|King of Wei|
Bozhou, Anhui, China
|Died||15 March 220 (aged 65)
Luoyang, Henan, China
|Courtesy name||Mengde (Chinese: 孟德; pinyin: Mèngdé; Wade–Giles: Meng-te)|
|Temple name||Taizu (Chinese: 太祖; pinyin: Tàizǔ; Wade–Giles: Tai-tsu)|
Cao Cao (Chinese: 曹操; 155 – 15 March 220), courtesy name Mengde, was a warlord and the penultimate Chancellor of the Eastern Han dynasty who rose to great power in the final years of the dynasty. As one of the central figures of the Three Kingdoms period, he laid the foundations for what was to become the state of Cao Wei and was posthumously honoured as "Emperor Wu of Wei". Although he is often portrayed as a cruel and merciless tyrant in subsequent literature, Cao Cao has also been praised as a brilliant ruler and military genius who treated his subordinates like his family. During the fall of the Eastern Han dynasty, Cao Cao was able to secure the most populated and prosperous cities of the central plains and northern China. Cao had much success as Han chancellor, however his handling of the then Han emperor Liu Xie was heavily criticized and resulted in a continued and then escalated civil war, opposition directly gathered support around warlords Liu Bei and Sun Quan, who Cao was unable to quell. Cao was also skilled in poetry and martial arts and wrote many war journals.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Early Career and Yellow Turban Rebellion
- 3 Alliance against Dong Zhuo
- 4 Securing the emperor
- 5 Uniting northern China
- 6 The Three Kingdoms
- 7 Family
- 8 Cultural legacy
- 9 Cao Cao Mausoleum
- 10 In fiction
- 11 Modern references
- 12 See also
- 13 Notes
- 14 References
- 15 External links
Cao Cao was born in Qiao (present-day Bozhou, Anhui) in 155. His father Cao Song was a foster son of Cao Teng, who in turn was one of the favourite eunuchs of Emperor Huan. Some historical records, including the Biography of Cao Man, claim that Cao Song's original family name was Xiahou.
Cao was known for his craftiness as an adolescent. According to the Biography of Cao Man, Cao Cao's uncle complained to Cao Song about Cao Cao's indulgence in hunting and music with Yuan Shao. In retaliation, Cao Cao feigned a fit before his uncle, who immediately rushed to inform Cao Song. When Cao Song went to see his son, Cao Cao behaved normally. When asked, Cao Cao replied, "I have never had a fit, but I lost the love of my uncle, and therefore he deceived you." Afterwards, Cao Song ceased to believe his brother regarding Cao Cao, and thus Cao Cao became even more blatant and insistent in his wayward pursuits.
At that time, there was a man named Xu Shao who lived in Runan and was famous for his ability to evaluate a person's potentials and talents. Cao Cao paid him a visit in hopes of receiving an evaluation that would help him politically. At first, Xu Shao refused to make a statement; however, under persistent questioning, he finally said, "You would be a capable minister in peaceful times and an unscrupulous hero in chaotic times." Cao Cao laughed and left. There are two other versions of this comment in other unofficial historical records.[which?]
Early Career and Yellow Turban Rebellion
At the age of 20, Cao Cao was appointed district captain of Luoyang. Upon taking up the post, he placed rows of multicolored stakes outside his office and ordered his deputies to flog those who violated the law, regardless of their status. An uncle of Jian Shuo, one of the most powerful and influential eunuchs under Emperor Ling, was caught walking in the city after the evening curfew by Cao Cao's men and was flogged. This prompted Jian Shuo and other higher authorities to ostensibly promote Cao Cao to the post of governor of Dunqiu County while actually moving him out of the imperial capital. Cao Cao remained in this position for little more than a year, being dismissed from office in 178 for his distant family ties with the disgraced Empress Song. Around 180, Cao Cao returned to court as a Consultant (議郎) and presented two memoranda against the eunuchs' influence in court and government corruption during his tenure, to limited effect.
