Battle of Wuzhang Plains

The Battle of Wuzhang Plains was fought between the contending states of Cao Wei and Shu Han in 234 CE during the Three Kingdoms period of China. The battle was the fifth and last of a series of Northern Expeditions[3] led by Shu's chancellor, Zhuge Liang, to attack Wei. Zhuge Liang fell ill and died during the stalemate and subsequently the Shu forces retreated.

Battle of Wuzhang Plains
Part of the fifth of Zhuge Liang's Northern Expeditions
Living Zongda Fleeing.jpg
An illustration from a Qing dynasty edition of the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms depicting a statue of Zhuge Liang scaring away Sima Yi
Datec. March – October 234[1]
Result Inconclusive; Shu Han retreat
Cao Wei Shu Han
Commanders and leaders
Sima Yi Zhuge Liang
Unknown 60,000[2]
Casualties and losses
Unknown Unknown
Battle of Wuzhang Plains
Traditional Chinese五丈原之戰
Simplified Chinese五丈原之战
Zhuge Liang's fourth and fifth northern expeditions against Cao Wei


In the spring of 234, Zhuge Liang led more than 60,000 Shu troops out of Xie Valley (斜谷) and camped on the southern bank of the Wei River near Mei County (郿縣; southeast of present-day Fufeng County, Shaanxi).[4] He constantly worried about a shortage of food for the army, because the supply line was overly extended and supplies did not always reach the front line in time. He then implemented the tuntian policy to create a new source of food supply, by ordering his troops to grow crops on the south bank of the Wei River alongside the civilians living in the area. He also forbade his troops from taking the civilians' crops.[5]

The Wei emperor Cao Rui became worried and sent General Qin Lang with 20,000 infantry and cavalry to the Guanzhong region to join Sima Yi, the Grand Chief Controller (大都督) of the Wei military forces in the region. Sima Yi's subordinates wanted to make camp north of the Wei River and wait, but Sima Yi said, "Many civilians have gathered at the south of the Wei River. That will definitely become a hotly contested location." Sima Yi then led his army across the river and set up their camp with the Wei River behind them. He said, "If Zhuge Liang is brave enough, he'll move out from Wugong County (武功縣; east of present-day Mei County, Shaanxi) and head eastward in the direction of the mountains. If he moves west to the Wuzhang Plains, we'll have no worries."[6]

The battleEdit

Initial clashesEdit

When Zhuge Liang arrived at the Wei River, at his command, the advance team crossed the river and camped at the eastern foot of the Wugong River. Sima Yi led 10,000 cavalry to attack the advance team. Zhuge Liang made a bridge out of bamboo and fired an arrow at the cavalry. Sima Yi saw the completed bridge and immediately retreated.[7][8][9]

When Sima Yi and his troops were stationed to the south of the Wei River, Guo Huai urged them to move to the plains on the north bank of the river as he foresaw that Zhuge Liang would attempt to seize the plains. When the other officers disagreed,[10] Guo Huai said, "If Zhuge Liang crosses the Wei River and occupies those plains, his troops will have access to the mountains in the north. If they block the road through the mountains, it will cause fear and panic among the people living in the region. This isn't helpful to our State."[11] Sima Yi agreed with Guo Huai and sent him to occupy the plains. While Guo Huai and his men were building a camp on the plains, they came under attack by Shu forces but managed to drive them back.[12]

Zhuge Liang moved towards the Wuzhang Plains and prepared to cross to the north side of the Wei River. Sima Yi sent Zhou Dang (周當) into position at Yangsui (陽遂; the area north of the Wei River in present-day Mei and Fufeng counties, Shaanxi) and to lure Zhuge Liang to attack him. Zhuge Liang did not mobilise his troops for several days. Sima Yi said, "Zhuge Liang wants to take control of the Wuzhang Plains and won't advance towards Yangsui. His intention is obvious." He then sent Hu Zun (胡遵) and Guo Huai to defend Yangsui. Several days later, when Guo Huai received news that Zhuge Liang was planning to launch an attack in the west, his subordinates wanted to strengthen the defences in that area. Guo Huai was the only one who recognised that it was a ruse, and that Zhuge Liang was actually planning to attack Yangsui. He was proven right later when the Shu forces attacked Yangsui at night. However, as Guo Huai had set up defences earlier, the Shu forces failed to capture Yangsui. Zhuge Liang could not advance further so he retreated to the Wuzhang Plains.[13][14]

