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 in China. All five expeditions were led by the Shu chancellor-regent Zhuge Liang. Although they proved unsuccessful and ended up as a stalemate, the expeditions have become some of the best known conflicts of the Three Kingdoms period and one of the few battles during it where each side (Shu and Wei) fought against each other with hundreds of thousands of troops, as opposed to other battles where one side had a huge numerical advantage.
The expeditions are dramatised and romanticised in the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, where they are referred to as the "six campaigns from Mount Qi" (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.
|Zhuge Liang's Northern Expeditions|
|Part of the wars of the Three Kingdoms period|
An illustration of the Northern Expeditions from a Qing dynasty edition of the 14th-century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms
|Cao Wei||Shu Han
|Commanders and leaders|
Zhang He †
Wang Shuang †
|Zhuge Liang's Northern Expeditions|
|Six campaigns from Mount Qi|
In 220, following the end of the Han dynasty, China was divided into three competing regimes – Cao Wei (or Wei), Shu Han (or Shu) and Eastern Wu (or Wu) – with each of them trying to unify the country under its rule.
In Shu, the strategic thinking behind the Northern Expeditions came from Zhuge Liang's Longzhong Plan, which he presented to the warlord Liu Bei in 207. In essence, the plan envisaged a tripartite division of China between the domains of the warlords Liu Bei, Cao Cao and Sun Quan. According to the plan, Liu Bei would seize control of Jing Province (covering present-day Hubei and Hunan) and Yi Province (covering present-day Sichuan and Chongqing) from their respective governors, Liu Biao and Liu Zhang, and establish a solid foothold in southern and western China. Liu Bei would then form an alliance with Sun Quan, who ruled eastern China, and wage war against Cao Cao, who controlled northern China and the political centre of the Han dynasty in central China. Liu Bei would then lead one army from Yi Province to attack Chang'an via the Qin Mountains and Wei River valley; one of Liu Bei's top generals would lead another army from Jing Province to attack Luoyang.
The first phase of the plan was completed in 214 when Liu Bei gained control of southern Jing Province and Yi Province. Between 217 and 219, Liu Bei launched a campaign to seize control of Hanzhong Commandery, the "northern gateway" into Yi Province, and succeeded in capturing it from Cao Cao's forces. In 219, Liu Bei's general Guan Yu, whom Liu Bei had left in charge of Jing Province, started the Battle of Fancheng against Cao Cao's forces. However, the Sun Quan–Liu Bei alliance ("Sun–Liu alliance"), which Zhuge Liang played an instrumental role in creating, broke down when Sun Quan sent his forces to attack and seize Liu Bei's territories in Jing Province while Guan Yu was away at the Battle of Fancheng. Guan Yu was captured and executed by Sun Quan's forces. Between 221 and 222, Liu Bei started the Battle of Xiaoting/Yiling against Sun Quan in an attempt to retake Jing Province, but failed and suffered a disastrous defeat. After Liu Bei died in 223, his son Liu Shan succeeded him as emperor of Shu, with Zhuge Liang serving as regent. In the same year, Zhuge Liang made peace with Sun Quan's Eastern Wu regime and reestablished the Sun–Liu alliance (now the Wu–Shu alliance) against Wei, the regime established by Cao Cao's son and successor, Cao Pi.
In 227, Zhuge Liang ordered troops from throughout Shu to mobilise and assemble in Hanzhong Commandery in preparation for a large-scale military campaign against Wei. Before leaving, he wrote a memorial, called Chu Shi Biao (literally "memorial on the case to go to war"), and submitted it to Liu Shan. Among other things, the memorial contained Zhuge Liang's reasons for the campaign against Wei and his personal advice to Liu Shan on governance issues. After Liu Shan approved, Zhuge Liang ordered the Shu forces to garrison at Mianyang (沔陽; present-day Mian County, Shaanxi).
