Friday, 23 December 2011

Three Kingdoms

Although it is only a short period, The Three Kingdoms period is a very interesting period in Chinese history. It is also one of the most read about and debated topic and has been popularised in Chinese operas, folk stories, novels and lately, in movies as well as computer and video games. The most popular novel which is based on the events that happened during this period is the Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, a Ming Dynasty writer.

Many people would have taken Luo Guanzhong’s work as the book to know the Three Kingdoms, especially English readers. Writers like Chen Shou and Pei Songzhi would be unheard of. My first book about the period is by Luo Guanzhong when I was in primary school and I was attracted by its characters and military skills. I further read it when I was in university and did a paper in Chinese history about it.  It was then that I come to know Chen Shou’s Three Kingdoms, Pei Songzhi’s Analects of Three Kingdoms and others.

As I read further, I came to know that there are many errors about the actual history in Luo Guanzhong’s work and it should be just taken as a novel and not history book. Cao Cao is not a traitor as being perceived by Luo. Neither is Zhou Yu a playboy nor Cao Cao fell in love with Zhou Yu’s wife – Little Qiao. Every story needs its heroes and villains. Luo and history has been unfair to Cao Cao, the ruler of the Wei Kingdom, he is not the traitor that usurps the power from Han Emperor but it was the weak emperor that gave way to him upon knowing his ability in governing and military warfare. John Woo’s Red Cliffs is one of my favourite and he gave Zhou Yu all his due respect.

The battle of Red Cliffs was one of the major battles during that period and a defining one. It happened around the winter solstice day in 208 AD. I would not go further into describing it but would just want to mention about Zhuge Liang’s genius and Cao Cao’s folly.

After uniting the northern part of the Yangtze River, Cao Cao decided to attack his southern neighbours and he met them at Chipi ( modern day Chipi in Hubei Province) with his armada of 800,000 men and numerous ships. His nemesis consists of the alliance of the kingdoms of Shu and Wu were pale in comparison with fewer men and ships. Even the arrows used were so much smaller that Zhou Yu asked Zhuge Liang if he could produce more arrows. However, Zhuge Liang, the Chancellor of Shu Kingdom used his wisdom in knowing that fog will occur and the wind direction at the Red Cliffs area will change at around winter solstice.

In knowing that fog will occur on a particular day, he arranged for his men with boats full of straw men to sail across the Yangtze River towards Cao Cao’s camp and beat the war drums. Upon hearing the sound of the drums, Cao’s armies thought that the enemy had attacked his camp and they proceed to shoot their arrows even though they can’t see what was actually coming from the opposite. When the fog cleared, they knew they were fooled.

The Wei armies were northerners who have little experience in naval warfare and many of them had seasick. Sensing this, one of his advisors suggested that he moored his ships from stem to stem and chain-locked them to reduce the sickness. Knowing that the way Cao Cao moored his ships will spell trouble coupled with knowing that the wind will blew from the east, Zhuge Liang decided to attack Cao’s armada with fire two days later.

Cao Cao suffered badly from the battle and the prospect of him uniting the whole China was reversed. Cao Cao would never again command so large a fleet as he had, nor would a similar opportunity to destroy his southern rivals present itself again. This battle taught me that before you made your decision to attack, you must know your surroundings in depth no matter how strong you are.

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