Zhuge Liang's Northern Expeditions

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Northern Expeditions
Part of the wars of the Three Kingdoms period
Wei and Shu battle at the banks of River Wei.jpg
Illustration from a Qing dynasty print of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Date Spring 228-August 234
Location Gansu and Shaanxi, China
Result Cao Wei strategic victory, Shu Han tactical victory, overall expedition failure
Cao Wei Shu Han
Qiang people
Commanders and leaders
Cao Zhen
Sima Yi
Zhuge Liang
Zhuge Liang's Northern Expeditions
Traditional Chinese 諸葛亮北伐
Simplified Chinese 诸葛亮北伐
Six campaigns from Mount Qi
Chinese 六出祁山

Zhuge Liang's Northern Expeditions were a series of five military campaigns launched by the state of Shu Han against the rival state of Cao Wei from 228 to 234 during the Three Kingdoms period. All five expeditions were led by Shu's chancellor-regent Zhuge Liang. Although they proved unsuccessful and ended up as a stalemate, the expeditions have become some of the most well-known conflicts of the Three Kingdoms period and one of the few battles during it where each side (Shu and Wei) fought against one another with hundreds of thousand of troops as oppose to many other battles where one side had a huge numerical advantage.

The expeditions are dramatised and romanticised in the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, where they are referred to as the 'six campaigns from Mount Qi' (Chinese: 六出祁山). This term is inaccurate, since Zhuge Liang only launched two of his expeditions (the first and the fourth) from Mount Qi. The term also counts a defensive campaign against Wei as well as the five listed below.


In 227, China was divided into three competing regimes – Cao Wei, Shu Han and Eastern Wu – each with the purpose of reunifying the empire of the fallen Han Dynasty. In the state of Shu, the strategic thinking behind the Northern Expeditions can be traced back as early as 207, when the 27-year-old Zhuge Liang outlined his Longzhong Plan to his lord Liu Bei. In it, he explained in very general terms the need to gain a viable geographical base, and then went on to detail a two-pronged strike north for mastery of the north. One advance would be from Yi Province in the west (covering the Sichuan Basin), north through the Qin Mountains, debouching into the Wei River valley and achieving a strategic position at the great metropolis Chang'an from which to dominate the great bend of the Yellow River. The second advance would be from Jing Province (covering present-day Hubei and Hunan) north toward the political center of Luoyang.

After Liu Bei established himself in Yi Province in 215, the essential prerequisites of the plan had been completed. The geopolitical arrangement envisaged by Zhuge Liang proved, however, to be a militarily unstable one. The alliance with the state of Wu in the east broke down over the issue of the occupation of Jing Province. By 223, the province had been lost and Liu Bei, as well as some of his top generals, were dead. Even after Zhuge Liang re-established friendly relations with Wu, his original plan had been markedly altered since only the left prong could be executed.

In Zhuge Liang's much quoted memorial Chu Shi Biao of 227, he explained to Liu Bei's son and successor Liu Shan in highly ideological terms the reasoning for his departure from the capital Chengdu: "We should lead the three armies to secure the Central Plain in the north. Contributing my utmost, we shall exterminate the wicked, restore the house of Han and return to the old capital. Such is this subject's duty in repaying the Former Emperor and affirming allegiance to Your Majesty."


Zhuge Liang's plan called for a march north from Hanzhong, the main population center in northern Yi Province. In the third century, the region of Hanzhong was a sparsely populated area surrounded by wild virgin forest. Its importance lay in its strategic placement in a long and fertile plain along the Han River, between two massive mountain ranges, the Qin in the north and the Micang in the south. It was the major administrative center of the mountainous frontier district between the rich Red Basin (Sichuan Plain) in the south and the Wei River valley in the north. The area also afforded access to the dry northwest, and the Gansu panhandle.

