Cao Cao was born in the county of Qiao in 155. His father Cao Song was a foster son of Cao Teng, who in turn was one of the favorite eunuchs of . Some historical records, including ''Biography of Cao Man'', claim that Cao Song was originally surnamed Xiahou . In the fictionalized ''Romance of the Three Kingdoms'', Cao Cao's father was originally a Xiahou and was adopted into the Cao family.
Cao Cao was known for his craftiness as a young man. According to the ''Biography of Cao Man'', Cao Cao's uncle often complained to Cao Song regarding Cao Cao's childhood indulgence in hunting and music with Yuan Shao. 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 then acted normally. 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 named Xu Shao who was famed for his ability to evaluate one's potentials and talents. Cao Cao paid him a visit in hopes of receiving the evaluation that will earn him some reputation politically. Originally Xu Shao pondered and 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 took this as a compliment and was very pleased as it was recorded that he "laughs and leaves" after receiving said comment. It is worth noting that there are two other versions of the comment in other unofficial historical records: "capable minister in peaceful times, righteous hero in chaotic times" and "sinister foe in peaceful times, great hero in chaotic times."
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, one of the most powerful and influential eunuchs under , was once caught walking in the city beyond the evening curfew hour by Cao Cao and given his fair share of flogging. This prompted Jian Shuo and other higher authorities to "promote" Cao Cao to another position outside the imperial capital to remove his management.
When the Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out in 184 Cao Cao was recalled to Luoyang and promoted to a captain of the cavalry and sent to 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 , to lead his army into the capital Luoyang to lay pressure on the empress dowager, despite numerous objections on account of Dong Zhuo's reputation and personality. Before Dong Zhuo arrived, however, He Jin was assassinated by the eunuchs and Luoyang fell into chaos as the supporters of Yuan Shao battled the army of Eunuchs. Dong Zhuo's elite army, assigned to him due to the importance of his position as safeguard of the border, easily rid the palace grounds of opposition and deposed the emperor and placed in the throne the puppet . While Dong Zhuo did desire personal power with this opportunity, he did want to restore the Han Dynasty and resolve the political conflicts. From a previous encounter, he deemed that Emperor Xian was more capable than the original puppet Emperor.
After lying to Wang Yun and others about assassinating Dong Zhuo, Cao Cao left Luoyang for Chenliu , 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. China fell into civil war when Dong Zhuo's own foster son, Lü Bu, eventually killed him in 192.
Securing the emperor
Through short-term and regional-scale wars, Cao Cao continued to expand his power.
In 196, Cao Cao found Emperor Xian and convinced him to move the capital to Xuchang as per the suggestion from Xun Yu and other advisors , and he was proclaimed Chancellor. Cao Cao was then instated as the Great General and Marquis of Wuping , though both titles had little practical implication. While some viewed the Emperor as a puppet under Cao Cao's power, Cao Cao himself adhered to a strict personal rule to his death that he would not usurp the throne. Later in his life, when he was approached by his advisors to take over the Han Dynasty and start a new rule, he replied, "If heaven bestows such fate on me, let me be the 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 Shao named Chief Advisor . This however had the exact opposite effect, as Yuan Shao believed that Cao Cao was trying to humiliate him after having the Emperor's support, since Chief Advisor technically ranked lower than General-in-Chief, and thus Yuan Shao refused to accept the title. To pacify Yuan Shao, Cao Cao offered his own position, General-in-Chief, to Yuan Shao, while taking Chief Advisor role himself. While this temporarily resolved the conflict, it was nevertheless the catalyst for the Battle of Guandu later.
Uniting the North
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 , a strategic point on the shore of the Yellow River. The two armies come 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 the pride of Yuan Shao forced him to target Cao Cao's force head-on. Despite Yuan Shao's overwhelming advantage in terms of manpower, Cao Cao's location and his own indecisive leadership made him unable to make full use of his resources.
