A Hero Of Turbulent Times – Cao Cao

Even for people who are not familiar with the stories from the Three Kingdoms (or final days of the Han Dynasty), the name Cao Cao would certainly ring a bell. For those who are familiar with Three Kingdoms, the better known stories Cao Cao often leave the reader with the impression of a blood-thirsty, ruthless despot.

In the book Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三国演义, author Luo Guan Zhong portrayed the three main players as leaders with very different ideals. Liu Bei was the righteous hero trying to restore the honour of the Han Dynasty. Sun Quan was the crafty younger brother of hot-headed Sun Ce who controlled fertile lands in the East through power of the sword. Cao Cao was the badass opportunist who held the Han emperor hostage and issued imperial edicts in the emperor’s name.

How did the Emperor Han Xian Di end up living with Cao Cao who was on the run after being decimated by Dong Zhuo? Even in Luo Guan Zhong’s anti-Cao version of Three Kingdoms, it was mentioned that Cao Cao did not go all out to kidnap the emperor. The emperor was first held hostage by Dong Zhuo’s general Li Jue at Chang An after Dong Zhuo was killed. Soon after that, Chang An came under attack by regional governors eager to “rescue” the emperor from Li Jue. Cao Cao had minded his own business. The emperor escaped from Chang An and returned to hopelessly devastated Luo Yang and out of desperation, it was His Majesty’s own idea to seek protection from Cao Cao at Xudu. Cao Cao was merely obeying the imperial edict and he never looked back since then.

Initially, Cao Cao suffered the same fate as Li Jue. Regional governors accused him of holding the emperor hostage 挟天子以令诸侯 and attacked him from all sides. Cao Cao had no choice but to aggressively recruit talent, fortify his cities and expand his territory through persuasion and intimidation. With long-term occupation and land development in mind, he offered protection for farmers, rented out farm animals in return for crop and profit-sharing. It was a concept called 屯田 which contrasted sharply with warlords and zhu hou who seized and plundered from the people.


Fearless in battle, Cao Cao was remarkably kind to the enemy generals and leaders he had captured. Many of his men at Xudu were recruited from former Yellow Turban soldiers against whom he once fought. He promoted and rewarded generals based on merit and disallowed promotions through connections and bribes – in sharp contrast with the policies in place when the eunuchs were in power during Han Ling Di’s reign. Cao Cao enforced discipline and the rule of law very strictly. Even he himself was not immune to punishment. His men feared him, but they also respected him.

With Cao Cao’s leadership outshining the emperor’s, he promoted himself to Prime Minister and quite naturally became the de facto ruler of the Han Dynasty, pulling the strings of the puppet emperor Han Xian Di. Now, what if we substituted Cao Cao with any of the other regional governors (zhu hou) or renegade generals eager to offer the emperor “protection”? Did they not wish for the same honour? It must have been every zhu hou‘s dream and nightmare. In those war-torn times, honour is one thing, you need to be like Cao Cao to survive in his seat.

Nowadays, with more historical records surfacing and with scholars joining in the debate, it seems clear that even though the three rulers ran different slogans, they probably had the same intention – to rule the whole of China unchallenged. The list of Cao Cao’s crimes is a long one, but we need to understand that Cao Cao was born in a time of extreme poverty and famine. When starving people were resorting to cannibalism, survival always took precedence over morals.

Cao Cao’s rise to power was far from smooth. He became a fugitive after an attempt on Dong Zhuo’s life. Constantly threatened and intimidated, he became paranoid and took an extremely kiasu approach towards self-preservation. Some of you may be familiar with the story about how he slaughtered the entire family of his friend Lu Bo She when he suspected that they were going to hand him over to the authorities. Still, Cao Cao was not a coward at all. Neither was he a gentleman or a “hero” in the normal sense of the word. He was first to volunteer for the thankless and risky job of assassinating Dong Zhuo.

When his wealthy and illustrious childhood friend Yuan Shao (coming from a family of ministers) formed an alliance of zhu hou and other warlords against Dong Zhuo, Cao Cao was one of the few who had the guts and gumption to engage the powerful enemy directly. He goals were clear and he was not afraid to put his life on the line to achieve them. Unfortunately, he was totally defeated while fighting Dong Zhuo and had to retreat to the Shandong region to rebuild and reorganise his forces.