Zhuge Liang's plan called for a march north from Hanzhong Commandery, the main population centre in northern Yi Province, which covered present-day Sichuan and Chongqing. In the third century, Hanzhong Commandery 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 Mountains in the north and the Micang Mountains in the south. It was the major administrative centre of the mountainous frontier district between the rich Sichuan Basin 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 (present-day Xi'an, Shaanxi). 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 "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 Commandery and it 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 Chencang (in present-day Baoji, Shaanxi). Another important route was the Baoye route, which transverses the Yegu Pass and ends south of Mei County (southeast of present-day Fufeng County, Shaanxi). A few more minor and difficult routes lay to the east, notably the Ziwu Valley, which leads directly to the south of Chang'an.
|Timeline of Zhuge Liang's Northern Expeditions|
|Approximate date range||Location||Event(s)|
|4 Apr – 2 May 227||Hanzhong, Shaanxi||Zhuge Liang moves to Hanzhong in preparation for the first Expedition. He writes the Chu Shi Biao to Liu Shan.|
|Luoyang, Henan||Sun Zi dissuades Cao Rui from sending Wei forces to attack Hanzhong.|
|2 – 30 July 227||Nanyang, Henan||Sima Yi is put in charge of military affairs in Jing and Yu provinces and stationed at Wancheng.|
|26 Dec 227 – 23 Mar 228||Northwestern Hubei||Xincheng Rebellion: Sima Yi suppresses the rebellion and executes Meng Da. He then goes to Luoyang to meet Cao Rui and returns to Wancheng after that.|
|23 Feb – 21 May 228||Western Shaanxi and southeastern Gansu||First Northern Expedition:
|29 May 228||Xi'an, Shaanxi||Cao Rui departs Chang'an and returns to Luoyang.|
|17 Sep – 15 Oct 228||Shucheng County, Anhui||Battle of Shiting: Wu forces defeat Wei forces.|
|14 Dec 228 – 12 Jan 229||Hanzhong, Shaanxi||Zhuge Liang allegedly writes a second Chu Shi Biao to Liu Shan.|
|13 Jan – 10 Feb 229||Chencang District, Baoji, Shaanxi||Second Northern Expedition:|
|11 Feb – 10 May 229||Longnan, Gansu||Third Northern Expedition:|
|230||Wushan County, Gansu||Battle of Yangxi: Wei Yan defeats Guo Huai and Fei Yao in battle.|
|28 Jul – 26 Aug 230||Luoyang, Henan||Cao Zhen convinces Cao Rui to launch a large-scale invasion of Shu. Cao Rui orders Sima Yi to lead an army from Jing Province and link up with Cao Zhen's army at Hanzhong.|
|27 Aug – 24 Sep 230||Hanzhong, Shaanxi||Zhuge Liang orders Li Yan to lead 20,000 troops to reinforce Hanzhong. The Wei invasion forces cannot pass through the Xie Valley as the gallery roads leading into Shu have been damaged by heavy rainfall over a period of more than 30 days.|
|25 Sep – 24 Oct 230||Xuchang, Henan||Cao Rui orders the Wei invasion forces to abort their mission and return to base.|
|21 Mar – 15 Aug 231||Southeastern Gansu||Fourth Northern Expedition:|
|18 Mar – 10 Oct 234||Shaanxi||Fifth Northern Expedition:|
Meng Da, a former Shu general who defected to Wei in 220, served as the Administrator of Xincheng Commandery (新城郡; in present-day northwestern Hubei) near Shu's northeastern border. Zhuge Liang hated Meng Da for his capricious behaviour and worried that he would become a threat to Shu. Around 227, when he heard that Meng Da had a quarrel with his colleague Shen Yi (申儀), he sent spies to stir up greater suspicions between them and spread news that Meng Da was plotting a rebellion against Wei. Meng Da became fearful and decided to rebel. However, he was stuck in a dilemma after receiving a letter from the Wei general Sima Yi, who was stationed at Wancheng (宛城; in present-day Nanyang, Henan). In the meantime, Sima Yi quickly assembled an army, headed towards Xincheng, and reached there within eight days.
