It was the year 208 AD. Chinese warlord Cao Cao (pronounced “tsao tsao”) had established his control over northern China. The emperor of the Han Dynasty was his puppet. Eight hundred thousand soldiers stood under his command.
It was time for Cao to claim mastery over the entire empire.
He moved 200,000 men to the Yangtze River, which splits China between north and south, and made preparations to cross.
Standing against Cao Cao was Liu Bei, a distant relative of the Han imperial line who harbored dreams of restoring his family to greatness, and Sun Quan, warlord of the southeast.
At the time, Liu Bei and his loyal companions, the warriors Zhang Fei and Guan Yu, were hiding on the northern bank of the Yangtze, under the protection of a local general. The general surrendered upon seeing the might of the vast armies Cao was leading their way, but Liu Bei did not yield.
Liu gathered up about 10,000 men and planned his last stand at a city on the middle reaches of the Yangtze River.
Sun Quan, knowing he would be next after Cao Cao vanquished Liu’s force, came and lent his assistance. Still, between them were only about 60,000 men and officers — hardly enough to stand a chance against the northern juggernaut.
The Red Cliff
But history has some wild cards, and numbers alone do not win wars. Many small rivers sprang from the Yangtze itself, making it difficult for Cao Cao’s troops to move. They were used to fighting on open plains and did not have enough boats to navigate the waters properly, let alone fight well. So instead of going to battle immediately, Cao Cao had his troops conduct drills.
Sun ordered a large number of special unmanned boats filled with oil and other flammable material to be sent drifting towards the enemy. But there was one problem: it was winter and the prevailing winds blew south, not east as was needed. Still, the forces of Sun Quan and Liu Bei had no other hope.
What happened on the day of the operation was nothing other than fate: the wind did something it never did in winter before, and began to blow east, straight towards Cao Cao’s fleet. Sun Quan sent out his burning ships, causing a tremendous fire to break out among Cao Cao’s forces. In the confusion, Liu Bei and Sun Quan’s troops launched an attack by land.
Before Red Cliff, Cao Cao had been almost certain that he would win easily. But the attack against Cao Cao’s 200,000-man army was so devastating that he escaped from the Yangtze with only a small number of his men.
This was the famous Battle of the Red Cliff. Owing to a quirk of providence, Cao Cao’s invasion of southern China ended in resounding failure. China would be divided between the Three Kingdoms — Cao’s Wei, Liu’s Shu, and Sun’s Wu — for another 60 years.
The wind that birthed the Great Ming
The Chinese have a saying that while men strive to achieve their goals, it is heaven that decides their success or failure.
The Hongwu emperor, also known by his personal name Zhu Yuanzhang, was the founding emperor of the great Ming Dynasty. Zhu was one of just two commoners in Chinese history to successfully fight his way to the throne and rule all of China. But like the formation of the epic Three Kingdoms era, Zhu’s rise was thanks to a well-timed wind.
During the last years of Mongol rule in the Yuan dynasty, there were many rebel groups who built up large armies after several rebellions in 1352. The two most powerful rebel leaders were Zhu Yuanzhang and Chen Youliang.
In June 1363, while Zhu was battling another rebel group led by Zhang Shicheng in the north, Chen sent an army of 600,000 soldiers to attack the city of Hong Du, today’s Nanchang in Jiangxi Province. The city was defended by Zhu Yuanzhang’s nephew. It was August before he was able to get word of the attack to Zhu Yuanzhang, who immediately sent 200,000 men with ships to his nephew’s aid.
The news of this relief force worried Chen Youliang. He turned his entire army away from Hong Du to fight Zhu Yuanzhang instead, gathering his troops to head north to Poyang Lake, where his large ships would be able to fight effectively. Zhu Yuanzhang’s forces were also converging on the lake and the two armies would soon meet.
It is said in the first chapter of the “History of Ming” (one of the Twenty-four Histories) that “[Chen] Youliang’s troops numbered 600,000, and his huge ships and masts towered dozens of meters like mountains.”
Zhu Yuanzhang’s ships were tiny by comparison. Chen’s captains had little more to do than ram them and they would sink.
On August 30th, Zhu launched a frontal assault of such intensity that the battle was said to be visible for over fifty miles. Twenty of Chen’s tower ships were sent to the lake bottom and one was captured. The attack almost broke Chen’s battle line. However, his forces were able to muster a counterattack and one of Chen’s best commanders nearly destroyed Zhu Yuanzhang’s own ship, which was caught on a sandbar. The battle continued into the night with neither side gaining the upper hand. Zhu’s forces had taken heavier losses than expected-including many commanders, and Chen was distraught at the loss of twenty of his prized ships.
The next morning, Zhu again ordered a full head on attack on Chen’s ships, a move that was predicted by Chen. He had changed his formation accordingly, with his massive ships tightly packed at the core of the formation. After three attempts at breaking the enemy formation, several of Zhu’s commanders turned and sailed away. Back at camp, Zhu let out his full fury and executed 10 of his own commanders.
Luckily, before Zhu could do more damage, a staff officer stopped him and proposed a plan to destroy Chen’s vessels. Several smaller ships were loaded full of oil and reeds to act as fire ships. They were outfitted with straw dummies to appear like regular ships.
But the plan hinged on one factor that the staff officer could not provide: the wind.
Zhu’s force waited anxiously. Sure enough, heaven had victory in store for them.
A northeastern wind began to blow, and the fire ships were immediately sent off. Many of Chen’s ships were set ablaze, and the effects were increased as a result of his decision to chain his ships together. That night, Lake Poyang became a lake of fire. Zhu Yuanzhang seized the opportunity to destroy Chen’s forces and attacked.
After a small break in the fighting, on Sept. 2, Chen launched an attack on Zhu Yuanzhang’s flagship. Zhu was forced to abandon the ship and escaped just as it exploded. He realized that his ship was being targeted due to its distinctive white mast, and ordered his ships to paint all of their masts white.
When the two navies once again went into battle, Chen found that all of the opposing ships had white masts. Seeing that Chen’s ships were in disarray, Zhu sent four commanders to attack the mammoth vessels with small, fast ships. He then ordered a general assault that crushed Chen’s forces.
Surrounded and running out of food, Chen tried to break out and escape to safety. On the way out, he was shot in the eye by an archer on the way. Shortly afterwards, his second in command surrendered their remaining forces.
This victory cleared the way for Zhu Yuanzhang to defeat the Mongols and proclaim his new dynasty.