Geographically, the rugged barrier of the Qin Mountains provided the greatest obstacle to Chang'an. The mountain range consists of a series of parallel ridges, all running slightly south of east, separated by a maze of ramifying valleys whose canyon walls often rise sheer above the valley streams. As a result of local dislocations from earthquakes, the topographical features are extremely complicated. Access from the south was limited to a few mountain routes called the gallery roads. These crossed major passes and were remarkable for their engineering skill and ingenuity. The oldest of these was to the northwest of Hanzhong, and which crossed the San Pass. The Lianyun "Linked Cloud" Road was constructed there to take carriage traffic during the Qin Dynasty in the third century BCE. Following the Jialing Valley, the route emerges in the north where the Wei River widens considerably, near the city of Chencang. Another important route was the Baoye route, which transverses the Yegu Pass and ends south of Mei. A few more minor and difficult routes lay to the east, notably the Ziwu, which leads directly to the south of Chang'an.

First expedition[edit]

Further information: Revolt of Tianshui and Battle of Jieting

At Hanzhong, Zhuge Liang held a war council on the method of realization of the tactical objective of capturing Chang'an. He proposed a wide left hook to seize the upper Wei River valley as a necessity to the capture of the city itself. General Wei Yan, however, objected to the plan and suggested a bold strike through a pass in the Qin Mountains with 10,000 elite troops to take Chang'an by surprise. He was confident that he could hold the city against Cao Wei until the main forces of Zhuge Liang arrived. Wei Yan's plan was rejected by Zhuge as being too ambitious; he preferred a more cautious approach.

In the spring of 228, two small forces were sent through Ji Gorge, one of which was commanded by the veteran general Zhao Yun, as decoys to give the appearance of threatening Mei. The real objective, however, was to seize the Longyou area far west of Chang'an: Tianshui, Anding, Nan'an commanderies and most of all of Mount Qi, the defensive bastion that screened the upper Wei valley.

Cao Rui, the Emperor of Cao Wei, himself moved to Chang'an to oversee the defense. General-in-chief Cao Zhen secured Mei against Zhao Yun whilst a combined cavalry-infantry force of 50,000 under Zhang He were sent west to oppose Zhuge's main army.

Sima Yi put down Meng Da's rebellion, which was co-ordinated with Zhuge Liang. Meng Da was taken by surprise as he had not expected Sima Yi to attack without seeking court approval.

At Jieting, the strategic outpost crucial to future Shu supplies, Wei general Zhang He found a weakness in the Shu army's arrangement—the larger part of the advance guard of Shu was entrenched on a nearby mountain top. Thus, Zhang He cut off water supplies to the mountain, and the Shu vanguard was easily defeated. The minor part of the vanguard stationed on the mountain road broke through Wei ranks and the remnants fled south, only escaping total annihilation due to Zhang He's fear of ambush. Meanwhile, Zhao Yun's small intrusion against Mei met with stiff resistance and Zhuge Liang ordered a general withdrawal to Hanzhong at the prospect of an outflanking motion by Wei army. Following his defeat, Zhuge Liang had the vanguard leader, Ma Su, executed for the tactical blunder at Jieting, and a memorial published to Liu Shan, in which he chastised himself for the failure and requested demotion from Chancellor (宰相) to General of the Right (右将军), but Zhuge Liang would wield the same power even after demotion.

Second expedition[edit]

Main article: Siege of Chencang

Not long after the end of the first expedition, Eastern Wu inflicted a defeat on Cao Wei at the Battle of Shiting, on the Hefei battlegrounds. Fearing a breakthrough in the Huai River valley, the Wei court decided to reinforce the east by transferring troops from the west. To help Shu Han's ally, Zhuge Liang struck in December 228 through Qinling with the aim of capturing Chencang (陳倉), and relieve pressure of Wu's Jingzhou.

The walled city was held by Hao Zhao with an estimated 1,000 or so soldiers who was warned by Cao Zhen after Zhuge Liang's first campaign to make defensive preparations.

Although outnumbered by Shu Han troops, Hao Zhao refused requests to surrender. Soon Zhuge Liang brought to bear an array of siege equipment, including scaling ladders, battering rams and archery towers. Nevertheless, Chencang could not be broken and the Wei soldiers provided stubborn resistance with various incendiary devices.

After three weeks, Zhang He arrived with relief troops and food supplies. Zhuge Liang, having accomplished his goal, then ordered a retreat to Hanzhong once more. One of Zhang He's subordinates, Wang Shuang, decided to pursue through the Qin Mountains and was killed by an ambush arranged by Zhuge Liang. This incident, with the victim as one of the champions personally accredited by the Wei emperor, was a shock reminder of the skills of Zhuge Liang as a master of ambuscades.

