Three Kingdoms
Cao Cao ,ܲ (A.D.155 - 220) Weiκ Emperor ϸ

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Portrait of Cao Cao by unknown artist
Portrait of Cao Cao by unknown artist
Simplified Chinese: ܲ
Traditional Chinese: ܲ
Pinyin: Co Co
Wade-Giles: Ts'ao Ts'ao
Zi: Mengde (ϵ)
Infant name: A-Man (m)

Cao Cao (155 – 220), whose name is also often transliterated and should be correctly pronounced as Ts'ao Ts'ao, was a regional warlord and the last Chancellor of Eastern Han Dynasty who rose to great power during the last years of the Eastern Han Dynasty in ancient China. As one of the central figures of the Three Kingdoms period, he laid down foundations for what was to become the Kingdom of Wei and was posthumously titled Emperor Wu. Although generally characterized as a cruel and suspicious character in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and other folk cultures, the historic Cao Cao was a brilliant ruler, military strategist and poet.




Early life

Cao Cao was born in the county of Qiao (S present day Bozhou, Anhui) in 155. His father Cao Song () was a foster son of Cao Teng (v), who in turn was one of the favorite eunuchs of Emperor Huan. Some historical records, including Biography of Cao Man, claim that Cao Song was originally surnamed Xiahou (thus making Cao Cao a cousin of Xiahou Dun and Xiahou Yuan, two of his most prominent generals).

Cao Cao was known for his craftiness as a young man. Cao Cao's uncle often complained to Cao Song regarding Cao Cao's childhood indulgence in hunting and music. To counter this, Cao Cao one day feigned a fit before his uncle, who hurriedly informed Cao Song. Cao Song rushed out to see his son, who was by then back to normal. When asked, Cao Cao replied, "I have never had such illness, but I lost the love of my uncle, and therefore he had deceived you." Henceforth, Cao Song ceased to believe the words of his brother regarding Cao Cao, and thus Cao Cao became even more blatant in his wayward pursuits.

At that time, there was a man living in Runan () named Xu Shao (Sۿ) who was famed for his ability to identify hidden talents of others. Cao Cao paid him visit. Under persistent questioning, Xu Shao finally said, "You would be a capable minister in peaceful times and an unscrupulous hero in chaotic ones." Cao Cao took this as a compliment and was very pleased.

At twenty, Cao Cao was recommended to be a district captain of Luoyang. Upon taking up the post, Cao Cao placed rows of multicolored staffs outside his office and ordered his deputies to flog those who violated the law, regardless of their status. An uncle of Jian Shuo, an influential eunuch under Emperor Ling, was once caught walking in the city beyond the curfew hour by Cao Cao and given his fair share of flogging.

When the Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out in 184 Cao Cao was promoted to a captain of the cavalry (Tξ and sent to Yingchuan (}) to put down the rebels there. He was successful in his military exploits and was further promoted to Governor of Dong Commandery (|).

Alliance against Dong Zhuo

In 189, Emperor Ling died and was succeeded by his eldest son, though it was the empress dowager and the eunuchs who held true power. The two most powerful generals of that time, He Jin and Yuan Shao, plotted to eliminate the clan of influential eunuchs. He Jin summoned Dong Zhuo, governor of Liangzhou (), to lead his army into the capital Luoyang to lay pressure on the empress dowager. Before Dong Zhuo arrived, however, He Jin was assassinated by the eunuchs and Luoyang fell into chaos. After his force ridded the palace ground of opposition, Dong Zhuo deposed the emperor and placed in the throne the puppet Emperor Xian.

Not seeing eye to eye with Dong Zhuo, Cao Cao left Luoyang for Chenliu (, southeast of present day Kaifeng, Henan), where he raised his own troops. The next year, regional warlords combined their forces under Yuan Shao against Dong Zhuo. Cao Cao joined their cause. When Dong Zhuo was eventually killed in 192 by his own foster son, mighty warrior L Bu, China fell into civil war. Through short-term and regional-scale wars, Cao Cao continued to expand his power.

In 196, Cao Cao convinced Emperor Xian to move the capital to Xuchang, into the warlord's custody. Henceforth, the last emperor of Han remained mostly a figurehead in the hands of Cao Cao. Cao Cao was then instated as the General-in-Chief (܊ and Marquis of Wuping (ƽ, though both titles had little practical implication.

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 shore of the Yellow River. With his craft, brilliant military maneuvers and the help of a defector from Yuan Shao's camp, Cao Cao won a decisive and seemingly impossible victory.