When the Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out in 184, Cao Cao was recalled to Luoyang and appointed Captain of the Cavalry (騎都尉) and sent to Yingchuan in Yu Province to suppress the rebels. He was successful and was sent to Ji'nan (濟南) as Chancellor (相) to prevent the spread of Yellow Turban influence there. In Ji'nan, Cao Cao aggressively enforced the ban on unorthodox cults, destroyed shrines, and supported state Confucianism. He offended the local leading families in the process, and resigned on grounds of poor health around 187, fearing that he had put his family in danger. He was offered the post of Administrator of Dong Commandery (東郡), but he declined and returned to his home in Pei County. Around that time, Wang Fen (王芬) tried to recruit Cao Cao to join his coup to replace Emperor Ling with the Marquis of Hefei, but Cao Cao refused. The plot came to nothing, and Wang Fen killed himself.
Alliance against Dong Zhuo
|A summary of the major events in Cao Cao's life|
|155||Born in Qiao.|
|180s||Led troops against Yellow Turban Rebellion in Yingchuan.|
|190||Joined the coalition against Dong Zhuo.|
|196||Received Emperor Xian in Xuchang.|
|200||Won the Battle of Guandu.|
|208||Lost the Battle of Red Cliffs.|
|213||Created Duke of Wei and given ten commanderies as his dukedom.|
|216||Received the title King of Wei.|
|220||Died in Luoyang.|
|—||Enthroned posthumously as Emperor Wu.|
After 18 months in retirement, Cao Cao returned to the capital Luoyang in 188. That year, he was appointed Colonel Who Arranges the Army (典軍校尉), fourth of eight heads of a newly established imperial army, the Army of the Western Garden. The effectiveness of this new force never became known, since it was disbanded the next year.
In 189, Emperor Ling died and was succeeded by his eldest son (Emperor Shao), although state power was mainly in the hands of Empress Dowager He and others. The empress dowager's brother, General-in-Chief He Jin, plotted with Yuan Shao to eliminate the Ten Attendants (a group of influential eunuchs in the imperial court). He Jin summoned Dong Zhuo, a seasoned general of Liang Province, to lead his army into Luoyang to pressure the empress dowager to surrender power, despite accusations of Dong's "infamy". Before Dong Zhuo arrived, He Jin was assassinated by the eunuchs and Luoyang was thrown into chaos as Yuan Shao's supporters fought the eunuchs. Dong Zhuo's army easily rid the palace grounds of opposition. After he deposed Emperor Shao, Dong Zhuo placed the puppet Emperor Xian on the throne, as he deemed that Emperor Xian was more capable than the original puppet Emperor Shao.
After rejecting Dong Zhuo's appointment, Cao Cao left Luoyang for Chenliu (southeast of present-day Kaifeng, Henan, Cao's hometown), where he built his army. The next year, regional warlords formed a military alliance under Yuan Shao against Dong. Cao Cao joined them, becoming one of the few actively fighting members of the coalition. The coalition fell apart after months of inactivity, and China fell into civil war while Dong Zhuo was killed in 192 by Lü Bu.
Securing the emperor
Through short-term and regional-scale wars, Cao Cao continued to expand his power. In 193, Cao massacred thousands of civilians in Xu Province to avenge his father, whom Cao Cao believed to have been murdered by Xu Province's governor, Tao Qian.
In 196, Cao Cao joined Emperor Xian and convinced him to move the capital to Xuchang as suggested by Xun Yu and other advisors, as Luoyang was ruined by war and Chang'an was not under Cao's military control, and he was appointed chancellor. Cao Cao became General-in-Chief (大將軍) and Marquis of Wuping (武平侯), though both titles had little practical implication. While some viewed the emperor as a puppet under Cao Cao's control, Cao adhered to a strict personal rule to his death that he would not usurp the throne. Later, when he was approached by his advisors to overthrow the Han dynasty and start his own dynasty, he replied, "If heaven bestows such a fate upon me, let me be King Wen of Zhou."
