Battle of Wuzhang Plains
|Battle of Wuzhang Plains|
|Part of the fifth of Zhuge Liang's Northern Expeditions|
An illustration from a Qing dynasty edition of the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms depicting a statue of Zhuge Liang scaring away Sima Yi
|Cao Wei||Shu Han|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Sima Yi||Zhuge Liang|
|Casualties and losses|
|Battle of Wuzhang Plains|
The Battle of Wuzhang Plains was fought between the contending states of Cao Wei and Shu Han in 234 during the Three Kingdoms period of China. The battle was the fifth and last of a series of Northern Expeditions led by Shu's chancellor, Zhuge Liang, to attack Wei. Zhuge Liang fell ill and died during the stalemate, after which the Shu forces retreated.
In the spring of 234, Zhuge Liang led more than 100,000 Shu troops out of Xie Valley (斜谷) and camped at the southern bank of the Wei River near Mei County (郿縣; southeast of present-day Fufeng County, Shaanxi). He constantly worried about a shortage of food supplies because the supply line was overly stretched and supplies were thus not able to always reach the frontline in time. He then implemented the tuntian policy to create a new source of food supplies, by ordering his troops to grow crops on the south bank of the Wei River alongside the civilians living in the area. He also forbid his troops from taking the civilians' crops.
The Wei emperor Cao Rui became worried so he sent the general Qin Lang with 20,000 infantry and cavalry to the Guanzhong region to join Sima Yi, the Grand Chief Controller (大都督) of the Wei military forces in the region. Sima Yi's subordinates wanted to make camp north of the Wei River and wait, but Sima Yi said, "Many civilians have gathered at the south of the Wei River. That will definitely become a hotly contested location." Sima Yi then led his army across the river and set up their camp with the Wei River behind them. He said, "If Zhuge Liang is brave enough, he'll move out from Wugong County (武功縣; east of present-day Mei County, Shaanxi) and head eastward in the direction of the mountains. If he moves west to the Wuzhang Plains, we'll have no worries."
As Sima Yi foresaw, Zhuge Liang moved towards the Wuzhang Plains and prepared to cross the Wei River to the north side. Sima Yi sent Zhou Dang (周當) to station at Yangsui (陽遂) and lure Zhuge Liang to attack him. Zhuge Liang did not mobilise his troops for several days. Sima Yi said, "Zhuge Liang wants to take control of the Wuzhang Plains and won't advance towards Yangsui. His intention is obvious." He then sent Hu Zun (胡遵) and Guo Huai to defend Yangsui. The two armies met and fought near the Wuzhang Plains. Zhuge Liang could not advance further so he retreated back to the Wuzhang Plains.
One night, Sima Yi saw a star falling towards Zhuge Liang's camp and predicted that Zhuge Liang would lose. He ordered a raid on the Shu camp from behind: 500 Shu soldiers were killed, 600 surrendered, and more than 1,000 livestock of the Shu army were captured by Wei forces.
Around the time, the Wei government observed that since the Shu army was far away from its base at Hanzhong Commandery, it would not be in its interest to fight a prolonged war in Wei territory. The Wei emperor Cao Rui thus ordered Sima Yi to refrain from engaging the enemy and wait for opportunities to strike. Zhuge Liang attempted to lure Sima Yi into battle but Sima Yi followed Cao Rui's orders and remained in camp. Zhuge Liang understood that Sima Yi was trying to wear them down through attrition warfare, so he implemented the tuntian system to sustain the Shu army.
One day, Zhuge Liang sent a woman's ornaments to Sima Yi to taunt him to come out and fight. Sima Yi felt enraged and wanted to attack Zhuge Liang, but Cao Rui denied him permission and ordered him to remain in camp. Cao Rui even gave Xin Pi his imperial scepter (a symbol of the emperor's authority) and sent him to the Wuzhang Plains to keep an eye on Sima Yi. When Zhuge Liang taunted him again, Sima Yi wanted to attack the enemy, but Xin Pi used the imperial scepter to order him to remain in camp.
When the Shu general Jiang Wei heard that Xin Pi was in Sima Yi's camp, he told Zhuge Liang, "Xin Pi has come with the imperial scepter. The enemy won't come out of their camp (to attack us)." Zhuge Liang replied, "Sima Yi doesn't want to engage us in battle in the first place. His true intention in seeking permission from his emperor to attack us is, in fact, to show his troops that he is eager to fight and keep them in battle-ready mode. A general away on the battlefield doesn't necessarily need to follow his lord's orders. If (Sima Yi) can defeat us, why does he still need to ask for permission from his emperor, who is thousands of li away (from here)?"
When Sima Fu wrote to Sima Yi to ask about the situation at the Wuzhang Plains, Sima Yi replied: "Zhuge Liang has big ambitions but he fails to recognise opportunities. He is full of wits but not decisive. He likes leading troops into battle even though he does not have much authority over them. Even though he has 100,000 troops under his command, he has already fallen into my trap and I'll certainly defeat him."
