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 of Chinese history.
All five expeditions were led by Shu Han's chancellor-regent Zhuge Liang. Although they proved unsuccessful and indecisive, the expeditions have become some of the most well-known conflicts of the Three Kingdoms period. In popular history, they overlap with the "six campaigns from Mount Qi" (Chinese: 六出祁山; pinyin: Lìuchū Qíshān), which is inaccurate, since Zhuge Liang only launched his campaigns from Mount Qi twice.
|Date||Spring 228 - August 234|
|Location||Gansu and Shaanxi, China|
|Result||Cao Wei strategic victory, Shu Han tactical victory, overall expedition failure|
The Longzhong Plan
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 (see header of website above), 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.
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, Zhang He found the larger part of the advance guard of Shu under Ma Su entrenched on a nearby mountain top. Because he forfeited access to water supplies, Ma was easily defeated. The minor part of the vanguard stationed on the mountain road broke through Wei ranks and the remnants of Ma Su's force escaped 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 the Wei army. Following his defeat, Zhuge Liang had Ma Su executed for the tactical blunder at Jieting and then published a memorial 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 he held the same military power even after demotion.
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. Sensing an opportunity, Zhuge Liang struck in December 228 through Qinling with the aim of capturing Chencang (陳倉), communication thoroughfare of the Wei River.
The walled city was held by Hao Zhao with an estimated 1000 or so soldiers who was warned by Cao Zhen after Zhuge Liang's first campaign to make defensive preparations.
Although hugely outnumbered by the 20,000 to 100,000 Shu 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, himself short of grain, 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.
The spring of 229 saw Zhuge Liang make his third expedition. Though the objective of this particular campaign remained dubious, he set the immediate goal as the capture of the commanderies of Wudu and Yinping for his vanguard, Chen Shi. The area Chen Shi was asked to take seated on the western foothills of the Qin Mountains, and was considered useful as a launch pad for a further strike toward the Wei River. Zhang He, stationed at Tianshui, ordered Guo Huai south to check the Shu army.
Chen Shi defeated Guo Huai's forces in open battle at Jianwei, northwest of Wudu, and proceeded to take the two commanderies. Although Guo Huai was defeated, he retreated and secured a defensive position and effectively checked any plans Zhuge Liang had of a quick advance to Tianshui, despite his numerical inferiority facing Zhuge Liang. Zhuge, in the mean time, was leading a separate army to prevent any Wei reinforcement to Guo Huai, and thus could not exploit the advantage achieved by Chen Shi's victory. The victory at Jianwei did not reap significant strategic benefits for Shu despite his personal political gain; the livestock and tribesmen were already 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 abandon its defensive strategy and launched a three-pronged attack with the objective of 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 Shu sent 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 in Wei, while at the same time sell 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 of their attack: heavy rain continued for more than thirty days and made narrow valleys were impassable, while Zhang He in the west had to deal with the threat from the rear. After a month or a half of little progress, Wei terminated the disastrous campaign.
Zhuge Liang made a daring march northwest to relieve Wei Yan, who had been intercepted by Guo Huai on his return; but before Zhuge Liang's reinforcement had reached its destination, Wei Yan had already managed to defeat Guo Huai and the Wei reinforcement led by Cao Zhen. The Shu force behind was able to safely make a prudently-dictated return to Hanzhong.
In many Chinese historical writings and novels, these campaigns are classified as separate expeditions although the latter two were actually defensive maneuvers and Zhuge Liang never left Shu.
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 in the Wei rear. Furthermore, supply was improved with the introduction of the "wooden ox". Nevertheless, the goal of seizing Longyou was perhaps overly optimistic since Wei's defensive posture in the region was indeed formidable. Mount Qi was garrisoned by Jia Ji and Wei Ping, forming an initial defense for Tianshui, which was itself occupied by the battle-tested forces of Guo Huai and Dai Ling (戴陵).
The Shu offensive began with a minor clash at Mount Qi which the commander-in-chief Cao Zhen feared was a diversion to mask a major offensive through the Qinling passes against Chang'an itself. In the early summer Cao Zhen took ill and was replaced by Sima Yi, who at once sent 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. On hearing of Sima Yi's advance, Zhuge Liang left part of his army besieging Mount Qi and set out with the remainder to seize Shanggui.
Without the benefit of coordinated strategic control, his 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, leaving the approaches to Longyou open. Zhuge Liang, however, did not move to take Tianshui, perhaps fearing the breakdown of the supply line should the Shu army overextend itself. Instead he went about harvesting the early spring wheat that was available in the vicinity.
