“Romance of the Three Kingdoms” is a Chinese classic novel inspired by the chaotic conflicts among such warlords and noblemen as Liu Bei, Cao Cao and Sun Quan at the end of the Han Dynasty. The epic story tells of the lofty ambitions of heroes who want to conquer the entire China, loyal generals and insightful strategists standing by their sides, and traitors who act only on behalf of their own interests. The expansive and gripping nature of this novel renders it perfect for movies or games. Among all the characters in this story, Cao Cao stands out because he shaped the foundation for the Wei Dynasty. He certainly was a notable figure but in “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” he is depicted as a capable yet conniving and petty man. In the Battle of Red Cliffs, he was busy trying to preserve his own life while his men were being killed all around him. When he is chased by his enemies, he throws away his red robe and rips off his beard to escape their detection. This scene inspired an amusing song titled “The Life of a Little Man” sung by ethnic pop group RA:AK락.

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The Life of a Little Man / Sung by RA:AK

The Battle of Red Cliffs is an important part of the epic novel. Cao Cao brought a million-strong army to fight his enemies, the unlikely alliance between Liu Bei and Sun Quan, across the Yangtze River. But the river warfare required experienced sailors, which Cao Cao’s troops were not. Aware of this weakness, Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei’s strategist, tricked Cao Cao into tying all his ships with iron chains and shot fire arrows toward the chained vessels, killing most of Cao Cao’s men. Even amid the chaos and innumerable deaths, Cao Cao managed to escape with his life and a handful of soldiers. What a sad turn of events for a general who started out with a million men. This pitiful situation was too hopeless even for the proud and audacious general.

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Then he heard birds singing, which sounded to him like the vengeful cries of his soldiers who perished in the battle. Let’s listen to Seo Eui-cheol singing “Bird Song” from pansori “Jeokbyeokga적벽가” to the accompaniment of gayageum.

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Bird Song from Jeokbyeokga / Sung by Seo Eui-cheol

“Bird Song” is sung by Cao Cao as he retreats following a devastating defeat at Red Cliffs. But he could have escaped such a huge loss if his enemy, the Sun Quan-Liu Bei forces, didn’t have an exceptional strategist, Zhuge Liang. The Battle of Red Cliffs took place in winter when northwesterly wind blows. Cao Cao set up camp on the northern shore of the river, while his enemies on the south side. Customarily, arrows shot from the southern shore could not possibly have reached the other side because of the strong wind, but Zhuge Liang steps in with an extraordinary solution. The tactician builds an altar in a nearby mountain and prays to heaven after which the wind magically changed direction to blow from southeast, allowing the allied forces to launch a fiery attack. General Zhou Yu under Sun Quan’s command is worried that Zhuge Liang with such a miraculous power serves Liu Bei. He fears that there is no way to fight off Liu Bei’s army with the wizardly Zhuge Liang if he happens to turn against them later on. So he decides to get rid of the strategist and sends his men to arrest him. But having foreseen even this treacherous move, Zhuge Liang had already asked Zhao Yun, another general under Liu Bei, to come rescue him. While fleeing in a ship with Zhuge Liang, Zhao Yun shot an arrow toward the ship carrying Zhou Yu’s soldiers, breaking the mast and demoralizing the pursuers. This scene is depicted in pansori “Jeokbyeokga” as well. We’ll listen to Go Jun-seok singing this scene where Zhao Yun shoots an arrow.