The Chibi Campaign
The victory in Guandu established Cao Cao's dominance in northern China. He now had a healthier economy to draw on, as well as a stronger army. Then he turned his eyes south, where Sun Quan and Liu Biao still stood in the way of his putting the whole country under one centralized authority.
In 208 Cao Cao advanced on Jingzhou. Governor Liu Biao had just died, passing his position to his second son Liu Cong. Liu Cong surrendered without putting up a fight, leaving Liu Bei no time to gather his forces in Xinye. With Cao Cao's troops advancing, Liu Bei had to retreat towards Jiangling, a city of strategic importance. But Cao Cao was faster. He caught up with Liu Bei at Changban (northeast of today's Dangyang, Hubei Province) and inflicted serious injuries on his troops. Before long Jiangling also fell to Cao Cao, and Liu Bei had to retreat to Xiakou (today's Wuhan), where he joined Liu Qi, Liu Biao's eldest son, and gathered a force of 20,000.
Cao Cao's advances made Sun Quan uneasy. When Liu Bei offered an alliance, Sun agreed. By the time the allied forces set up defenses in Chibi on the southern banks of the Yangtze, Cao Cao had camped his troops across the big river, ready for a major attack.
But there was one problem that was bothering Cao Cao. His soldiers, already exhausted from the hurried long march without rest, were now falling ill either because of the change in climate or seasickness on the battleships. To remedy the rocking of the ships, Cao Cao had them linked with chains and bridged their decks with boards so that soldiers could walk between them safely. What Cao Cao did not realize was that his solution to one problem only made his fleet vulnerable to another.
When allied commander Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang noticed what Cao Cao had done to his ships, they decided to take advantage of the situation. First, they had to make Cao Cao believe that an officer named Huang Gai was about to surrender.
Cao Cao swallowed the bait. On the specified day, he waited for the signal that Huang Gai was deserting the allies to come to him. Suspecting nothing, he saw Huang Gai with his small fleet of loaded boats rowing towards them. On the boats Huang Gai had laid flammable materials, which were set on fire as soon as Cao Cao's fleet was close enough. The wind was just right for the allies, and before long Cao Cao's linked battleships were all aflame. When Cao Cao's soldiers saw the huge fire, which was illuminating the rocky cliffs, they panicked. Meanwhile Zhou Yu's allied forces threw themselves ferociously at their enemy and destroyed them.
The Chibi campaign had a balancing effect on China's political dynamics, where Cao Cao's dominance was curbed, Sun Quan's position reinforced, and Liu Bei had finally obtained a foothold for further advancement.