Third expedition[edit]

Main article: Battle of Jianwei

The spring of 229 saw Zhuge Liang make his third expedition. Setting the immediate goal as the capture of the commanderies of Wudu and Yinping, Zhuge Liang sent Chen Shi to storm the enemy territory before he ventured out. The area Chen Shi was asked to take seated on the western foothills of the Qin Mountains, and could potentially be used as a launch-pad for a further strike toward Tianshui Commandery.

The defending general, Guo Huai, had readied his troops to attack Chen Shui, but drew back as he received intelligence that Zhuge Liang was marching toward Jianwei, a northern county of Wudu Commandery. Although Guo Huai retreated, he secured a defense line to prevent any hostile advance to Tianshui. The Shu regent, in the mean time, arrived at Jianwei, where he halted his army. After surveying the situation, Zhuge Liang chose to station his army at the relatively remote county, in anticipation of probable Wei reinforcement, which never came to rescue the two commanderies.

The victory, however, did not reap significant strategic benefits for Shu despite the regent's personal political gain; the livestock and tribesmen had already been transported out from the area by Cao Wei, and to station there would be a drain on manpower and rations. Zhuge Liang retreated back to Hanzhong, but in response to the acquisition of two commanderies, the Shu emperor Liu Shan issued an imperial edict and had Zhuge Liang reinstated as Chancellor.

Beginning in the winter of 229 and into the spring of 230, Hanzhong was again involved in new military developments; on knowledge of a Wei offensive, Zhuge Liang initiated extensive preparations, including two defensive barriers on the Hanzhong plain, running 200 kilometers with nearly 100,000 troops. The Wei court had decided to alter its defensive strategy and launched a three-pronged attack with the objective of seizing Hanzhong led by Sima Yi, Cao Zhen and Zhang He.

The Wei offensive began in the fall of 230 with over 400,000 troops; in response Wei Yan and Wu Yi (吳懿) were sent north with a mixed cavalry-infantry force behind enemy lines to incite dissension amongst the various non-Han Chinese ethnic groups within the domain of Wei, while at the same time selling the famous Chengdu silk brocades in return for horses and weapons. Aiding Shu was the fact that Wei attack ran into problems from the beginning: heavy rain continued for more than thirty days and made narrow valleys impassable, while Zhang He in the west had to deal with the threat from his rear. After nearly one and a half months of little progress, Wei terminated the disastrous campaign. Zhuge Liang made a daring march northwest in an attempt to relieve Wei Yan, who had been intercepted by Guo Huai on his return; but before Zhuge Liang's reinforcement reached its destination, Wei Yan had already managed to defeat Guo Huai. Thus the Shu force was able to make a proud return to Hanzhong.

In many Chinese historical writings and novels, these two battles are classified as separate expeditions although the latter was actually a defensive maneuver and Zhuge Liang never left Shu.

Fourth expedition[edit]

Main article: Battle of Mount Qi

Zhuge Liang's fourth Northern Expedition was launched in early 231. Envoys were sent out to rouse the Xianbei and Qiang people, urging them to create a disturbance within Wei's domain. In early summer Cao Zhen took ill and was replaced by Sima Yi, who at once ordered Dai Ling and Fei Yao to protect Shanggui with 4,000 troops, and set out with the main army at Chang'an to relieve Mount Qi.[1] In response to Sima Yi's advance, Zhuge Liang left part of his army to besiege Mount Qi and rushed to Shanggui before his nemesis could arrive.

