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The battle of Red Cliffs (also known as the fight of Chibi, 208 CE) was the pivotal engagement in between the forces of northern China led through the warlord Cao Cao (l. 155-220 CE) and the ally defenders of the southern under the command that Liu Bei (d. 223 CE) and also Sun Quan (d. 252 CE). The fight is thought about the transforming point in the conflict in between various warlords who assumed manage of their regions and also then prolonged their reach in the waning work of the Han empire (202 BCE - 220 CE). Cao Cao was beat by the southerly coalition and driven back north, ending his dream of unifying China under his rule.

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The engagement leveled the playing field of the main antagonists as, previously, Cao Cao had actually been the most an effective and commanded the largest army. Afterwards, with Cao Cao beaten and also forced come retreat with hefty losses, Liu Bei and also Sun Quan stabilized their regions and this eventually led to the 3 Kingdoms duration (220-280 CE) complying with the finish of the Han dynasty with Cao Cao judgment the kingdom that Cao Wei, Liu Bei reigning end Shu Han, and also Sun Quan as king of east Wu. The 3 Kingdoms stayed in often uneasy truce through each other until lock were unified in 280 CE under the Jin Dynasty.

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Han Dynasty decrease & the Yellow Turban Rebellion

The Han Dynasty, which had actually liberated China ~ the repressive ascendancy of the Qin (221-206 BCE), had come to be increasingly corruption by c. 130 CE. The central reason offered by later on Chinese historians was the development of the function of palace eunuchs in the Chinese government. The eunuchs were initially no much more than harem guards, chosen to for sure the safety and also sexual purity the the Chinese emperor"s many concubines, however their proximity come the emperor and also ready access to court intrigues made them an important assets to the nobility. Eunuchs could, and also did, play vital roles in elevating part members of the nobility and also disposing that others. Further, they detailed the emperor through a buffer between himself and the assorted parties seek his favors.

By c. 130 CE, the eunuchs were the actual power behind the throne, manipulating the government & pushing through their various agendas.

By c. 130 CE, the eunuchs were the actual power behind the throne, manipulating the government and pushing v their various agendas. Federal government positions could now be bought from the eunuchs and were filled by assorted undeserving family members of the upper class who can afford the price. The once-efficient administration of the Han decreased as an ext and an ext of the upper class, who had no maintain in government administration, to fill the posts, collected their pay, and also neglected your duties.

In 142 CE, a peasant movement well-known as the 5 Pecks that Rice Rebellion was introduced by a Taoist visionary called Zhang Daoling who essentially gave notice that he and his sect to be seceding from royal China to kind their very own state whereby they could far better take treatment of themselves. The Han, who favored Taoist thought, seem come have given Zhang and also his followers tiny thought and also less an alert as nothing to be done around them till 215 CE and, even then, it was not the Han who lugged the region back in line, however Cao Cao who was pursuing his very own agenda in act so.

Perhaps motivated by the relative success that the five Pecks movement, a Taoist healer named Zhang Jue initiated his very own revolt in 184 CE, the Yellow Turban Rebellion, which quickly caught the people"s imagination and also spread throughout the nation rapidly. Zhang condemned the Han as selfish and self-seeking aristocrats who had actually lost the Mandate of Heaven by which they had the best to rule. The Mandate that Heaven, dating back to the Zhou empire (1046-256 BCE), was a spiritual contract between the judgment house and the gods legitimizing a dynasty and evident in the judgment house"s treatment for the people. The people, Zhang pointed out, were enduring while the the aristocracy did naught to assist them.

Zhang focused his motion on the principle of jiazhi (“worth”), the fundamental, intrinsic worth of an separation, personal, instance and, by extension, the actions of that individual. Every person had actually a divine value, no issue their social class or contribution to society, and also this was being ignored by the government officials who squandered resources, wasted time and also energy, and pursued their very own petty interests all at the cost of the people they were claimed to be serving.

The Yellow Turban Rebellion (so-called because of the yellow headgear rebels wore, symbolizing the earth) quickly had energetic enclaves anywhere China and also Zhang operated to arm the peasants because that the dispute he knew would come once the Han chose to act. He did not have to wait long because the Han were not around to allow this kind of agitation go together it had actually the five Pecks Rebellion.

Rise the the Warlords

The emperor Lingdi (r. 168 -189 CE) had ongoing the plans of his predecessors in elevating local governors to army positions to guard the borders versus invasions by the nomadic Xianbei and also Xiongnu and also many of his ideal generals were because of this far from the capital. Lingdi sent his generals Huangfu song (d. 195 CE), Lu Zhi (d. 192 CE), and also Zhu Jun (d. 194 CE) against the rebels yet as quickly as one enclave was crushed, an additional appeared elsewhere.

