The events culminating in the Battle of Chibi (also known as the Battle of Red Cliff) comprise some of the finest stratagems in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms epic. Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu, master strategists who served under different lords, pitted their wits against each other and against the Wei kingdom. Herein lies an account of the events leading up to the ruse, “Borrowing Arrows”.
Kingdom of Shu
Zhuge Liang. AKA the Sleeping Dragon or the Hidden Dragon. In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, he is portrayed as the most brilliant military strategist of the time. He served under Liu Bei, a distant member of the Han dynasty.
Kingdom of Wu
Zhou Yu. Sworn brother to Sun Ce, the previous lord of the Wu. On the deathbed of Lady Sun, the mother of the Sun Quan (the current leader), she advised Sun Quan to rely on Zhou Yu for external affairs. A great and respected strategist in his own right, his inability to surpass Zhuge Liang vexed him to his death. Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Wu army during the Battle of Chibi.
Lu Su. A counsellor to Sun Quan. Although his wisdom pales when juxtaposed with that of Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu, he was the sole voice among the civilian officials that contested the Wei kingdom’s demand for surrender.
Kingdom of Wei
Cao Cao. Styled as the Emperor of the Wei Kingdom. Known for his cunning and considerable ruthlessness. Of the three contending kingdoms, his is the one with the largest military strength.
Cai Mao. Supreme Admiral
Zhang Yun. Vice Admiral
Jiang Gan. A counsellor to Cao Cao and a fellow student with Zhou Yu.
During preparations for the naval attack against Cao Cao, Zhou Yu took a small fleet of ships to study the enemy base. Impressed and unsettled by the flawless arrangement of the naval camp, he decided that the commanders, Cai Mao and Zhang Yun, needed to be removed if victory was to be assured.
The presence of the spies was soon detected, however, and ships were launched to capture them. Their eventual escape greatly displeased Cao Cao, and one of the counsellors present stepped forward to suggest a different plan. This person was Jiang Gan, formerly a fellow student with Zhou Yu, and he pledged to persuade his friend to surrender.
Upon Jiang Gan’s arrival at the Wu camp, he was formally greeted by Zhou Yu. Claiming that he was there for the sake of friendship, not to press Cao Cao’s cause, he was given a warm reception and a banquet was thrown in his honour. Zhou Yu drank deeply and feigned intoxication, all the while proclaiming loudly his pride in the might of the Wu army and his lord.
Sharing a tent that night, Zhou Yu slept loudly and restlessly, rendering his guest unable to sleep. Eventually, Jiang Gan rose and noticed, among a pile of papers on the table, a note from Cai Mao and Zhang Yun promising Cao Cao’s head. His host stirred, and he hurriedly slipped the message under his robes and returned to bed, although still unable to sleep.
Later that night, Zhou Yu was roused by an officer. After berating the man to speak more softly and checking to make sure that Jiang Gan was sleeping, he left to meet with two visitors, introduced as Cai Mao and Zhang Yun. Jiang Gan, who was merely pretending to be asleep, strained to hear the words that were being spoken, but to no avail. Soon, Zhou Yu slipped back in and returned to sleep.
Near dawn, Jiang Gan decided to slip away, fearful of Zhou Yu’s wrath if he discovered the missing letter. He returned to Cao Cao to report his failure to win over Zhou Yu as well as the treachery of the Wei admirals. An enraged Cao Cao summoned Cai Mao and Zhang Yun and ordered them to launch an immediate attack on the Wu camp. When the two refused on account of the lack of preparedness, Cao Cao ordered them beheaded.
Zhou Yu was delighted at the success of his ruse and was confident that no one could have detected it. However, ever wary of Zhuge Liang, he sent Lu Su to see if the strategist was aware of the trick he played on Cao Cao. And indeed, upon Lu Su’s arrival, Zhuge Liang calmly offered congratulations, revealing the depth of his understanding of Zhou Yu’s game. He asked Lu Su not to tell Zhou Yu, as the Commander-in-Chief would certainly wish him ill.
Lu Su did not heed his request, however, and informed Zhou Yu accordingly. At this, Zhou Yu decided that Zhuge Liang was too dangerous a foe and needed to be destroyed. He arranged for a meeting with his officers and extended an invitation to Zhuge Liang. During the meeting, he asked Zhuge Liang to take responsibility for supplying the navy with a hundred thousand arrows in ten days. The strategist disagreed, saying that ten days would be too late, and declared that the arrows would be ready in three. Noting Zhou Yu’s scepticism, he further stated that he would submit to any punishment if he failed.
Zhou Yu was delighted that Zhuge Liang both fell into his trap and sealed his own fate. If the delivery of materials and the work were delayed, his rival would have no choice but to accept the price for his failure.
In the meantime, Zhuge Liang was berating Lu Su for not keeping his tongue in check and blamed him for the precarious situation he was in. Feeling guilty, Lu Su acceded to Zhuge Liang’s demand for lightly manned ships with bundles of straw tied to the sides, as well as his request for secrecy.
In the middle of the night on the third day, Zhuge Liang finally took action. In the midst of thick fog, he and Lu Su sailed the fleet close to Cao Cao’s camp. As the ships formed a line with their sides facing the camp, the beating of drums was used to alert the enemy to their presence. The Wei navy was fearful of an ambush awaiting them behind the dense fog, and did not dare launch any ships. Cao Cao ordered archers to fire into the fog; the drums continued and arrows kept streaming towards the ships. Occasionally, the ships would turn around to expose the other sides and thus collect more arrows.
As the dawn broke and the fog began to thin, Zhuge Liang sounded a retreat. As they departed, the crew threw jeers at the Wei camp, thanking them for the gift of their arrows.
When Zhou Yu learned of Zhuge Liang’s method, he could not help but grudgingly admit the man’s superiority.