Besides the middle battleground of Guandu, two lines of battle were present. The eastern line with Yuan Tan of Yuan Shao's army versus Xang Ba of Cao Cao's army was a one-sided battle in favor of Cao Cao, as Yuan Tan's own questionable leadership was no match for Xang Ba's local knowledge of the landscape and hit-and-run tactics. To the western side, Yuan Shao's cousin, Gao Gan, performed much better against Cao Cao's army and forced several reinforcements from Cao Cao's main camp to maintain the western battle. Liu Bei, who was at the time a guest in Yuan Shao's army, also suggested to induce uprising in the back of Cao Cao's lands as there were many connections to the Yuan family and their subordinates. The tactic was successful at first, but quickly countered by Man Chong's diplomatic skill. Man Chong had been placed as an official there for this specific reason, as Cao Cao had foreseen the situation prior to the battle.
Finally, with the help of a defector from Yuan Shao's army, Xu You, who informed Cao Cao of the location of Yuan Shao's army supply, Cao Cao broke the standstill and sent a special task force to burn all the supplies of Yuan Shao's army and 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 . 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 into northern Korea, and southward to the Han River.
However, Cao Cao's attempt to extend his domination south of the Yangtze River was unsuccessful. He received an initial great success when Liu Biao, ruler of Jing Zhou, died, and his successor, Liu Zong surrendered to Cao Cao without resistance. Delighted by this turn-out he pressed on and hoped the same would happen despite the objections by his military advisors. His forces were then defeated by the first coalition of his archrivals Liu Bei and Sun Quan at the in 208.
The three kingdoms
In 213, Cao Cao was titled Duke of Wei , given the nine bestowments and given a fief of ten cities under his domain, known as the State of Wei. In 216, Cao Cao was promoted to Prince/King of Wei . 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 died in Luoyang at the age of 65, failing to unify China under his rule. His will instructed that he be buried in everyday clothes and without burial artifacts, 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".
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 .
Battle of Guandu
In the spring of 200, Yuan Shao , the most powerful warlord of the north, amassed more than 100,000 troops and marched from on Xuchang. To defend against the invasion, Cao Cao placed 20,000 men at Guandu , 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 launched a stealth attack on the former's food store, Wuchao. 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 light cavalry.
The Battle of Guandu shifted the balance of power in northern China. Yuan Shao died shortly after his retreat and his two sons were soon defeated by Cao Cao further in the northern regions of Liaodong . Since then, 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.
Battle of Red Cliffs
The Battle of Chibi was another classic battle where the vastly outnumbered emerged as victor through strategy. 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 and respectively – formed their first coalition against the southward expansion of Cao Cao. The two sides confronted at the Red Cliffs . Cao Cao boasted 830,000 men , 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 Zhou Yu, military advisor to Sun Quan, 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.
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 .
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'' .
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:
Escape from Dong Zhuo
While in reality Cao Cao did leave Dong Zhuo , the tyrannical warlord who held the 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 and placed in the throne , 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. Lü 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 unsheathe the sword. However, Dong Zhuo saw the movement in the mirror and hastily turned to question Cao Cao's intention. At this time, Lü 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.
Following the escape from Dong Zhuo is a legendary episode aimed at illustrating Cao Cao's near-Machiavellian tendencies for later characterizations of him as a villain. Though never exactly proven, it is said that Cao Cao escaped with one retainer, Chen Gong to the home of an old friend of his, perhaps his father's sworn brother, from whom he was able to beg shelter. He promised to protect him, and then set out to gather materials for an evening feast. Cao Cao and Chen Gong hid themselves in a back room, where they chanced to overhear a discussion by some servants involving some sort of murder plot. Assuming that his father's sworn brother had deceived him and intended to hand his corpse to Dong Zhuo for a reward, Cao Cao and Chen Gong burst in on the servants and proceeded to massacre the entire household, including the wife and children of his friend, whereupon he discovered that the "murder" he overheard pertained not to him, but to a pig intended as the centerpiece of the feast.
