Liu Bei originally sought refuge under Yuan Shao, but after Yuan's defeat at the Battle of Guandu, Liu Bei went to Jing province to seek a position under Liu Biao. Liu Biao initially welcomed him and stationed him in Xinye, but Liu Bei's virtue soon attracted many competent men to his camp and made Liu Biao suspicious. Thus Liu Biao sent Liu Bei to Bowang, near Jing province's northern frontiers, to defend against Cao Cao.
Cao Cao, at the time, was engaged in battles against Yuan Shao's remnant forces, namely his sons Yuan Tan, Yuan Xi, and Yuan Shang. To counter Liu Bei's maneuvers, Cao Cao sent Xiahou Dun, Li Dian, and Yu Jin south to attack Liu Bei.
During the battle, Liu Bei suddenly burned his camp and retreated to the south. Xiahou Dun gave chase, but Li Dian warned against it, saying "The bandits retreats for no reason, I suspect there is an ambush. The paths to the south are narrow and the bushes are thick there. Do not give chase." Xiahou Dun ignored the caution, but left Li Dian behind to guard the camp while the rest of the army followed Liu Bei's retreating armies. As predicted by Li Dian, Xiahou Dun's men were ambushed and they were utterly defeated. Li Dian's regiment came to rescue them, and Liu Bei retreated after seeing Li Dian's reinforcements.
In the battle, Zhao Yun captured Xiahou Lan , who shared Zhao Yun's hometown. Zhao Yun asked Liu Bei to spare him, and recommended him to become an army judge.
In ''Romance of the Three Kingdoms''
In the novel by Luo Guanzhong, the credit for this victory went to Zhuge Liang, as Zhuge Liang's intelligence is exemplified soon after Zhuge became Liu Bei's strategist. The battle in the novel also took place in 208 instead of 202.
After Liu Bei's three visits to Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei sang nothing but praises for Zhuge Liang, drawing the ire of Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, who thought Zhuge Liang was nothing more than a bookworm. So when Cao Cao sent Xiahou Dun with an overwhelming hundred thousand men to attack Xinye, Zhang Fei suggested that Zhuge Liang can go repel the enemy by himself.
Zhuge Liang understood the tension between himself, a newly appointed strategist, and the established warriors of Liu Bei's camp, such as Zhang Fei and Guan Yu; and was worried that they would not follow his commands easily. Thus, he asked Liu Bei for his sword and seal, the symbols of a supreme commander, and announced that anyone who disobeys his orders shall be executed. He went ahead to describe the battle plan: Guan Yu would lead 1000 men to ambush on a hill left of Bowang, and Zhang Fei to lead another 1000 men to lay ambush in a forest to the right of Bowang. Both were to burn the enemy's supplies when they see the fires to the south; Guan Ping and Liu Feng were charged with the task of setting fire to Bowang Slope once the enemy approaches; and Zhao Yun were to serve as vanguard with the orders "not to win, only lose"; Liu Bei himself would be backup. Zhuge Liang also told Liu Bei to prepare for victory celebrations.
When Xiahou Dun came to Bowang, he picked out half of the elite troops as vanguard, while the rest guarded the supplies. Zhao Yun came to battle Xiahou Dun, but feigned defeat and retreated. Liu Bei came to challenge Xiahou Dun next, but did the same as Zhao Yun to lure Xiahou Dun's troops to pursue them. Xiahou Dun led the pursuit, but his subordinate general Han Hao warned him against ambushes, to which Xiahou Dun replied "Seeing the enemy as weak as such, even if they had ambushes on ten sides, what have I to fear?" Chasing deeper into the valley, Liu Bei came to attack Xiahou Dun, but soon retreated as well. Laughingly, Xiahou Dun said to Han Hao, "So this is the ambush you were talking about!", and pressed toward Xinye.
When giving chase, Yu Jin and Li Dian came to a narrow point, and a worried Li Dian told Yu Jin, "One who underestimates the enemies would certainly meet defeat. The terrain here is difficult, what if the enemy uses fire here?" Yu Jin understood, and rode ahead to tell Xiahou Dun while Li Dian tries to stop his men. When Xiahou Dun realized the danger and tried to turn back, his surroundings were already raging with fire. The heavy winds picked up the fire, and helped the fire spread. The panicked armies of Cao Cao were stumbling on each other while Zhao Yun turned around to attack them. Xiahou Dun had to flee through the fire and smoke.
Han Hao and Xiahou Lan attempted to save the burning supplies, but they encountered Zhang Fei, who killed Xiahou Lan in one round. Han Hao fled, and so did Li Dian and Yu Jin. In the next morning, Xiahou Dun collected his surviving men and retreated to Xuchang.
After this battle, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei gave Zhuge Liang their full respect and never doubted him again. In Xuchang, Xiahou Dun tied himself up to see Cao Cao, requesting a punishment by death for his defeat. Cao Cao released him, and rewarded Li Dian and Yu Jin for their foresight.
The Battle of Bowang served as the basis for many skits for the different sects of Chinese operas; for example, it is featured in the Cantonese opera and the zaju .
Recently, the battle is featured in many Three Kingdoms-themed video games such as ''Warriors of Fate'', ''Sangokushi Eiketsuden'', ''Sangokushi Koumeiden'', ''Sangokushi Sousouden'', and ''Dynasty Warriors 4'' . In ''Warriors of Fate'' and ''Sangokushi Koumeiden'', the latter of which follows Zhuge Liang's life, the Battle of Bowang is the games' very first stage.
The ancient battlefield is now designated a county-level heritage , where a stone monument commemorates this battle. Broken halberds and ashes of grains were discovered here, and were archaeologically determined to be from the Three Kingdoms period.