Battle of Fancheng

Battle of Fancheng

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Fancheng
partof=the Three Kingdoms period

caption=Illustration of Pang De in a scene during the Battle of Fancheng from a Qing Dynasty |edition of the "Romance of the Three Kingdoms"
date=July, 219 to September, 219
place=Fancheng (present-day Fancheng District, Hubei, China)
result=Cao Cao Pyrrhic victory
combatant1=Cao Cao
combatant2=Liu Bei
commander1=Cao Ren,
Yu Jin,
Xu Huang
commander2=Guan Yu
strength1=100,000+ men
strength2=15,000+ men
casualties1=70,000 men

The Battle of Fancheng (樊城之戰) was fought between the forces of Liu Bei and Cao Cao in the prelude to the Three Kingdoms period in ancient China. It is named after Fancheng (or Fan City, 樊城) a city which is now the Fancheng District of the city Xiangfan.


In October, 218, Cao Cao's general Hou Yin (侯音) and his deputy Wei Kai (卫开) of Wan (宛, modern day Nanyang, Henan) led several thousand troops to rebel. It would take four months for General Subduing the South (征南将军) Cao Ren to finally crush the rebellion by killing both Hou Yin and Wei Kai. After Liu Bei took Hanzhong by defeating Cao Cao in May 219, Liu Bei further expanded his gains in June 219 by sending Meng Da and Liu Feng to take Fangling (房陵, modern day Fang 房 County) and Shangyong (上庸, to the north of modern day Zhushan County). Cao Cao was temporarily forced to be on the defensive after a continuous setback and Sun Quan of Jiangdong (江東) decided to take the opportunity to attack Cao Cao while their newly defeated men were regrouping and resting.

Realizing the imminent attacks of Liu Bei and Sun Quan, Cao Cao planned to launch a preemptive strike against Jing province (荊州), the eastern part of Liu Bei's territory led by Guan Yu. The plan reasoned that Liu Bei could not continue his offensive in the north due to the need to consolidate his new gains, and so an attack into Jing province would not be hindered by Liu Bei's invasion elsewhere. However, the plan was called off because Cao Cao's troops still needed time to recover, regroup and re-supply from the campaign to suppress the rebellion of Hou Yin and Wei Kai, as well as from earlier setbacks in the struggles for Hanzhong. The worn-out troops were not ready for another campaign.

Order of battle

Cao Cao forces' order of battle:
*General Subduing the South (征南将军) Cao Ren
**Runan Administrator (汝南太守) Man Chong
**Staff officer (参军) Zhao Yan (赵俨)
**General Lü Chang (吕常)
*General on the Right (右将军) Yu Jin
**General Establishing Righteousness (立义将军) Pang De
*General Conquering the Bandits (平寇将军) Xu Huang
**General Xü Shang (徐商)
**General Lü Jian (吕建)
**General Yin Shu (殷署)
**General Zhu Gai (朱盖)Liu Bei forces' order of battle:
*General in the Front (前将军) Guan Yu
**Hu Xiu (胡修), the former Inspector of Jing province (荆州刺史) under Cao Cao
**Fu Fang (傅方), the former Administrator of Southern Township (南乡太守) under Cao Cao
**Sun Lang (孙狼), a peasant rebel leader of Luhun (陆浑)

Initial stages

In July, 219, Sun Quan mobilized his forces in preparation to attack Hefei, and Cao Cao's forces were redeployed to the region to the south of Huainan to fend off the possible invasion. Seizing the opportunity, Guan Yu decided to launch an offensive of his own against Cao Cao. Mi Fang, Administrator of Nan Commandary (南郡, modern day Jiangling County) was order to stay behind to guard Jiangling (江陵) Commandery, while General Fu Shiren was ordered to stay behind to guard Gong’an (公安, located to the northwest of modern day Gong’an 公安). Liu Bei's main force in the region was led by Guan Yu himself to attack Cao Cao's strongholds in the north.

