Battle of Red Cliffs, and Cao Cao’s retreat (also shown: Battle of Changban). Note that the battlefield location is marked at the site near Chibi City.
The demise of the Han dynasty was messy. Like many other dynastic declines, it began as a peasant revolt incited by dissatisfaction at the oppressive conduct of a corrupt ruling class, and was exacerbated by flood and famine – in this case caused by breaches of the lower Yellow River. Those latter events were interpreted as a withdrawal of heaven’s mandate, and from around AD 170 peasants displaced from their homes by floodwaters and penury, along with unemployed soldiers, formed into bands that swelled to ramshackle armies. In 184 a Daoist rebel sect called the Yellow Turbans began to wrest territories north of the Yellow River from the command of the emperor Lingdi.
The Yellow Turban uprising lasted for twenty years, and by the end of it the Han empire had been brought to its knees. After Lingdi died in 189, rule was shared between his consort Empress He and her half-brother He Jin, general of the Han army. But He Jin was hostile to the powerful clique of court eunuchs, and later that same year he was assassinated. A warlord named Dong Zhuo then seized the throne, ruling through the puppet emperor Xiandi, Lingdi’s son. When his harsh and despotic rule ended with his death in 192, another ambitious warlord – Cao Cao of Wei, who had acted as a Han military commander during the Yellow Turban revolt – made Xiandi his own puppet and effectively ran what remained of the empire.
Cao Cao’s authority was challenged by the leaders of other states: by Sun Quan, Marquis of Eastern Wu, south of the Yangtze in modern Zhejiang, and by Liu Bei, a warlord who set himself up as ruler of the state of Shu. Faced with Cao Cao’s overwhelming forces, Sun and Liu agreed to an alliance, and they met Cao Cao’s troops at Chibi (Red Cliff) on the Yangtze in Hubei. Some records claim that Cao Cao had over 800,000 men, his opponents just 30,000. The outcome of the battle would decide the future of China: would it be unified by Cao Cao, masquerading as a servant of the hapless Xiandi, or splinter into rival states?
As the Shu and Wu forces confronted Cao Cao’s massively superior army, the Wu commander Zhou Yu played an old trick. To plant an alleged defector in the enemy midst to lead them astray – compare the ploy of the king of Qin against ancient Shu (see here) – seems to assume an optimistic degree of credulity. But it perhaps speaks of the fissiparous nature of warlord-era China that such defections were common enough to make the scheme believable. In any event, Zhou Yu sent his military strategist Pang Tong to join Cao Cao. When Pang Tong heard that Cao Cao’s army, unused to river combat, was becoming seasick on the ships, he proposed that the vessels be chained and bolted together to stop them from rolling with the waves. ‘The river is wide, and the tides ebb and flow’, he says to Cao Cao in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms:
The winds and waves are never at rest. Your troops from the north are unused to ships, and the motion makes them ill. If your ships, large and small, were classed and divided into thirties, or fifties, and joined up stem to stem by iron chains and boards spread across them, to say nothing of soldiers being able to pass from one to the next, even horses could move about on them. If this were done, then there would be no fear of the wind and the waves and the rising and falling tides.
Then Pang Tong volunteered to return to the Wu troops, assuring Cao Cao that he could arrange for more defections. Sure enough, in due course Cao Cao received a letter from one of the Wu generals, Huang Gai, saying that he was going to change sides and bring with him boats loaded with grain.
The day after the full moon in the eleventh month of 208, Cao Cao’s fleet set out to attack. Chained together, it moved as a solid mass. ‘When [the boats] got among the waves, they were found to be as steady and immovable as the dry land itself. The northern soldiers showed their delight at the absence of motion by capering and flourishing their weapons.’ But what if they were attacked with fire, and needed to scatter, one of Cao Cao’s advisers asked anxiously? The leader laughed. The wind is in the wrong direction, he said – if the enemy tried to use fire, it would be blown back onto them.
Seeing the vast armada approach, Zhou Yu was overtaken by a sickness and confined to his bed – an ill omen for the approaching battle. But Liu Bei’s military adviser Zhuge Liang came to his bedside and offered a solution. ‘To defeat Cao Cao’, he said, ‘you have to use fire.’ But how could that work, the general wondered, knowing what Cao Cao too knew of the wind? Then Zhuge Liang revealed that he had magical knowledge: ‘I can call the winds and summon the rains.’ He explained that, with a Daoist spell, he could conjure the south-east breeze that was needed to make fire work against Cao Cao.
Meanwhile, the Wu general Huang Gai completed the plan by readying his fireships:
The fore parts of the ships were thickly studded with large nails, and they were loaded with dry reeds, wood soaked in fish oil, and covered with sulfur, saltpetre, and other inflammables. The ships were covered with black oiled cloth. In the prow of each was a black dragon flag with indentations. A fighting ship was attached to the stern of each to propel it forward. All were ready and awaited orders to move.
