Battle of Chi Bi

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The Battle of Chi Bi (Simplified: 赤壁之战; Traditional: 赤壁之戰; Hanyu pinyin: Chì bì zhī zhàn), or Battle of Red Cliffs, was an important battle during the Three Kingdoms period. It was mainly a naval battle, although fighting continued on land after the initial strike. As a result of the battle, Liu Bei and Sun Quan established their dynasties and the age of Three Kingdoms began.

The Battle


The battle was part of a Cao Cao campaign to conquer the warlords in South China, and to secure the Yangtze River. First, he crossed the Han River, going towards Changban.There, Cao Cao faced Liu Bei's forces. Liu Bei repelled Cao Cao's forces twice, but after a week of combat Liu Bei had to withdraw to keep his followers safe. Liu Bei and his advisors took refuge with the southern warlord Sun Quan, who knew about Cao Cao's campaign and prepared to meet him in battle. Cao Cao continued his forced march to the Yangtze, where he loaded his men onto an armada and sailed it towards Sun Quan. Allegedly, Cao Cao pirated ships as the fleet sailed, taking supplies and forcing the captured men into his army. Because of this, his men were not very loyal, and many were not experienced in combat. This hurt his effort in the long run.

Liu Bei and Sun Quan combined their forces and prepared to attack Cao Cao's fleet at Red Cliffs. The Allied Forces were at a disadvantage, as they were outnumbered by more than ten to one. Sun Quan's advisors wanted to surrender and ally with Cao Cao, but after four days of debate Sun Quan decided to join the attack, claiming to act in the name of justice. He allowed his advisors to leave if they wanted, but those that left were marked forever as Cowering Officials (胆小政客). The day after the decision, Shu strategist Zhuge Liang met with Wu strategist Zhou Yu. They developed several strategies, such as turning the local barbarian tribes against Cao Cao or even using primitive explosive projectiles to sink the flagship, but they found that these were not practical. In the end, they decided to use fire ships, as Zhuge Liang predicted wind. They sent spies to chain the ships together (telling Cao Cao that it would make the soldiers less sea sick) and prepare the hulls with flammable oil.

The Attack

The Allied Forces prepared their attack for the night before Cao Cao's attack. Under cover of night, Wu generals Gan Ning and Xing Ba took several ships loaded with straw and oil, set fire to them and crashed them into Cao Cao's fleet. In a panic, Cao Cao took his remaining ships and retreated to a friendly base at Yiling, where Cao Ren helped cover his retreat. Zhou Yu and Shu officer Guan Yu tried to ambush Cao Cao as he fled to the imperial capital, but his personal guards stopped the attacks and Cao Cao escaped. Still, the attacks devastated his forces, and he halted his campaign.

Zhuge Liang planned that the forces of Shu and Wu would unite, but this did not happen. Sun Quan declared himself emperor, and Liu Bei followed suit. Thus began the era of Three Kingdoms

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

The version of the battle in Romance of the Three Kingdoms is similar, but there are key differences. Zhuge Liang, who is depicted as a mystic, uses magic to summon a favorable wind and guide the fire ships. Also, Guan Yu attacks Cao Cao before he reaches Yiling, but lets him escape. Finally, Sun Quan attempts to kill Liu Bei during the battle, but the assassination fails because of a Zhuge Liang scheme.

Other Depictions

Red Cliffs

In 2008, John Woo directed a film called Red Cliffs that was based on the battle. It is a combination of elements from the historical records, the novel, and entirely new elements. Most notably, Woo writes it as a love triangle between Cao Cao, Zhou Yu and Xiao Qiao, who was Zhou Yu's wife in reality. It is true that Cao Cao tried to abduct Xiao Qiao during the battle, but the rest is entirely fictional.

Dynasty Warriors

Many video games have depicted the Battle of Red Cliffs, most notably the Dynasty Warriors series. These versions are based more on the novel than the historical record. These versions give greater importance to Wu officer Huang Gai and Daoist mystic Pang Tong.


Many professional historians believe that the Battle of Chi Bi did not happen, or at least that it did not happen like it was described in the historical records. There is some conflict between different sources; it may be that the battle was based on different naval battles that occurred on the Yangtze. However, most historians and regular people speak of the battle as fact.