The Battle of Red Cliff, Final Link: 關門捉賊 Encircle and Capture
With the first two stratagems chained, the stage was set for a potentially explosive battle between the two forces. The Alliance were confident of Cao Cao’s eventual defeat as he had fallen prey to their earlier stratagems. Yet, the Alliance led by Zhou Yu and aided by Zhuge Liang had the foresight to realize that, even if Cao Cao suffered massive losses and casualties at the Battle of Red Cliffs, he would still post a huge threat the Alliance at a later date, if he managed to escape. Cao Cao’s northern empire was immense and he had numerous reserve infantry and cavalry at his disposal.
Armed with such foresight, the Alliance forged the final link in the Symphony of Stratagems: 關門捉賊 Encircle and Capture Stratagem. This stratagem was to be employed at the End Game. If Cao Cao suffered a decisive loss, his most obvious line of retreat would be to escape northwards towards the city of Jiangling.
Foreseeing this, Zhuge Liang had dispatched several of Shu’s best generals including Zhao Yun, Zhang Fei, Liu Qi and Guan Yu stationed at various paths along the route northwards to Jiangling. Zhuge Liang was able to foreshadow Cao Cao’s exact line of retreat, based on his understanding of Cao Cao’s frame of mind.
Based on Zhuge Liang’s calculations, numerous ambushes were placed along the route northwards, intended to whittle down Cao Cao's forces, leading to his eventual capture. Under Zhuge Liang’s instructions, Guan Yu prepared an ambush by stationing 500 men along the Huarong Trail, a narrow shortcut in the woods leading towards Jiangling. Guan Yu was directed to also set off columns of smoke along the Huarong Trail.
If Cao Cao was defeated at the Battle of Red Cliff, his eventual retreat northwards would lead him across two possible paths towards Jiangling:
1. A high road, more level but fifteen miles longer; or
2. A shorter by-road leading towards Huarong Valley. This road was narrow and dangerous, full of pits and difficult to traverse. In short, an ambush could easily be set along the Huarong Trail.
Cao Cao’s scouts reported that there were columns of smoke rising from the hills along the Huarong Valley. Zhuge Liang’s complete understanding of Cao Cao’s psychological make-up was evident in his directions to Guan Yu.
Due to his extremely suspicious nature, Cao Cao was likely to be misled into concluding that the smoke was a trick of the enemy to divert him to the main road, where an ambush must have been laid. He would then decide to lead his men towards the narrower path, the Huarong Trail, where Guan Yu and his men lay waiting. The remnants of his forces, likely to be tired from being constantly attacked would be in no condition to resist Guan Yu's ambush. Cao Cao’s fate would now lay in the hands of Guan Yu.
If the Symphony of Stratagems were correctly chained and executed, not only would the Alliance win a resounding victory at the Battle of Red Cliff but they would successfully eliminate the primary antagonist facing the Alliance. Would the Alliance’s chain stratagems work? Watch out for my next post.