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Battle of Red Cliffs

History >> Ancient China

The Battle of Red Cliffs is one of the most famous battles in the history of Ancient China. It is considered one of the largest naval battles in history. The battle eventually led to the end of the Han Dynasty and the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period.

When and where did the battle take place?

The battle took place near the end of the Han Dynasty during the winter of 208 AD. Although historians are not sure exactly where the battle took place, most agree that it occurred somewhere on the Yangtze River.

Who were the leaders?

The battle was fought between the warlord Cao Cao of the north and the combined forces of southern warlords Liu Bei and Sun Quan.

Cao Cao was hoping to establish his own kingdom and unite all of China under his rule. He amassed a huge army of somewhere between 220,000 and 800,000 soldiers. Cao Cao was the main general leading his soldiers into battle.

The southern army of Sun Quan and Liu Bei was led by generals Liu Bei, Cheng Pu, and Zhou Yu. Another famous leader of the south was military strategist Zhuge Liang. The south was vastly outnumbered with only around 50,000 soldiers.

Leading up to the Battle

This was a period of time when the Han Dynasty was beginning to collapse. Different regions of the country were controlled by warlords who constantly fought each other. In the north, a warlord named Cao Cao rose to power and eventually took control of the land north of the Yangtze River.

Cao Cao wanted to unite China under his rule and establish his own dynasty. In order to do this, he needed to gain control of the Yangtze River and subdue the warlords to the south. He gathered a large army of somewhere between 220,000 and 800,000 soldiers and marched south.

The southern warlords knew they would be overwhelmed by Cao Cao individually, so they decided to unite and fight him together. Liu Bei and Sun Quan joined forces to stop Cao Cao at the Yangtze. They still had a much smaller force, but they hoped to outsmart Cao Cao.

The Battle

The battle began with a small fight between the two sides. Cao Cao's men were exhausted from their long march to the battle and were unable to gain ground. They quickly retreated to the northern banks of the Yangtze River.

Cao Cao had a huge navy of thousands of ships. He planned to use the ships to transport his troops across the Yangtze. Many of his troops were living on the ships. In order to make the ships more stable and stop the soldiers from getting seasick, the ships were tied together.

When the southern leaders saw that Cao Cao had tied his ships together, they came up with a plan. One of the generals wrote a letter saying that he wanted to change sides and surrender to Cao Cao. He then sent his ships across to join Cao Cao's fleet. However, it was just a trick. The ships weren't filled with soldiers, but with kindling and oil. They were fire ships! As the ships approached the enemy they were set on fire. The wind carried them directly into Cao Cao's fleet.

When the ships hit the northern fleet it erupted into flames. Many soldiers burned or drowned as they jumped from the ships. At the same time, the southern soldiers attacked the confused northern force. Seeing that his army was defeated, Cao Cao ordered his forces to retreat.

The retreat proved no better for Cao Cao. As his army fled, it began to rain causing them to get stuck in mud. The southern army continued to attack and much of Cao Cao's army was destroyed.


The victory of the southern warlords prevented Cao Cao from uniting China. Cao Cao maintained control of the north and established the Kingdom of Wei. In the south, Liu Bei founded the Kingdom of Shu and Sun Quan founded the Kingdom of Wu. These kingdoms became known as the Three Kingdoms period of China.

Interesting Facts about the Battle of Red Cliffs Activities

For more information on the civilization of Ancient China:

Timeline of Ancient China
Geography of Ancient China
Silk Road
The Great Wall
Forbidden City
Terracotta Army
The Grand Canal
Battle of Red Cliffs
Opium Wars
Inventions of Ancient China
Glossary and Terms

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Xia Dynasty
Shang Dynasty
Zhou Dynasty
Han Dynasty
Period of Disunion
Sui Dynasty
Tang Dynasty
Song Dyanasty
Yuan Dynasty
Ming Dynasty
Qing Dynasty

Daily Life in Ancient China
Numbers and Colors
Legend of Silk
Chinese Calendar
Civil Service
Chinese Art
Entertainment and Games

Kangxi Emperor
Genghis Khan
Kublai Khan
Marco Polo
Puyi (The Last Emperor)
Emperor Qin
Emperor Taizong
Sun Tzu
Empress Wu
Zheng He
Emperors of China

Works Cited

History >> Ancient China

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