Wei's rival states, Shu and Wu, sent forces to support Meng Da, but were defeated and driven back by Wei forces led by Sima Yi's subordinates. Sima Yi ordered his troops to surround Shangyong (上庸), Meng Da's base, and attack from eight directions. At the same time, he also successfully induced Meng Da's nephew Deng Xian (鄧賢) and subordinate Li Fu (李輔) to betray Meng Da. After 16 days of siege, Deng Xian and Li Fu opened Shangyong's gates and surrendered to Sima Yi. Meng Da was captured and executed. Sima Yi and his troops headed back to Wancheng after suppressing the rebellion. He then went to the Wei capital, Luoyang, to report to the Wei emperor Cao Rui and returned to Wancheng after that.
In the spring of 228, Zhuge Liang launched the first Northern Expedition and led the Shu forces to Mount Qi (祁山; the mountainous regions around present-day Li County, Gansu). At the same time, he ordered Zhao Yun and Deng Zhi to lead a decoy force to Ji Valley (箕谷) and pretend to be ready to attack Mei County (郿縣; southeast of present-day Fufeng County, Shaanxi), so as to divert the Wei forces' attention away from Mount Qi. News of the Shu invasion sent shockwaves throughout the Guanzhong region. Three Wei-controlled commanderies – Nan'an (南安; around present-day Longxi County, Gansu), Tianshui and Anding (安定; around present-day Zhenyuan County, Gansu) – defected to the Shu side.
In response to the Shu invasion, Cao Rui moved from Luoyang to Chang'an to oversee the defences and provide backup. He ordered Zhang He to attack Zhuge Liang at Mount Qi, and Cao Zhen to attack Zhao Yun and Deng Zhi at Ji Valley. Zhao Yun and Deng Zhi lost the Battle of Ji Valley because their decoy force, composed of the weaker soldiers in the Shu army, were no match for Cao Zhen and his well-trained troops. (Zhuge Liang had reserved the better troops for the attack on Mount Qi.) In the meantime, Zhuge Liang sent Ma Su to lead the vanguard force to engage Zhang He at Jieting (街亭; located east of present-day Qin'an County, Gansu). Ma Su not only disobeyed Zhuge Liang's orders, but also made the wrong moves, resulting in the Shu vanguard suffering a disastrous defeat. After his victory at the Battle of Jieting, Zhang He seized the opportunity to attack and recapture the three commanderies.
Upon learning of the Shu defeats at Ji Valley and Jieting, Zhuge Liang pulled back all his forces and retreated to Hanzhong. Although the first Northern Expedition was an overall failure, Zhuge Liang still made some small gains for Shu. The first gain was the capture of some Wei civilian families, who were then registered as Shu citizens and resettled in Hanzhong. The second gain was the defection of Jiang Wei, a low-ranking Wei officer who later became a prominent Shu general. After returning to Hanzhong, Zhuge Liang executed Ma Su to appease public anger and then wrote a memorial to Liu Shan, taking full responsibility for the failure of the first Northern Expedition and requesting to punished by demotion. Liu Shan approved and symbolically demoted Zhuge Liang from Imperial Chancellor (丞相) to General of the Right (右將軍), but allowed him to remain as acting Imperial Chancellor.
In the winter of 228–229, Zhuge Liang launched the second Northern Expedition and led Shu forces to attack the Wei fortress at Chencang (陳倉; present-day Chencang District, Baoji, Shaanxi) via San Pass. When he showed up at Chencang, he was surprised to see that it was much more heavily fortified and well-defended than he expected. That was because after the first Northern Expedition, the Wei general Cao Zhen had predicted that Shu forces would attack Chencang the next time, so he put Hao Zhao in charge of defending Chencang and strengthening its defences.
