The Battle of Chibi, or Battle of Red Cliffs, was a battle fought between the allied forces of Sun Quan and Liu Bei against the much larger forces of Cao Cao in the winter of 208-209 A.D.


Cao Cao had annexed the northern provinces of China and was looking south, he had just secured Jing province with little conflict and had chased his old enemy, Liu Bei, from the province through Dangyang, although he was unable to score a victory against him.

Since his fight with Yuan Shao almost a decade ago, Cao Cao had little challenge. Yuan Shao's sons weakened one another through infighting, making them easy prey; Jing had submitted without a fight; and with Liu Bei's limited power he was more a thorn in Cao Cao's side than an actual threat. Now, Cao Cao was facing against the state of Wu, they had consolidated power in the south a decade ago, and some of their officers had served three separate Sun members and been loyal for several decades, if Cao Cao thought they would bend easily, he'd dead be wrong.

In Wu, the fate of Jing province was always a concern, it was the gateway to their own province of Yang and so long as it remained in enemy hands they were threatened. When Liu Biao died Lu Su discussed with Sun Quan the value of Jing, the impending threat of Cao Cao, and asked permission to make the trip west to convince Liu Bei to take the province and ally with Wu against Cao Cao. So, under the guise to paying condolences to Liu Biao's heirs, Lu Su was sent west to arrange an alliance.[1]

Unfortunately, by the time Lu Su had reached Xiakou (夏口; near the confluence of the Han river and Yangzi), news came that Cao Cao was already invading Jing. Lu Su hurried as fast as he could and met up with Liu Bei at Changban (長阪). Lu Su immediately proposed the idea of a partnership, he said: ""Sun the General Who Exterminates Caitiffs, is wise and generous. He respects worthy men and treats scholars with courtesy. All the leaders of the lands beyond the Yangzi have joined him, and he now controls six commanderies. His soldiers are well-trained, he has quantities of supplies, and he is strong enough to maintain his independence." Liu Bei was pleased; it further helped matters that Zhuge Liang's brother, Zhuge Jin had found his way into the service of Sun Quan. Following Lu Su's advice, Liu Bei headed down the Yangzi river to Fankou in E county.[2]

The Alliance NegotiationsEdit

Zhuge Liang had accompanied Lu Su back to Sun Quan to continue discussion of an alliance. Zhuge Liang met with Sun Quan at Chaisang county in Yuzhang commandery, and said to him: "All within the seas is in confusion. You have raised soldiers east of the Yangzi, Liu Bei has collected an army south of the Han, and together we are fighting Cao Cao for the empire. I ask you to measure your strength, and give him a place to defend himself. If you are ever going to fight, then the sooner you do it the better. If you cannot do this, then why have you not restrained your troops, curbed your armed men, and turned north to serve Cao Cao? You pretend you will submit and obey, but you have really not made up your mind. Time is pressing: unless you make a decision, misfortune will come very soon."

To which Sun Quan replied: "If things are the way you describe, then why does Liu Bei not submit to him?"

And Zhuge Liang said to him: "Liu Bei is a descendant of the royal house, his courage and ability are known through all the world, and he is respected and admired by the people and the gentry as naturally as water returns to the sea. If a man such as that cannot succeed, that may be a decision of Heaven, but how could he submit to another?"

But this just made Sun Quan angry, he said: "I am not going to collect the lands of Wu and an army of a 100,000 men and put them under someone else's orders. I have made my calculations. And as to the idea that Liu Bei is the only man who can face up to Cao Cao: Liu Bei has just been defeated, how is he to resist this threat?"

Zhuge Liang then informed Sun Quan that Liu Bei may have lost at Changban, but Guan Yu's forces of 10,000 and Liu Qi's forces of another 10,000 had not been present, so the situation was not so cut and dry. He further went on to say that Cao Cao's forced march would have exhausted his men. He finally tried to push forward the idea of Three Kingdoms, something that Lu Su had avidly been trying to foster. Having said his piece, Zhuge Liang leaves to let Sun Quan deliberate with his ministers.[3][n 1]

Around this time, a message from Cao Cao arrived, it said: "I have lately received an imperial command to attack all criminals. My standards point to the south, and Liu Zong has bound hands. I control a fleet with 800,000 men, and I plan to come hunting with you in Wu." Sun Quan's court was understandably concerned and many urged Sun Quan to surrender.