One night, Sima Yi saw a star falling towards the Shu camp and predicted that Zhuge Liang would be defeated. He ordered a surprise attack on the rear of the Shu camp: 500 Shu soldiers were killed, 600 surrendered, and more than 1,000 livestock of the Shu army were captured by Wei forces.[15] But these figures from the Book of Jin were disputed by historians, and are not included in the definitive 11th-century chronological historical text Zizhi Tongjian. Instead, the record for Records of the Three Kingdoms,[16] which differs from the record for Book of Jin, was included in Zizhi Tongjian.[17]


Around this time, the Wei government observed that, since the Shu army was far away from its base at Hanzhong Commandery, it would not be in its interest to fight a prolonged war in Wei territory. Zhuge Liang was worried that he could not impose his will due to the lack of reliable supplies, so he divided the army and laid the foundation for a long-term presence. Farming troops were mixed with the people along the Wei River, but the people were comfortable and the army had no conflicting interest.[18] Meanwhile, Wei emperor Cao Rui ordered Sima Yi to refrain from engaging the enemy and to wait for opportunities to strike. Zhuge Liang attempted to lure Sima Yi into battle but Sima Yi followed Cao Rui's orders and remained in camp.[19] Zhuge Liang understood that Sima Yi was trying to wear them down through attrition warfare, so he continued the tuntian system to sustain the Shu army.

One day, Zhuge Liang sent a woman's ornaments to Sima Yi to taunt him to come out and fight. Sima Yi felt enraged and wanted to attack Zhuge Liang, but Cao Rui denied him permission and ordered him to remain in camp. Cao Rui even gave Xin Pi his imperial sceptre (a symbol of the emperor's authority) and sent him to the Wuzhang Plains to keep an eye on Sima Yi. When Zhuge Liang taunted him again, Sima Yi wanted to attack the enemy, but Xin Pi used the authority of the imperial sceptre to order him to remain in camp.[20]

When the Shu general Jiang Wei heard that Xin Pi was in Sima Yi's camp, he told Zhuge Liang, "Xin Pi has come with the imperial sceptre. The enemy won't come out of their camp (to attack us)." Zhuge Liang replied, "Sima Yi doesn't want to engage us in battle in the first place. His true intention in seeking permission from his emperor to attack us is, in fact, to show his troops that he is eager to fight and to keep them battle-ready. A general away on the battlefield doesn't necessarily need to follow his lord's orders. If (Sima Yi) can defeat us, why does he still need to ask for permission from his emperor, who is thousands of li away (from here)?"[21]

When Sima Fu wrote to Sima Yi to ask about the situation at the Wuzhang Plains, Sima Yi replied: "Zhuge Liang has big ambitions but he fails to recognise opportunities. He has his wits about him but is not decisive. He likes leading troops into battle even though he does not have much authority over them. Even though he has 100,000 troops under his command, he has already fallen into my trap and I'll certainly defeat him."[22]

During the stalemate, Sima Yi asked a messenger who Zhuge Liang sent to meet him: "What are Zhuge Liang's living conditions like? How much grain does he consume (a day)?" The messenger replied, "Three to four sheng." Sima Yi then asked about Zhuge Liang's daily routine, to which the messenger replied that Zhuge Liang micromanaged almost everything, except trivial issues like punishments for minor offences." He remarked, "How can Zhuge Kongming last long? He's going to die soon."[23]

Meanwhile, Sima Yi also provoked Zhuge Liang. Sima Yi ordered some 2,000 people to cheer from the southeast corner of the compound. When Zhuge Liang sent a man to find out, the scout reported, "Eastern Wu's envoy came and said he would surrender." Zhuge Liang knew this and said, "Eastern Wu will not surrender. Sima Yi is an old man who will soon be 60 years old; does he need to use this trick?"[24]

Zhuge Liang's death and the Shu retreatEdit

An illustration from a Qing dynasty edition of the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms showing the wooden oxen and flowing horses (木牛流馬) used by the Shu army to transport supplies.