Zhuge Liang first ordered his troops to surround Chencang, then sent Jin Xiang (靳詳), an old friend of Hao Zhao, to persuade Hao Zhao to surrender. Hao Zhao refused twice. Although Hao Zhao had only 1,000 men with him to defend Chencang, he successfully held his ground against the Shu forces. During the 20-day-long siege of Chencang, Zhuge Liang used an array of tactics to attack the fortress – siege ladders, battering rams, siege towers and underground tunnels – but Hao Zhao successfully countered each of them in turn. Upon learning that Wei reinforcements were approaching Chencang, Zhuge Liang immediately pulled back all his troops and returned to Hanzhong. A Wei officer, Wang Shuang, led his men to attack the retreating Shu forces, but was killed in an ambush.
In the spring of 229, Zhuge Liang launched the third Northern Expedition and ordered Chen Shi to lead Shu forces to attack the Wei-controlled Wudu (武都; around present-day Cheng County, Gansu) and Yinping (陰平; present-day Wen County, Gansu) commanderies. The Wei general Guo Huai led his troops to resist Chen Shi. He retreated when he heard that Zhuge Liang had led a Shu army to Jianwei (建威; in present-day Longnan, Gansu). The Shu forces then conquered Wudu and Yinping commanderies.
When Zhuge Liang returned from the campaign, Liu Shan issued an imperial decree to congratulate him on his successes in defeating Wang Shuang during the second Northern Expedition and capturing Wudu and Yinping commanderies during the third Northern Expedition. He also restored Zhuge Liang to the position of Imperial Chancellor (丞相).
In 231, Zhuge Liang launched the fourth Northern Expedition and attacked Mount Qi (祁山; the mountainous regions around present-day Li County, Gansu) again. He used the wooden ox, a mechanical device he invented, to transport food supplies to the frontline. The Shu forces attacked Tianshui Commandery and surrounded Mount Qi, which was defended by the Wei officers Jia Si (賈嗣) and Wei Ping (魏平). At Mount Qi, Zhuge Liang managed to convince Kebineng, a Xianbei tribal leader, to support Shu in the war against Wei. Kebineng went to Beidi Commandery (北地郡; around present-day central Shaanxi) and rallied the locals to support Shu.
At the time, as Cao Zhen, the Wei grand marshal, was ill, the Wei emperor Cao Rui ordered the general Sima Yi to move to Chang'an (present-day Xi'an, Shaanxi) to supervise the Wei defences in the Guanzhong region against the Shu invasion. After making preparations for battle, Sima Yi, with Zhang He, Fei Yao, Dai Ling (戴陵) and Guo Huai serving as his subordinates, led Wei forces to Yumi County (隃麋縣; east of present-day Qianyang County, Shaanxi) and stationed there. He then left Fei Yao and Dai Ling with 4,000 troops to guard Shanggui County (上邽縣; in present-day Tianshui, Gansu), while he led the others to Mount Qi to help Jia Si and Wei Ping.
When Zhuge Liang learnt of the Wei forces' approach, he split his forces into two groups – one group to remain at Mount Qi while he led the other group to attack Shanggui County. He defeated Guo Huai, Fei Yao and Dai Ling in battle and ordered his troops to collect the harvest in Shanggui County. In response, Sima Yi turned back from Mount Qi, headed to Shanggui County, and reached there within two days. By then, Zhuge Liang and his men had finished harvesting the wheat and were preparing to leave. Zhuge Liang encountered Sima Yi at Hanyang (漢陽) to the east of Shanggui County, but they did not engage in battle: Zhuge Liang ordered his troops to make use of the terrain and get into defensive positions; Sima Yi ordered his troops to get into formation, while sending Niu Jin to lead a lightly armed cavalry detachment to Mount Qi. The standoff ended when Zhuge Liang and the Shu forces retreated to Lucheng (鹵城), took control of the hills in the north and south, and used the river as a natural barrier.
Although his subordinates repeatedly urged him to attack the enemy, Sima Yi was hesitant to do so after seeing the layout of the Shu camps in the hills. However, he eventually relented when Jia Si and Wei Ping mocked him and said he would become a laughing stock if he refused to attack. Sima Yi then sent Zhang He to attack the Shu camp in the south, guarded by Wang Ping, while he led the others to attack Lucheng head-on. In response, Zhuge Liang ordered Wei Yan, Wu Ban and Gao Xiang to lead troops to engage the enemy outside Lucheng. The Wei army lost the battle, along with 3,000 troops and some equipment.
