AMOS CHENG | DEBORAH TAN | NICHOLAS CHOW | VANESSA CHAN
The Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) was a long and prosperous one that was well known as the Golden Age of China. Towards the end of the Dynasty, the dynasty gradually weakened. In 184 CE, under the rule of Emperor Ling, corruption within the court and the unhappy peasants revolted against the government. This rebellion, known as the Yellow Turban Rebellion, lasted for 21 years 1 and marked the beginning of the decline of the great Han Dynasty. With the help of Cao Cao's troops, the rebellion was put to an end and Xian was put on the throne with the brute force of Cao Cao's military. Unfortunately, Emperor Xian was nothing more than a puppet to his powerful Prime Minister Cao Cao.
- Until 205 CE. ↩
At that point in time1, the warlords and provincial governors took it into their own hands to self-govern their territories, disregarding the imperial court's laws. This time of war was also known as the era of The Three Kingdoms, that of Wei (魏), lead by Emperor Xian, Shu Han (蜀汉), lead by Liu Bei and his advisor Zhuge Liang, and Dong Wu (东吴), lead by Sun Quan.
At 220 CE, after the death of Cao Cao, Cao Pi 2 became the figurehead ruler, Emperor Xian, to abdicate his throne and started a new kingdom known as Cao Wei (曹魏) that continued running on policies created by Cao Cao.
Introducing Cao Cao
Of the Three Kingdoms1, Cao Cao was the Prime Minister of the largest and most powerful Kingdom of Wei. He set out to conquer the other Northern Territories under the name of Emperor Xian.
Since the legitimacy was a key to gaining the respect of the people, he knew that usurping the throne would lead to people seeing him as the illegitimate ruler which would result in him losing the support of the generals of Wei. Hence, the crafty warlord chose to hold the important position of Prime Minister2. Cao Cao's influence awarded him power greater than that of a typical Prime Minister. For example, the ability to control massive troops of Wei under the authority of Emperor Xian. This resulted in Cao Cao being one of the most powerful, influential and important Prime Ministers till date.
Cao Cao was posthumously renamed to King Wu after his son, Cao Pi usurped the throne and started the new Kingdom of Cao Wei (Chen Shou, n.d.). Today, Cao Cao is seen as the one that paved the way and lay strong foundations for this new kingdom to exist.
Influence on History
Conquering Territories & Unifying China
Cao Cao’s noble aim in his conquests was to unify China under the rule of Wei again but was only able to unify Northern China. In fact, after an initial success on the battle with Liu Bei of Shu Han, many of his battles against the South were unsuccessful and lead to many casualties. However, Cao Cao’s military contributions were not just about victories on the battlefield. The reason Cao Cao was able to win so many battles was that he fought differently from the other leaders. He came up with new tactics, new formations, and new ways of using his weaponry. He did things in a special way with his army that nobody had ever done before, making use of every opportunity to do better. His troop formations were of his own creation. He went as far as to write down the formations and everything related to battlefield techniques he came up with in a book, which was distributed to every general in his army.
Cao Cao was also well known to be a ruthless and sly general who manipulated and lied to get his way. In 194, under Cao Cao’s rule, the ongoing war, coupled with a plague of locusts, lead to a widespread famine that resulted in the death of many. The war also brought about instability and bandits were rampant within the city. The civilians not only had to migrate to seek shelter from the ongoing wars, but also had to beware of meeting these bandits in the course of their travels. This war was instigated by Cao Cao when he lied to Emperor Xian about Liu Bei and Sun Quan's intentions to attack the Kingdom of Wei, causing a period of great unrest in Ancient China.
Influences on The Common People
Towards the end of the Han Dynasty when Cao Cao was the de facto ruler of the Kingdom of Wei, the life of the common people were miserable. Even though Cao Cao had noble intentions of unifying China, it was undeniable that he was merciless when it came to ruling or fighting in the battlefield. As the Chinese saying goes, Cao Cao was one that “killed without a blink of his eyes”. Cao Cao was infamously known for his brutality and cold-heartedness. He killed thousands of civilians in the Xu Province as he believed that the governor was responsible for the death of his father. This is a great example of his vengefulness as he did not consider the lives of the innocent.
- The failed assassination of his enemy (Warlord Dong Zhuo) in cold blood
- The wrongful murder of Granary Officer Wang Gan
These cold hearted manoeuvres (a manipulative attempt to raise his troop’s dying morale) had the opposite effect intended and resulted in many of his loyal subjects leaving him.
That being said, Cao Cao was not a bad guy all the time. It wasn’t just his intelligence in leading the army or management skills, but how he inspired people - be it his people or his enemies, that made him so remarkable. He made bandits, murderers, and rebels turn over a new leaf into different outstanding generals and warriors. During a period of time when people were facing difficulties, he gave them tremendous support. He gave people advice and a greater motivation to their lives. Cao Cao’s military accomplishments alone would make him a great figure to begin with. But his domestic achievements, his talents, and the incredible impact he had on people puts on another level of ancient myths.
With all the battles going on, Cao Cao made the soldiers farm (Tun Tian) as well to meet the demands of the army’s food supplies. On top of that, Cao Cao made the refugees and the defeated rebels pay their taxes through a portion of their harvest and also through military service. Military officials were also appointed to look after and manage these households, which made sure that the crop areas are safe for the farmers. All these measures helped in solving the food shortage issue faced then. It was an effective way to provide provisions for the soldiers in times of war. Shortly after, he developed another system called ‘Zu Tiao’ or tax modification system where the big landlords had to pay more taxes and the Farmers get to pay less.