Sometime between 11 September and 10 October 234,[a] Zhuge Liang became critically ill and his condition worsened daily. When the Shu emperor Liu Shan heard about it, he sent Li Fu (李福) to the Wuzhang Plains to ask Zhuge Liang about succession. Zhuge Liang replied that Jiang Wan could succeed him and that Fei Yi in turn could succeed Jiang Wan. When Li Fu asked again about Fei Yi's successor, Zhuge Liang did not respond. Li Fu then returned to the Shu capital, Chengdu. Before his death, Zhuge Liang gave secret orders to Yang Yi, Fei Yi, and Jiang Wei to lead the Shu army on a retreat back to Shu after his death, with Wei Yan in charge of the rearguard and Jiang Wei to follow behind. If Wei Yan refused to follow the order, they were to retreat without him. When Zhuge Liang died, news of his death was kept secret.[26]

After a standoff lasting more than 100 days, Sima Yi heard from civilians that Zhuge Liang had died from illness and that the Shu army had burnt their camp and retreated. Sima Yi led the Wei forces in pursuit. Zhuge Liang's assistant, Yang Yi, ordered the Shu soldiers to beat their war drums and get into formation to resist the enemy. Sima Yi did not press on since he felt that the Shu army was already beaten; Yang Yi withdrew.[27] According to folklore, Sima Yi retreated after he saw a wooden statue of Zhuge Liang and thought that Zhuge Liang was still alive.[citation needed] In some variations of this legend, it was Jiang Wei who disguised himself as Zhuge Liang to scare away Sima Yi.[citation needed]

Some days later, Sima Yi surveyed the remains of the Shu camp and retrieved maps, many documents and considerable food supplies. He concluded that Zhuge Liang was indeed dead and said, "He was a rare talent in this world." Xin Pi felt that they could not be certain about Zhuge Liang's death yet, but Sima Yi said, "The most important things for an army are its documents, troops, horses, and supplies. [Zhuge Liang] has abandoned all of them. How can a person lose his five most important organs and still be alive? We should quickly pursue [the enemy]." The ground in the Guanzhong region was full of devil's weed so Sima Yi sent 2,000 men wearing wooden clogs with flat soles to clear the path before his main army advanced. When Sima Yi reached Chi'an (赤岸), he confirmed that Zhuge Liang was dead. When he asked the civilians living there, they told him that there was a recent popular saying: "A dead Zhuge scares away a living Zhongda.[b]" When Sima Yi heard that, he laughed and said, "I can predict the thoughts of the living but I can't predict the dead's."[28]


Conflict between Wei Yan and Yang YiEdit

The Shu general Wei Yan, dismayed that the Shu forces were retreating "over the death of one man", gathered his units and travelled back to Shu territory ahead of the main army led by Yang Yi, Fei Yi, Jiang Wei, and the others. During the retreat, Wei Yan ordered the gallery roads leading back to Shu to be burnt down.[29]

Wei Yan and Yang Yi separately wrote dispatches to the Shu imperial court and accused each other of treason. Their memorials arrived in the Shu capital, Chengdu, on the same day. The Shu emperor Liu Shan asked the ministers Dong Yun and Jiang Wan for their opinions. Both of them sided with Yang Yi and felt that Wei Yan's actions were suspicious. In the meantime, Yang Yi ordered his men to cut down trees to rebuild the gallery roads, and his troops marched day and night to catch up with Wei Yan. Wei Yan arrived at the southern valley first and ordered his soldiers to attack Yang Yi. Yang Yi sent Wang Ping to resist Wei Yan. Wang Ping shouted at Wei Yan, "His lordship [Zhuge Liang] had just died and his body had yet to turn cold, and now you dare to do something like this!" Wei Yan's men knew that their commander was in the wrong and they deserted.[30]

Wei Yan was left with only his son(s) and a few followers. They fled towards Hanzhong Commandery. Yang Yi ordered Ma Dai to give chase. Ma Dai caught up with Wei Yan, decapitated him, brought his head back, and threw it in front of Yang Yi. Yang Yi trampled on Wei Yan's head and said, "You inferior slave! Now, can you still commit evil?" Wei Yan's family members and close relatives were also executed. Before Wei Yan's death, Jiang Wan had led divisions of the imperial guards from Chengdu to deal with the conflict. They had travelled for about 10 li [about three miles] when they received news of Wei Yan's death; thus informed they returned to Chengdu.[31]

Long-term influencesEdit

After Zhuge Liang's death, Jiang Wan took the chancellor's post, but Jiang was more interested in domestic affairs than military expansion. Thus the death of Zhuge Liang ended a huge strategic threat to Cao Wei and the Wei court soon began development of an ambitious program of public works.

