Saturday, September 20, 2008

Cao Zhi

Cao Zhi was a poet during the late Eastern Han Dynasty and Three Kingdoms period. His poetry style, greatly revered during the and Southern and Northern Dynasties, came to be known as the ''jian'an'' style.

Cao Zhi was also the son of the powerful warlord Cao Cao. Together with his elder brother Cao Pi, they were the strongest contestants for their father's position. Cao Pi eventually succeeded Cao Cao in 220 and within a year declared himself the first emperor of the Kingdom of Wei. Like many powerful families, tension among brothers was high. In his later life, Cao Zhi was not allowed to meddle in politics, despite his many petitions to seek office.


Born in 192, Cao Zhi was the third son of the powerful warlord Cao Cao and . According to the '''', Cao Zhi could recite the ''Shi Jing'', ''Analects'' and more than ten thousand verses worth of poems before he even turned twenty. His literary talent made him a favorite son of Cao Cao in the early stage of his life.

However, Cao Zhi was an impetuous man with little self-discipline. He was also a heavy drinker. On the other hand, his elder brother Cao Pi was a shrewd man who knew how to feign emotions at the right times. Cao Pi also enjoyed a much closer relationship to the servants and subjects around Cao Cao, and they spoke well of him. In 217, Cao Cao eventually picked Cao Pi to succeed himself. This further aggravated Cao Zhi's already eccentric behavior. He once rode his chariot along the road reserved for the emperor and through the front gate of the palace. This infuriated his father, who sentenced the chariot driver to death.

Having chosen a successor, Cao Cao took measures to emasculate other contestants. He did this by executing , a chief advisor to Cao Zhi. This greatly unsettled Cao Zhi, but failed to jolt him back to his senses. On the contrary, he sank further into his drunken habits. In 219, Cao Cao's cousin and leading general Cao Ren was besieged at the fortress at Fancheng by the Shu general, Guan Yu. Cao Cao named Cao Zhi to lead a relief force to the rescue, in the hope that the task would instill into the latter a sense of responsibility. However, Cao Zhi was so drunk that he could not come forth to take the order. Cao Cao then gave up on this son.

Within months, Cao Cao died. One of the first things Cao Pi did was to do away with Ding Yi and , two firm supporters of Cao Zhi. He also sent Cao Zhi, along with the other brothers, away from the capital and prohibited them from taking part in central political issues.

Prospects for Cao Zhi did not improve after Cao Pi died in 226. He wrote to the second Wei emperor Cao Rui many times, seeking a position to apply his talents. In 232, he even sought a private meeting with Cao Rui to discuss politics. However, Cao Rui probably still considered him a threat to the throne and declined all the offers. Severely depressed by the setbacks, Cao Zhi soon died of illness, leaving behind instructions for a simple burial.


Despite his failure in politics, Cao Zhi was hailed as one of the representatives of the poetic style of his time, together with his father Cao Cao, his elder brother Cao Pi and several other poets. 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, while lament over the ephemerality of life was also a central theme of works from this period. In terms of the history of Chinese literature, the ''jian'an'' poems were a transition from the early folksongs into scholarly poetry.

Although ''jian'an'' refers to the time between 196 and 220, Cao Zhi's poems could in fact be categorized into two periods, with the year 220 as the watershed. The earlier period consisted of poems that expressed his ambitions. These poems were optimistic and romantic in nature. On the other hand, his setbacks in political pursuits after the death of his father in 220 gave rise to the grievous tone of his later works.

More than ninety poems by Cao Zhi remain today, more than sixty of which are five-character poems . These are held in high esteem for their significant influence over the development of five-character poetry in later ages. The most complete collection of Cao Zhi's poems and other literary works is ''Chen Si Wang Ji'' , compiled during the Ming Dynasty. One of Cao Zhi's most celebrated poems is ''On the White Horse''. Written in the early years of his life, the poem portrayed a young warrior who answered fearlessly to the need of his country and reflected Cao Zhi's own aspiration to contribute to his times.

On the White Horse


A white horse, in a halter of gold,

Galloping swiftly to the northwest.


Ask which family's son is the rider –

A noble knight, who hails from You and Bing.


He left his home in early youth, and now,

His name is known throughout the deserts.


