Battle Of Red Cliffs

The Battle of Red Cliffs (also called the Battle of Chibi) took place in the winter of 208/209 CE and it was one of the largest naval battles in history.

On one side there was the ambitious northern warlord, Cao Cao, with his enormous army.

On the other side, there were the southern warlord’s Sun Quan and Liu Bei, who joined forces but were still numerically inferior when compared to the forces of their enemy.

Despite an apparently lower number of soldiers, Sun Quan and Liu Bei managed to frustrate Cao Cao’s efforts and win this decisive battle.

In the aftermath, they gained control of the area that later belonged to the states of Shu Han and Eastern Wu.
Battle of Red Cliffs


Who was Cao Cao

Cao Cao, who was born in 155 CE, was a warlord in northern China. He wanted to rule all of China. But there were other warlords in southern China who did not want to be ruled by Cao Cao.

So Cao Cao went south with his army to conquer the south. The southern warlords united their armies to fight against Cao Cao. They defeated him and drove him back north.

Han Dynasty Decline

In 208 A.D., Liu Bei and Sun Quan defeated Cao Cao in the Battle of Red Cliffs.

This is one of the most important battles in Chinese history because it marks the end of the Han Dynasty and it was the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period.

The battle is said to have taken place on the southern bank of The Yangtze River

The great Chinese general, Cao Cao, had the most powerful army in China at the time.

He wanted to take over all of China.

So he started a campaign to conquer the south.

He led his army to the south and conquered many cities. He defeated many armies. Then he met a really strong army led by Liu Bei, who was also trying to take over all of China.

Cao Cao was not able to defeat Liu Bei, so he had to give up his plan to conquer all of China.

Background to the Battle of Red Cliffs

Cao Cao was the most influential figure in the crumbling Han empire – more important than emperor Xian himself – and the most powerful Chinese warlord.

He had already taken total control of northern China, and in the autumn of 208, he wanted to invade the territory south of the Yangtze River and become the ruler of the whole Eastern Han land.

The other three warlords were in charge of the southern territories.

  • Liu Biao was the governor of Jing Province, west of the Han river.
  • Sun Quan was in charge of the area southeast of the Han.
  • Liu Bei was the third ally but he had already failed to kill Cao Cao and now he was living in refuge with Liu Biao.

Cao Cao had a huge advantage. Not only that his army was larger and better equipped. His enemies were in the middle of a political crisis. Liu Biao was ill, his sons struggled for succession, and then Liu Biao died. Meanwhile, Cao Cao captured a whole fleet and gained control over the naval base at Jiangling.

Liu Bei fled the Jing Province, followed by numerous refugees. Cao Cao asked Sun Quan to surrender. However, Sun Quan decided to resist and enter the war against Cao Cao.

Sun Quan sent his best generals and 30,000 men to help Liu Bei. Cao Cao, on the comparison, bragged about his 800,000 men. This number was probably not correct; Sun Quan’s chief commander, Zhou Yu, estimated that Cao Cao’s army was numbering about 230,000 men – which was still a large number.

In addition to 30,000 men that Sun Quan sent, Liu Bei gathered another 20,000. All of them were skilled and ready for marine battle.

ship used in Battle

Battle Of Red Cliffs Facts

  • The exact location of the battle is unknown, but it was somewhere on the south bank of Yangtze, between the present-day cities of Wuhan and Hunan.
  • The Battle of Red Cliffs had three stages:
    • The joint forces of Sun and Liu sailed upstream to Red Cliffs to encounter the enemy’s navy. Despite their number, Cao Cao’s men were inferior – they were exhausted and seasick – and could not gain an advantage at this phase, so they retreated to Wulin on the north.
    • A commander of the allied forces, named Huang Gai, sent a letter to Cao Cao to pretend he was about to surrender. He also sent him a squadron of large ships. But instead of surrendering men, those ships were filled with tinder, dry reeds, and oil.When the squadron came near Cao Cao’s fleet, the sailors applied fire and ran away on small boats. The fire quickly spread and affected Cao Cao’s ships. The nearly whole fleet was burning, and an enormous number of men and horses died. Then Zhou Yu attacked the survivors, and Cao Cao ordered a retreat.
    • Cao Cao’s retreat was disastrous. The remaining men went along Huarong Road and had to go through swamps surrounding Dongting Lake.The rain and mud on one side, and famine and sickness on the other devastated the rest of Cao Cao’s army. Meanwhile, the allies stopped chasing them and started fighting each other over the limited number of ships that needed them to cross the river. Anyway, the battle was already over, and Cao Cao experienced a total defeat.
  • In the aftermath, Liu Bei conquered the Jing province. Southern China remained separated from the Yellow River Valley for centuries.

Possible Location of Battle of Red Cliffs


What was the name of the northern warlord who initiated the Battle of Red Cliffs?

It was Cao Cao.

When and where did the battle take place?

In winter 208/9 CE on the south bank of Yangtze River

Which side had a larger navy?

Cao Cao’s navy was larger.

Which navy was better prepared?

The navy of the southern allies was better prepared