The Battle of Red Cliff, End Game: 連環計 Symphony of Stratagems
Three Rulers vying for supremacy,
Three Factions struggling for survival,
Three Stratagems forged in concert,
Threads of destinies, woven together,
Thus, was laid the foundation of the Three Kingdoms.
In 208 AD during the Northern Winter, Cao Cao led his army numbering 240,000 against Southern China. Fresh from the euphoria of a highly successful Northern Campaign, vanquishing enemies such as Lu Bu, Yuan Shao, Yuan Shu and Liu Biao, the Imperial Chancellor of Han seemed unstoppable.
The southern Alliance of Sun Quan and Liu Bei had a mere 50,000 marines at their disposal. Being outnumbered numerically almost 5 to 1, many counseled the Alliance to formally surrender to Emperor Xian and Cao Cao, the Imperial Chancellor of Han. However, warlords Liu Bei and Sun Quan were adamant in opposing Cao Cao. The final line of defense for the Alliance was the Yangtze River.
The Decisive Encounter
After the initial skirmishes, the final decisive encounter between the two forces would take place on the Wulin battlefields on the northwestern bank of the Yangtze. During this pivotal encounter, the commander of the Alliance’s Forces, Maestro Zhou Yu unleashed his 連環計 Symphony of Stratagems on Cao Cao’s massive fleet.
1. Alpha Stratagem: 苦肉計 Gain a rival’s trust through self-mutilation
At the Wulin battlefields, Cao Cao’s gargantuan fleet was positioned at the northern banks. Zhou Yu waited patiently; biding his time until the southeastern wind was blowing strongly. He then instructed Huang Gai to send a messenger to Cao Cao bearing the message below:
"Zhou Yu has kept such strict watch that there has been no chance of escape. But now some grain is coming down river, and I, Huang Gai, have been named as escort commander which will give me the opportunity I desire. I will slay one of the known generals and bring his head as an offering when I come. This evening at the third watch, if boats are seen with dragon toothed flags, they will be the grain boats."
Cao Cao’s was delighted at Huang Gai’s purported defection and relaxed his guard. Shortly thereafter, Huang Gai prepared a squadron of capital ships described as mengchong doujian 蒙衝鬥艦. These ships had been converted into fire ships by filling them with bundles of kindling, dry reeds, and fatty oil. As Huang Gai's "defecting" squadron approached the midpoint of the river, the sailors applied fire to the ships and escaped to small boats. The unmanned fire ships, carried by the southeastern wind, sped towards Cao Cao's fleet and set it ablaze.
2. Zeta Stratagem: 借刀殺人 Yin overwhelms Yang
Despite the strategic acumen displayed by Cao Cao in his Northern Campaign, he was led astray by the beguiling words of Young Phoenix. Cao Cao was so enamored with the idea of removing the seasickness from his army and re-establishing his infantry and cavalry’s fighting prowess that he was oblivious to the risk of a fire attack by the Alliance.
Since Cao Cao’s immense navy was gathered tightly and chained firmly together, it was impossible for his ships to scatter and flee from the fire. Following the initial shock, Zhou Yu and the allies led a lightly armed force to capitalize on the assault. Within a short time smoke and flames stretched across the sky and a large number of men and horses either burned to death or drowned. The northern army was thrown into confusion and was utterly smashed. Seeing the situation was hopeless, Cao Cao then issued a general order of retreat and destroyed a number of his remaining ships before withdrawing
3. Omega Stratagem: 關門捉賊 Encircle and Capture
Cao Cao’s retreat towards Jiangling was beset with numerous setbacks as Zhuge Liang had divined Cao Cao’s exact line of retreat, based on his understanding of Cao Cao’s psychological make up. The numerous ambushes and attacks on Cao Cao’s forces during their retreat towards the city of Jiangling decimated the remnants of his army.
Due to his extremely suspicious nature, Cao Cao was misled into leading his men towards the Huarong Trail, where Guan Yu and his men lay waiting. Cao Cao’s forces was ambushed by Guan Yu. They were in a pitiful state and were in no condition to resist Guan Yu. The Symphony of Stratagems was concluded.
人算不如天算 Man Proposes: God Disposes
Guan Yu's success in capturing Cao Cao, would have led to the eventual demise of the Northern Wei kingdom. Even though there were numerous capable leaders in Wei, these generals were loyal only to Cao Cao. His capture or death would lead to the Wei Kingdom disintegrating into various factions, since Cao Cao had no apprarent heir at this point in time.
Unfortunately for the Alliance, Guan Yu had been captured by Cao Cao in the past. At that time, he had agreed to serve Cao Cao, subject to three conditions: that his surrender was to the Han emperor and not Cao Cao; that the two wives of Liu Bei were to be suitably provided for and protected; and that all three would leave to seek Liu Bei once they found out his whereabouts. These conditions were agreed to and Guan Yu surrendered without breaking the code of loyalty. Guan Yu had subsequently left Cao Cao, upon discovering the whereabouts of Liu Bei.
Guan Yu, being the paragon of virtue,could not forget the great kindness he had received at Cao Cao's hands, and the magnanimity Cao Cao had shown to him in the past. He saw the desperate straits to which his benefactor was reduced, and tears were very near to the eyes of both. He could not press Cao Cao hard and was moved to release him. Thus, the proverb: 人算不如天算 Man Proposes: God Disposes.
By the end of AD209, the Cao Cao’s fort established at Jiangling fell to Zhou Yu. The borders of the land under Cao Cao's control contracted about to the area around Xiangyang. Liu Bei, on the other hand, had gained territory by taking over the four commanderies south of the Yangtze River. Never again would Cao Cao command so large a fleet as he had at Jiangling, nor would a similar opportunity to destroy his southern rivals present itself again. The Battle of Red Cliff and the capture of Jing province by Liu Bei confirmed the separation of Southern China from the northern heartland of the Yellow River valley, and also foreshadowed a north-south axis of hostility which would resonate for centuries (de Crespigny).