Yuan Shao fell ill and died shortly after returning from the defeat, leaving his legacy to two of his sons - the eldest son, Yuan Tan and the youngest son, Yuan Shang (Ԭ). As he had designated the youngest son, Yuan Shang, as his successor, rather than the eldest as tradition dictated, the two brothers consistently feuded against each other, as they fought Cao Cao. Because of their internal divisions, Cao Cao was easily able to defeat them by using their differences to his advantage. Henceforth Cao Cao assumed effective rule over all of northern China. He sent armies further out and extended his control past the Great Wall into northern Korea, and southward to the Han River.

However, Cao Cao's attempt to extend his domination south of the Yangtze River was dashed as his forces were defeated by the first coalition of his archrivals Liu Bei and Sun Quan (who later founded the kingdoms of Shu and Wu respectively) at the Red Cliffs in 208.

Summary of major events
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 Given ten cities, which became known as State of Wei.
  Conferred the title of the Duke of Wei.
216 Conferred the title of the King of Wei.
220 Died in Luoyang.
  Throned posthumously as Emperor Wu.

The three kingdoms

In 213, Cao Cao was titled Duke of Wei (κ), given the Nine Dignities and given a fief of ten cities under his domain, known as the State of Wei. In 216, Cao Cao was promoted to King of Wei (κ). 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 among themselves without the balance tipping significantly in anyone's favor.

In 220, Cao Cao passed away in Luoyang at the age of 66, without realizing his ambition to unify China. His will instructed that he be buried in everyday clothes and without burial artifacts, and that his subjects on duty at the frontier to stay in their posts and not attend the funeral as, in his own words, "the country is still unstable".

His 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 Kingdom of Wei. Cao Cao was then posthumously titled Emperor Wu.

Major battles

Battle of Yanzhou

In 193, China fell into a state of full-fledged civil war. Meanwhile, remnants of the Yellow Turban rebels still plagued the country. A wandering throng of the rebels from the Qingzhou () numbering a million invaded the Yanzhou (). Bao Xin (U), a subject of Yanzhou governor Liu Dai (), advised the latter to fortify the city and wait for the enemies to disperse. Liu Dai refused and was subsequently killed in battle.

Bao Xin then offered Cao Cao the governor's seat in exchange for his help. In the initial encounter, Cao Cao suffered minor losses but eventually subdued the rebel force. He also took in more than 300,000 surrendered troops under his own flag. This force, which came to be known as the Qingzhou Army, was to be an important foundation for Cao Cao's subsequent rise to power.

Battle of Guandu

Main article: Battle of Guandu

In the spring of 200, Yuan Shao, the most powerful warlord of that time, amassed more than 100,000 troops and marched from Ye on Xuchang. To defend against the invasion, Cao Cao placed 20,000 men at Guandu (ٶ), a strategic landing point on the shore of the Yellow River which Yuan Shao's troops had to secure en route Xuchang.

With a few diversionary tactics, Cao Cao managed to disorient Yuan Shao's troops as well as kill two of Yuan Shao's most capable generals, Yan Liang and Wen Chou. The morale of Yuan Shao's troops suffered a further blow when Cao Cao launced a stealth attack on the former's food store. Many more of Yuan Shao's men surrendered or deserted than were killed during the ensuing battle. When Yuan Shao eventually retreated back to Ye in the winter of 201, he did so with little more than 800 horsemen.

The Battle of Guandu shifted the balance of power in northern China. Yuan Shao died shortly after his return and his two sons were soon defeated by Cao Cao. Henceforth, Cao Cao's dominance in the entirety of northern China was never seriously challenged. The battle has also been studied by military strategists ever since as a classic example of winning against an enemy with far superior numbers.

Traditional site of the Red Cliffs, north of Wulin
Traditional site of the Red Cliffs, north of Wulin

Battle of Red Cliffs

Main article: Battle of Red Cliffs

The Battle of Red Cliffs was another classic battle where the vastly outnumbered emerged as victor. In this battle, however, Cao Cao was on the losing end.

In the winter of 208, Liu Bei and Sun Quan – two warlords who later founded the kingdoms of Shu and Wu respectively - formed their first coalition against the southward expansion of Cao Cao. The two sides clashed at the Red Cliffs (northwest of present day Puqi, Hubei). Cao Cao boasted 830,000 men (historians believe the realistic number was around 220,000), while the Liu-Sun coalition at best had 50,000 troops.

However, Cao Cao's men, mostly from the north, were ill-suited to the southern climate and naval warfare, and thus entered the battle with a disadvantage. Furthermore, a plague that broke out undermined the strength of Cao Cao's army. The decision by Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu, military advisors to Liu and Sun, to use fire also worked effectively against Cao Cao's vessels, which were chained together and thus allowed the fires to quickly spread. A majority of Cao Cao's troops were either burnt to death or drowned. Those who tried to retreat to the near bank were ambushed and annihilated by enemy skirmishers. Cao Cao himself barely escaped the encounter.

Other contributions

Agriculture and education

While waging military campaigns against his enemies, Cao Cao did not forget the basis of society – agriculture and education.