His big break came when the emperor sought protection from him. With official duty before him and his survival constantly threatened by envious zhu hou, Cao Cao did what had to be done and thrived. He promoted himself to Prime Minister and effectively became the power behind the throne. Then, his paranoia came back to haunt him and his suspicions were not unfounded. He built a network of spies in the palace, hunted down enemies in his camp and had them horribly tortured and killed, spilling buckets of royal blood in the process. When the emperor himself wanted to trim his powers, he made it clear that the throne was as good as his and would be taken if the emperor didn’t behave himself. Emperor Han Xiandi was pretty much a powerless puppet from the day he sought protection from Cao Cao. Cao Cao’s duty to protect the emperor was replaced by his ambition to rule as a dictator.

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When Yuan Shao turned against Cao Cao and attacked him, a hopelessly outnumbered Cao Cao, using superior military tactics, dealt a crushing blow to his childhood friend and jealous rival at the battle of Guan Du 官渡之战. Cao Cao continued to win many battles and expanded his territory. That was when Liu Bei and Sun Quan got worried and decided to join forces.

In spite of having an navy (converted from an army) which could have easily crushed the combined forces of Sun and Liu, arrogance would soon get to Cao Cao’s head. After his humiliating defeat in the battle at Red Cliff 赤壁之战,Cao Cao quickly picked up the pieces and rebuilt what would later be the Wei kingdom. Wei would remain the most powerful kingdom throughout that chaotic period in Chinese history. Liu Bei’s Shu kingdom (then ruled by Liu Shan) went into ruinous decline after the death of Prime Minister Zhuge Liang. Shu and Wu were eventually captured by Wei in 263 AD. Years later, Cao Cao’s Wei Kingdom, then ruled by his rather inept great grandson Cao Fang, became the last of the three kingdoms standing until a relatively peaceful mutiny forced the Wei emperor to abdicate in favour of the Sima family, thus creating the Jin Dynasty in 265 AD. Wei was the most successful of the three kingdoms and was the last to “fall” due to an internal conflict. The Jin Dynasty stood on the foundation laid by Cao Cao’s Wei Kingdom.

Throughout his reign, Cao Cao had slaughtered thousands and he had also gone on killing sprees after inviting criticism. True to form, he summarily executed any general who showed fear or cowardice on the battlefield. There is no denying that Cao Cao was a ruthless despot, but his kingdom prospered under him. Wei citizens were better off than their neighbours and the circumstances back then dictated the rules of the game. At a time when food was scarce, people were desperately pragmatic and as long as Cao Cao delivered what he promised, they were willing to betray their conscience and submit to his authoritarian rule. We may like to see Liu Bei’s Shu kingdom as the one with a righteous cause, but ultimately, no one really cared if the Han Dynasty survived or not.

Fast forward to the present. Even though some scholars now regard Cao Cao as a hero of turbulent times, people still detest him for the simple fact that he probably didn’t need to be such a cruel person. Can you justify his sweeping actions against various “suspects” and critics? Regardless of how future generations may judge Cao Cao, nobody celebrates Cao Cao’s achievements because he had committed such atrocities. But I suspect that within a hundred years after his death, Wei kings like Cao Pi must have erected monuments and accorded Cao Cao the divine credit of founding the Wei kingdom. There is much that we can learn from Cao Cao’s management skills. But while I think that there is something to be learned from Cao Cao’s methods and policies, it is equally important to recognise his inhuman acts and not try to justify them just because of the good that he had done. We’ll never know if Wei could have succeeded or done even better if Cao Cao had listened to his critics instead of silencing them. For sure, Cao Cao could have lived longer if he had allowed Hua Tuo to operate on his head.

It is unlikely to find another Cao Cao in the modern world. But the hands of many heroes and “founding fathers” have been stained with blood. While it’s necessary to remember someone for his contributions to the country, we must not end up idolising someone who was never perfect. I think as we remember our forefathers, it is essential that we who live in much less turbulent times do a bit of filtering and soul searching to adopt their wisdom and not their mistakes.

Three Kingdoms by Chan Joon Yee

© Chan Joon Yee

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