Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Historical Context: Zhuge Liang’s Fiery Attacks

Ever heard of the phrase 新官上任三把火?  It literally translates to “Three fires from a new official” and used to describe the first acts of an incoming leader to establish his/her creditability. The story behinds this saying actually comes from our beloved strategist, Zhuge Liang.

Zhuge Liang arrived on the scene as an untested young fellow and did not command the respect of established veterans in Liu Bei’s army. He proved his worth in three early battles, by using fire to counter Cao Cao’s much larger armies.

Note: These stories are from the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The 2nd battle is not even recorded in history books. However, the 1st and 3rd battles are indeed real battles, though the details and Zhuge Liang’s role is likely exaggerated.


1st Fire:  Battle of Bowang

In Zhuge Liang’s first battle, his 15,000 men was severely outnumbered by Cao Cao’s army of 100,000, led by General Xiahou Dun (historians estimated the actual number was half of that). Zhuge Liang sent Chiu Wan to lead a contingent to battle the Cao army and lure them into a narrow valley, where Zhuge Liang had already set up men on both sides. He then sent men to set fire to the Cao encampment. When news of the fire reached General Xiahou, he tried to retreat but was already trapped in the valley by the surrounding fires.

2nd Fire: Battle at Xinye

After the defeat in the Battle of Bowang, Cao Cao personally leads 500,000 soldiers to attack Xinye where Liu Bei is stationed. At this time, the governor of Jing Province, Lau Biu, dies and power is passed to his wife, Lady Choi, and his second son, Lau Chong. Aware of Cao Cao’s advancing army, Lady Choi and Lau Chong promptly cedes Jing Province to Cao Cao. Lau Bei decides to abandon Xinye and retreat. General Cao Ren, arriving at the empty city of Xinye, enters the city and stations for the night. That night, Chiu Wan sets the city on fire.

3rd Fire: Battle of the Red Cliffs

The Battle of the Red Cliffs is easily the biggest and most decisive battle during the Three Kingdoms era. After the losses to Liu Bei, Cao Cao is determined to eliminate him. Fearing Cao Cao’s massive advantage in numbers, Liu Bei forms an alliance with Sun Quan, the eastern warlord.  This brings Zhuge Liang together with Sun Quan’s strategist, Zhou Yu. Together, they formulate a brilliant plan to ensure the success of the alliance against Cao Cao.

To reach Liu Bei, Cao Cao’s army had to cross the Yantze River. Since most of the men were from the north and inexperienced with sailing, Cao Cao took the advice of Pang Tong, a renowned military strategist and (unknown to Cao Cao) friend of Zhuge Liang. Pang Tong suggested linking all the ships together end-to-end when sailing, in order to reduce seasickness.

Meanwhile, Zhou Yu and General Wong Gai put on a scene at the Sun camp. Wong Gai tied to convince Zhou Yu to surrender to Cao Cao. The angry Zhou Yu ordered Wong Gai to be executed, but later commuted it to a beating by sticks. Wong Gai sent a letter to Cao Cao, asking for refuge. Cao Cao believed him because he had heard news of the fallout between Wong and Zhou Yu. This act uses the tactic of 苦肉 to gain trust of one’s enemy.

Zhuge Liang waited until the day when the wind blew east to launch his attack (萬事俱備,只欠東風). On the fateful day, Wong Gai asked to meet Cao Cao on the Yantze River. Cao Cao leads his large fleet of linked boats along the river and from far, sees Wong Gai’s contingent approaching. When they were close enough, Wong Gai suddenly set all his boats on fire and escaped on row boats. With the east wind guiding the fire boats towards Cao Cao’s fleet, there was no escape, lending name to another famous phrase, 火燒連環船.  

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