A court official (who was additionally a local governor) called Liu Yan (d. 194 CE), argued that the emperor authorize his provincial and local officials by releasing lock from royal dictates and enabling them to manage the rebellion in their own territories together they ideal saw fit. In doing so, Lingdi would certainly be encouraging the development of a variety of autonomous claims within his kingdom but, in ~ a loss because that a better plan, the agreed come it. Among these regional officials was Cao Cao that seized ~ above the new freedom and also crushed the rebellion in ~ a year. Zhang Jue to be either eliminated in battle or executed and the revolt was crushed by the end of 184 CE.

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Cao Cao

Other local governors had an in similar way flexed their brand-new muscles, now becoming warlords and, after the rebellion was placed down, set about administering their districts as castle chose and also claiming lands without referral to the emperor or court policy. Lingdi died in 189 CE, leave the throne come his boy Liu Bian, at the time around the period of 12, who came to be Emperor Shao the Han. That was also young come rule, however, and also so a regent – his uncle he Jin – was inserted over him. The eunuchs wanted regulate of the brand-new emperor, however, and plotted to assassinate he Jin at the exact same time the He Jin sent word to outlying warlords Dong Zhuo (d. 192 CE) and also Yuan Shao (d. 202 CE) to involved Luoyang and aid him dispose of the eunuchs.

The eunuchs uncovered He"s plan and assassinated him, yet this did them little great since Yuan Shao then slaughtered lock all as soon as he landed on the city and also found he Jin dead. When the eunuchs and their supporters were being massacred, the young emperor, his brother Liu Xie, and also their family members escaped the city and were ~ above their means to Chang"an once they were intercepted by Dong Zhuo, marching towards Luoyang. Dong take it the emperor and his entourage and, now holding the imperial seal, declared himself the can be fried power.

The Alliance & Conflict

The various other warlords, consisting of Cao Cao, objected come this and formed one alliance to fall Dong well-known as the Guandong Coalition (c. 190-192 CE). The 26 warlords surrounding Luoyang with their militaries but Dong escaped, setting the city ~ above fire and herding the populace, including the emperor, toward Chang"an which he fortified. The warlords declared they were fighting because that the repair of the Han Dynasty and to rescue the emperor while Dong asserted the emperor was his guest and in no danger. Dong actually favored the emperor"s younger brother, Liu Xie, for dominion and, in 190 CE, had actually Emperor Shao executed and also Liu Xie came to be Emperor Xian.

The warlords again tried come topple Dong yet he was too well protected. He was lastly killed by his confidante and bodyguard Lu Bu and, after his death, the coalition damaged apart and turned on every other. Emperor Xian to be now hosted at Chang"an, under the influence of whichever warlord was strongest at a offered time, till he escaped in 195 CE and also fled north, at some point finding refuge v Cao Cao.

Cao Cao now hosted the key to legitimate dominion with the emperor and Imperial Seal in ~ his borders. If the alliance had ever actually cared around restoring the Han come power, this was the moment when they can have made that clear and also either rescued the emperor or revived him to power. Instead, Cao Cao and the others continued the strength struggle, death each other off and taking in lands, when the emperor continued to be under the "protection" the Cao Cao and also could execute nothing.

Cao Cao beat every opponent, steadily enlarging his region until he hosted the totality of the phibìc China Plain. He beat Yuan Shao, among his earliest friends and comrades-in-arms, at the battle of Guandu in 200 CE, solidifying his hold on an ext territories and also expanding his armies. Between 200-207 CE, Cao Cao ongoing his campaigns, building a significant army, until all he needed to do was march south and also join those areas to his very own in order come unify China under his rule.

Red Cliffs

Cao Cao set off in the so late summer of 208 CE with an army (according come his very own estimation) of almost 800,000 warriors. Contemporary scholars and also even Cao Cao"s contemporaries insurance claim this is a wild exaggeration and also he probably had closer to 250,000 men, however even so, this to be an incredibly huge army, specifically when one considers the his opponents could field only between 10,000-50,000 troops.

The very first objective to be to record the harbor city the Jiangling ~ above the Yangtze river which would allow Cao Cao to manage trade and supply troops conveniently throughout the south. The met no resistance ~ above his march towards Jiangling, however he knew the other warlords would be wait for him as soon as he got to the city.

While Cao Cao to be on the march, a brand-new coalition had actually formed versus him headed by Liu Bei the Han and Sun Quan that Wu however including a variety of notable generals such together the great Guan Yu (d. 220 CE), so famed for his martial skills and personal honor that he to be later worshiped as Guan Gong (also well-known as Guandi), god that war and protection, and also the brilliant strategist Zhou Yu (d. 210 CE). Guan Yu was in charge that troops" flow passage while Liu Bei, whom he served, marched through land.


