For 400 years, the Han Dynasty had ruled China with a powerful central government and unmatched military might. The reach of the massive Han armies stretched westward to Central Asia and southward to Vietnam. The trading routes of the Great Silk Road linked the empire of the Han to its mirror image in the west, the Roman Empire.
But, beset by the nomadic tide washing over the Mongolian steppes and weakened from within by social inequities, famine, and the downtrodden population’s Yellow Turban Rebellion, the Han Court was in a state of decay by the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries AD. The last emperors gave way to brutal, provincial warlord factions vying for control. Epic-scale battles ensued, including one that, in terms of the number of combatants involved, is ranked among the largest ever fought in the annals of naval warfare: the Battle of Red Cliffs in 208 AD.
In the north, the legendary general Cao Cao (pronounced “T’sao T’sao”) had consolidated the crumbling remnants of Han power and brought them under his rule. But unification of the rest of the dying empire meant conquering southern China as well, and conquering southern China meant getting his gigantic army across the mighty Yangtze River. A pair of rival warlords to the south, however, pooled their strengths to stop Cao Cao at the Yangtze line.
The numbers were not on their side. Their combined force of approximately 50,000 men sought to stop a juggernaut that appeared inexorable simply by its sheer enormity—estimates of the size of Cao Cao’s army range from 220,000 to a (likely exaggerated) 800,000. But Cao Cao’s troops were exhausted from endless campaigning, vulnerable to disease in the southern climes, and less skilled in naval operations; the opposing force, though vastly smaller, was composed of seasoned marines, veterans of riverine warfare and versed in its tactics.
Marching south, Cao Cao drove the enemy into retreat at the Battle of Changbang and advanced to capture the important Yangtze River naval port of Jiangling. There he seized a much-needed river fleet, loaded the vessels with troops, and sailed downriver to crush the foe at its main base at Chaisang. But he never got that far, for as he was proceeding downriver, the southern defenders were proceeding upriver, and they met at a place called Red Cliffs (the precise location of which continues to be debated today).
The invasion force, weary, increasingly plagued with disease, was unable to bring its full power to bear in the skirmishing that marked the outset of the clash. Cao Cao strove to establish a foothold on the southern bank, but the defenders held off his fleet. Both sides pulled back to regroup, and when next they made ready to engage, the allies perceived that Cao Cao had lashed his boats together into large clusters that, while perhaps forming a stabler platform for the queasy troops, rendered their vessels unmaneuverable—and vulnerable.
Sending forth a false message, the defenders feigned surrender. Cao Cao took the bait, and allied ships now approached benignly from across the river. But the ships had been stuffed with wood and dried reeds and soaked in oil. Once in range, the crews put their ships to the torch and high-tailed it in boats they’d attached astern. Borne by the wind, the flaming ships plunged headlong into Cao Cao’s lashed-together river armada.
“The fire was fierce and the wind was strong, and the ships went like arrows,” wrote the chronicler Chen Shou. “The whole northern fleet was burnt, and the fire reached the camps on the bank. In a very short time the smoke and flame stretched across the sky, and a multitude of men and horses were burned or drowned and died.”
Cao Cao’s retreat quickly devolved into a rout: “The allies led a light-armed force to follow up the assault. They beat their drums with a mighty roar, and the northern army was utterly smashed. . . . Trodden down by men and horses, they were sunk into the mud and a whole mass of them died.”
Cao Cao had failed to unify China; decades of warfare between rival kingdoms ensued. And through the centuries, the David-and-Goliath nature of the Battle of Red Cliffs would continue to inspire poems, novels, plays, video games, and blockbuster cinema. To this day, the titanic clash on the Yangtze remains ingrained in Chinese memory.
Chen Shou, Sanghuo Zhi (“Records of the Three Kingdoms”), quoted by Rafe de Crespigny, transl., in Rafe de Crespigny, Imperial Warlord: A Biography of Cao Cao, 155–220 AD (Boston: Brill, 2010), 273–74.
Crespigny, Imperial Warlord, 241–86.
Morgan Dean, Decisive Battles in Chinese History (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2018), 13–26.
Peter Lorge, “Water Forces and Naval Operations,” in David A. Graff and Robin Higham, eds., A Military History of China (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2012), 81–86.