In addition to deploying heavy troops which totalled tens of thousands, Cao Cao guarded the vital strategic strongholds of the region by stationing Cao Ren at Fancheng (modern day Fancheng District of the city of Xiangfan), Lü Chang (吕常) at Xiangyang (襄阳, modern day Xiangyang County of Xiangfan), Yu Jin and Pang De to the north of Fancheng, Xu Huang at Wan. In August, heavy rain caused Han River to flood, and under the intense attack of Guan Yu’s force, forces under the command of Yu Jin and Pang De were completed annihilated, suffering at least forty thousand fatalities, and another thirty thousand surrendered to Guan Yu. Pang De and Yu Jin were both captured; Yu Jin begged for his life and surrendered, while Pang De refused to surrender and was executed. Cao Ren, with several thousand of his surviving troops were forced on the defensive by retreating behind the safety of the Fancheng city wall, while Xu Huang, with his force purely consisted of new recruits was also forced to take a defensive posture instead of venturing out actively engaging the enemy. Meanwhile, Hu Xiu (胡修), Cao Cao's Inspector of Jing province (荆州刺史), and Fu Fang (傅方), Cao Cao's Administrator of Nan Township (南乡太守, Nan Township was located to the southeast of modern Zhechuan 淅川) both defected to Guan Yu. Sun Lang (孙狼), a peasant rebel leader of Luhun (陆浑, located to the southeast of modern day Song 嵩 County) also killed local officials to welcome Guan Yu.

Turning of the tide

Guan Yu’s threat to Cao Cao after his initial success was so immense that Cao Cao was considering relocating the capital. As Cao Cao asked his subjects for input, Sima Yi and Jiang Ji (蒋济) strongly opposed. They pointed out that the alliance between Liu Bei and Sun Quan was shaky at the best due to the feuding of the control of Jing province, and Sun Quan would definitely be unhappy to see Guan Yu’s success. They suggested that Cao Cao should send an emissary to Sun Quan, requesting him to flank Guan Yu’s rear and Jiangnan would then be awarded to Sun Quan as spoils of war and that the forces at Fancheng would then be dissolved. At first, Sun Quan sent an emissary to Guan Yu relating his wish for a marriage be arranged between his own son and Guan Yu’s daughter. Guan Yu insulted the emissary and rejected the marriage proposal. Sun Quan became furious.

The initial victory also proved to be the prelude to catastrophe for Guan Yu due to logistic problems. At the outbreak of the battle, Liu Bei only controlled three commandaries of Jing province: Wuling (武陵) commandary, Yidu (宜都) commandary, and Jiangling (江陵) commandary, the least among all three powers, and thus simply could not sustain a huge army, especially one with the size under Guan Yu’s command at the time, when his force suddenly tripled as thirty thousand troops captured in his earlier victory joined his original fifteen thousand strong army. In order to feed his army, Guan Yu sent out these new troops to confiscate grains stored by Sun Quan in the local border region. This further infuriated Sun Quan, and coupled with the Guan Yu’s rejection of Sun Quan’s marriage proposal and insults to Sun Quan’s emissary, Sun Quan decided to sever the alliance with Liu Bei.


With only several thousand troops left, and the food in short supply, Cao Ren considered abandoning Fancheng when the city was flooded. Runan Administrator (汝南太守) Man Chong convinced Cao Ren to not withdraw by indicating that the flood was only temporary and would not last long. Man Chong also noted that Guan Yu’s vanguard had already advanced to Jia (郏) County yet his main force dared not to follow, because he was afraid of being cutting off from the behind and being attacked from both sides. The strategic strongholds Fancheng and Xiangyang were still in Cao Cao’s hands, which posed a serious threat to the advancing enemy force that bypassed the two cities. Man Chong argued that if the two strategic strongholds were abandoned, the entire region to the south of Yellow River would be in danger of being overrun by the enemy, because not only the region Guan Yu attacked would be lost, the vast region in the east would be lost to Sun Quan since Cao Cao's force deployed there would risk being cutting off should Guan Yu decide to strike in that direction. Hence, Man Chong concluded, these two strategic strongholds must be held at all costs and the defenders must fight to the very last man. Cao Ren agreed and strengthened the defense, and boosted his troops to over ten thousand by drafting every available man in the city.