Cao Cao and Chen Gong immediately fled but encountered his father's sworn brother returning from his errand at the house's front gate. When questioned, Cao Cao gave him the excuse of fear of having been followed as the reason for his abrupt departure, and when he turned to continue toward the house, Cao Cao again unsheathed his sword and stabbed him through the back. When questioned by Chen Gong as to the reason for such a horrible action, Cao Cao explained that if he had returned to the house and see what had been done, he would have immediately run to the authorities desiring vengeance for his family, and their plight would be even more precarious than it already was. Cao Cao then lifted high his bloody sword and made the quote that would forever secure his place as the foremost villain in Chinese popular literature: ''Ningjiao wo fu tianxia ren, xiujiao tianxia ren fu wo'' , meaning "Better that I should wrong the world than that the world should wrong me."
Escape through Huarong Trail
After the fire started burning at the , 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 to Guan Yu to 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.
However, in the official history, Cao Cao escaped through a muddy road, with a lot of shrubs around. Shortly after he escaped, Liu Bei's troops then came to the road and set fire to it. Cao Cao therefore teased him as "clever, but a little slow".
Tu Mu alludes to the remarkable story of Cao Cao stating that he was such a strict disciplinarian that once, in accordance with his own severe regulations against injury to standing crops, he condemned himself to death for having allowed his horse to stray into a field of corn. However, in lieu of losing his head, he was persuaded to satisfy his sense of justice by cutting off his hair. "When you lay down a law, see that it is not disobeyed; if it is disobeyed, the offender must be put to death."
Death of Cao Cao and Hua Tuo
In 220, Cao Cao died 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.
However, due to an earlier incident with another physician who attempted to take Cao Cao's life, Cao Cao grew very suspicious of any physician, as Cao Cao was the target of many plots against his life, including one by Dong Cheng, a relative of the Emperor. Cao Cao believed Hua Tuo intended to kill him to avenge the death of Guan Yu. 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. Some believe to be the doings of a curse.
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.
As the ''Romance of the Three Kingdoms'' has been adapted to modern forms of entertainment, so has its portrayal of Cao Cao. Given the source material these adaptations are founded on, Cao Cao continues to be characterised as a prominent villain.
Through to modern times, the equivalent of the idiom "speak of the Devil" is "說曹操，曹操到" , which means "Speak of Cao Cao and Cao Cao arrives."
Video games have had a powerful impact on modern perception of Cao Cao as an individual, politician and warlord, providing many outside of Asia with their first introduction to Cao Cao and his milieu. In particular, video game developer Koei has capitalised on Three Kingdoms-related media, having produced many titles prominently featuring Cao Cao.
Two of Koei's most popular releases featuring Cao Cao are the '''' strategy series and the best selling ''Dynasty Warriors'' tactical-action series. ''Warriors Orochi'', a spin-off title based within the ''Dynasty Warriors'' and ''Samurai Warriors'' universes, also features Cao Cao. In it, Wei believes he is dead, until he is later discovered only to join the coalition army led by Cao Pi. He is also the main villain in the game Kessen 2, but later in the game, he turns out good.
Singaporean pop musician JJ Lin released an album entitled '''' in 2006. The speaks of Cao Cao's life.
Cao Cao was played by Zhang Fengyi in the 2008 movie ''Red Cliff'', directed by John Woo.
The Cao clan
Direct male descendants
With Princess Bian
*Cao Pi ?
With Lady Liu
With Lady Huan
With Lady Du
With Lady Qin
With Lady Yin
With other consorts
*Cao Ren Younger cousin
*Cao Chun Younger cousin
**Cao Hong Younger cousin
**Cao Xiu Distant nephew
**Cao Zhen Distant nephew
*Xiahou Dun cousin
*Cao Ai Distant nephew
**Cao Anmin Nephew
*Xiahou Yuan cousin