdom. Known for his cunning and considerable ruthlessness. Of the three contending kingdoms, his is the one with the largest military strength.

Cai Mao. Supreme Admiral

Zhang Yun. Vice Admiral

Jiang Gan. A counsellor to Cao Cao and a fellow student with Zhou Yu.

Borrowing Arrows

During preparations for the naval attack against Cao Cao, Zhou Yu took a small fleet of ships to study the enemy base. Impressed and unsettled by the flawless arrangement of the naval camp, he decided that the commanders, Cai Mao and Zhang Yun, needed to be removed if victory was to be assured.

The presence of the spies was soon detected, however, and ships were launched to capture them. Their eventual escape greatly displeased Cao Cao, and one of the counsellors present stepped forward to suggest a different plan. This person was Jiang Gan, formerly a fellow student with Zhou Yu, and he pledged to persuade his friend to surrender.

Upon Jiang Gan’s arrival at the Wu camp, he was formally greeted by Zhou Yu. Claiming that he was there for the sake of friendship, not to press Cao Cao’s cause, he was given a warm reception and a banquet was thrown in his honour. Zhou Yu drank deeply and feigned intoxication, all the while proclaiming loudly his pride in the might of the Wu army and his lord.

Sharing a tent that night, Zhou Yu slept loudly and restlessly, rendering his guest unable to sleep. Eventually, Jiang Gan rose and noticed, among a pile of papers on the table, a note from Cai Mao and Zhang Yun promising Cao Cao’s head. His host stirred, and he hurriedly slipped the message under his robes and returned to bed, although still unable to sleep.

Later that night, Zhou Yu was roused by an officer. After berating the man to speak more softly and checking to make sure that Jiang Gan was sleeping, he left to meet with two visitors, introduced as Cai Mao and Zhang Yun. Jiang Gan, who was merely pretending to be asleep, strained to hear the words that were being spoken, but to no avail. Soon, Zhou Yu slipped back in and returned to sleep.

Near dawn, Jiang Gan decided to slip away, fearful of Zhou Yu’s wrath if he discovered the missing letter. He returned to Cao Cao to report his failure to win over Zhou Yu as well as the treachery of the Wei admirals. An enraged Cao Cao summoned Cai Mao and Zhang Yun and ordered them to launch an immediate attack on the Wu camp. When the two refused on account of the lack of preparedness, Cao Cao ordered them beheaded.

Zhou Yu was delighted at the success of his ruse and was confident that no one could have detected it. However, ever wary of Zhuge Liang, he sent Lu Su to see if the strategist was aware of the trick he played on Cao Cao. And indeed, upon Lu Su’s arrival, Zhuge Liang calmly offered congratulations, revealing the depth of his understanding of Zhou Yu’s game. He asked Lu Su not to tell Zhou Yu, as the Commander-in-Chief would certainly wish him ill.

Lu Su did not heed his request, however, and informed Zhou Yu accordingly. At this, Zhou Yu decided that Zhuge Liang was too dangerous a foe and needed to be destroyed. He arranged for a meeting with his officers and extended an invitation to Zhuge Liang. During the meeting, he asked Zhuge Liang to take responsibility for supplying the navy with a hundred thousand arrows in ten days. The strategist disagreed, saying that ten days would be too late, and declared that the arrows would be ready in three. Noting Zhou Yu’s scepticism, he further stated that he would submit to any punishment if he failed.

Zhou Yu was delighted that Zhuge Liang both fell into his trap and sealed his own fate. If the delivery of materials and the work were delayed, his rival would have no choice but to accept the price for his failure.

In the meantime, Zhuge Liang was berating Lu Su for not keeping his tongue in check and blamed him for the precarious situation he was in. Feeling guilty, Lu Su acceded to Zhuge Liang’s demand for lightly manned ships with bundles of straw tied to the sides, as well as his request for secrecy.

In the middle of the night on the third day, Zhuge Liang finally took action. In the midst of thick fog, he and Lu Su sailed the fleet close to Cao Cao’s camp. As the ships formed a line with their sides facing the camp, the beating of drums was used to alert the enemy to their presence. The Wei navy was fearful of an ambush awaiting them behind the dense fog, and did not dare launch any ships. Cao Cao ordered archers to fire into the fog; the drums continued and arrows kept streaming towards the ships. Occasionally, the ships would turn around to expose the other sides and thus collect more arrows.

As the dawn broke and the fog began to thin, Zhuge Liang sounded a retreat. As they departed, the crew threw jeers at the Wei camp, thanking them for the gift of their arrows.

When Zhou Yu learned of Zhuge Liang’s method, he could not help but grudgingly admit the man’s superiority.

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