In 194, a locust plague caused a major famine across China. According to the Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms, the people ate each other out of desperation. Without food, many armies were defeated even 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 wastelands 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 force. This afforded him more attention on the constructional works 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 matters was assigned to each county with at least 500 households. Youngsters with potential and talents were selected to undergo schooling. This prevented a lapse in the output of intellectuals in those warring years and, in Cao Cao's words, would benefit the people.


Cao Cao was also an established poet. Although few of his works remain today, his verses, unpretentious yet profound, contributed to reshaping the poetry style of his time. Together with his sons Cao Pi and Cao Zhi, they are collectively known as the "Three Cao" in poetry. Along with several other poets of the time, their poems formed the backbone of what was to be known as the jian'an style (; jian'an is the era name for the period from 196 to 220).

The civil strife towards the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty gave the jian'an poems their characteristic solemn yet heart-stirring tone, which frequently lament over the ephemerality of life. In the history of Chinese literature, the jian'an poems were a transition from the early folksongs into scholarly poetry.

One of Cao Cao's most celebrated poems, written in the late years of his life, is Though the Tortoise Lives Long (.


Though the Tortoise Lives Long


Though the tortoise blessed with magic powers lives long,
Its days have their allotted span;


Though winged serpents ride high on the mist,
They turn to dust and ashes at the last;


An old war-horse may be stabled,
Yet still it longs to gallop a thousand li;


And a noble-hearted man though advanced in years
Never abandons his proud aspirations.


Man's span of life, whether long or short,
Depends not on Heaven alone;


One who eats well and keeps cheerful
Can live to a great old age.


And so, with joy in my heart,
I hum this song.

Cao Cao in Romance of the Three Kingdoms

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a historical novel by Luo Guanzhong, was a romanticization of the events that occurred during the Three Kingdoms period. While staying true to history most of the time, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms inevitably gave Cao Cao a certain degree of dramatic make-up, in such a tone so as to suggest him as a cruel and suspicious character. On several occasions, Luo Guanzhong even made up fictional or semi-fictional events involving Cao Cao. These include:

Cao Cao in the 84-episode television serial Romance of the Three Kingdoms played by Bao Guo'an
Cao Cao in the 84-episode television serial Romance of the Three Kingdoms played by Bao Guo'an

Escape from Dong Zhuo

While in reality Cao Cao did leave Dong Zhuo, the tyrannical warlord who held the last Han emperor hostage, in 190 to form his own army, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms went a step further to describe Cao Cao's attempted assassination of the latter.

Since Dong Zhuo deposed the eldest son of the late Emperor Ling and placed in the throne Emperor Xian, his tyrannical behavior had angered many court officials. One of the officials, Wang Yun, held a banquet one night. Halfway through the banquet, Wang Yun began to cry at the cruel deeds of Dong Zhuo. His colleagues, feeling the same anguish, joined him.

Cao Cao, however, laughed and said, "All the officials of the court - crying from dusk till dawn and dawn till dusk – could you cry Dong Zhuo to his death?" He then borrowed from Wang Yun the Seven Gem Sword with the promise that he would personally assassinate Dong Zhuo.

The next day, Cao Cao brought the precious sword along to see Dong Zhuo. Having much trust in Cao Cao, Dong Zhuo received the guest in his bedroom.L Bu, Dong Zhuo's foster son, left the room for the stable to select a fast horse for Cao Cao, who complained about his slow ride.

When Dong Zhuo faced away, Cao Cao prepared to unsheath the sword. However, Dong Zhuo saw the movement in the mirror and hastily turned to question Cao Cao's intention. At this time, . L Bu had also returned. In his desperation, Cao Cao knelt and pretended that he wanted to present the sword to Dong Zhuo. He then rode away with the excuse of trying out the new horse, and headed straight out of the capital before Dong Zhuo, who grew heavily suspicious, could capture him.

Portrait of Cao Cao from a Qing Dynasty edition of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the hunched figure clearly portraying him as a villain
Portrait of Cao Cao from a Qing Dynasty edition of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the hunched figure clearly portraying him as a villain

Escape through Huarong Trail

After the fire started burning at the Red Cliffs, Cao Cao gathered all the men he could and escaped towards Jiangling, taking the shortcut through Huarong Trail. On top of the huge defeat and humiliation Cao Cao suffered, Luo Guanzhong decided to add one more pinch of salt to the getaway.

During his perilous escape back to Jiangling, Cao Cao came to a fork in the road. Columns of smoke were seen rising from the narrower path. Cao Cao judged that the smoke was a trick by the enemy to divert him to the main road, where an ambush must have been laid. He then led his men towards the narrow path - the Huarong Trail.