Confident of Huang Gai’s defection, Cao Cao was unconcerned as the twenty Wu ships approached, despite the south-easterly wind that Zhuge Liang’s ritual had awakened. The latter was nothing to worry about, he told his anxious ministers – of course the wind direction might change from time to time. ‘That is my friend, the deserter!’ laughed Cao Cao as the vessels drew close. ‘Heaven is on my side today.’
But then the trap was sprung:
When the ships were about a mile distant, Huang Gaifn waved his sword and the leading ships broke forth into fire, which, under the force of the strong wind, soon gained strength and the ships became as fiery arrows. Soon the whole twenty dashed into the naval camp. All Cao Cao’s ships were gathered there, and as they were firmly chained together not one could escape from the others and flee. There was a roar of bombs and fireships came on from all sides at once. The face of the water was speedily covered with fire which flew before the wind from one ship to another. It seemed as if the universe was filled with flame.
The inferno consumed Cao Cao’s fleet. The flames leapt so high, it was said, that they scorched the cliffs red.
The famous victory of Shu and Wu over Cao Cao is far from the end of the tale. The two allies always knew that one day they were likely to face each other in the battle for supremacy; and so it transpired. Zhuge Liang built a fortress at Fengjie to ward off the Wu army, but to no avail. Wu triumphed, and Liu Bei fled to Baidicheng above the Yangtze gorges, where he died. The Three Kingdoms then dissolved into a patchwork of states and would-be minor dynasties, all overlapping and squabbling, until the Jurchen invaders from the north overran Wei in AD 265 and then Wu in 280, forming the precarious (and soon fragmented) first Jin dynasty.
China didn’t truly become one empire again until 581, when Yang Jian, Duke of Sui in the Northern Zhou dynasty, seized power and declared the Sui dynasty (see here). The duke, now Sui Emperor Wendi, then needed to conquer a southern dynasty called the Chen. In the 580s, the immense Sui warships defeated the Chen navy on the Yangtze. These five-storey ships were then the largest in the world, holding 800 men and equipped with great spiked balls swinging from derricks. Against this terrifying armada the Chen could do nothing, and for a brief but energetic period the Sui ruled from Guangdong and Hainan to Hebei.
Tall ‘tower ships’ became a stock feature of the Sui and Tang navies. They are described in the gloriously named manual Tai bai yin jing (Canon of the White and Gloomy Planet of War), written in 759 by the Tang Daoist and military strategist Li Quan:
These ships have three decks equipped with bulwarks for the fighting-lines, and flags and pennants flying from the masts. There are ports and openings for crossbows and lances, while [on the top deck] there are trebuchets for hurling stones . . . [The whole broadside] gives the appearance of a city wall. In the Jin period the Prancing Dragon Admiral Wang Jun, invading Wu, built a ship 200 paces in length, and on it set flying rafters and hanging galleries on which chariots and horses could go.
With multiple decks rising to as much as thirty metres, these ships might be armed with ‘fending irons’: long arms pivoted on jibs and ending in iron spikes, which could be sent smashing down from an upright position to wreak havoc on enemy craft. Meanwhile, swift-moving attack ships known as meng chong were used at least since the Han era; the Tang armoured them with plates or sheets of leather, wood, rhinoceros hide or iron, both to give cover from arrows and stones and to repel boarders.
Innovation in naval military technology was one of the most belligerent facets of the inventive ‘genius of China’ expounded by Joseph Needham in his encyclopaedic examination of how the country’s science and civilization co-evolved. A great fleet of warships enabled the Southern Song to fend off Yangtze pirates in the twelfth century, and around the early 1130s a Song official hit on the notion of building ships powered by hand-driven paddle wheels, so that they could be manoeuvred even on windless days. Because their wheels were hidden beneath protective coverings, the ships, called ‘flying tiger warships’, seemed to the enemies to move by supernatural power, filling them with fear. These vessels had up to twenty-four paddle wheels, but usually just two or four, powered by several dozen crew members. They carried trebuchets that flung gunpowder-filled grenades, and wielded great wrecking balls suspended by chains, or systems of pulleys and booms that allowed rocks to be dropped onto enemy ships from a great height. ‘No other civilization produced anything like them’, Needham claimed.
Unfortunately for the Song, the bandit leader Yang Yao captured the carpenter who designed the mighty paddle-driven war vessels and forced him to build some for him. By 1135 Yang had a fleet of several hundred with which to defend his piratical activities on the Yangtze. But when, that year, the Song commander Yue Fei fought Yang Yao on Dongting Lake, he devised a strategy to disable the paddle fighters. His troops spread grass and logs on the lake surface, clogging and breaking the wheels. Yang Yao was defeated and beheaded.
That victory did Yue Fei little good in the end. When his heroic achievements began to make him too popular in the eyes of the Song leaders, the general was imprisoned and poisoned. But thanks to a hagiography written by his grandson, Yue Fei became celebrated during the Ming era as the model of a (wronged but) virtuous servant of the state. There is still a temple dedicated to him today near the West Lake of the former Southern Song capital of Hangzhou, and his slogan ‘Recover our Rivers and Mountains’ was turned into a patriotic song during the war with the Japanese in the twentieth century.