Sima Yi's success and subsequent rise in prominence paved the way for his grandson Sima Yan's founding of the Jin dynasty, which would eventually bring an end to the Three Kingdoms period.

In popular cultureEdit

The battle is featured as one of the final playable stages in Koei's video game series Dynasty Warriors. The earlier instalments of the game changed the original account of the battle: certain characters such as Cao Cao and Liu Bei, who had historically died more than a decade before the battle, survived until then to participate in the battle. However, the most recent instalment has made the battle more accurate than it was in the earlier instalments.


  1. ^ The Sanguozhi recorded that Zhuge Liang fell sick and died in the 8th lunar month of the 12th year of the Jianxing era in Liu Shan's reign.[25] This month corresponds to 11 September to 10 October 234 in the Gregorian calendar.
  2. ^ "Zhongda" was Sima Yi's courtesy name.


  1. ^ Zizhi Tongjian vol. 72.
  2. ^ Sawyer (2010), p. 131
  3. ^ Killigrew, John (1999). "Zhuge Liang and the Northern Campaign of 228-234". Early Modern China. 5 (1): 55–91.
  4. ^ Sawyer (2010), p. 131
  5. ^ (亮每患糧不繼,使己志不申,是以分兵屯田,為乆駐之基。耕者雜於渭濵居民之間,而百姓安堵,軍無私焉。) Sanguozhi vol. 35.
  6. ^ (天子憂之,遣征蜀護軍秦朗督步騎二萬,受帝節度。諸將欲住渭北以待之,帝曰:「百姓積聚皆在渭南,此必爭之地也。」遂引軍而濟,背水為壘。因謂諸將曰:「亮若勇者,當出武功,依山而東。若西上五丈原,則諸軍無事矣。」) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  7. ^ (是以諸葛亮《表》云:臣遣虎步監孟琰,據武功水東,司馬懿因水長攻琰營,臣作竹橋,越水射之,橋成馳去。) Commentary on the Water Classic vol. 18.
  8. ^ (《諸葛亮集》曰:亮上事曰,臣先進孟琰據武功水東,司馬懿因水以二十日出騎萬人來攻琰營,臣作車橋,賊見橋垂成,便引兵退。)Taiping Yulan vol. 73.
  9. ^ Both records were written by Zhuge Liang himself
  10. ^ (青龍二年,諸葛亮出斜谷,並田于蘭坑。是時司馬宣王屯渭南;淮策亮必爭北原,宜先據之,議者多謂不然。) Sanguozhi vol. 26.
  11. ^ (淮曰:「若亮跨渭登原,連兵北山,隔絕隴道,搖盪民、夷,此非國之利也。」) Sanguozhi vol. 26.
  12. ^ (宣王善之,淮遂屯北原。塹壘未成,蜀兵大至,淮逆擊之。) Sanguozhi vol. 26.
  13. ^ (亮果上原,將北渡渭,帝遣將軍周當屯陽遂以餌之。數日,亮不動。帝曰:「亮欲爭原而不向陽遂,此意可知也。」遣將軍胡遵、雍州剌史郭淮共備陽遂,與亮會于積石。臨原而戰,亮不得進,還于五丈原。) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  14. ^ (後數日,亮盛兵西行,諸將皆謂欲攻西圍,淮獨以為此見形於西,欲使官兵重應之,必攻陽遂耳。其夜果攻陽遂,有備不得上。) Sanguozhi vol. 26.