The smoke was indeed a trick by Zhuge Liang, military advisor to Liu Bei. Grasping Cao Cao's psychology exactly, however, Zhuge Liang actually meant to direct him to Huarong Trail, where Guan Yu with 500 troops sat waiting. Upon being cut off, Cao Cao rode forward and pled Guan Yu remember kindness of the former days. Seeing the plight of the defeated men and recalling the former favors he received from Cao Cao, Guan Yu then allowed the enemy to pass through without challenge, risking his own life for disobeying military orders.

Death of Cao Cao and Hua Tuo

In 220, Cao Cao passed away in Luoyang due to an unrecorded illness. Legends had many explanations for the cause of his death, most of which were wrought with superstitions. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms included some of these legends, as well as Luo Guanzhong's own story about the involvement of Hua Tuo, a renowned Chinese physician.

When Cao Cao started complaining about splitting headaches during the last days of his life, his subjects recommended Hua Tuo, a physician whose skills were said to parallel the deities. Upon examination, Hua Tuo diagnosed Cao Cao's illness to be a type of rheumatism within the skull. He suggested giving Cao Cao a dose of hashish and then splitting open his skull with a sharp axe to extract the pus within.

Being heavily suspicious of others, Cao Cao believed Hua Tuo intended to kill him. He then threw Hua Tuo into jail, where the renowned physician died a few days later. Without proper treatment, Cao Cao soon died as well.

Cao Cao in opera

Cao Cao as depicted in Peking Opera. His face is traditionally painted white to symbolize his treacherous character.
Cao Cao as depicted in Peking Opera. His face is traditionally painted white to symbolize his treacherous character.

While historical records indicate Cao Cao as a brilliant ruler, he was represented as a cunning and deceitful man in Chinese opera, where the character of Cao Cao is given a white facial makeup to reflect his treacherous personality. When writing the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Luo Guanzhong took much of his inspiration from the opera. As a result, such unscrupulous depiction of Cao Cao had become much more popular among the common people than the real Cao Cao himself.

The Cao clan

Direct descendants

With Empress Bian

  • CWith Empress Bian
    Cao Pi (ا)1
    Cao Rui ()
    Cao Fang (ܷ)
    Cao Mao ()
    Cao Huan (ۼ)
    Cao Zhang ()
    Cao Kai (ܿ)
    Cao Zhi (ֲ)
    Cao Zhi (־)
    Cao Xiong ()
    Cao Bin (ܱ)

  • With Lady Liu
    Cao Ang (ܰ)
    Cao Wan (succeeded Cao Ang but was the son of Cao Jun (ܾ)) ()
    Cao Lian ()
    Cao Shuo ()
    Cao Qian (DZ)
    Cao Yan ()

  • With Lady Huan
    Cao Chong (ܳ)
    Cao Cong (succeeded Cao Chong but was the son of Cao Ju (ܾ)) ()
    Cao Ju (ܾ)
    Cao Yu ()

  • With Lady Du
    Cao Lin ()
    Cao Wei (γ)
    Cao Gun ()
    Cao Fu ()

  • With Lady Qin
    Cao Xuan (ܫt)
    Cao Heng (ܺ)
    Cao Jun (ܾ)
    Cao Ao (ܰ)

  • With Lady Yin
    Cao Ju (ܾ)
    Cao Min (succeeded Cao Ju but was the son of Cao Jun (ܾ)) ()
    Cao Kun (ܟj)

  • With other consorts
    Cao Gan (܎)
    Cao Shang ()
    Cao Biao (ܱ)
    Cao Jia (ܼ)
    Cao Qin ()
    Cao Cheng (ܳ)
    Cao Zheng ()
    Cao Fan (succeeded Cao Zheng but was the son of Cao Ju (ܾ)) (ܷ)
    Cao Chan (younger brother of Cao Fan by birth, succeed Cao Fan) (ܲ)
    Cao Jing (ܾ)
    Cao Jun (ܾ)
    Cao Kang (ܿ)
    Cao Chen ()
    Cao Ji (ܼ)
    Cao Hui (ܻ)
    Cao Xi ()
    Cao Mao (ï)

  • Extended family
    Cao Ren (younger cousin) ()
    Cao Tai (̩)
    Cao Chu (ܳ)
    Cao Kai (ܿ)
    Cao Fan (ܷ)
    Cao Chun (younger cousin) (ܼ)
    Cao Yan ()
    Cao Liang ()
    Cao Hong (younger cousin) (ܺ)
    Cao Xiu (distant nephew) ()
    Cao Zhao ()
    Cao Zhen (distant nephew) ()
    Cao Shuang (ˬ)
    Cao Xi ()
    Cao Xun (ѵ)
    Cao Ze ()
    Cao Yan ()
    Cao Ai (ܰ)
    Cao Anmin (nephew) (ܰ)