To maintain a good relationship with Yuan Shao, who had become the most powerful warlord in China when he united the northern four provinces, Cao Cao lobbied to have Yuan appointed Minister of Works. However, this had the opposite effect, as Yuan Shao believed that Cao Cao was trying to humiliate him, since Minister of Works technically ranked lower than General-in-Chief, and thus refused to accept the title. To pacify Yuan Shao, Cao Cao offered his own position to him, while becoming Minister of Works himself. While this temporarily resolved the conflict, it was the catalyst for the Battle of Guandu later.
Uniting northern China
In 200, Yuan Shao amassed more than 100,000 troops and marched southwards on Xuchang in the name of rescuing the emperor. Cao Cao gathered 20,000 men in Guandu, a strategic point on the Yellow River. The two armies came to a standstill as neither side was able to make much progress. Cao Cao's lack of men did not allow him to make significant attacks, and Yuan Shao's pride forced him to meet Cao's force head-on. Despite his overwhelming advantage in terms of manpower, Yuan Shao was unable to make full use of his resources because of his indecisive leadership and Cao Cao's position.
Besides the middle battleground of Guandu, two lines of battle were present. The eastern line with Yuan Tan of Yuan Shao's army against Zang Ba of Cao Cao's army was a one-sided battle in favour of Cao, as Yuan Tan's poor leadership was no match for Zang's local knowledge of the landscape and his hit-and-run tactics. On the western front, Yuan Shao's nephew, Gao Gan, performed better against Cao Cao's army and forced several reinforcements from Cao's main camp to maintain the western battle. Liu Bei, then a guest in Yuan Shao's army, suggested that he instigate rebellion in Cao Cao's territories as many followers of Yuan were in Cao's lands. The tactic was initially successful but Man Chong's diplomatic skills helped to resolve the conflict almost immediately. Man Chong had been placed as an official there for this specific reason, as Cao Cao had foreseen the possibility of insurrection prior to the battle.
Finally, a defector from Yuan Shao's army, Xu You, informed Cao Cao of the location of Yuan's supply depot. Cao Cao broke the stalemate by sending a special group of soldiers to burn all the supplies of Yuan Shao's army, thus winning a decisive and seemingly impossible victory. Yuan Shao fell ill and died shortly after the defeat, leaving two sons – the eldest son, Yuan Tan and the youngest son, Yuan Shang. As he had designated the youngest son, Yuan Shang, as his successor, rather than the eldest as tradition dictated, the two brothers fought each other, as they fought Cao Cao. Cao Cao used the internal conflict within the Yuan clan to his advantage and defeated the Yuans easily. Cao Cao assumed effective rule over all of northern China. He sent armies further out and expanded his control across the Great Wall into present-day Korea, and southward to the Han River.
The Three Kingdoms
However, Cao Cao's attempt to extend his domination south of the Yangtze River was unsuccessful. He received an initial success when Liu Biao, the Governor of Jing Province, died, and his successor, Liu Cong surrendered to Cao Cao without resistance. Delighted by this, he pressed on despite objections from his military advisors and hoped the same would happen again. His forces were defeated by a coalition of his arch-rivals Liu Bei and Sun Quan (who later founded the states of Shu Han and Eastern Wu respectively) at the Battle of Red Cliffs in 208.
In 213, Cao Cao received the title "Duke of Wei" (魏公) and was given the nine bestowments and a fief of ten cities under his domain, known as Wei. In 216, Cao Cao was promoted to the status of a vassal king - "King of Wei" (魏王). Over the years, Cao Cao, as well as Liu Bei and Sun Quan, continued to consolidate their power in their respective regions. Through many wars, China became divided into three powers – Wei, Shu and Wu, which fought sporadic battles without the balance tipping significantly in anyone's favour.
