Have you ever watched or at least heard of a movie called Red Cliff?
The movie, came in 2 parts in 2008 & 2009 consecutively, was adapted from the Battle of Red Cliffs that happened in the 3rd Century (CE). This movie is actually one of the biggest Chinese movie productions involving more than $70 million budget and one of the best Chinese actors Tony Leung, produced as well as directed by John Woo (yes, the director of Mission Impossible II!). The movie also remarkably received 13 awards and 41 nominations.
In line with our ‘theme’ (Chinese civilization) in class this week, let’s dig deeper by taking a journey back to this one of the largest naval battles in history: The Battle of Red Cliffs – the great battle that could make such great blockbuster movie.
It was one of the most significant battles in Ancient China as in it was the fate of the whole emperor of China. That battle eventually led to the end of the Han Dynasty (from the freshest topic ‘Imperial China’) and also, the beginning of the famous Three Kingdoms Period.
HOW EVERYTHING WAS IGNITED
As learnt in class, the Han dynasty ruled for a glorious period of 4 centuries. It was the most long-lasting dynasty. However, at that time, although the main ruler was supposedly the emperor, the emperor was actually like a figurehead. The ones who were having the real powers were the eunuchs.
Corruption was rampant, so was injustice. A warlord called Dong Zhuo then rose up and managed to kill the eunuchs, but he was no different from the eunuchs. The emperor was still a figurehead controlled by Dong Zhuo, who was reshuffling governors to his heart’s contents.
The governors were unhappy with Dong Zhuo, this then led to the formation of Guandong Coalition which involved Cao Cao, Yuan Shao, Sun Quan and Liu Bei. They attacked Dong Zhuo and took over, although they ended up being just the same. They were corrupted and destroying one another. The whole areas experienced many wars and finally, only two warlords ‘survived’: Cao Cao reigned over the northern areas and Sun Quan the south. Of course, Cao Cao then quickly made his way to defeat southern China.
If Cao Cao managed to win over Sun Quan, he would rule over the whole lands of China, i.e. become the emperor of China and his name would be recorded. Do you know that if one managed to become the emperor of China, he would be deemed as something like a demigod? People would call him "Son of Heaven", "Lord of Ten Thousand Years", and "Holy Highness”. So now you should understand why Cao Cao was so desperate about it, yeah?
In order to do this, he needed to gain control of the Yangtze River and subdue the warlords to the south. Cao Cao then formed a huge army of about 800,000 soldiers.
Meanwhile, Liu Bei joined Sun Quan and together, they formed an army of only about 50,000 soldiers. 800,000 vs. 50,000 – who do you think would win?
Nope, #TeamCaoCao did not.
THE SLIPPERY SLOPES
First thing, his vanguard did not manage to win over the red cliffs near the Yangtze river, which would actually have given them an edge (such as shooting flaming arrows from the cliffs, perhaps).
Here’s the list of main mistakes that caused Cao Cao to lose the battle:
- Cao Cao’s troop consisted of mostly infantry (and cavalry) and horses, and had very minimal experience in naval battles. Cao Cao ‘transformed’ an infantry army into a navy army in such a short time, with only a few trainings provided prior to the battle, which took place mostly (or, possibly) at the Yangtze River.
- Cao Cao’s troop had so little help from people of Jing Province (one of the provinces he just defeated before the battle) although they were made part of the troop. This caused Cao Cao to have insufficient support and strength.
- Cao Cao assumed that simply with the large number of people in his troop, he could win.
- Cao Cao did not take note of the seasons’ difference between the north and the south, hence no preparation was done to anticipate. Southern area was tropical, whereas northern area (from which Cao Cao’s people mostly hail from) had 4 seasons. His troop got tropical illness and became so weakened.
HOW HE LOST: DOUBLE UNLUCKINESS
So, as Cao Cao’s unprepared soldiers got seasick, Cao Cao then decided to tie up his ships together, in order to stabilize the ship and reduce the soldiers’ seasickness
Seeing this tying up of ships, Huang Gai, one of Sun Quan’s people, sent a letter and pretended to give in to Cao Cao. He crashed a ship against Cao Cao’s - this ship apparently had no soldier on board, but filled with oil and was burning with flames. The fire then spread around and many of Cao Cao’s soldiers and horses died from drowning and getting burnt.
At the same time, the southern soldiers attacked the confused northern force. Seeing that his army was defeated, Cao Cao ordered his forces to retreat.
The retreat proved no better for Cao Cao. As his army fled, it began to rain causing them to get stuck in mud. The southern army continued to attack and much of Cao Cao's army was destroyed. In fact, a good deal of Cao Cao territory was taken over.
Map of Battle of Red Cliffs: sums up the whole battle
This victory of the southern warlords then prevented Cao Cao from uniting and ruling over China as he initially planned – in fact it became divided into three. Cao Cao maintained some control of the north and established the Kingdom of Wei. Meanwhile, Liu Bei founded the Kingdom of Shu, and Sun Quan founded the Kingdom of Wu. These kingdoms then became known as the Three Kingdoms period of China.
So many things could be learnt from here, don’t you think?
The bigger might not be the better. Also, even a supposedly hero made a lot of mistakes – bet they all sound like ‘duh-you-don’t-say’ mistakes – all in the name of greed and impatience which lead to miscalculations and unnecessary “bad luck”. See, if only Cao Cao followed Tao Te Ching. Desires could destroy you. LOL.
Now, do you see why all this made a cool plot in a blockbuster?
[Bonus] Fun facts:
- What’s the main reason the emperor trusted the eunuchs so much? Eunuchs did not have any heirs, so the emperor thought they would not overthrow him.
- We don’t know who to believe here: Cao Cao boasted in a letter that he had 800,000 soldiers. However, according to general Zhou Yu of the south’s calculation, Cao Cao had fewer, only around 230,000.
- Someone created a video game based on the battle. It’s called Dragon Throne: Battle of Red Cliffs.
- There are still many things we have yet to know – up till today, the real location of the battle was not confirmed as no physical evidences have been found yet.