As Xu Huang was ordered to reinforce Cao Ren, Cao Cao sent two generals, Xü Shang (徐商) and Lü Jian (吕建) to lead additional reinforcements to join Xu Huang, ordering the latter that he should never attack until all of the reinforcement sent to him had arrived. To wait for further reinforcements, Xu Huang pushed toward Yangling (阳陵) Slope, located to the north of Fancheng. Because the majority of Cao Cao's force under Xu Huang’s command consisted of new recruits, Xu Huang faithfully carried out Cao Cao’s order to restrain from attacking until further reinforcements. Guan Yu was well aware of Xu Huang’s situation, and coupled with the earlier victory, he thus completely ignored Xu Huang’s threat and committed a serious blunder by dividing his force, which did not enjoy a numerical superiority, by sending another army to besiege Xiangyang, because he mistakenly believed that Fancheng would easily fall into his control. However, due to the defenders’ strong resolute and the lack of sufficient troops to siege the city, the city remain defiant.

Guan Yu made further strategic blunders in allowing his vanguard advancing too far ahead of his main force and not linking up with the vanguard promptly in a time he could not afford to split his force. As a result, the vanguard was around three miles to the north of Fancheng, leaving a huge gap between itself and the main camp. Seizing the opportunity, Xu Huang faked the digging of a long trench, giving the false impression of cutting off the Guan Yu’s vanguard, which fell for the trick and retreated. Xu Huang's army therefore took the abandoned Yan (偃) City and pressed further toward Guan Yu’s main army. By this time, Xu Huang's force was large enough to challenge Guan Yu's, because the twelve thousand strong army which consisted of battle hardened veterans led by Yin Shu and Zhu Gai had joined Xu Huang. Now Xu Huang's army totalled twenty thousand, exceeding the original strength of Guan Yu's force when Guan Yu first started his campaign.


As the stalemate was reached again, the Cao Cao emissary returned to Luoyang, the capital, with a letter written by Sun Quan, which informed Cao Cao that Sun Quan planned to attack Guan Yu in his rear, Jing province. Sun Quan asked Cao Cao to keep this secret so that Guan Yu would not be prepared, and most Cao Cao officials agreed. However, Cao Cao’s advisor Dong Zhao objected, pointing out that Liu Bei and Sun Quan would also be the two adversaries of Cao Cao despite the temporary subjection of Sun Quan to Cao Cao. For the long term goal, it would be in the best interest of Cao Cao to not to let one of the two adversaries to become too weak, so that both could continue to fight each other and thus continuously weaken each other, instead of letting one adversary become too strong in the long run. For the short term goal, if Guan Yu knew about Sun Quan’s attack in his rear, he would certainly withdraw his army to reinforce his home base in Jing province, and the siege of Fancheng would be lifted. The most important issue, however, was the danger of Liu Bei and Sun Quan joining their forces despite Sun Quan’s intention to attack Guan Yu: Fancheng was under siege for some period of time, and despite absolute numerical superiority, the morale of Cao Cao force was low. If this critical information was not passed along to the defenders, the morale would collapse and the region would fall into Guan Yu’s hands. Once the region changed hands following the downfall of the important stronghold of Fancheng, Sun Quan would definitely exploit the opportunity by attacking Cao Cao in the east, because there was much more to gain by taking the vast region from Cao Cao in the east than merely taking three commandaries in Jing province. This possibility must be prevented at all cost, said Dong Zhao.

Cao Cao and others were convinced by Dong Zhao and did exactly what he had proposed: copies of Sun Quan’s letter was tied to arrows, which were then shot into Fancheng and Guan Yu’s camp by Xu Huang’s archers. Morale of the defenders of the city boosted, while Guan Yu was in a dilemma: he neither wanted to abandon the assaults on Cao Cao, because he believed that Jiangling and Gong’an, his rear bases, would not easily fall. Furthermore, if he (Guan Yu) succeeded in defeating the enemy defenders, Sun Quan would certainly exploit the opportunity to attack Cao Cao's weakened defenses instead of attacking the three commandaries under Liu Bei, since Sun Quan had much more to gain in taking the vast region in the eastern region downstream the Yangtze River from Cao Cao. This is the exact scenario Cao Cao’s advisor Dong Zhao had feared, and Cao Cao would do anything to prevent it from happening. As it turned out, things did not go as Guan Yu had planned. As Guan Yu was hesitating in his dilemma, Cao Cao had personally led another reinforcement army on his way, and had already reached Mo Slope (摩陂, located to the southeast of modern day Jia (郏) County).


