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Ancient China’s Battle of Red Cliffs

Ancient World

Ancient China’s Battle of Red Cliffs

The Battle of Red Cliffs


By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB


This article is one in a series of great ancient stories from outside the Greco-Roman world. You’re probably familiar with the tale of Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans, right? Today I will be talking about a similar event that took place in Ancient China in which a small army resisted a much bigger one. In my opinion, the moral of these stories is — it’s not only force that counts on the battlefield; war is a game of wits, as is life!

Compared to most ancient battles, the largest Chinese ones were fought on a vast scale. For example, while the Battle of Actium had about twenty thousand warriors on each side, the Battle of Red Cliffs had eight hundred thousand men against seventy thousand, or at least that’s what later accounts claimed.

Historical Background: Who’s Who on the Battlefield?

The Battle of Red Cliffs took place in China in the year 208 A.D. The political situation is similar to that between the Greek city-states, a number of powerful states fighting amongst each other, with no central government and each warlord doing as he pleased.

The once great Han Dynasty was in decline. A variety of warlords had risen to power, and the emperor was under the sway of his prime minister, the warlord Cao Cao. The latter had mobilized an army to quash rebellious warlords who wanted to restore the Han Dynasty. Cao Cao eventually defeated a warlord named Liu Bei, a distant relative and friend of the emperor. After his defeat, Liu Bei sought shelter with a second warlord named Sun Ce, who later joined him in his quest to dethrone Cao Cao and restore the Han Dynasty.

How Cao Cao’s Powerful Army was Defeated

Considering the numbers involved, one would think Liu Bei and Sun Ce didn’t stand a chance, but Liu Bei’s chief advisor, Zhuge Lian, had a plan. Just as treason played an important role in the Battle of Thermopylae, it determined the outcome of the Battle of Red Cliffs. However, the treason was only feigned! Cao Cao’s spies had reported that one of Sun Ce’s generals had been beaten almost to death by his lord and therefore wanted to join Cao Cao’s cause. This, however, was all part of Zhuge Lian’s plan. The general had volunteered to submit to this fake punishment in order to make his surrender to Cao Cao believable. Thus, when Huan Guan’s fleet reached Cao Cao, it wasn’t loaded with supplies and weapons, as expected, but with deadly explosives. At the same time, they launched a fire attack against Cao Cao, which thanks to the windy weather, spread quickly to the rest of his fleet, destroying it entirely!


The Battle of Red Cliffs forms part of Luo Guanzhong’s historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms and is also described in a number of historical accounts. Westerners tend to be relatively ignorant of the history of the East, which is a shame since so many real treasures of literature have come out of the refion. I’ll soon be posting a sequel to this article that describes how Cao Cao, after his defeat, was spared by Guanyi, Liu Bei’s blood-brother.


André Bastos Gurgel
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Latin (the last of which he learned with Carmenta) and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. Mr. Gurgel is currently studying Old English through Carmenta as well.

Click here to read Mr. Gurgel’s full profile.



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