Despite his victory, Zhuge Liang could not make use of the momentum to launch a major offensive on the enemy because his army was running low on supplies. Sima Yi launched another attack on the Shu camps and succeeded in breaking through Zhuge Liang's defences. Sima Yi's biography in the Book of Jin recorded that when Zhuge Liang and the Shu army retreated under the cover of night, Sima Yi led his forces in pursuit and inflicted over 10,000 casualties on the enemy. Zhang He led his troops to attack the retreating Shu forces but fell into an ambush and was killed.
In the spring of 234, Zhuge Liang led more than 100,000 Shu troops out of Xie Valley (斜谷) and camped at the Wuzhang Plains on the south bank of the Wei River near Mei County (郿縣; southeast of present-day Fufeng County, Shaanxi). Aside from using the flowing horse to transport food supplies to the frontline, he implemented a tuntian plan by ordering his troops to grow crops alongside civilians at the south bank of the Wei River. He also forbid his troops from taking the civilians' crops.
In response to the Shu invasion, the Wei general Sima Yi led his forces and another 20,000 reinforcements to the Wuzhang Plains to engage the enemy. After an initial skirmish and a night raid on the Shu camp, Sima Yi received orders from the Wei emperor Cao Rui to hold his ground and refrain from engaging the Shu forces. The battle became a stalemate. During this time, Zhuge Liang made several attempts to lure Sima Yi to attack him. On one occasion, he sent women's ornaments to Sima Yi to taunt him. An apparently angry Sima Yi sought permission from Cao Rui to attack the enemy, but was denied. Cao Rui even sent Xin Pi as his special representative to the frontline to ensure that Sima Yi followed orders and remained in camp. Zhuge Liang knew that Sima Yi was pretending to be angry because he wanted to show the Wei soldiers that he would not put up with Zhuge Liang's taunting, and to ensure that his men were ready for battle.
During the stalemate, when Zhuge Liang sent a messenger to meet Sima Yi, Sima Yi asked the messenger about Zhuge Liang's daily routine and living conditions. The messenger said that Zhuge Liang consumed three to four sheng of grain a day and that he micromanaged almost everything, except trivial issues like punishments for minor offences. After hearing this, Sima Yi remarked, "How can Zhuge Kongming expect to last long? He's going to die soon."
The stalemate at the Wuzhang Plains lasted for over 100 days. Sometime between 11 September and 10 October 234,[a] Zhuge Liang became critically ill and died in camp. He was 54 (by East Asian age reckoning) at the time of his death.
When Sima Yi heard from civilians that Zhuge Liang had died from illness and the Shu army had burnt down their camp and retreated, he led his troops in pursuit and caught up with them. The Shu forces, on Yang Yi and Jiang Wei's command, turned around and readied themselves for battle. Sima Yi pulled back his troops and retreated. Some days later, while surveying the remains of the Shu camp, Sima Yi remarked, "What a genius he was!" Based on his observations that the Shu army made a hasty retreat, he concluded that Zhuge Liang had indeed died, so he led his troops in pursuit again. When Sima Yi reached Chi'an (赤岸), he asked the civilians living there about Zhuge Liang and heard that there was a recent popular saying: "A dead Zhuge (Liang) scares away a living Zhongda[b]" He laughed and said, "I can predict the thoughts of the living but I can't predict the dead's."
The Northern Expeditions are featured prominently in the 14th-century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, covering 15 chapters (Chapters 91 to 105) out of a total of 120 chapters. 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:
The Northern Expeditions are featured as playable stages in Koei's video game series Dynasty Warriors. As of the sixth instalment in the franchise, all of the five expeditions are playable stages in some form. In the sixth game, the Battle of Wuzhang Plains 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 instalment. In the seventh and eighth games, the Battle of Wuzhang Plains is portrayed as a deadlock, rather than a clear victory for Wei.