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Source: CCTV.com

01-07-2009 13:53


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Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature, where from the Battle of Red Cliffs originated in the Records of the Three Kingdoms. It is notable as it tells the tale of a minority people defeating the majority.

In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Zhou Yu, a young viceroy of Eastern Wu, a country of tremendous water resources, took advantage of favorable wind conditions to defeat Cao Cao, who had more than one million troops under his command, using fire.

From then on, the political pattern of the triangular balance of power among the three kingdoms was formed. Zhou Yu, who styled himself Zhou Gong Jin, became very famous because of this battle while Zhu Geliang was also widely worshiped for his knowledge of meteorology as it was he who calculated the wind speed, which was vital to the attack plan.

Cao Cao meanwhile was infamous for pride, foolishness and muddled response to the attack. However, this is only a novel after all. In history, Cao Cao was a fierce and ambitious man who defeated Yuan Shao and united northern China in times of disorder.

How was it that he was defeated by fire so easily? Could an army of millions be defeated by a few thousand soldiers? Although they didn’t have much experience in naval battles, they still had the chance to win by crossing the river from different points to make a joint attack.

It was impossible to defend the whole of the Yangzi River without modern weapons. So what’s the real truth behind the battle of Red Cliffs?

According to the description by Luo Guanzhong of The Romance of Three Kingdoms, the battle of Red Cliffs was an epic battle of splendid bravery. Is that true in reality? According to the official history, Cao Cao defeated Yuan Shao at the end of 207 AD and returned to his feoff in March of 208AD.

Later he began to excavate Xuan Wu Lake and trained up his own navy, preparing for a war in the south. In August of 208 AD, the governor of Jingzhou Liu Biao died suddenly and his son Liu Cong surrendered to Cao Cao.

In order to control Jingzhou, Cao Cao led the army down to the south in haste. He recaptured most of the army there and his first target was to capture Liu Bei who had escaped to Jiang Xia.

Cao Cao should have re-organized the army and made full preparations to defeat Liu Bei overnight. But he liked to take risks and underestimated the strength of his enemy. On the way to catch Liu Bei, the soldiers met with the allied army of Sun Quan and Liu Bei who were well prepared at the Red Cliffs. Cao Cao was defeated in the first battle. The two armies confronted each other for almost one month there.

It was an extreme exaggeration by the novel to say that Cao Cao had an army of 800 thousand soldiers under his command. Moreover, the accounts of the fire sweeping over the warships of Cao Cao should also be viewed with a grain of salt.

Both in the Romance of Three Kingdoms and the Records of Three Kingdoms, it was written that Huang Gai from the Sun-Liu allied force led ten warships into Cao Cao’s camp and spread a large fire, which led to the defeat of Cao Cao.

In actuality, the warships of Huang Gai were very small. It was difficult to defeat Cao Cao although with the combination of the east wind and the fact that the warships were full of fuel, this was made possible.

Cao Cao had the ability to put out the fire which was set by the Sun-Liu allied force. But he decided to withdraw and let the fire spread. As a fierce and ambitious leader, he refused to be frightened by the fire. So why did he withdraw and what did he fear?

According to history, Cao Cao wrote a letter to Sun Quan after the battle of Red Cliffs. It was written that Cao Cao withdrew and let the fire spread because his soldiers were afflicted with plague. He didn’t lose due to the fire but rather due to the plague. It would appear that Zhou Yu got his reputation rather undeservedly.

There seemed to be more secrets to this battle as well. When Pei Songzhi annotated the Records of the Three Kingdoms, he made some comments that it was fate for Cao Cao to lose the battle. The plague had a serious impact on the soldiers of Cao Cao and left them greatly weakened and short of men.

It revealed that the loss by Cao Cao was due to an outbreak of plague among his soldiers.

What was the nature of the plague that struck Cao Cao’s soldiers? Why did they become so weak that they couldn’t resist the attack by Sun-Liu’s allied force? And why weren’t the soldiers of Sun-Liu allied infected with the plague?

Because of a lack of medical knowledge or terminology from that time in the disease for our ancients and the succinctness of the ancient words, it is very difficult to determine exactly what the plague was or even what the symptoms were.

After an analysis of the environment at the battle of Red Cliffs and research into what kinds of infectious diseases were around at that time, experts came to a number of conclusions regarding what the plague could possibly be. But this left unanswered the question of why the soldiers of Sun-Liu allied force weren’t infected?

The discovery of a female corpse related to the war would reveal the answers to those questions.

In 1972, a female corpse was unearthed in a Han tomb at Mawangdui Changsha, Hu’nan province. The corpse was called Xinzhui, wife of Li Cang who was the prime minister of Changsha in the Western Han Dynasty. The body was kept well preserved under the earth after more than two thousand years.

It provided a lot of insight into the Han Dynasty and the battle of Red Cliffs. With the help of modern technology, scientists conducted a total examination of the body. It was discovered that some ovum of blood-flukes existed in the body.

Blood-flukes have remarkable parasitic and reproductive abilities. A miracidium hatched from the ovum could quickly reproduce thousands of worms in the parasitifer.

Water with blood-flukes in it was incredibly deadly. Simply coming into contact with such water, would allow blood-flukes to immediately enter the body through the skin, leading to schistosomiasis.

In 1975, a male corpse was excavated from a Han tomb in Mt. Phoenix in Jiangling, Hubei Province. It was even older and in better condition than the female. The ova of blood-flukes were also found in this body.

The corpse proves that the Yangtze River was an epidemic area for schistosomiasis more than two thousand years ago. Were the soldiers of Cao Cao infected with this disease?

It appears that schistosomiasis was not the disease after all. Or was it?

The symptoms of schistosomiasis wouldn’t have shown up right away. The disease would typically appear a month after infection. The soldiers of Cao Cao fell ill just when the war broke out, which is why they were defeated so easily. But why weren’t the soldiers of the Sun-Liu allied force infected with the disease? 28”

Who defeated Cao Cao then? Let’s review the battle from referring to historical records and archaeological discoveries.

One day in the winter of 208 AD, Cao Cao led his troops to Jiangxia and confronted the Sun-Liu allied force at Red Cliffs. The exhausted soldiers of Cao Cao faced the well prepared Sun-Liu allied force on the sides of Yangtze River.

A fierce battle was unavoidable. However, the disease spread quickly among Cao Cao’s army. More and more soldiers fell ill, which weakened their fighting strength and decimated their numbers. The Sun-Liu allied took advantage of the situation and defeated Cao Cao in one attack.

Huang Gai pretended to surrender to Cao Cao and set the fire. Cao Cao made the painful decision to give up the battle and let the fire rage. It was not the fire that frightened Cao Cao but the disease.

 

Editor:Yang