The first skirmish came as soon as Cao Cao struck Liu Bei"s columns, scattering them, and also Guan Yu rescued the troops and brought lock downriver. Cao Cao would probably have actually won at this point, but his guys were tired from the long march and, unused to the southerly climate and also terrain, they to be disoriented, many of them ill. Guan Yu was able to easily rescue Liu Bei"s troops whereas, in the past, Cao Cao had proven self a thoroughly strategist who planned for every contingency and would never have actually let the happen.

Among the numerous problems the southern campaign presented come him was transferring land troops through water. Cao Cao had got a significant number of ships v his previously victories and planned on utilizing them to subdue the south along the Yangtze River. His men, used to soil battles, became seasick and, more than likely in an answer to this, Cao Cao had actually the watercrafts lashed together to stop rocking therefore the fleet was one whole block that ships fairly than separate boats able to maneuver.

Once Cao Cao was back in Wei, that resigned himself to his defeat, proclaimed self king the his territories, & established the Kingdom the Cao Wei.

Once Cao Cao had actually positioned his military on the southern financial institution of the Yangtze, that docked his floating fortress nearby, which motivated one that the coalition generals, Huang Gai (d. 210 CE), with a setup for Cao Cao"s defeat. Huang Gai, a division commander v a number of ships in ~ his disposal, contacted Cao Cao claiming he wanted to defect and also bring his fleet with him. Cao Cao happily welcomed his offer and awaited his arrival. Huang Gai then filled the watercrafts with flammable materials and also oil and also had a skeleton crew sail them out onto the river. As soon as they were halfway across, v the winds now moving them stability forward, the seafarers fired the ships and also then slipped off onto smaller boats. The ships were coming too fast and were too close for Cao Cao to carry out anything to avoid them and also they slammed right into his fleet, setting it top top fire.


As the pearls burst right into flames, Zhou Yu burst ~ above Cao Cao"s encampment with a land contingent, killing and scattering Cao"s men. Cao Cao known the day was lost completely and sound a basic retreat back north v Zhou Yu, Liu Bei, and also Sun Quan"s pressures pursuing them. The path the retreating military needed to take, the Huarong Road, was a muddy monitor which made for slow going and many of the guys were sick, every one of them most likely demoralized, and an ext died on the retreat north than at the brief battle of Red Cliffs.


Once Cao Cao was earlier in Wei, the resigned self to his defeat, proclaimed himself king of his territories, and established the Kingdom that Cao Wei. Liu Bei complied with suit in the south, founding the Kingdom of Shu Han and also Sun Quan walk the exact same with his Kingdom of eastern Wu. China was now divided in three – the era recognized as the three Kingdoms duration – through each monarch claiming the Mandate of heaven to rule every one of China yet each lacking the toughness to subdue the various other two.

The Han dynasty still technically ruled China because Emperor Xian still lived at Cao Cao"s court. As soon as Cao Cao passed away in 220 CE, his child Cao Pi forced the emperor to abdicate and founded the Wei dynasty (221-265 CE) which to be mirrored by the other states the Shu Han and Eastern Wu i m sorry each witnessed themselves together the legit heirs come the Han and also Liu Bei and Sun Quan both proclaiming us emperors. China would remain split along these lines until it was combined by the Jin dynasty in 280 CE.


The fight of Red Cliffs and the period of the 3 Kingdoms is just one of the best-known and most very romanticized engagements and also eras in Chinese background thanks to the 14th-century CE bestselling novel Romance of the three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. The novel, a occupational of historic fiction, is responsible for the sinister reputation of Cao Cao as a ruthless villain, characters such as Liu Bei and Sun Quan together heroes, and magical events – such together summoning that the winds to blow the fire-ships towards Cao Cao"s fleet – as component of the plot development. The novel was incredibly popular and also is still check out in the existing day. In 2008 CE, director man Woo released the movie Red Cliff to famous and vital acclaim and the battle is the subject of video games and also other works.

Based ~ above this media – and operatic performances and also artwork – Cao Cao is routinely shown as the ultimate villain, intent on overcoming China at any kind of cost, when Liu Bei and also Sun Quan are seen as the patriotic heroes defending the flexibility of their homeland versus a cruel tyrant. In reality, nobody of the parties who met at the fight of Red Cliffs had actually the civilization of China"s attention at heart and none that them had actually a legitimate claim to the Mandate the Heaven. Every vied v the other purely the end of their very own self-interest, and the people they were claimed to it is in fighting because that paid the price for your ambition.

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Editorial ReviewThis write-up has to be reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to scholastic standards before publication.


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A freelance writer and also former part-time Professor of viewpoint at Marist College, new York, Joshua J. Mark has lived in Greece and Germany and also traveled through Egypt. He has taught history, writing, literature, and philosophy in ~ the college level.