The bulk of the forces under Guan Yu’s command was camped in Weitou (围头), while the remaining camped in Sizhong (四冢). Xu Huang spread word of an imminent attack on Weitou, but instead, he led his forces to strike Sizhong unexpectedly. Fearing the Sizhong camp would be lost, Guan Yu led five thousand troops for the rescue, but the attack of Sizhong was only a decoy, as Guan Yu became ambushed by Xu Huang's men when he was on his way for the rescue mission. The defeated Guan Yu withdrew to his main camp, but Xu Huang’s force followed closely behind and charged into Guan Yu’s main camp, successfully killing the defectors Hu Xiu and Fu Fang. With his camp overrun by the enemy, Guan Yu was forced to concede defeat by lifting the siege of Fancheng and retreating southward.

Every Cao Cao commanders at the frontline believed that they should take the advantage and pursuing Guan Yu, with exception of the army advisor (参军) Zhao Yan (赵俨), who pointed out that there should not be any pursuit because Guan Yu’s force should be left alone so that they could fight Sun Quan, thus weakening both adversaries of Cao Cao. Cao Ren agreed with Zhao Yan and did not pursue Guan Yu, and surely enough, when the news of Guan Yu’s retreat reached Cao Cao, he sent an emissary to Cao Ren, prohibiting Cao Cao force from giving a chase for the exact same reason Cao Ren and Zhao Yan had believed.


When Guan Yu returned south, he discovered that his rear bases in Jiangling and Gong'an had both surrendered to Lü Meng, commander of Sun Quan's westward army. Lü Meng held hostage the wives and children of Guan Yu’s army, but treated them and the citizenry of Jing province with the utmost care. Guan Yu's soldiers, hearing that Jing province had fallen to Sun Quan and their families were in good hands, lost their will to fight and deserted from Guan Yu.

Guan Yu, with only a handful of men left, became isolated in Maicheng (麥城, southeast of present day Dangyang, Hubei) with Sun Quan's forces on three sides and Cao Cao's at the north. As Guan Yu attempted to escape, he and his surviving followers including his son Guan Ping, his Inspector General Zhao Lei were captured in an ambush in Zhang (章) Township (east of modern day Anyuan 远安 County, Hubei) by Sun Quan's generals Zhu Ran and Pan Zhang. Guan Yu was later executed by Sun Quan at Lingju (臨沮), along with his son Guan Ping and Zhao Lei.


Guan Yu’s campaign was destined to fail because Guan Yu was waging a war that it simply could not afford to support, both in terms of manpower and logistics: the population of Liu Bei's territories in Yi province (益州) and Hanzhong was less than a million, and though Jing province had a population around a million, most of the region was controlled by Cao Cao and Sun Quan. At the outbreak of the battle, Liu Bei only controlled three commandaries of Jing province: Wuling (武陵) commandary, Yidu (宜都) commandary, and Jiangling (江陵) commandary, with a total population around a quarter of million, the least among all three powers, both in terms of population and area. The total number of troops Guan Yu had was only twenty-five thousand, and this token force would have to be further divided into two portions, with the majority deployed for the offensive against Cao Cao while the remaining was scattered in the three commandarys of Jing province to protect the rear area. This separation meant that neither objective could be successfully achieved: at the frontline, the attacking force could not achieve numerical superiority (in fact, they had the absolute numerical inferiority), and attacking an enemy that enjoyed absolute numerical superiority would be no different than committing suicide. In the rear, the thinly spread and overstretched garrison could not effectively protect the large region (relative to the number of troops Guan Yu left behind).

Liu Bei's forces also faced other dilemmas their enemy never had, all having to do with logistics. Having the least control in terms of population and area in the local region meant that they could not provide the necessary logistic for a prolonged campaign, but with absolute numerical inferiority, the campaign was bound to be a long one, if there was any slightest chance of winning. The astonishing initial victory of Guan Yu actually exemplified the problem much further: barely able to sustain its own force of the original twenty-five thousand, the additional thirty thousand troops that surrendered to Guan Yu only gave more logistic problems when Guan Yu failed to take Cao Cao’s domain in Jing province. Other historians took a more sympathetic stands for Guan Yu because at the outbreak of the battle, he faced the dilemma of an unfavorable result regardless the offensive was launched or not. In the north, although Liu Bei successfully drove Cao Cao from Hanzhong, Liu Bei in effect gained nothing because the entire population of Hanzhong totaling more than thirty thousand households were relocated into Cao Cao's territories when Cao Cao was forced to give up the region and retreat. Both the wealth and population of Hanzhong was taken by Cao Cao despite its defeat, and Liu Bei had to strengthen the newly acquired territory by repopulating Hanzhong in order to consolidate his gain. The near vacant region could not provide any logistic support had Liu Bei continued his campaign against Cao Cao, and the necessary strengthening of Hanzhong had caused the Liu Bei offensive in the north to completely lose its momentum. However, in order to keep the pressure on Cao Cao, the offensive on the enemy must be continued. Guan Yu was tasked with an impossible task of carrying on the offensive against the enemy where Liu Bei left off, but the scope of the campaign had far exceeded what Liu Bei could support from its base in the south. Had Guan Yu not made the blunder of destroying the alliance between Liu Bei and Sun Quan, but instead, strengthen it, he might have a chance of succeeding what he started.