Chief Clerk Zhang Zhao had long been the tutor to Sun Quan and said to him: "Lord Cao is like a jackal or a tiger. He holds the Son of Heaven to justify his attacks, and whatever he does he can claim to support the court. If we oppose him now, it will appear as disobedience to the throne. Furthermore, the Yangzi is your critical line of defence against him, but Cao Cao now controls Jing and all its territory. Liu Biao had a fleet trained, with thousands of armoured boats and other ships of war. If Cao Cao sails all this along the Yangzi and supports it with foot-soldiers, he will be coming against us by land and water. In other words, Cao Cao controls the line of the river as well as we do, and in sheer military strength we have nothing to match him. In our humble opinion, the best policy is to receive him."[n 2]

Only Lu Su did not speak up, but he said to Sun Quan in private: "I have listened to their suggestions, and those people are misleading you. You cannot make useful plans with them. I could welcome Cao Cao, but not you. If I surrender to Cao Cao, he will send me back to my home district, to be graded for name and rank, and at the very least I would become a junior Attendant Official. So I could ride in a carriage drawn by oxen, with an escort of soldiers, and could mingle with the gentry. Then I would be promoted and in the end I would be sure to finish with a province or a commandery. On the other hand, if you surrender to Cao Cao, where would you go? I urge you to decide this great plan before it is too late. Do not take those fellows' advice."[4]

Sun Quan was pleased with Lu Su and said: "Those others disappointed me, but you set forth a grand strategy. That is just what I looked for." Lu Su offered one last piece of advice, to recall Zhou Yu, an old friend of Sun Quan's older brother Ce, who was currently on a mission in Poyang.

When Zhou Yu arrived, he illustrated several weaknesses in Cao Cao's actions, he said: "Cao Cao, moreover, brings on his own destruction. Why should you surrender to him? Let me calculate things for you. The north is not yet settled. Ma Chao and Han Sui are still in the west of the passes, and they are a danger to Cao Cao's rear. At the same time, Cao Cao is leaving his cavalry, and is taking boats to contend with Wu. Furthermore, it is now the depths of winter, so his horses will have no fodder. He is forcing an army from central China on long marches to the region of the Yangzi and the lakes. His men have no experience of the marsh country and they will certainly get sickness. All these points are signs of danger in war, yet Cao Cao hastens blindly forwards."[5]

Zhou Yu then requested 20-30,000 troops with which he could to take to Xiakou and destroy Cao Cao. Sun Quan was satisfied, drew his sword and cut through his desk. He proclaimed: "Any officer who still dares argue for surrender will be the same as this desk." And with that the matter was settled.

Before leaving, Zhou Yu had one final conversation with Sun Quan where he questioned the "800,000" soldiers Cao Cao claimed to have. Zhou Yu suspected Cao Cao could only have brought 150-160,000 men south from central China and then may have claimed another 70-80,000 from Jing, and their loyalty was questionable. Alongside possible illness afflicting the northern troops in the southern wetlands, Zhou Yu believed that a force of 50,000 would be sufficient to defeat Cao Cao. Sun Quan was most pleased and gave him the 30,000 he had asked for previously, as well as Lu Su as Colonel Who Assists the Army and Cheng Pu, the longest serving and most loyal general within the Wu forces, as Controller of the Right; while Zhou Yu was to be Controller of the Left.[n 3][6]

With that, the forces of Wu set off to rendezvous with Liu Bei at Fankou.

The BattleEdit

Liu Bei was waiting at Fankou, as Lu Su had suggested, when the Wu forces sailed up. Liu Bei sent someone to receive Zhou Yu, but Zhou Yu curtly replied: "I command the army and I cannot leave my post. If your master will be gracious enough to call upon me, that is just what I expect!"

Liu Bei's brothers probably thought Zhou Yu was being too disrespectful, but Liu Bei said: "You do not have to worry about this. Today, I have to been asked to go. If I do not go, how can an alliance exist?" And went off alone. Liu Bei was disappointed at seeing the size of the Wu fleet, he did not believe the 30,000 troops brought would be sufficient to defeat Cao Cao. Liu Bei asked to see Lu Su or Zhuge Liang, but Zhou Yu again gave a fairly curt response and told Liu Bei that he'd have to look for them himself.[n 4] Liu Bei did not believe Zhou Yu's force would be victorious, so he held back 2,000 troops which he gave to his brothers, he later regretted not having more faith in Zhou Yu.[7]

The Sun-Liu alliance met at Chibi (somewhere along the Yangzi river)[n 5], and as predicted by Zhuge Liang, Lu Su and Zhou Yu, many of Cao Cao's soldiers were sufferring from some sickness, likely contracted from conditions in the marshy wetlands of Jing province. So during the initial engagement, Cao Cao was badly defeated and forced to pull his forces back to the western bank of the Yangzi. Having been defeated primarily by sickness, Cao Cao must have had two choices: prepare for retreat or see if his soldiers would acclimate to the conditions of the south, either way he'd have spent a few days collecting his forces after his defeat.

The men from the north were unused to naval warfare so Cao Cao thought to link his ships together[n 6], Huang Gai noticed Cao Cao's actions and said to Zhou Yu: "The enemy are many and we are few. It will be difficult to hold them for long. Just at this moment, in Cao Cao's array the ships of the fleet are joined stem to stern. We can burn them and put them to flight."

