Battle of Fancheng

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For the Mongol attack during the Song dynasty, see Battle of Xiangyang.
Battle of Fancheng
Part of the wars at the end of the Han dynasty
Woodblock print guan yu xiangyang.png
A scene from the Battle of Fancheng, 17th century woodblock print
Date July – September, 219
Location Fancheng (present-day Fancheng District, Xiangyang, Hubei, China)
Result Cao Cao Pyrrhic victory
Cao Cao Liu Bei
Commanders and leaders
Cao Ren
Yu Jin  Surrendered
Pang De  Executed
Xu Huang
Guan Yu
≈100,000 men 70,000+ men (30,000 from surrendered troops + several thousand rebels)
Casualties and losses
40,000+ men 40,000+
Battle of Fancheng
Traditional Chinese 樊城之戰
Simplified Chinese 樊城之战

The Battle of Fancheng was fought between the warlords Liu Bei and Cao Cao in 219 in the late Eastern Han dynasty. It was named after Fancheng (樊城; also known as Fan Castle or Fan City), an ancient fortress situated in present-day Fancheng District, Xiangyang, Hubei.


In October 218, Cao Cao's general Hou Yin (侯音) and his deputy Wei Kai (衛開) of Wan (宛; present-day Nanyang, Henan) rose in rebellion with several thousand troops, and they requested help from Guan Yu.[1] It would take four months for Cao Ren to finally crush the rebellion by killing both Hou Yin and Wei Kai, but Guan Yu did not respond to the rebels throughout the duration. After taking Hanzhong by defeating Cao Cao in May 219, Liu Bei further expanded his gains in June 219 by sending Meng Da and Liu Feng to take Fangling (房陵; present-day Fang County, Hubei) and Shangyong (上庸; north of present-day Zhushan County, Hubei). Cao Cao was temporarily forced to be on the defensive after these continuous setbacks and Sun Quan of Jiangdong decided to take the opportunity to attack Cao Cao while his newly defeated men were regrouping and resting.

Realizing the imminent attacks of Liu Bei and Sun Quan, Cao Cao planned to launch a preemptive strike on Jing Province (荊州; covering present-day Hubei and Hunan), the eastern part of Liu Bei's territory defended by Guan Yu. The plan reasoned that Liu Bei could not continue his offensive in the north due to the need to consolidate his new gains, and so an attack into Jing Province would not be hindered by Liu's invasion elsewhere. However, the plan was called off because Cao Cao's troops still needed time to recover, regroup and re-supply from the campaign to suppress the rebellion of Hou Yin and Wei Kai, as well as from earlier setbacks in the struggles for Hanzhong. The worn-out troops were not ready for another campaign.


Initial stages[edit]

In July, 219, Sun Quan mobilized his forces in preparation to attack Hefei, and Cao Cao's forces were redeployed to the region to the south of the Huai River to fend off the possible invasion. Seizing the opportunity, Guan Yu decided to launch an offensive of his own against Cao Cao. Mi Fang, Administrator of Nan Commandery (南郡; present-day Jiangling County, Hubei) was ordered to stay behind to guard Jiangling (江陵) city of Nan Commandery, while general Shi Ren was ordered to stay behind to guard Gong'an (公安; northwest of present-day Gong'an County, Hubei). Liu Bei's main force in the region was led by Guan Yu himself to attack Cao Cao's strongholds in the north.

The campaign's objective was not clearly stated, but Guan Yu led his army along the Han River northward until he laid siege to Fancheng (present-day Fancheng District Xiangyang, Hubei). From the advance route and the fact that Guan chose to concentrate his main forces on Fancheng, his primary objective was believed to be the conquest of Nanyang commandery. Initially, the cities being attacked were not heavily guarded, as Cao Ren at Fancheng and Lü Chang (呂常) at Xiangyang (襄陽; present-day Xiangzhou District Xiangyang, Hubei) were both surrounded. Therefore, Cao Cao ordered Yu Jin to aid Cao Ren. After pitching camp on a lower ground about 4 km north to Fancheng, Yu Jin started to prepare a counteroffensive. Eager to prove his loyalty as he was suspected by others, general Pang De voluteered to lead a detachment to engage Guan Yu, successfully forcing the latter to retreat several times. On one occasion, Pang De shot an arrow that became embedded in Guan Yu's helm. Since then Pang De was widely known and feared among the enemy as General White Horse, from the white steed he rode into battle.

