The Chinese classic 孙子兵法 is a compendium of military strategies with contributions from Sun Wu 孙武 and other generals from the period of the Warring States. One of the most quoted maxims, is the statement that victory in battle depends on timing, terrain, human factors 天时，地利，人和. Technology also played a role, but obviously not as much as it does today.
The renowned ruthless despot of the Three Kingdoms Cao Cao 曹操 was a big fan of 孙子兵法. After occupying Xuchang 许昌 and successfully building an army there, Cao Cao hosted the Emperor and started issuing orders in the Emperor’s name. Once a nobody, Cao Cao meteoric rise boosted his confidence in reaching greater heights. The filial Cao Cao then decided that it was time to bring his father 曹嵩 Cao Song from the politically unstable city of Lang Xie into the city of Xudu 许都 – Cao Cao’s administrative centre.
En route to Xudu, Cao Song passed through 徐州 Xuzhou Prefecture, then governed by Tao Qian 陶谦. It’s widely believed that Cao Song made his journey to Xudu a grand affair. He was said to have more than a hundred carts loaded with valuables, playing loud music as he proudly made his way to Xudu. As he passed through bandit-infested regions in Xuzhou, the inevitable happened. He was robbed. Cao Song fought desperately to protect his possessions and got himself killed.
When word of Cao Song’s death reached Cao Cao, he was devastated. The ruthless despot got his army to dress in white to mourn his father’s death. He wrote poems to express his sorrow and anger. He shed buckets of tears when he addressed his officers. In 193 AD, Cao Cao mobilised his mourning army to invade Xuzhou. His men were in a sombre mood, all bent on revenge to assuage their distraught leader’s anguish. On the battlefield, he astutely stoked the soldiers’ burning emotions, making them feel ruthlessly righteous about the slaughter. And so Cao Cao’s army razed through Xuzhou, sparing no one; not even the chickens and dogs. Their white mourning gear became stained with the blood of Xuzhou.
If Cao Cao had simply ordered his men to invade without the cause for revenge, they would never have fought so fiercely. This is the human factor or cause mentioned in 孙子兵法. It should not surprise us that Cao Cao had every intention to invade Xuzhou long before his father was killed. In fact, within Tao Qian’s jurisdiction, a man by the name of Que Xuan 闕宣 had audaciously declared himself emperor. With the Emperor by his side, Cao Cao could have invaded there and then, but Tao Qian eventually absorbed Que Xuan’s forces and put an end to the rebellion. Cao Cao needed a better excuse to invade Xuzhou and his father’s death, attributable to the people of Xuzhou, suited his military campaign perfectly.
Fortunately for Xuzhou, Liu Bei came to Tao Qian’s rescue, but that wouldn’t have helped had it not been for the opportunistic Lu Bu who invaded Yanzhou during Cao Cao’s absence, forcing Cao Cao to retreat to guard his threatened territory. After the death of Tao Qian, Cao Cao’s battle for Xuzhou lost a great deal of legitimacy. He had a much harder time fighting Lu Bu and Liu Bei. The rest of the story can be read here.
It is interesting to note that Cao Song was a businessman and he was not directly connected with any of the territorial disputes during the turbulent period of the Three Kingdoms. Nevertheless, he (or his death) was the banner displayed for several bloody conflicts. I wonder how Cao Song would have felt if he had known how his death had been exploited by his own son. But can you blame Cao Cao? He was a politician in a lawless and turbulent age. He needed every excuse he could find to expand his territories or risk being eaten alive. Perhaps only his sister would have cared about how their late father would have felt.
© Chan Joon Yee