  15. ^ (會有長星墜亮之壘,帝知其必敗,遣奇兵掎亮之後,斬五百餘級,獲生口千餘,降者六百餘人。) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  16. ^ (淮曰:「若亮跨渭登原,連兵北山,隔絕隴道,搖盪民、夷,此非國之利也。」宣王善之,淮遂屯北原。塹壘未成,蜀兵大至,淮逆擊之。)」Sanguozhi vol. 26.
  17. ^ (雍州刺史郭淮言於懿曰:「亮必爭北原,宜先據之。」議者多謂不然,淮曰:「若亮跨渭登原,連兵北山,隔絕隴道,搖盪民夷,此非國之利也。」懿乃使淮屯北原。塹壘未成,漢兵大至,淮逆擊卻之。)Zizhi Tongjian vol. 72.
  18. ^ (亮以前者數出,皆以運糧不繼,使己志不伸,乃分兵屯田為久駐之基,耕者雜於渭濱居民之間,而百姓安堵,軍無私焉。) Zizhi Tongjian vol. 72.
  19. ^ (時朝廷以亮僑軍遠寇,利在急戰,每命帝持重,以候其變。亮數挑戰,帝不出, ...) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  20. ^ (... 因遺帝巾幗婦人之飾。帝怒,表請決戰,天子不許,乃遣骨鯁臣衞尉辛毗杖節為軍師以制之。後亮復來挑戰,帝將出兵以應之,毗杖節立軍門,帝乃止。) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  21. ^ (初,蜀將姜維聞毗來,謂亮曰:「辛毗杖節而至,賊不復出矣。」亮曰:「彼本無戰心,所以固請者,以示武於其衆耳。將在軍,君命有所不受,苟能制吾,豈千里而請戰邪!」) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  22. ^ (帝弟孚書問軍事,帝復書曰:「亮志大而不見機,多謀而少決,好兵而無權,雖提卒十萬,已墮吾畫中,破之必矣。」) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  23. ^ (先是,亮使至,帝問曰:「諸葛公起居何如,食可幾米?」對曰:「三四升。」次問政事,曰:「二十罰已上皆自省覽。」帝既而告人曰:「諸葛孔明其能久乎!」) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  24. ^ (宣王使二千餘人,就軍營東南角,大聲稱萬歲。亮使問之,答曰:「吳朝有使至,請降。」亮謂曰:「計吳朝必無降法。卿是六十老翁,何煩詭誑如此。」)Tongdian vol. 150.
  25. ^ (相持百餘日。其年八月,亮疾病,卒于軍,時年五十四。) Sanguozhi vol. 35.
  26. ^ (秋,亮病困,密與長史楊儀、司馬費禕、護軍姜維等作身歿之後退軍節度,令延斷後,姜維次之;若延或不從命,軍便自發。亮適卒,祕不發喪, ...) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  27. ^ (與之對壘百餘日,會亮病卒,諸將燒營遁走,百姓奔告,帝出兵追之。亮長史楊儀反旗鳴皷,若將距帝者。帝以窮寇不之逼,於是楊儀結陣而去。) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  28. ^ (經日,乃行其營壘,觀其遺事,獲其圖書、糧穀甚衆。帝審其必死,曰:「天下奇才也。」辛毗以為尚未可知。帝曰:「軍家所重,軍書密計、兵馬糧穀,今皆棄之,豈有人捐其五藏而可以生乎?宜急追之。」關中多蒺蔾,帝使軍士二千人著軟材平底木屐前行,蒺蔾悉著屐,然後馬步俱進。追到赤岸,乃知亮死審問。時百姓為之諺曰:「死諸葛走生仲達。」帝聞而笑曰:「吾便料生,不便料死故也。」) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  29. ^ (延曰:「丞相雖亡,吾自見在。府親官屬便可將喪還葬,吾自當率諸軍擊賊,云何以一人死廢天下之事邪?且魏延何人,當為楊儀所部勒,作斷後將乎!」因與禕共作行留部分,令禕手書與己連名,告下諸將。禕紿延曰:「當為君還解楊長史,長史文吏,稀更軍事,必不違命也。」禕出門馳馬而去,延尋悔,追之已不及矣。延遣人覘儀等,遂使欲案亮成規,諸營相次引軍還。延大怒,纔儀未發,率所領徑先南歸,所過燒絕閣道。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  30. ^ (延、儀各相表叛逆,一日之中,羽檄交至。後主以問侍中董允、留府長史蔣琬,琬、允咸保儀疑延。儀等槎山通道,晝夜兼行,亦繼延後。 ... 延先至,據南谷口,遣兵逆擊儀等,儀等令何平在前禦延。平叱延先登曰:「公亡,身尚未寒,汝輩何敢乃爾!」延士衆知曲在延,莫為用命,軍皆散。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  31. ^ (延獨與其子數人逃亡,奔漢中。儀遣馬岱追斬之,致首於儀,儀起自踏之,曰:「庸奴!復能作惡不?」遂夷延三族。 ... 初,蔣琬率宿衞諸營赴難北行,行數十里,延死問至,乃旋。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.