Although Guan Yu could not surpass Pang De in battle, he nevertheless held firm control over the water routes around the area and maintained the encirclement of Fancheng. A few setbacks were far from enough to discourage Guan Yu.

Turning of the tide[edit]

Illustration of Pang De in a scene during the Battle of Fancheng from a Qing dynasty edition of Romance of the Three Kingdoms

In August, heavy rain caused the Han River to flood. Forces under the command of Yu Jin and Pang De were completely annihilated by the natural disaster, suffering at least 40,000 fatalities, and another 30,000 were captured by Guan Yu's navy. Pang De and Yu Jin were both captured; Yu begged for his life and surrendered, while Pang refused to surrender and was executed. Cao Ren, with several thousand of his surviving troops were forced on the defensive by staying behind the safety of the walls. At the time, Xu Huang, who was stationed in Wancheng with his force purely consisting of new recruits, was only able to set up defensive fortifications instead of venturing out to relieve Cao Ren. Sensing the tides changing, the Inspector of Jing Province (the position that had the authority to raise troops from within the entire Jing Province[2]), Hu Xiu (胡修), and Cao Cao's Administrator of Nan Town (Nan Town was located southeast of present-day Xichuan County, Henan), Fu Fang (傅方), both defected to Guan Yu. The rebel leaders of Liang (梁), Xia (郟), and Luhun (陸渾, located southeast of present-day Song County, Henan) also officially accepted Guan Yu's command.

Guan Yu's threat to Cao Cao after his initial success was so immense that Cao Cao once considered relocating the capital. When Cao Cao asked his advisers for input, Sima Yi and Jiang Ji (蔣濟) strongly opposed. They pointed out that the alliance between Liu Bei and Sun Quan was shaky at the best due to the feuding over control of Jing Province, and Sun Quan would definitely be unhappy to see Guan Yu's success. They suggested that Cao Cao send an emissary to Sun Quan to recognize the latter's control over Jiangnan should Sun Quan agree to flank Guan Yu's rear.

Initially, Sun Quan sent an emissary to Guan Yu relating his wish for a marriage be arranged between his own son and Guan's daughter. However, Guan Yu insulted the emissary and rejected the marriage proposal, infuriating Sun Quan, an ally Liu Bei could not afford to lose. The initial victory also proved to be the prelude to catastrophe for Guan Yu because it had made him overconfident. Guan Yu lacked the experience to handle a huge army, especially one with the size under his command at the time, when his force nearly doubled as 30,000 troops captured in his earlier victory joined his army. In order to feed his army, Guan Yu sent out troops to confiscate, by force, grains stored by Sun Quan in the local border region. This further irritated Sun Quan, and coupled with Guan Yu's rejection of Sun Quan's marriage proposal and insult, Sun Quan made up his mind to sever the alliance with Liu Bei. At the outbreak of the battle, Liu Bei controlled three commanderies of Jing Province: Nan, Lingling, and Wuling, which was the most among all three powers.


After the taking of Sun Quan's food supply, Guan Yu further ordered reinforcements from Jiangling and Gong'an to lay siege to the now flooded Fancheng. With only several thousand troops left, Cao Ren was also plagued by low food supplies, so he considered abandoning the city. However, the Administrator of Runan, Man Chong, convinced Cao Ren to stay put by pointing out that the flood was only temporary and would not last long. Man Chong also noted that Guan Yu's vanguard had already advanced to Jia (郏) County yet his main force dared not to follow, because he was afraid of being cut off from behind and attacked from both sides. The strategic strongholds Fancheng and Xiangyang were still in Cao Cao's hands, which posed a serious threat to any advancing enemy force that bypassed the two cities. Man Chong argued that if the two fortresses were abandoned, the entire region to the south of Yellow River would be in danger of being overrun by the enemy, because not only would the region Guan Yu attacked be lost, the vast region in the east would also be lost to Sun Quan since should Guan Yu decide to strike in that direction all of Cao Cao's forces there would risk being cut off. Man Chong concluded, these two citadels must be held at all costs and the defenders must fight to the very last man. Cao Ren agreed and strengthened the defense, boosting his troops to over 10,000 by drafting every available man in the city and going around the city rallying his soldiers.