Influences on Education and Politics
Despite the popular notions of Cao Cao being a cruel and ruthless military commander, he was actually an amazing poet too. Haolixing, Guisuishou (Though the Tortoise Lives Long), Duijiu (To My Wine) and Moshangsang (Mulberry on the Fields)1 were among his works. Cao Cao’s collection of poetry anthologies were mostly influenced by the Yuefu Poem style, but adopts a slightly more creative flair about it. Together with his sons, Cao Pi and Cao Zhi, they revolutionised poetry by bringing a new style to Jian An literature.
Cao Cao believed in educating the people. To do so, he set a decree that ensured that talented students were given the opportunity of formal education. Jurisdiction officials were to vet the children in their care and pick out the top students to receive education. Schools were built to cater to these elite students. Education flourished as a result in Cao Cao’s time.
九品中正製 (jiu pin zhong zhi) or “Nine Rank and Impartial Judges” was a system employed by Cao Cao to hire civil officials. A recruitment officer is sent to Cao’s home districts and provinces to seek talent. The talents will be brought to him and he will assign them ratings on a scale of 1 to 9, with 9 the lowest and 1 highest. He would then present his top choices to the board office, which in turn evaluates the recommendations and assigns a rating. The two ratings will be mapped to explore the ideal positions for the candidate. With “Nine Rank and Impartial Judges”, Cao Cao ensured that the best candidate was to serve him, regardless of their background. This backing of wise politicians and officials is one of the main reasons Cao Cao rose to his prominent position. This is also the system that Cao Pi continued using in his rule as the King of Cao Wei.
Influences on the Medical World
Cao Cao was a sufferer of frequent migraines which left him dizzy and unable to think. It was often theorised that he might have had a brain tumour but the Chinese in his time called this “head wind”. As a result, Cao Cao patronised many medical practitioners and commissioned many of them to find a cure for his disease, propelling medical advances in this field. However, none of these physicians would be as effective as Hua Tuo, who was recommended to him in his later years.
Cao Cao was a sufferer of frequent migraines which left him dizzy and unable to think. It was often theorised that he might have had a brain tumour but the Chinese in his time called this “head wind”. As a result, Cao Cao patronised many medical practitioners and commissioned many of them to find a cure for his disease, propelling medical advances in this field. However, none of these physicians would be as effective as Hua Tuo, who was recommended to him in his later years.1
Hua Tuo used acupuncture on Cao Cao to cure him of his splitting headaches. Cao Cao was so impressed by the results of his treatments that he demanded Hua Tuo to stay on in the palace as his imperial physician. However, rumours of Cao Cao’s quick-tempered and ruthless nature deterred Hua Tuo from agreeing to this for fear of his own life. He took leave from the palace on false accounts of his sick wife and was later brought back to court when Cao Cao discovered his trickery. However, due to Cao Cao’s deeply suspicious nature, Hua Tuo was eventually sentenced to death one day for suggesting an operation to cure Cao Cao of his headaches permanently. As if the death of a greatest physician in his time was not enough, Hua Tuo’s manuscript, which he painstakingly wrote in prison, was also burnt.
Cao Cao’s ungrounded suspicions caused the medical world to take a huge step back in terms of discovery. Many techniques like anaesthetic during operations and usage of herbs were lost with the demise of Hua Tuo and his manuscript.
Chinese warlord Cao Cao was well known for this self-centred mentality that contradicted the humble mindset of majority of the people in his era. In a world where contribution to the greater good is seen as the noble thing to do, he controlled other warlords using the authority of Emperor Xian to fulfil his desire of conquering and unifying the entire China. As a result of his unscrupulous methods, it is no small secret that Cao Cao is seen as a villain by many. Several negative portrayals of him, in novels like The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and movies like The Battle of the Red Cliff, irreversibly tied him to traits like being cunning and manipulative character.
Despite all these negative traits, Cao Cao did have his significant contributions to history. He was an efficient and intelligent warlord that left his mark in history and is well remembered till date. Even if he had failed to unify china, he remains, undeniably, one of the greatest leaders in Chinese history that inspired many great poems, stories and songs like this:
- Cao Cao. (n.d.). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved October 5, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cao_Cao
- Qi, F., Tong, Z., Zheng, W., Yao, L., Cao, Y., Yu, H., . . . Beauty Culture Communications (Firm). (2009). Cao cao: San shi si ji dian shi lian xu ju / 三十四集电视连续剧. Shenzhen Shi: Ban dao yin xiang chu ban she.
- 弓木. (2009). 曹操. 现代语文：上旬．文学研究, (9), F0004-F0004.
- Zaifu, L. (2012). A study of two classics: A cultural critique of the romance of the three kingdoms and the water margin Cambria.
- Holcombe, C., 1956. (1994;1993;). In the shadow of the han: Literati thought and society at the beginning of the southern dynasties. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
- Archlich. (2013) What you didn't know you didn't know. Dynasties warrior character analysis: Cao Cao. Tumblr.
- Mark Edward Lewis (2009) China between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties. Belknap Press
- Chen Shou (n.d.). Records of Three Kingdoms, Volume 1, Biography of Cao Cao.