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Conduct of War

Battle at Guandu

Battle at Red Wall

Battle at Yiling

Northern Campaigns


In many battles fought during the Three Kingdoms period, three different types of units are identified apparently. The first unit is called 'chaiguan', a regular and stipulated infantry, the most common footsoldiers of the era, used as the main armored troops. These men were trained to use swords, spears, or bows (archery units), and were usually organised under a name implying their martial prowess such as Cao Cao's "Tiger Guards". The second unit is called 'qishi', a well-trained cavalry. In Earlier Han period, these also included chariots used in battles. The cavalry units were mostly found in the northern and northwestern regions, where they were rich in horse breeding. The third unit is called 'luochuan', meaning naval marine. These type of units were effectively used in the region of Wu and part of Jingzhou. Their sources were almost entirely south of the Yangtze River. These three types of units: infantry, cavalry and naval marine were used depending on the situation and mostly the battle terrain where they were involved in. For example, cavalry was well used in the open plains whereas infantry was more effective in the hills and mountains. Other than these three basic types of units, there were also special foreign tribemen in the tribal region, heavy cavalry which can be used as horsebowmen in the northern tribes, and elephant units of the Mang tribes. However, these tribemen were rarely used in the battlefield.


A good planning is a major key of the success of every battle. Usually spying and observation were the first move to obtain information about the enemy, weaponry, terrain, and also the character of opposing commanders. Sometimes reconnaissance was carried out in covert action to hide into the enemy's camp, to scout for potential defectors, to lower enemy's morale, to give false information which was essential in any military preparation. The use of divination; elements of the tradition which had been passed down since the Spring and Autumn period was also found. Divination by various techniques, usually astrology, interpretation of omens or dreams, was used to varying degrees by various leaders. Next the leader would seek out neighboring possible allies to joint attack or defense. Alliances in the Three Kingdoms were constantly changing and were to be relied upon only with utmost wariness. Then the assessment of the enemy's strength and of one's own with the closest view of situation and condition would determine the details of the plan for the coming war.

After the planning was completed, the leader would assign troops to various commanders and generals. Then the positioning of troops would be carried out including the deployment and final preparation of troops, the laying of traps, and the setting of ambushes. Standard duties were also to be carried out before war, including practising their skills, sharpening weapons and feeding the horses. Sometimes a raid to the enemy's camps was a good surprising move before the major battle occured. If the raid succeeded, the enemy would be panicked and sometimes fled away.

Just before the battle started, there was usually an act of provocation to lure the enemy into making a frenzied move, ineffective disorganised attack by shouting and flouting of the enemy. The use of verbal insults or offensive banners to flaunt one's power; who had successfully routed and dashed into the enemy's ranks, was an accepted mean of provoking the enemy to attack, or otherwise inflaming, upsetting, intimidating an opponent to one's advantages. Sometimes the commanding general himself or a 'champion', would challenge the opposing side a personal hand-to-hand combat. The purpose of the challenge was to motivate the soldiers and thus give them a boost in morale if their champion won and help them overcome fear if they were outnumbered. A decline of the challenge was not honorable and sometimes even terrify the enemy into surrendering. If the commander was killed in such a duel and there was no able lieutenant to take charge then the army could crumble and lost their will to fight.


The war that occured can be classified into two levels of battle : field battle and castle battle. A field battle usually happened if the defending side decided to counterattack outside the castle or if the two opposing armies met in the field. The field included open plains, rivers, hills and mountains. The field battle in rivers (naval battle) used warships and marines. Archery units were also very effective in the naval battles. The uses of battle formations and tactics were the prime determinant of the outcome of field battles. A castle battle occured if the defending side decided not to counterattack and remained in defense or they were defeated in a field battle. The attacking side would immediately try to siege the castle by breaking down the castle gate and using any methods to get inside the castle wall such as scaling ladders, battering rams or catapults. Tactics such as cutting off the enemy supplies line and raiding the enemy's supplies or camps were commonly used in many battles. Ambushes and feint defeats were also commonly used by both sides which needed control, coordination, and discipline amongst soldiers. Supplies of food and water were vital in a long extended war.

When battles by thousands of men started, large amount of dustclouds could be conjured up, especially in deserts of the northern regions, thus methods of controlling troops needed to be highly developed. Different sides used banners of different colors with their surnames on it as a sign. But the banners of leaders or commanders can also be used to fool the enemy as where was the real position of a particular commander. A large variety of flags were used, both for signalling and for raising morale. Movements to the right or left were indicated by flags, while drums signalled the advance and bells the retreat. Four beats of a drum signified 'prepare for action', and five beats signified the commencement of a march. Drums, horns and gongs were used in duels, and mostly used for psychological war, purpose of inspiring their own side and terrifying the opposing side. Fighting techniques such as charges and simultaneous attacks to launch a drive against the enemy were seen in many battles. The use of fire was also commonly used as an element of surprise and deadly incendiary attack.


After one side had utterly crushed by defeat or flee, the winning side would enter a post-war settlement as the last phase of the battle. In many cases, the losing side was allowed to surrender and in some cases, was allowed to leave or set free. Looting of valuables such as weapons, horses, grains, and treasures was also a common occurence of the postcombat situation. Captured generals were taken care of according to post-war settlement and could be either recruited, released, imprisoned, or executed. The final decision would be made by the winning leader which depended much on the attitude of the captured generals and their characters. Then the whole situation would immediately be revived and started to plan for another course of action.

Complete Text by Jack Yuan
© 2001,