As Xu Huang was ordered to reinforce Cao Ren, Cao Cao sent two generals, Xu Shang (徐商) and Lü Jian (呂建) to lead additional reinforcements to join Xu Huang, ordering the latter not to attack until all of the reinforcement sent to him had arrived. To wait for further reinforcements, Xu Huang pushed toward Yangling (陽陵) Slope, located to the north of Fancheng. As the majority of Cao Cao's force under Xu Huang's command consisted of new recruits, Xu faithfully carried out Cao Cao's order to restrain from attacking. Guan Yu was well aware of Xu Huang's situation, and coupled overconfidence from the earlier victory, he completely ignored Xu Huang's threat and committed a serious blunder by dividing his force and sending another army to Xiangyang, mistakenly believing that Fancheng would easily fall into his control. However, due to the defenders' strong and resolute defense, the city remain defiant.

Guan Yu made further strategic blunders by allowing his vanguard to advance too far ahead of his main force and not linking up with the vanguard promptly at a time when he could not afford to split his force. As a result, when the vanguard was around three miles to the north of Fancheng, there was a huge gap between it and the main army. Seizing the opportunity, Xu Huang faked the digging of a long trench, giving the false impression of cutting off Guan Yu's vanguard, which fell for the trick and retreated.[3] Xu Huang's army therefore took the abandoned Yan (偃) City and pressed further toward Guan Yu's main army. By this time, Xu Huang's force was large enough to pose a threat to Guan Yu, because 10,000 battle hardened veterans led by Yin Shu (殷署) and Zhu Gai (朱蓋) had joined Xu Huang.


Depiction of Guan Yu attacking soldiers on boats in a river.

During the stalemate, Cao Cao's emissary returned to the capital Luoyang with a letter from Sun Quan, which informed Cao that Sun planned to attack Guan Yu from his rear, Jing Province. Sun Quan asked Cao Cao to keep this secret so that Guan Yu would not be prepared, and most of Cao Cao's advisors agreed with the plan. However, Dong Zhao objected, pointing out that Liu Bei and Sun Quan are both adversaries of Cao Cao despite the temporary submission of Sun Quan to Cao Cao. For the long-term, it would be in the best interest of Cao Cao to weaken both adversaries, instead of letting one adversary become too strong. In the short term, if Guan Yu knew about Sun Quan's attack in his rear, he would certainly withdraw his army to reinforce his home base in Jing Province, and the siege of Fancheng would be lifted. In addition, Fancheng had been under siege for some period of time, and the morale of Cao Cao's forces was low. If this critical information was not passed along to the defenders, some people inside Fancheng might turn their back on Cao Cao, because food supplies were running out. Furthermore, Dong Zhao pointed out that even if Guan Yu knew Sun Quan's intention, he would not retreat swiftly because of his stubbornness and his confidence in the defenses of the two cities of Jiangling and Gong'an.

Cao Cao and others were convinced by Dong Zhao and did exactly what he had proposed: copies of Sun Quan's letter was tied to arrows, which were then shot into Fancheng and Guan Yu's camp by Xu Huang's archers. The defenders' morale increased, while Guan Yu was put in a dilemma: he did not want to abandon the attack on Cao Cao, because he believed that Jiangling and Gong'an, his rear bases, would not easily fall. Furthermore, if he (Guan Yu) succeeded in defeating the enemy defenders, Sun Quan would certainly exploit the opportunity to attack Cao Cao's weakened defenses instead of attacking the three commanderies under Liu Bei, because it seemed to Guan Yu that Sun Quan had much more to gain in taking the vast region in the eastern region downstream the Yangtze River from Cao Cao than in taking Liu Bei's three commanderies. As Guan Yu was hesitating, Cao Cao personally led another reinforcement army to the battlefield, and had already reached Mo Slope (摩陂; southeast of present-day Jia County, Henan).