Sima Yi, after surveying the situation at Mount Qi and Guo Huai's defeat, decided to reinforce them and occupied the hills east of Shanggui, blocking any further Shu advance. Upon completing the harvest the Shu forces retreated, but was caught by Sima Yi at Hanyang, where Sima sent out his general, Niu Jin, to challenge Shu forces. After the Shu vanguard, Ma Dai, was defeated by Niu Jin, Zhuge Liang ordered a general retreat to Mount Qi, and halted at Lucheng (鹵城） to prepare for battle. He sent his generals to station on the two mountains both north and south to his fortress, and set up "covering camps" near the riverbanks. Generals under Sima Yi requested him to launch an attack on numerous occasions, which he was hesitant to do so upon seeing Zhuge Liang's arrangement.
However, faced with intensive criticism and ridicule, he eventually relented. In May, Sima Yi sent Zhang He to attack the Shu southern camps guarded by Wang Ping, while he led a frontal assault to Lucheng from the central main road. Zhuge Liang ordered Wei Yan, Wu Ban, and Gao Xiang to counter Sima Yi outside the city wall, and the Wei forces suffered a heavy defeat: 3,000 elite soldiers were killed, 5,000 sets of armor and 3,100 crossbows were seized by Shu. However, Sima Yi still possessed of a sizable army, which he led back to his camps.
After such a victory, Zhuge Liang, did not capitalize on it with a major offensive due to the lack of food supply. Instead the Wei-Shu armies settled down to a stalemate around the time of which the resource-poor Shu was at a disadventage. After recuperation, Sima Yi again launched attacks on Shu armies, but this time he focused on the capture of Zhuge Liang's outer camps and succeeded. Knowing he was no longer protected by his "covering camps," Zhuge Liang abandoned Lucheng and retreated under the cover of night, but was caught up by Sima Yi, who dealt him a casualty of roughly 10,000.
At this juncture, Li Yan, who was responsible for maintaining ration supplies to the front, realizing rain had caused the breakdown of transport, informed Zhuge Liang that Liu Shan had ordered a withdrawal. There was, however, some consolation in the latter half of Zhuge Liang's retreat. Sima Yi, letting go of his usual cautiousness after his prior success over Zhuge's unit, ordered Zhang He's cavalry to further pursue the enemy in an attempt to capitalize on their advantage. Zhang He promptly refused Sima Yi's order and argued with his superior that additional risks should not be taken when they already secured a victory, but Sima threw out his title on Zhang and forced the latter to carry out his will. Indeed, Zhang He was ambushed at Mumen, where Zhuge Liang ordered massed crossbowmen to hide at high grounds 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.
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 war that favored 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 style 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.
It is surprising that although, of the three states, Shu was the weakest in terms of land size and resources, in its early years it carried out a vigorous offensive military policy. If Zhuge Liang had not died in 234, he may well have continued this policy.
However, the constant expeditions took a heavy toll on Shu's limited resources and this was worsened by Jiang Wei's Northern Expeditions after the death of Zhuge Liang. Resources wise, Shu was far inferior to the vast state of Wei, as reflected in the obvious numerical difference: with the exception of the second expedition, Shu force committed never exceeded 50% of the Wei force it faced during each campaign, and it was only Zhuge Liang's ingenuity that forced Wei to be on the defensive all the time.
Sima Yi was arguably one of the best tacticians that Wei had at that period. Even so, after initial defeats against Zhuge Liang, he was forced to change his tactics in the later expeditions. He was on the defensive for long periods of time with strong fortifications to deter Shu. His aim was to create a deadlock in which was to wait for Shu's supplies to run out and to force them to retreat without a fight. In the last expedition's deadlock on the Wuzhang Plains, Sima Yi's reluctance to engage in battle prompted Zhuge Liang to send him a woman's dress in one occasion to mock his tactics. Even so, Sima Yi refused to rise to the bait, much to the displeasure of his officers.
The diplomatic success in restoring the alliance with Sun Quan prior to the Northern Expeditions has been dismissed as useless because it brought little strategic dividend: each side had different political agendas which precluded close military coordination. Once the first Northern Expedition was turned back, the Wei state was capable of handling the two-front threat without much difficulty.
Arguments revolving around Wei Yan's plan for a surprise assault on Chang'an have never been stopped. Whether his plan could have succeeded, Zhuge Liang had rejected it, believing the plan was far too ambitious. In Zhuge's view, Chang'an, being one of Wei's most prosperous cities, would probably have been well fortified, in contrast to the intelligence from Wei Yan. Furthermore, there is little chance that the people of the city, who enjoyed peace and prosperity under the rule of Wei, would side with the Shu-Han forces.
However, it may be more possible that Zhuge's military objective was to cut the connection between Longyou and Luoyang to force the surrender of the western wing of Wei, instead of attacking the heartland of Wei to "restore the Han Dynasty".