Zhou Yu was one of the earliest brilliant minds in the Kingdom of Wu. Born in 175 AD in Lu Jiang to a powerful family, he grew up surrounded by important bureaucrats and officers. Zhou Yu went on to take up the family legacy when he met Sun Ce and became fast friends. He accompanied the Little Conqueror on many of his most important campaigns and was instrumental in the establishment of Wu’s territory and autonomy.
His first notable mention was when he became suspicious of Yuan Shu and warned Sun Ce not to trust him before leaving to serve as a county chief back home. When Yuan Shu indeed turned traitor and declared himself emperor, Sun Ce left his service and recalled Zhou Yu to form his own army. Zhou Yu became Sun Ce’s Imperial Corps Commander and his primary advisor. Together, they defeated many of the smaller warlords littering the eastern countryside and took command of their territories, forming the basis of what would become the Wu empire.
Sun Ce died in 200 AD, leaving Zhou Yu to serve Sun Quan next as the first official emperor of Wu. Initially, he had the potential to challenge Sun Quan’s inheritance, as he was a beloved and experienced military commander, the late Sun Ce’s closest friend and most trusted officer, and related to the Sun family by marriage. However, Zhou Yu chose to honor his dear friend’s last wish that he serve Sun Quan and make Wu great. During the early part of his service, Zhou Yu personally fought and took command of strategically important outposts such as Jing Province and the city of Xiakou. He was most important for his participation in the battle of Chi Bi at the end of 208, as he was the one who convinced Sun Quan to ally with Shu and fight the upstart Cao Cao.
The Battle of Chi Bi, or the Battle of Red Cliffs as it is alternatively known, is one of the most important events of this time period and has a convoluted history. Cao Cao, who was busy building the precursor to the Wei kingdom, was sailing down the Yangzi river to take Jing. Zhuge Liang, the chief strategist of Shu, approached Sun Quan to ask for an alliance in order to defeat Cao Cao. Sun Quan, however, was not confident in Shu’s ability to fight and reluctant to commit so much of his army to a battle that looked like a lost cause. His officers urged him to consult with Zhou Yu, who pointed out that if Cao Cao won this battle, he would become a considerable threat to Wu, and that seasoned Wu soldiers would have an advantage over Cao Cao, whose forces were inexperienced in naval warfare. Sun Quan agreed, and Zhou Yu was sent along with Cheng Pu to do what he could.
Accounts of the battle itself are confused, but a common theme emerges. Cao Cao’s army arrived sick and tired, and could only fight the Shu-Wu forces to a stalemate. According to Zhou Yu’s plan, a Wu officer named Huang Gai then went to Cao Cao, pretending to defect, and brought with him a number of ships rigged with flammable cargo. When he reached Cao Cao’s fleet, he set fire to the ships. Zhuge Liang had predicted that the wind would blow against the north, causing the fire to spread to Cao Cao’s entire fleet and camp. The decisive victory was significant as it was Cao Cao’s last opportunity to take Shu and Wu.
Zhou Yu later went on to defeat the notable Wei general Cao Ren and took Nan prefecture for Wu. He advised Sun Quan on foreign policy, warning him to stay vigilant of Shu, and made one last attempt to defeat Cao Cao to take the northern territories. However, he was struck ill and died before he could begin the campaign, at the age of 36. He was honored as an eminent military commander and strategist, and inspired his students and successors, such as Lu Meng and Lu Xun, to great heights as well.