Without a coordinated strategic effort, Zhuge's opponents played into his hands. Guo Huai had been ordered to join Sima Yi at Mount Qi but he took the initiative and together with Fei Yao, tried to catch Zhuge Liang in a front-rear pincer attack. Having left the defensive position, they were routed by the Shu forces. The Shu regent then went about harvesting the early spring wheat in the vicinity. Receiving the news of Guo Huai's defeat, Sima Yi altered his destination and went to reinforce Guo Huai. The Wei marshal occupied the hills east of Shanggui, but refrained from attacking. Zhuge Liang withdrew upon completion of harvest, but Sima Yi caught up with him at Hanyang, where the latter challenged Shu forces. After the vanguards briefly engaged, however, Zhuge Liang ordered a general retreat to Lucheng (鹵城), where he could set up a better defense. The Prime Minister sent his generals to station atop two mountains both north and south of his fortress, and set up "covering camps" near the riverbanks.[2] Generals under Sima Yi requested for a showdown with Zhuge Liang, but Sima was hesitant to do so. Faced with intensive criticism and incessant ridicule, the careful marshal eventually relented. In May, Sima Yi sent Zhang He to attack the southern mountain guarded by Wang Ping, while the Wei marshal marched to Lucheng via the main road.[3] Zhuge Liang ordered Wei Yan, Wu Ban, and Gao Xiang to stop Sima Yi outside the city wall, where the two forces clashed. Sima Yi suffered a heavy defeat and Zhang He could make no progress.[4] Nevertheless, Sima Yi still possessed a sizable army after the defeat, and he would continue the war.

According to the Book of Jin, after the victory, Zhuge Liang did not capitalize with a major offensive due to a lack of food supply, while Sima Yi again mounted attacks on Shu, and conquered Zhuge Liang's outer camps. Having lost his outer camps, Zhuge Liang retreated under the cover of night, but was caught up and dealt a serious blow.[5] However the Book of Jin has been widely criticised for inaccuracies, and most historians believe it is a fake story, including Sima Guang, the author of Zizhi Tongjian. The place where Zhang He died was northeast of this battle, which means Zhuge Liang successfully went further into the land of Wei. It is quite impossible that Zhuge Liang could push the battle line further if this serious defeat really happened. The Records of the Three Kingdoms reports instead that Li Yan, who was responsible for maintaining ration supplies to the front could not accomplish his task due to the rain and instead lied to Zhuge Liang that Liu Shan had ordered a withdrawal.

As Zhuge Liang withdrew, Sima Yi ordered Zhang He's cavalry to pursue the enemy in an attempt to capitalize on their recent victory. Zhang He argued with his superior that military norms dictate that a retreat route be given to those who were surrounded or retreating, but Sima refused to listen.[6] Indeed, Zhang He was ambushed at Mumen, where Zhuge Liang ordered massed crossbowmen to hide on high ground and fire at the approaching enemies when they entered a narrow defile. Zhang He was hit by a stray arrow on his right leg and died, and Sima Yi became the single most valued military authority of Cao Wei.

Fifth expedition[edit]

In the following two years both sides developed agriculture and prepared for another inevitable campaign in Longyou. Sima Yi, for his part rehabilitated the Zhengguo Canal in 234, increasing the potential to withstand a protracted war in Longyou.

In the spring of 234, 100,000 Shu soldiers advanced through the Qin Mountains by way of Baoye toward the broad plain of Wuzhang Plains, in what would become Zhuge Liang's fifth and last Northern Expedition. Sima Yi, well prepared for such a move with a 200,000-strong army, built a fortified position on the southern bank of the Wei River. The veteran of the Zhuge Liang's incursions, Guo Huai, suggested that the Shu forces were not planning an immediate attack on Chang'an itself but were planning to consolidate their position on the Wuzhang Plains for a takeover of Longyou, which had always been Zhuge Liang's immediate goal. Already, he pointed out, there were reports of Shu forces crossing the Wei River upstream and constructing lines of communications. Concerned about the threat of being cut off on the south bank, Sima Yi asked for an additional planned reinforcement of several hundred thousand troops for the communication center of Beiyuan. Such a move was none too soon, for Zhuge Liang was already on the verge of wiping out the Wei garrison after encroaching on the Wei positions in the north. After two months of manuevring north of the Wei River, the additional Wei reinforcement successfully foiled Zhuge Liang's attempt and he settled down to a stalemate on the Wuzhang Plain. The Shu army anticipated a long protracted struggle and used the tuntian system pioneered by Cao Cao, as they awaited an agreed offensive by Eastern Wu.