Morning and evening he clutches his bow;

How many arrows hang at his side!


He pulls his bow -- the left-hand target is pierced,

He shoots at the right and cuts it through.


Upwards his arrows seek the flying monkeys,

Downward they destroy another object.


His dexterity surpasses that of monkeys,

His courage that of leopard or dragon.


Alarms are heard from the frontier!

Northern tribesmen pour into the country in their thousands.


Letters are sent from the north, and

Reining his horse he clambers up the hill.


He charges Hun soldiers to the right;

Looking left he assaults the Xianbei.


He's staked himself on the edge of his sword;

How can he treasure his life?


Even his father and mother he puts at the back of his mind,

Let alone his children and wife.


If his name is to enter the roll of the heroes,

He can't be concerned about personal matters.


Giving up his life for the sake of his country,

He looks toward death as a journey home...


''Translation by Wu Fusheng and Gradham Hartill''

Ironically, Cao Zhi's most famous poem was found in the historical novel ''Romance of the Three Kingdoms'' by Luo Guanzhong. Often mistitled ''The Quatrain of Seven Steps'' after a real poem by Cao Zhi, it was presented without a title but with slight variations in the novel. Furthermore, Cao Zhi was said to have formulated the poem without having to think twice.

Cao Zhi 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 before and during the Three Kingdoms period. Exploiting the complicated relationship among the Cao Cao's sons, especially Cao Pi and Cao Zhi, Luo Guanzhong was able to create a palace scenario where the elder brother, having succeeded his father, tried to do away with his younger brother.

After the death of Cao Cao, Cao Zhi failed to turn up for the funeral. Men sent by Cao Pi found Cao Zhi drunk in his own house. Cao Zhi was then bound and brought to Cao Pi. When Empress Bian, their common birth mother, heard of this, she went to Cao Pi and pleaded for the life of her younger son. Cao Pi agreed.

However, Cao Pi's Chief Secretary Hua Xin then convinced him to put Cao Zhi's literary talent to a test. If Cao Zhi failed the test, it would be excuse enough to put him to death, Hua Xin suggested.

Cao Pi agreed and held audience with Cao Zhi, who in great trepidation bowed low and confessed his faults. On the wall there was a painting of two oxen fighting, one of which was falling into a well. Cao Pi told his brother to make a poem based on the painting after walking seven paces. However, the poem was not to contain explicit reference to the subjects of the drawing.

Cao Zhi took seven paces as instructed, and the poem was already formulated in his heart. He then recited:

Two butcher's victims lowing walked along,

Each head bore cuving bones, a sturdy pair.


They met just by a hillock, both were strong,

Each would avoid a pit newly-dug there.


They fought unequal battle, for at length

One lay below a gory mess, inert.


'Twas not that they were of unequal strength –

Though wrathful both, one did not strength exert.


''Translation by C. H. Brewitt-Taylor''

However, Cao Pi was not satisfied. He then bade Cao Zhi make another poem on the spot based on their fraternal relationship, without using the word "brother". Not taking a second to think, Cao Zhi recited:

They were boiling beans on a beanstalk fire,

Came a plaintive voice from the pot.


"O why, since we sprang from the selfsame root,

Should you kill me with anger hot?"


''Translation by C. H. Brewitt-Taylor''

Having heard this, Cao Pi was moved to tears. He then let his brother go after merely degrading the peerage of the latter as a punishment.

The Cao clan

:''For a complete list, see Cao Cao.''

Direct descendant

*Cao Zhi

Immediate family

*Cao Cao
**Cao Ang
**Cao Pi
***Cao Rui
****Cao Fang
*****Cao Mao
******Cao Huan
**Cao Zhang
**Cao Xiong
**Cao Chong

Extended family

*Cao Ren
*Cao Chun
*Cao Xiu
*Cao Zhen
**Cao Shuang

Modern references

In the 2002 TVB produced serial, Where the Legend Begins 洛神, Cao Zhi is portrayed as the protagonist and shown to be a man of high intelligence and compassion. Hong Kong actor Steven Ma acted out the role of Cao Zhi in the series.

1 comment:

Murasaki Shikibu said...

I find Cao Zhi's poetry truly touching. I unfortunately can't appreciate the beauty of his phonetics, but can appreciate his choice of characters and how he uses them.