Huang Gai's suggestion was deemed excellent and 10 fire-boats were prepared. They were filled with dried wood and rush, and doused with oil. Huang Gai then sent a letter to Cao Cao, saying that he was planning to defect[n 7], the ruse was believed. As soon as a southeasterly wind was blowing, Huang Gai's ships set off. Impelled by the strong winds, the ships were like arrows they could not be stopped; nor could the fires be, they were carried along Cao Cao's fleet and soon even his naval camps were burning.[8]

The Wei forces were in chaos, many died in the fires, river or the ensuing panic as soldiers tried to escape. Zhou Yu immediately mobilised his forces in pursuit. Cao Cao was forced to burn his remaining ships[n 8], abandon his camp at Wulin[9] and flee west by Huarong road into Huarong county. However, the road was muddy and treacherous. Cao Cao's men had to throw plant matter across the ground to make it , still men would get mired in the mud and trampled underfoot. Worse still was starvation, as the rout at Chibi would have forced Cao Cao to abandon his baggage. Through fire, disease and starvation, over half of Cao Cao's forces were destroyed.[10]


The defeat of Cao Cao at Chibi resulted in an immediate retaliation from the forces of Wu. Wei forces were pursued back to Jiangling and Hefei.


  1. Zhuge Liang's bio, among other sources, makes it seem as though Zhuge Liang's talents alone convinced Wu to ally with Liu Bei. But there was still much discontent voiced by the court. It was Lu Su and Zhou Yu who ultimately pushed for the alliance. Zhou Yu's bio actually has Zhuge Liang arriving after the forces of Wu have already been marshalled and are preparing to depart.
  2. Zhang Zhao was a native of Xu province, and Xu province had suffered Cao Cao's wrath when Cao Cao massacred the people there in 193 A.D. This is likely going to make Zhang Zhao fearful of how dangerous Cao Cao could be.
  3. In effect, Zhou Yu and Cheng Pu were joint leaders of the Wu forces. This arrangement can lead to a breakdown in leadership if the two leaders are not on the same wavelength, a fact pointed out by Lü Meng some time later. As it turned out, Cheng Pu was not entirely happy with the much younger Zhou Yu having such a position, but didn't let it affect his duty.
  4. Common fiction has it that Zhou Yu had a feud with Zhuge Liang, however this is not the case. Zhou Yu did however have a distrust of Liu Bei, most likely because he could potentially be a rival warlord to Wu. His general curtness here is a reflection of Zhou Yu's distrust of Liu Bei.
  5. Somewhere along the Yangzi which ran southwest to northeast from Lake Dongting to Xiakou and outside the marshy areas found around Xiakou and Lake Dongting. Cao Cao had a camp at Wulin, so Chibi must be located somewhere near there.
  6. Cao Cao may have been intending to create some sort of super-structure, linking together his ships then anchoring them to the shore or riverbed to create a more stable platform; or perhaps even attempting to form a bridge so he could lead his men to the opposite shore and establish a beachhead.
  7. Quite a plausible response to Cao Cao's invasion. Sun Fu had also sent letters to Cao Cao asking to defect, though nothing came of it at the time, it was uncovered later.
  8. To stop them falling into enemy hands, or perhaps an attempt to create an obstacle for pursuing forces.

The Battle of Chibi in art and literatureEdit

Fact vs FictionEdit


  • ...It was Huang Gai who came up with the idea of the fire attack after seeing Cao Cao's ships linked together.
  • ...Huang Gai and Zhou Yu never employed the "battered body" ruse to convince Cao Cao of Huang Gai's defection.
  • ...Zhuge Liang didn't repeatedly humiliate Zhou Yu.
  • ...Zhuge Liang did not summon the wind. Although it was less common in the winter, southeastern wind was still very much possible.
  • ...Zhuge Liang never "borrowed" arrows from Cao Cao. There is an incident in 213 A.D. where Sun Quan's boat is shot with so many arrows it begins to list.
  • ...Zhuge Liang didn't convince Sun Quan and Zhou Yu to fight, it was always in their interest to do so.
  • ...Pang Tong never advised chaining the ships together, there is no reference of Pang Tong being involved.
  • ...Guan Yu didn't let Cao Cao go.


  1. SGZ Biography of Lu Su.
  2. SGZ Biography of Lu Su.
  3. SGZ Biography of Zhuge Liang. Translation: Kongming's Archives
  4. SGZ Biography of Lu Su.
  5. SGZ Biography of Zhou Yu. Translation: Kongming's Archives
  6. SGZ Biography of Zhou Yu. Translation: Kongming's Archives
  7. SGZ Jiang Biao Zhuan in the Biography of Liu Bei. Translation: Kongming's Archives
  8. SGZ Biography of Lü Meng. Translation: Kongming's Archives
  9. SGZ Biography of Sun Quan. Translation: Kongming's Archives
  10. SGZ Biography of Sun Quan. Translation: Scholar's of Shen Zhou


  • de Crespigny, Rafe. To Establish Peace. Vol. 2. Canberra: Faculty of Asian Studies, The Australian National University, 1996. 2 vols.