The bulk of the forces under Guan Yu's command was camped in Weitou (圍頭), while the remaining camped in Sizhong (四冢). Xu Huang spread word of an imminent attack on Weitou, but instead, he led his forces to strike Sizhong unexpectedly. Fearing the Sizhong camp would be lost, Guan Yu led 5,000 troops for the rescue, but the attack of Sizhong was only a decoy, as Guan Yu became ambushed by Xu Huang's men when he was on his way for the rescue mission. The defeated Guan Yu withdrew to his main camp, but Xu Huang's force followed closely behind and charged into Guan's main camp, successfully killing the defectors Hu Xiu and Fu Fang. With his camp overrun by the enemy, Guan Yu was forced to concede defeat by lifting the siege of Fancheng and retreating southward.

All of Cao Cao's commanders at the frontline believed that they should take advantage of the situation and pursue Guan Yu, except Army Advisor Zhao Yan (趙儼), who pointed out that they should not pursue Guan Yu because Guan's force should be left alone so that they could fight Sun Quan, thus weakening both Cao Cao's adversaries. Cao Ren agreed with Zhao Yan and did not pursue Guan Yu, and sure enough, when news of Guan Yu's retreat reached Cao Cao, he sent an emissary to Cao Ren, prohibiting him from giving a chase for exactly that reason.


When Guan Yu returned south, he discovered that his rear bases in Jiangling and Gong'an had both surrendered to Lü Meng, the commander of Sun Quan's westward army. Lü Meng held hostage the wives and children of Guan Yu's men, but treated them and the citizenry of Jing Province with utmost care. Guan Yu's soldiers, hearing that Jing Province had fallen to Sun Quan and that their families were in good hands, lost their will to fight and deserted.

Guan Yu, with only a handful of men left, became isolated in Maicheng (麥城; southeast of present-day Dangyang, Hubei) with Sun Quan's forces on three sides and Cao Cao's in the north. As Guan Yu attempted to escape, he and his surviving followers, including his son Guan Ping and his Commandant Zhao Lei, were captured in an ambush in Zhang (章) Town (east of present-day Anyuan County, Hubei) by Sun Quan's generals Zhu Ran and Pan Zhang. Guan Yu was later executed by Sun Quan at Linju (臨沮), along with Guan Ping and Zhao Lei.

Order of battle[edit]


Guan Yu's campaign failed because Liu Bei, Zhuge Liang, and Fa Zheng did not give enough support to Guan Yu (or were unable to give their support), and Guan had overestimated his own capabilities. Guan Yu didn't send for any support from Yi until it was too late. After Guan captured Yu Jin, he could have declared victory by restating his military goal as destroying the enemy reinforcement, or he could've continued besieging Fancheng. To return to Jiangling was not a bad option for Guan, because he would have consolidated the gain of the campaign, and avoid the risks involved in a prolonged war. Amongst the alternatives, Guan chose to continue the siege, which also was a reasonable choice for him at the time, if the siege would not be a long one. Although the initial success was brought to him by a natural flooding, it did indeed crush the morale of the defenders, and Guan attempted to capitalize on that.

Guan's blunder was not in continuing the siege, but severing ties with Sun Quan. At the beginning of the campaign, he had sent an emissary to Sun to ask for help, and Sun did so, though the reinforcement he sent arrived at the battlefield very slowly. Guan should have realized that he was not deemed trustworthy by Sun at the time; however, instead of strengthening the alliance, he chose to insult Sun's emissaries and rejected his marriage proposal, then confiscated Sun's food shortage on the border by force. At this point, it should not be hard for one to see that Sun would retaliate. However, Guan was overconfident on his signal towers, which were erected on high grounds along the Yangtze River to watch over the movement of Sun's forces. This move had a devastating effect on Guan's fate (as can be seen in Lü Meng's invasion of Jing Province), but only had limited effect on the battle of Fancheng, because Guan was not affected by the news Sun attacked his rear (Guan Yu set up fortifications to fight Xu Huang instead).

