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The Battle of Xiaoting was one of the three major battles of China's Three Kingdoms period; after the kingdom of Wu invaded Jing province a few years earlier, the state of Shu amassed an army to retake it but they were halted and defeated decisively in said battle.

The usual reasoning for the battle was that Shu's sovereign Liu Bei made tactical blunders which were taken advantage of by Wu's commander Lu Xun: landing his naval forces instead of attacking by river and land; overextending his supply lines; forgoing advantageous mountainous terrain; overextending his camps; and the most fatal of them all, relocating his camps into the nearby forest which was easily set on fire.

However, even before the outset of the invasion, Shu had a number of large setbacks which leads me to question if the invasion was doomed from the start. They are, in no particular order:

  • No advantage in numbers: I'm not certain of the exact army strengths, but it seems that they were about the same magnitude
  • Hasty invasion: Shu had only just captured Yi province
  • Well prepared defenders: Wu invaded Jing province with the full expectation of a large counterattack, and had prepared accordingly, such as treating the citizens with benevolence to prevent possible uprisings
  • Loss of key personnel: in the preceding years, Shu not only lost a large portion of its best generals and advisors, those left did not accompany the invasion. Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, Huang Zhong, Fa Zheng and Pang Tong had all died; Zhao Yun, Wei Yan and Zhuge Liang all stayed back to defend from a possible Wei invasion.

In other words, although the lack of able advisors lead to Liu Bei making key mistakes, even if those mistakes were not made, it seems that Shu would have lost the invasion eventually anyway. With the odds stacked so far against them, the only question was when their invasion would be repulsed.

My question is, was the invasion doomed for Shu from the start? Or did Shu have a fair chance of succeeding in retaking Jing province?

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Why are people trying to close this as 'primarily opinion-based'? Is that a coded way of saying "we don't know and we don't want to say we don't know"? –  LateralFractal Oct 4 '13 at 1:07
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@LateralFractal: Actually, as the first to cast a "Put on Hold" vote, I felt this was a bad question in at least 3 of the 5 categories. Being required to choose only one, I choose what I saw as the most egregious flaw in the question. The Q is half answer already, which suggests that OP has already made up his/her mind, and is only trying to foment discussion that can then be criticized. –  Pieter Geerkens Oct 4 '13 at 2:17
    
@PieterGeerkens thanks for your comments; can the question be improved by removing the answer parts? I honestly don't have an opinion on the question because I think there are factors I'm missing, is there some way the question can be reworded to remove the appearance of a foregone conclusion? –  congusbongus Oct 4 '13 at 2:21
    
I am completely unfamiliar with the campaign, but you paint Liu Bei as making a very long series of idiotic choices. All the detail you present is good, but you need to make him appear at least marginally competent, or of course his campaign was going to fail; incompetents don't defeat competents. Perhaps think a bit on why Liu made some of these choices, explaining why he might have thought they improved his odds, and add that into the mix. That will show that you have really thought about the question you have asked, which buys a lot of leeway here. –  Pieter Geerkens Oct 4 '13 at 2:44
    
Voted to close - verges on "alternative history" - "coulda-shoulda-woulda". –  user2590 Oct 4 '13 at 6:35

1 Answer 1

up vote 2 down vote accepted

In terms of the objective you defined in the question, the Shu army had a reasonable chance of success. Liu Bei's army held two significant advantages:

  • Superior infantry: the Shu army consisted of battle hardened, professional veterans who were better versed in field combat than Wu soldiers, especially in mountainous regions. The strength of the Wu military was in their navy. On the ground, Wu forces were largely ineffectual against relatively fewer Wei defenders than their Shu counterparts.

  • Home ground: The backbone of the Shu forces were from the Jing province. This applied to both his officer corps, and also to the rank and file. Not only was morale high in the fight to recapture their homes from the Wu invaders, Shu's diplomats (also Jing natives) were quite successful in inciting the regional minorities into rebellion against Wu.

In terms of overall strategic situation, Shu had the additional advantage that Wei's armies were poised for an invasion of the South. In fact, Wu's forces were facing a war on two fronts, leading the following exchange soon after the battle:

劉備聞魏軍大出、書與遜云「賊今已在江陵、吾將復東、將軍謂其能然不?」遜答曰「但恐軍新破、創痍未復、始求通親、且當自補、未暇窮兵耳。若不惟算、欲復以傾覆之餘、遠送以來者、無所逃命。」

Liu Bei, hearing of the Wei invasion, wrote Lu Xun to say, "I heard the enemy has reached Jiangling. I'm thinking of returning to the East too. What do you think?"

Lu Xun replied, "I'm afraid your army was just defeated, and haven't recovered from wounds and illnesses yet. It is time to sue for peace and recuperate, instead of pursuing jingoism. If you don't listen, and insist on on attacking after a defeat, the soldiers you send will have no place to run."

-- 《晉·張勃·吳錄》

Throughout the Wei invasion, Lu Xun stayed in position blocking Liu Bei's invasion path. By the time Wei forces lifted the siege due to rampaging disease, Jiangling was on the verge of surrendering, and relief forces scrapped together from elsewhere were repulsed every time. Lu Xun's inaction demonstrates how potentially formidable Liu Bei's surviving forces still were, at least in the minds of Wu's leaders.

Given the tactical and strategic advantages in Shu's favour, Liu Bei's invasion had at least some chance of success for retaking western Jing. On the other hand, pushing further east would have been an entirely different question; the extra distance significantly shifts logistical and terrain advantages in Wu's favour. If Liu Bei intended the Shu invasion to conquer all of Jing or even Wu itself, then you could say the invasion was doomed. The Shu navy's depleted state would by itself rule out conquering beyond Jiangling.

That said, forcing a negotiated settlement seem like the more likely plan on Liu Bei's part.

Note also that Liu Bei's invasion was not "hasty" by any means. The Shu province was captured in 214. Kuan Yu was defeated and killed in 219. It took until 221 before Liu Bei launched his invasion. By this point Liu had administered the Yi province for 7 years. For reference, Liu began his conquest of Yi a mere 4 years after taking control of Jing.

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