It’s not clear why word of Yue Fei’s rather simple strategy didn’t get out, but the Southern Song were able to continue using their paddle-wheel ships to good effect in their campaign against the Jurchen invaders – the Great Jin dynasty – in the north. When the two powers clashed in 1161 in the battles of Tangdao (in the East China Sea) and Caishi (on the Yangtze), the technical ingenuity of the Song carried the day. At Caishi the Song commander Yu Yunwen, allegedly leading a force of just 3,000 troops and 120 warships powered by paddle wheels, defeated a Jin navy of 70,000 men and 600 vessels. (The imbalance was almost certainly inflated by the victors’ scribes to magnify the achievement.) The Song ships showered the Jin navy with incendiary bombs, a tactic described in ‘Hai qiu fu’ (‘Rhapsodic Ode on the Sea-Eel Paddle-Wheel Warships’) by the Southern Song poet Yang Wanli:
Our ships rushed forth from behind [the island] on both sides. The men inside them paddled fast on the treadmills, and the ships glided forwards as though they were flying, yet no one was visible on board. The enemy thought that they were made of paper. Then all of a sudden a thunderclap bomb was let off. It was made with paper and filled with lime and sulphur. These thunderclap bombs came dropping down from the air, and upon meeting the water exploded with a noise like thunder, the sulphur bursting into flames. The carton [paper] case rebounded and broke, scattering the lime to form a smoky fog, which blinded the eyes of men and horses so that they could see nothing. Our ships then went forward to attack theirs, and their men and horses were all drowned, so that they were utterly defeated.
For all its might and ingenuity, the Song fleet couldn’t protect the empire from the Mongol invaders when, after defeating the Jin, they turned on their Song allies. Khubilai Khan’s cavalry were invincible on the northern plains, but in the south the Mongols needed to fight with ships. They assembled a navy with extraordinary speed, importing sailors and shipwrights from Korea as well as conscripting locals in Shandong. The troops learnt the skills of water combat quickly, and in 1267 they faced the Song fleet at the twin cities of Xiangyang and Fancheng on the Han River – a strategic gateway to the confluence of the Han and the Yangtze – in one of the most celebrated battles in Chinese history. It was certainly one of the most protracted, allegedly lasting for six years, and was fought both on land and on water. The Mongols used their fleet of 5,000 ships to blockade the Han and prevent supplies from reaching the besieged cities, while their cavalry saw off the Song troops attempting to provide reinforcements. Powerful new siege machines such as counterweight trebuchets (a design imported from the Middle East) beat down the city defences. When the Southern Song commander Lü Wenhuan finally surrendered in 1273, the Mongol conquest of China was inevitable. The general Bayan (called Hundred Eyes by Marco Polo, a colourful mistranslation of his Mongolian name) battled his way down the Yangtze to the Southern Song capital of Hangzhou, which fell in 1276.
The conquerors were more generous in victory than they were in the winning of it. The Song Emperor Gongdi was a six-year-old boy, and the court was effectively led by his mother, Empress Dowager Quan, and grandmother, Grand Empress Dowager Xie. After the capitulation, mother and son were taken to the northern capital of Khanbaliq, where Gongdi was given the title Duke of Ying. He later moved to the former Mongol capital of Shangdu in Inner Mongolia, and finally to Tibet (then known as Tubo), where he entered a monastery in 1296.
That wasn’t quite the end of the Song. A defiant faction of the court escaped with Gongdi’s two brothers, and the eldest was declared emperor in Fuzhou, Fujian, in 1276. The entourage was soon forced to flee to Lantau Island, today a part of Hong Kong, where the eldest brother died and the younger, aged seven, was declared Emperor Huaizong. The remains of the Song navy – still a mighty fleet – harboured at Yamen in Guangdong province. In 1279 the Mongol (now Yuan) force, although fewer in number than its opponent, closed in for the endgame, and once again proved its naval supremacy. At the Battle of Yamen the young Huaizong perished along with thousands of officials as they leapt into the sea during that final conflict.
A naval battle ended the Yuan dynasty too: the rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang, who became the first Ming Emperor (see here), crushed the imperial forces, also at Caishi, in 1355. Before he could become emperor, Zhu then had to overcome his rival Chen Youliang, a leader of the Red Turban rebels. The two navies met on Poyang Lake in 1363 in what has sometimes been called ‘the largest naval battle in history’ (a contested accolade, as you can see). Zhu’s ships faced a force three times as great, but he won the battle with his incendiary firepower. Vessels loaded with combustibles, and sometimes with gunpowder, were sent crashing into Chen’s triple-decked warships. Chen was eventually killed after breaking out from the lake and being pursued along the Long River.
The Chinese perfected the use of incendiary devices for water warfare, constructing boats that were divided in the middle so that the rowers aft could detach the incendiary fore section and retreat to literally watch the fireworks. Fire was one of the most devastating weapons for river combat, and was developed to a versatile art as naval warfare became ever less a matter of hand-to-hand engagement and more about flinging projectiles. ‘Sky-flying tubes’ would set fire to enemy sails; ‘gunpowder buckets’ and ‘fire bricks’ scarcely need their destructive potential to be spelled out.