In 220, Cao Cao died in Luoyang at the age of 65, having failed to unify China under his rule. His will instructed that he be buried near Ximen Bao's tomb in Ye without gold and jade treasures, and that his subjects on duty at the frontier were to stay in their posts and not attend the funeral as, in his own words, "the country is still unstable".
Cao Cao's eldest surviving son Cao Pi succeeded him. Within a year, Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian to abdicate and proclaimed himself the first emperor of the state of Cao Wei. Cao Cao was then posthumously titled "Grand Ancestor Emperor Wu of Wei" (魏太祖武皇帝)
Research on Cao Cao's ancestry
Cao Cao was a purported descendant of the Western Han dynasty chancellor Cao Shen. In the early 2010s, researchers from Fudan University compared the Y chromosomes collected from a tooth from Cao Cao's granduncle, Cao Ding (曹鼎), with those of Cao Shen and found them to be significantly different. Therefore, the claim about Cao Cao descending from Cao Shen was not supported by genetic evidence. The researchers also found that the Y chromosomes of Cao Ding match those of self-proclaimed living descendants of Cao Cao who hold lineage records dating back to more than 100 generations ago.
Zhu Ziyan, a history professor from Shanghai University, felt that Cao Ding's tooth alone cannot be used as evidence to determine Cao Cao's ancestry. He was sceptical about whether those who claim to be Cao Cao's descendants are really so, because genealogical records dating from the Song dynasty (960–1279) are already so rare in the present-day, much less those dating from the Three Kingdoms era (220–280). Besides, according to historical records, Cao Ding was a younger brother of the eunuch Cao Teng, who adopted Cao Cao's biological father, Cao Song. Therefore, Cao Cao had no known blood relations with Cao Ding. In other words, Cao Ding was not Cao Cao's real granduncle (this assuming that there was no intra-family adoption, which was actually common in China). Zhu Ziyan mentioned that Fudan University's research only proves that those self-proclaimed descendants of Cao Cao are related to Cao Ding; it does not directly relate them to Cao Cao.
While historical records indicate Cao Cao as a brilliant ruler, he was represented as a cunning and deceitful man in Chinese opera, where his character is given a white facial makeup to reflect his treacherous personality. When Luo Guanzhong wrote the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, he took much of his inspiration from Chinese opera.
As the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms has been adapted to modern forms of entertainment, so has its portrayal of Cao Cao. Given the source material upon which these adaptations are founded, Cao Cao continues to be characterised as a prominent villain.
Through to modern times, the Chinese equivalent of the English idiom "speak of the Devil" is "speak of Cao Cao and Cao Cao arrives" (simplified Chinese: 说曹操，曹操到; traditional Chinese: 說曹操，曹操到; pinyin: shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo dào).
After the Communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, many people in China began to believe that there were many similarities between Cao Cao and Mao Zedong. Because of this perceived similarity, propagandists began a long-term, sustained effort to improve the image of Cao Cao in Chinese popular culture. In 1959, Peng Dehuai wrote a letter to Mao, in which he compared himself to Zhang Fei: because of Mao's popular association with Cao, Peng's comparison implied that he had an intuitively confrontational relationship with Mao. Mao had the letter widely circulated in order to make Peng's attitude clear to other Party members, and proceeded to purge Peng, eventually ending Peng's career.
Agriculture and education
While waging military campaigns against his enemies, Cao Cao did not forget the bases of society – agriculture and education.
In 194, a locust plague caused a major famine across China. The people resorted to cannibalism out of desperation. Without food, many armies were defeated without fighting. From this experience, Cao Cao saw the importance of an ample food supply in building a strong military. He began a series of agricultural programs in cities such as Xuchang and Chenliu. Refugees were recruited and given wasteland to cultivate. Later, encampments not faced with imminent danger of war were also made to farm. This system was continued and spread to all regions under Cao Cao as his realm expanded. Although Cao Cao's primary intention was to build a powerful army, the agricultural program also improved the living standards of the people, especially war refugees.