Sun Quan's armies in the Huai River region, however, was defeated and his offensive broke down due to the spread of endemic disease. The frustration of this last hope to break the stalemate no doubt increased the rapid deterioration of Zhuge Liang's health and depressed mental condition. By late summer, he started giving instructions to his close subordinate officers on the future of Shu. In the early autumn of 234, Zhuge Liang died at the age of 54.

Sima Yi, convinced that Zhuge Liang had died despite the fact that Zhuge's death was kept a secret by Shu, gave chase to the retreating Shu forces. Zhuge Liang's successor, Yang Yi, then turned around, pretending to strike in full scale by devastating the vanguard of Wei. Learning the news of the defeat, Sima Yi feared that Zhuge Liang only pretended he was dead to lure him out for a full-scale battle that favored the Shu force, and immediately ordered a general retreat. Common folklore tells of a double, or a wooden statue, that was dressed as Zhuge Liang, driving Sima Yi away in this incident. In any case, word that Sima Yi fled from the already dead Zhuge Liang spread, spawning a popular saying, "A dead Zhuge scares away a living Zhongda (Sima Yi's courtesy name)" (死諸葛嚇走活仲達). Sima Yi's answered such ridicule by claiming that he, like most of the time, could predict the intention of living Zhuge Liang, but not a ghost.

News of Zhuge Liang's death was withheld until the army had reached the safety of the Baoye valley to return to Hanzhong. Sima Yi, still fearful that the announcement was false and merely another opportunity for Zhuge to demonstrate his talent for ambuscade, hesitated to pursue. Only after his inspection of the empty Shu encampment did he resolve that pursuit was appropriate, but after reaching Baoye and deciding the advance could not be supported with supplies, the Wei army returned to the Wei River. The death of Zhuge Liang ended a huge strategic threat to Wei and the Wei court soon began development of ambitious public works.

In fiction[edit]

The Northern Expeditions were featured prominently in the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, covering chapters 91-105 out of the 120 chapters in the novel. Many actual events were largely romanticised or highly exaggerated, while some fictitious stories were also included, for dramatic effect. See the following for some fictitious stories in the novel that are related to the Northern Expeditions:

Modern references[edit]

The Northern Expeditions are featured as playable stages in Koei's video game series Dynasty Warriors. As of the sixth installment in the franchise, all of the five expeditions are playable stages in some form. In the sixth game, the battle of Wuzhang is depicted as taking place shortly after the Battle of Yiling—with the battle serving as a final victory for the Shu forces in some cases—while its proper point in time is restored with the seventh installment. In the seventh and eighth games, the battle at Wuzhang is portrayed as a deadlock, rather than a clear victory for Wei.


  1. ^ (漢晉春秋曰:"宣王使曜、陵留精兵四千守上邽,餘眾悉出,西救祁山。) See the Spring and Autumn Annal of Han and Jin Dynasty.
  2. ^ (漢晉春秋曰:"亮屯鹵城,據南北二山,斷水為重圍。) See the Spring and Autumn Annal of Han and Jin Dynasty
  3. ^ (漢晉春秋曰:"使張郃攻無當監何平於南圍,自案中道向亮。) See the Spring and Autumn Annal of Han and Jin Dynasty.
  4. ^ Spring and Autumn Annal of Han and Jin Dynasty claims 3,000 elite Wei soldiers were killed, and 5,000 sets of armor and 3,100 crossbows were seized by Shu; Original quote: 漢晉春秋曰:"亮使魏延、高翔、吳班赴拒,大破之,獲甲首三千級,玄鎧五千領,角弩三千一百張,宣王還保營。
  5. ^ Fang Xuanling et al. Book of Jin, Volume 1, claims Zhuge Liang retreated under the cover of night after he lost his camps, and was caught up and dealt a casualty of roughly 10,000. Original quote: 帝攻拔其圍,亮宵遁。追擊,破之,俘斬萬計。
  6. ^ (《魏略》曰:亮军退,司马宣王使郃追之,郃曰:“军法,围城必开出路,归军勿追。”宣王不听。郃不得已,遂进。) The Brief History of Wei states Zhang He opposed the retreat by pointing out "military norms dictate that a retreat route be given to those who were surrounded or returning."

See also[edit]