The first mistake that Guan did relating directly to his military operations was the misconception of a quick capture of Fancheng. He did not realize that the flood was only temporary, and that Cao Cao could still send reinforcement after reinforcement if he failed to take the city in a short period of time. There is a strategic mistake which contributed to the mistake mentioned — Guan divided his forces into at least three parts: the vanguard in Jia County, the detachment besieging Xiangyang, and the main army he directly controlled. In doing so, he violated the law of force concentration, and the siege on any single point would be longer than if he concentrated his forces. Then, when Xu Huang arrived the battlefield with some untrained and weak soldiers, Guan should have delivered a crushing blow to his old friend before Xu could even get prepared, but he instead focused on building fortifications and attempted to mimic what Zhou Yu did in the Battle of Jiangling. The last operational mistake is that Guan underestimated his old acquaintance (perhaps Guan actually did a fair evaluation on Xu Huang, as the latter was not highly regarded before the siege of Fancheng). Besides setting up two camps, Guan had 10 layers of barricades facing the direction of Xu's army, but the latter still ordered an attack after he received some elite troops and successfully conquered Guan's camps.[3]

Other historians took a more empathetic stands for Guan because at the outbreak of the battle, he faced the dilemma of an unfavorable result regardless of whether the offensive was launched or not. In the west, although Liu Bei successfully gained the strategic stronghold, Hanzhong, Liu Bei could not continue his momentum because the population of Hanzhong was drastically reduced as 80,000 residents were relocated into Cao Cao's territories when the latter defeated Zhang Lu years ago.[4] Although the Hanzhong region was still possessed of a sizable population, Liu Bei would face logistic problems had he continued his campaign against Cao Cao, because the latter had asked one of his officers (Zhang He) to relocate 50,000 households of Di tribes to Liang Province.[5] Eliminating his reliable platform to Guanzhong, Cao hindered Liu's offensive in the north. Therefore, Guan led his army north in order to keep pressure on Cao, at the same time buying Liu the time to consolidate his gain. However, the unexpected flood had changed Guan's original goal into conquering northern Jing Province, which is a goal that requires Liu Bei's reinforcement from the west, and Sun Quan's entry from the east. Had Guan Yu not made the blunder of destroying the alliance between Liu Bei and Sun Quan, but instead, strengthened it, he might have a chance of succeeding what he started.

Liu Bei's winning streak was finally ended, for the past ten years Liu conquered the two largest provinces, had several nation famous commanders and advisors, and had more popular support than ever before as the "King" of Han Zhong. Cao Cao and Sun Quan were fearful of Liu's continued victories and were wise to cooperate together. However, the biggest winner of the conflict was certainly Sun Quan, who not only took the majority of the Jing Province from the hand of Liu Bei, beheaded one of the most famous generals Guan Yu, but also received Yu Jin and Guan Yu's 40,000 plus troops, and most importantly, Sun Quan had secured Nan Commandery, which was very vital for the survival of the future Eastern Wu regime (it took a short time to travel from Jing Province to Yang Province downstream, if Jing Province was not controlled by the same power that controlled Yang Province, the power controlling Yang Province would be facing probable threat from the other party everyday). Cao Cao also secured his domain in northern-east Jing province by barely but successfully fending off Liu Bei's attack, but he was more pleased that the alliance between Liu Bei and Sun Quan melted down, however, Cao Cao would die shortly after the war, and was not able to capitalize on that. Liu Bei still would have some territory in Jing, mostly in the Northwest including Shangyong, Anyang, and Xi Cheng.

In Romance of the Three Kingdoms[edit]

Guan Yu captures Pang De, as depicted in a Ming dynasty painting by Shang Xi, c. 1430.