By 203, Cao Cao had eliminated most of Yuan Shao's forces. This afforded him more attention on construction within his realm. In autumn of that year, Cao Cao passed an order decreeing the promotion of education throughout the counties and cities within his jurisdiction. An official in charge of education was assigned to each county with more than 500 households. Youngsters with potential and talent were selected for schooling. This prevented a lapse in the training of intellectuals in those years of war, and, in Cao Cao's words, would benefit the people.
Cao Cao was an accomplished poet, as were his sons Cao Pi and Cao Zhi. He was also a patron of poets such as Xu Gan. Of Cao Cao's works, only a remnant remain today. His verses, unpretentious yet profound, helped to reshape the poetic style of his time and beyond, eventually contributing to the poetry styles associated with Tang dynasty poetry. Cao Cao, Cao Pi and Cao Zhi are known collectively as the "Three Caos". The Three Caos' poetry, together with additional poets, became known as the Jian'an style, which contributed eventually to Tang and later poetry. Cao Cao also wrote verse in the older four-character per line style characteristic of the Classic of Poetry. Burton Watson describes Cao Cao as: "the only writer of the period who succeeded in infusing the old four-character metre with any vitality, mainly because he discarded the archaic diction associated with it and employed the ordinary poetic language of his time." Cao Cao is also known for his early contributions to the Shanshui poetry genre, with his 4-character-per-line, 14-line poem "View of the Blue Sea" (觀滄海).
Cao Cao Mausoleum
On 27 December 2009, the Henan Provincial Cultural Heritage Bureau reported the discovery of Cao Cao's tomb in Xigaoxue Village, Anyang County, Henan. The tomb, covering an area of 740 square metres, was discovered in December 2008 when workers at a nearby kiln were digging for mud to make bricks. Its discovery was not reported and the local authorities knew of it only when they seized a stone tablet carrying the inscription 'King Wu of Wei' — Cao Cao's posthumous title — from grave robbers who claimed to have stolen it from the tomb. Over the following year, archaeologists recovered more than 250 relics from the tomb. The remains of three persons — a man in his 60s, a woman in her 50s and another woman in her 20s — were also unearthed and are believed to be those of Cao Cao, one of his wives, and a servant.
Since the discovery of the tomb, there have been many skeptics and experts who pointed out problems with it and raised doubts about its authenticity. In January 2010, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage legally endorsed the initial results from research conducted throughout 2009 suggesting that the tomb was Cao Cao's. However, in August 2010, 23 experts and scholars presented evidence at a forum held in Suzhou, Jiangsu to argue that the findings and the artefacts of the tomb were fake. In September 2010, an article published in an archaeology magazine claimed that the tomb and the adjacent one actually belonged to Cao Huan (a grandson of Cao Cao) and his father Cao Yu.
In 2010, the tomb became part of the fifth batch of Major Historical and Cultural Sites Protected at the National Level in China. As of December 2011[update], it has been announced that the local government in Anyang is constructing a museum on the original site of the tomb which will be named 'Cao Cao Mausoleum Museum' (曹操高陵博物馆).
Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a historical novel by Luo Guanzhong, was a romanticisation of the events that occurred in the late Han dynasty and the Three Kingdoms period. While adhering to historical facts most of the time, the novel inevitably reshaped Cao Cao to some extent, so as to portray him as a cruel and suspicious villain. In some chapters, Luo created fictional or semi-fictional events involving Cao Cao.
