Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Red Cliffs

The Battle of the Red Cliffs was one of the great battles in ancient China, and one of the most famous episodes in the classic, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. In fact, John Woo is releasing a movie about the battle. What follows are some excerpts from Wikipedia article on the battle. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to that page. For more information about the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, click here:

The Battle of Red Cliffs, otherwise known as the Battle of Chibi, (Chinese: 赤壁之戰; pinyin: chìbì zhī zhàn) was a decisive battle during the period of the Three Kingdoms in China. It took place in the winter of 208 between the allied forces of the southern warlords (Liu Bei and Sun Quan), and the northern warlord Cao Cao. Liu and Sun successfully frustrated Cao's effort to conquer the land south of the Yangtze River and reunify China. Despite being one of the most famous battles of Chinese history, descriptions of the battle differ widely on details; in fact, even the place of battle is still fiercely debated.

The decisive blow to Cao came shortly afterwards, though the sources vary on whether Liu or Sun struck it. The most detailed account comes from the biography of Zhou Yu, which details how the Sun commander Huang Gai planned an attack on Cao Cao with fire ships, by pretending to surrender to Cao Cao. The source tells of the devastation wrought in the Cao camp by the fires. In any case, a general order of retreat was given to Cao's troops, and it is likely that the northerners destroyed a number of their own ships during the retreat. There are hints that the northerners were at the time already plagued by disease and low morale.

Many other sources indicate that a combination of Cao Cao's underestimation and Liu's deception resulted in the allies' victory in the Battle of Chibi (Red Cliffs). Cao Cao's generals and soldiers were mostly from cavalry and infantry, and almost none had any experience in battles on the water. Immersed in his victory over Wuhuan, Cao Cao simply assumed that superiority in number would eventually defeat the Sun and Liu navy (the ratio of the naval forces on the two sides are estimated as 120,000 to 50,000). He converted his massive infantry and cavalry army into a marine corps and a navy, which was his first tactical mistake. Even with only a few days of drills before the battle, Cao Cao's troops were already decimated by sea-sickness and lack of water experience, as many of his "fresh" crew could not even swim. Tropical diseases to which southerners had long been immune also plagued the soldiers of the north, and were out of control in Cao Cao's camps.

Extremely worried that his troops would be debilitated by the unfamiliar environment, Cao Cao decided to chain his entire fleet together with strong iron chains. Within days, sea-sickness was drastically decreased, as the ships would rock less when chained together. However, this seemingly beneficial act would eventually cause the destruction of the fleet.

At the same time, the commanders calculated that at this time of the year winds would only blow in the direction of northwest (which was called a southeastern wind). Cao Cao's fleet, which was anchored in the northwest relative to Sun and Liu's camps, was then thoroughly exposed to a fire attack. They bet on this South-eastern wind to even out the chances of the Sun and Liu's inferior forces. However, Cao Cao, unfamilar with the southern weather patterns, was unaware, since most of the season it was the northwestern wind that blew.

On the eve of the battle, Cao Cao realized that the southeastern wind disrupted his entire fleet movement, as his fleet could not advance against a wind blowing straight towards it. A general retreat order was issued, but as his fleet was chained tightly to one another, panic broke out and prevented the fleet from retreating effectively. The entire fleet of 2,000 was then trapped in the middle of the Yangtze river with restricted mobility.

In a desperate effort, Cao Cao called for an attack against the allied force. However, the arrows from Cao Cao's fleet could not reach Sun and Liu's fleets, as the Southeastern wind blew the arrows away from their designated targets. Cao Cao's strategies of overwhelming the Sun-Liu navies with boarding parties had failed as soon as the fleet was immobilized. The Wu forces, aided by the wind, launched arrows with fire tips at the hapless warships of Cao Cao. A combination of volleys of "fire arrows" and attacks of the "fire ships" led by Huang Gai eventually destroyed most of Cao Cao's ships. Then Sun Quan's main forces, on the southern side of the river, crossed the river while Liu Bei's forces marched towards Wulin, defeating Cao Cao's forces on the way. Seeing that the situation is hopeless, Cao Cao burnt his remaining ships and retreated towards Jiangling via Huarong.

Due to famine, disease, and skirmishes along the way, many of Cao Cao's remaining forces perished. However, Zhang Liao and Xu Zhu soon came to the rescue and Cao Cao was safely escorted back to Jiangling. Cao Cao then retreated back north, leaving Cao Ren and Xu Huang to guard Jiangling, Man Chong in Dangyang, and Yue Jin in Xiangyang.

Never again would Cao Cao command so large a fleet as he had at Jiangling, nor would similar opportunity to destroy his southern rivals again present itself. Therefore, the Battle of Red Cliffs and the capture of Jingzhou confirmed the separation of Southern China from the northern Yellow River valley heartland. The battle not only formally established the division of China to the Three Kingdoms, but also foreshadowed the north-south hostility of the later centuries.

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