In Luo Guanzhong's historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the flooding of the Han River was not a natural occurrence, but instead, was pre-planned by Guan Yu. Guan had the rivers dammed and the dam opened when it was full, thus drowning Cao Cao's armies in the lower plains. This event was known as the Drowning of the Seven Armies (水淹七軍). Pang De put up firm resistance and attempted to escape by swimming, but was captured by Guan Yu's subordinate Zhou Cang. In contrast, Yu Jin was depicted pleading for his life and surrendering to Guan Yu.

Several weeks later, Sun Quan, who had secretly allied with Cao Cao, attacked Guan Yu's army at Jiangling. Sun Quan surprised and defeated Guan Yu's forces there, forcing Guan to lift the siege on Fancheng and retreat. Guan Yu and his son, Guan Ping, while fleeing to Yi Province (covering the Sichuan Basin), were caught and executed by Sun Quan's soldiers.

In the novel, the strength of Guan Yu was greatly exaggerated for dramatic effect, and the most obvious example was that the entire Jing Province was depicted as under Liu Bei's control. In reality, the state was divided into three parts at the time, controlled separately by the three powers, with Liu Bei controlling the least portion, both in terms of population and area, and could only field 25,000 troops at any one time from the region it controlled, with Guan Yu leading only 15,000 troops at the start of the battle. Other important historical facts not mentioned in the novel included the fact that it was Cao Cao who originally planned a preemptive strike against Guan Yu, but failed to materialize because of the need to crush the rebellion first. Logistic support, another deciding factor of the result of the battle, was not mentioned either in novel. Though Guan Yu in real life certainly deserves some credits for his bravery of leading a token force attacking an enemy that was almost ten times of his strength, as well as achieving an astonishing victory during the initial stage, his exploits were exaggerated in the novel because the author, Luo Guanzhong, personally adored Guan Yu, the most eulogized and glorified character in his work.

In popular culture[edit]

In Koei's video games Dynasty Warriors 4 and Dynasty Warriors 5, Guan Yu is depicted as simultaneously defending the lands of Jing Province and besieging Fan Castle (Fancheng). The second location is the focus of the stage. Cao Ren is the defending commander, and Sun Quan's forces later appear as reinforcements for Cao Ren. Notably, Pang De takes a prominent role, and proves to be a dangerous opponent for Guan Yu and his allies in this stage. In Dynasty Warriors 7, the defense of Fancheng is focused on Wei's side, the invasion of Jing Province is focused on Wu's side, and retreating to Maicheng is focused on Shu's side.


  1. ^ Chen Shou. Records of Three Kingdoms, Volume 1, Note Biography of Cao Man.
  2. ^ de Crespigny, Rafe (1996) Later Han Military Organisation. Canberra: Australian National University. Internet Edition.
  3. ^ a b Chen Shou. Records of Three Kingdoms, Volume 17, Biographies of Zhang, Yue, Yu, Zhang, and Xu.
  4. ^ (以丞相長史杜襲為駙馬都尉,留督漢中事。襲綏懷開導,百姓自樂出徙洛、鄴者八萬餘口。) Sima Guang. Zizhi Tongjian, Volume 67.
  5. ^ (使既之武都,徙氐五萬餘落出居扶風、天水界。) Sima Guang. Zizhi Tongjian, Volume 68.


  • de Crespigny, Rafe (1996) Later Han Military Organisation. Canberra: Australian National University. Internet Edition.
  • Selected Examples of Battles in Ancient China Writing Team, Selected Examples of Battles in Ancient China, 1st Edition, published by Chinese Publishing House & Distributed by New China Bookstore Publishing House in Beijing, 1981 - 1984.
  • Yuan, Tingdong, War in Ancient China, 1st Edition, published by Sichuan Academy of Social Science Publishing House & Distributed by New China Bookstore in Chengdu, 1988, ISBN 7-80524-058-2
  • Zhang, Xiaosheng, General View of War of Ancient China, 1st Edition in Xi'an, published by Long March Publishing House in Beijing & Distributed by New China Bookstore in Beijing, 1988, ISBN 7-80015-031-3 (set)

Coordinates: 32°02′42″N 112°08′10″E / 32.0450°N 112.1360°E / 32.0450; 112.1360