See the following for some fictitious stories in Romance of the Three Kingdoms involving Cao Cao:
- List of fictitious stories in Romance of the Three Kingdoms#Cao Cao presents a precious sword
- List of fictitious stories in Romance of the Three Kingdoms#Cao Cao arrested and released by Chen Gong
- Lü Boshe
- List of fictitious stories in Romance of the Three Kingdoms#Guan Yu releases Cao Cao at Huarong Trail
- List of fictitious stories in Romance of the Three Kingdoms#New Book of Mengde
- Battle of Tong Pass (211)#In fiction
- List of fictitious stories in Romance of the Three Kingdoms#Cao Cao's death
Film and television
The "Father of Hong Kong cinema", Lai Man-Wai, played Cao Cao in The Witty Sorcerer, a 1931 comedy film based on the story of Zuo Ci playing tricks on Cao Cao. In the Shaw Brothers film The Weird Man, Cao Cao was seen in the beginning of the film with Zuo Ci. Zuo Ci was playing tricks on him by giving him a tangerine with no fruit inside. This was later referenced in another film titled Five Element Ninjas.
Other notable actors who have portrayed Cao Cao in film and television include:
- Bao Guo'an, in the 1994 Chinese television series Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Bao won two Best Actor awards at the 1995 Golden Eagle Awards and Flying Apsaras Awards for his performance.
- Damian Lau, in the 2008 Hong Kong film Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon.
- Zhang Fengyi, in the 2008–09 Chinese film Red Cliff.
- Chen Jianbin, in the 2010 Chinese television series Three Kingdoms.
- Jiang Wen, in the 2011 Hong Kong film The Lost Bladesman.
- Chow Yun-fat, in the 2012 Chinese film The Assassins.
- Zhao Lixin, in the 2014 Chinese television series Cao Cao.
In the selection of hero cards in the Chinese card game San Guo Sha (三国杀), there is also a Cao Cao hero that players can select at the beginning of the game.
Cao Cao is also referenced in Magic: The Gathering, as the card "Cao Cao, Lord of Wei". This card is black, the colour representing ruthlessness and ambition, though not necessarily evil. It was first printed in Portal Three Kingdoms and again in From the Vault: Legends.
Cao Cao appears in all 12 instalments of Koei's Romance of the Three Kingdoms video game series. He is also featured as a playable character in Koei's Dynasty Warriors and Warriors Orochi series. He also features in Koei's Kessen II as a playable main character.
As with most of the other relevant generals of the period, Cao Cao is portrayed as a young female character in the Koihime Musō franchise. He is also the central character in the Japanese manga series Sōten Kōro. Barry Hughart's novel The Story of the Stone mentions the Seven Sacrileges of Tsao Tsao, most of which involve family.
- (太祖一名吉利，小字阿瞞。) Pei Songzhi. Annotations to Chen Shou's Records of the Three Kingdoms, Volume 1, Biography of Cao Cao.
- (治世之能臣，乱世之奸雄。) Chen Shou. Records of Three Kingdoms, Volume 1, Biography of Cao Cao.
- de Crespigny, pp.33-34
- de Crespigny, p.35
- de Crespigny, p.39
- de Crespigny, p.40
- de Crespigny, p. 43
- (若天命在吾，吾为周文王矣。) Chen Shou. Records of Three Kingdoms, Volume 1, Biography of Cao Cao. King Wen was a high official at the end of the Shang dynasty in ancient China. At the time, the corruption of King Zhou of Shang prompted many uprisings, including that of King Wen; but King Wen insisted that he would not take the throne himself as it is improper for him, a subordinate, to harm the Shang dynasty. Instead, he allowed his son (King Wu of Zhou) to destroy the Shang dynasty and establish the Zhou dynasty after his own death, and thus fulfilling his personal code of honour but also ridding the world of a terrible ruler. He was then named King Wen of Zhou posthumously by King Wu of Zhou. Here, Cao Cao was inferring that if the Cao family were to come to power and establish a new dynasty, it would be by his descendants and not him.
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Emperor Wu of Cao WeiBorn: 155 Died: 220
as Duke of Wei
|King of Wei
Title last held byDong Zhuo
as Chancellor of State
|New title||Duke of Wei
as King of Wei