The biggest winner of the battle was Cao Cao, which not only secured its domain in Jing province by successfully fending off Liu Bei’s attack, but more importantly, also successfully destroyed the alliance between Liu Bei and Sun Quan, thus taking the strategic initiative. Historians often debated that Liu Bei should have waited longer to regroup and re-supply after Liu Bei took Hanzhong and strengthen the alliance with Sun Quan, only then could Liu Bei launch a simultaneous assault from both Hanzhong and Jing province against Cao Cao in addition to Sun Quan’s own attack on Cao Cao, so that there would be greater chances of success.

In "Romance of the Three Kingdoms"

In the historical novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms", the flooding of Han River was dramatized to have Guan Yu damming the rivers beforehand and opening the dam when the dam was full, thus flooding the armies in the lower plains in an event named "Drowning of the Seven Armies" (水淹七軍). Pang De was captured afterwards and showed no fear of execution, contrasted to Yu Jin's begging for his life.

Several weeks thereafter, Sun Quan, which had secretly allied itself with Cao Cao, attacked Guan Yu's army at Jiangling. Sun Quan, a previous ally of Liu Bei, surprised and defeated the Guan Yu's forces there, forcing Guan Yu to lift the siege on Fancheng and retreat. Guan Yu and his son, Guan Ping, while fleeing to Sichuan, were caught and executed by soldiers of Wu.

In the novel, the strength of Guan Yu was greatly exaggerated for dramatic effect, and the most obvious example was that the entire Jing province was depicted as under Liu Bei’s control. In reality, the state was divided into three parts at the time, controlled separately by the three powers, with Liu Bei controlling the least portion, both in terms of population and area, and could only field twenty five thousand troops at any one time from the region it controlled, with Guan Yu leading only fifteen thousand troops at the start of the battle. Other important historical facts not mentioned in the novel included the fact that it was Cao Cao who originally planned a preemptive strike against Guan Yu, but failed to materialize because of the need to crush the rebellion first. Logistic support, another deciding factor of the result of the battle, was not mentioned either in novel. Though Guan Yu in real life certainly deserves some credits for the his bravery of leading a token force attacking an enemy that was almost ten times of his strength, as well as achieving an astonishing victory during the initial stage, his exploits were exaggerated in the novel because the author himself adored Guan Yu, the most eulogized and glorified character in his work.

Modern references

In the video games "Dynasty Warriors 4" and "5", Shu commander Guan Yu is depicted as simultaneously defending the lands of Jing and besieging 'Fan Castle', as it is named. The second location is the focus of the stage. Cao Ren of Wei is the defending commander, and Wu forces usually appear as anti-Shu reinforcements. Notably, Pang De takes a prominent role, and proves to be a dangerous opponent for Guan Yu and his allies in this stage.


*"Selected Examples of Battles in Ancient China" Writing Team, "Selected Examples of Battles in Ancient China", 1st Edition, published by Chinese Publishing House & Distributed by New China Bookstore Publishing House in Beijing, 1981 - 1984.
*Yuan, Tingdong, "War in Ancient China", 1st Edition, published by Sichuan Academy of Social Science Publishing House & Distributed by New China Bookstore in Chengdu, 1988, ISBN 7805240582
*Zhang, Xiaosheng, "General View of War of Ancient China", 1st Edition in Xi'an, published by Long March Publishing House in Beijing & Distributed by New China Bookstore in Beijing, 1988, ISBN 7800150313 (set)
* [ Kongming's Archives]

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