During the stalemate, Sima Yi asked a messenger Zhuge Liang sent to meet him: "What are Zhuge Liang's living conditions like? How much grain does he consume (a day)?" The messenger replied, "Three to four sheng." Sima Yi then asked about Zhuge Liang's daily routine, to which the messenger replied that Zhuge Liang micromanaged almost everything, except trivial issues like punishments for minor offences." He remarked, "How can Zhuge Kongming last long? He's going to die soon."
Zhuge Liang's death and the Shu retreat
Sometime between 11 September and 10 October 234,[a] Zhuge Liang became critically ill and his condition worsened day after day. When the Shu emperor Liu Shan heard about it, he sent Li Fu (李福) to the Wuzhang Plains to ask Zhuge Liang about succession. Zhuge Liang replied that Jiang Wan could succeed him and that Fei Yi could succeed Jiang Wan. When Li Fu asked again about Fei Yi's successor, Zhuge Liang did not respond. Li Fu then returned to the Shu capital, Chengdu. Before his death, Zhuge Liang gave secret orders to Yang Yi, Fei Yi and Jiang Wei to lead the Shu army on a retreat back to Shu after his death, with Wei Yan in charge of the rearguard and Jiang Wei to follow behind. If Wei Yan refused to follow the order, they were to retreat without him. When Zhuge Liang died, news of his death were kept secret.
After a standoff lasting more than 100 days, Sima Yi heard from civilians that Zhuge Liang had died from illness and that the Shu army had burnt their camp and retreated, so he led the Wei forces in pursuit. Zhuge Liang's assistant, Yang Yi, ordered the Shu soldiers to beat their war drums and get into formation to resist the enemy. Sima Yi did not press on since he felt that the Shu army was already beaten, so Yang Yi withdrew. According to folklore, Sima Yi retreated after he saw a wooden statue of Zhuge Liang and thought that Zhuge Liang was still alive. In some variations of this legend, it was Jiang Wei who disguised himself as Zhuge Liang to scare away Sima Yi.
Some days later, Sima Yi surveyed the remains of the Shu camp and retrieved some maps, documents and food supplies. He concluded that Zhuge Liang was indeed dead and said, "He was a rare talent in this world." Xin Pi felt that they could not be certain about Zhuge Liang's death yet, but Sima Yi said, "The most important things in an army are its documents, troops, horses and supplies. (Zhuge Liang) has abandoned all of them. How can a person lose his five most important organs and still be alive? We should quickly pursue (the enemy)." The ground in the Guanzhong region was full of devil's weed so Sima Yi sent 2,000 men wearing wooden clogs with flat soles to clear the path before his main army advanced. When Sima Yi reached Chi'an (赤岸), he confirmed that Zhuge Liang was dead. When he asked the civilians living there, they told him that there was a recent popular saying: "A dead Zhuge scares away a living Zhongda[b]" When Sima Yi heard that, he laughed and said, "I can predict the thoughts of the living but I can't predict the dead's."
Conflict between Wei Yan and Yang Yi
The Shu general Wei Yan, dismayed that the Shu forces were retreating "over the death of one man", gathered his units and travelled back to Shu territory ahead of the main army led by Yang Yi, Fei Yi, Jiang Wei and the others. During the retreat, Wei Yan ordered the gallery roads leading back to Shu to be burnt down.
Wei Yan and Yang Yi separately wrote memorials to the Shu imperial court and accused each other of treason. Their memorials arrived in the Shu capital, Chengdu, on the same day. The Shu emperor Liu Shan asked the ministers Dong Yun and Jiang Wan for their opinions. Both of them sided with Yang Yi and felt that Wei Yan's actions were suspicious. In the meantime, Yang Yi ordered his men to cut down trees to rebuild the gallery roads, and his troops marched day and night to catch up with Wei Yan. Wei Yan arrived at the southern valley first and ordered his soldiers to attack Yang Yi. Yang Yi sent Wang Ping to resist Wei Yan. Wang Ping shouted at Wei Yan, "His lordship (Zhuge Liang) had just died and his body had yet to turn cold, and now you dare to do something like this!" Wei Yan's men knew that their commander was in the wrong so they deserted.
Wei Yan was left with only his son(s) and a few followers. They fled towards Hanzhong Commandery. Yang Yi ordered Ma Dai to give chase. Ma Dai caught up with Wei Yan, decapitated him, brought his head back, and threw it in front of Yang Yi. Yang Yi trampled on Wei Yan's head and said, "You inferior slave! Now, can you still commit evil?" Wei Yan's family members and close relatives were also executed. Before Wei Yan's death, Jiang Wan had led divisions of the imperial guards from Chengdu to deal with the conflict. They had travelled for about 10 li (about three miles) when they received news of Wei Yan's death, after which they returned to Chengdu.
After Zhuge Liang's death, Jiang Wan took his post, but Jiang was more interested in domestic affairs than military expansion. Thus the death of Zhuge Liang ended a huge strategic threat to Cao Wei and the Wei court soon began development of ambitious public works.
In popular culture
The battle is featured as one of the final playable stages in Koei's video game series Dynasty Warriors. The earlier instalments of the game changed the original account of the battle: certain characters such as Cao Cao and Liu Bei, who had historically died more than a decade before the battle, survived until then to participate in the battle. However, the most recent instalment has made the battle more accurate than it was in the earlier instalments.
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