General History of Cao Cao

Cao Cao (AD 155 – 220) is the founder of the “Wei” empire, one of the 3 kingdoms in the turbulent and chaotic three kingdoms period. Cao Cao was born in an influential family. His father, Cao Song held ministerial appointments in the imperial court and was also the adopted son to Cao Teng, one of the trusted eunuchs to the Emperor Huan.

When Cao Cao was a teenager, he was seen by Xu Shao, a famous appraiser who was well known for his ability to evaluate the potential of a person. Cao Cao was told by Xu Shao that he would be “an accomplished minister in a time of peace or an unscrupulous hero in a time of chaos”.

In AD 184, Cao Cao was appointed as a Captain to lead the imperial troops to battle against the “Yellow Turban Rebellion”. He demonstrated a glimpse of his military potential and successfully suppressed the rebellions. He subsequently took on several imperial appointments and was bought to fame for his military and administration capability.

By AD 189, chaos broke out in the imperial capital after the death of Emperor Ling. In an attempt to seize control of power and ruling over the imperial court, a group of powerful eunuchs, known as the “ten attendants” murdered the then imperial General-in-Chief He Jin, who was also the brother-in-law of the late emperor. Dong Zhuo, a powerful and notorious warlord then made use of the opportunity to seize control of the imperial capital and began to tyrannize the whole imperial court and the nation.

Cao Cao began to raise his own army to join in a coalition of regional officers and state governors to campaign against Dong Zhuo. The coalition subsequently ceased to an end due to internal conflict and differing political agendas of the military leaders.

Cao Cao began to conquer his neighboring foes and expanded his territory. He displayed astute military capabilities and his magnanimous attitude towards his retainers and a thirst for talents attracted many good officers to join him. By AD 200, Cao Cao conquered the whole of northern China and administered many effective agricultural, educational, fiscal and governance policies which helped to establish the foundation of the “Wei” empire for future unification of the land.

In AD 208, Cao Cao suffered a major defeat in the “Battle of Chi Bi” as he took his campaign further to southern China. The battle also set up the premise for the division of power between the three kingdoms. In AD 216, Cao Cao was awarded the title vassal king of “Wei”. He then passed away due to illness in AD 220 at the age of 65.

The Three Kingdoms of China - Cao Cao

Portrait of Cao Cao in a Qing dynasty edition “Romance of the three kingdoms”

Cao Cao as a Leader

To a large extent, Cao Cao’s rise in power was due to his leadership and charisma. In the early day of his conquest, he placed heavy emphasis in attracting talents. According to the “Record of the Three Kingdoms”, when Cao Cao raised his own army, his friend Yuan Shao (who he subsequently defeated in “Battle of Guan Du”) asked him for a place to commence their military campaign. Yuan Shao himself opined that He Bei, which is by the side of the Yellow River would be a good strategic location to begin with. Instead, Cao Cao replied that he will commence with scouting and finding the right talents -- with the talent of his officers and his trust in them, he would be able to start from anywhere. There are several well-known records that portray Cao Cao’s charisma and magnanimous in leading his retainers.

In the battle of Guan Du, Cao Cao with his heavily outnumbered forces faced an uphill battle against his longtime friend, Yuan Shao. The battle dragged on for months before Cao Cao miraculously and unexpectedly defeated Yuan Shao. After Yuan Shao escaped, Cao Cao’s men found many letters from his own officers in Yuan Shao’s camp. Without even looking at the names of the senders, Cao Cao ordered his men to burn all of these letters and said that he himself is also uncertain of the outcome of the battle and therefore he will not blame these officers for keeping their alternatives open.

In another incident, Cao Cao ordered a campaign against the northern tribes. Several of his officers advised against the campaign out of military and strategic consideration. Cao Cao refused to heed and proceeded on with a difficult campaign against the northern tribes. After defeating the northern tribes, Cao Cao asked for the names of those officers that have advised against the campaign. Many of these officers were worried but to their surprise, Cao Cao rewarded them handsomely instead. He commented that he was lucky to have won the campaign and on hind sight, he should have not probably proceeded. He then encouraged his officers to speak out against him to provide more alternative views.

Cao Cao’s other accomplishments

Cao Cao was also known to be a capable military strategist and leader. In his earlier days, he personally led troops in battles and suffered many injuries as a result. He won many of his battles through his superior military strategies and ground decisiveness. In one of the records, Cao Cao and his troops were ambushed by the enemy and while many of his officers and soldiers were shocked by the sudden appearance of enemies and showed indications of fleeing. Cao Cao observed that the enemies were disorganized in the ambush and immediately organized his troops to fight, subsequently defeating the enemies.

Besides his accomplishment in military conquests, Cao Cao was also well known as a poet and calligrapher. He has written several famous poems that have passed down till today.

Criticisms of Cao Cao

Apart from “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” where he plays an antagonistic role in the novel and is portrayed to be a sly and villainous tyrant, Cao Cao has also received criticisms based on historical record. When Cao Cao’s father Cao Song was murdered in the province of Xu, he immediately commenced on an invasion to the province and massacred all civilians in cities he occupied. More than one hundred thousand civilians were killed in the invasion.

Another criticism of Cao Cao was his control of the then “Han” emperor, Emperor Xian whom he used as a puppet to expand his power, and his loyalty (or lack thereof) to the “Han” dynasty. At that time, Cao Cao effectively controlled the whole of imperial court and therefore when he was subsequently promoted to the vassal King of “Wei”, it was seen as a sign of insubordination because the position of vassal king was traditionally granted only to members of the royal family. He was also given many privileges (most likely by himself) in the imperial court such as having a privilege to carry weapon and no need for prior appointment when seeing Emperor Xian.

Cao Cao in Popular Media

Most of the popular media used materials and events from the novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and thus often portray Cao Cao as a sly and villainous traitor of the “Han” dynasty. His capability is however, widely acknowledged.

In the video game series “Romance Of The Three Kingdoms”, Cao Cao often commands one of the highest combined stats with a very high score in leadership, intelligence and politics and a relatively high score in the war stat.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms - Cao Cao

A screenshot of Cao Cao’s stats in ROTK 12, where he has a stats of 99 for leadership, 72 for war, 91 for intelligence and 94 for politic.

In the video game “Dynasty warriors” series, Cao Cao is portrayed as an ambitious leader out to rule the world with his many loyal subordinates.

In other popular media such as television dramas and movies such as “Battle of Red Cliffs” which are based on the novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, he is often portrayed less favorably and seen a villain.


Cao Cao is one of the most influential characters in the three kingdom period and has significantly contributed to the unification of ancient China. While he is often criticized for ordering his troops to brutally massacre hundreds of thousands of civilians, his unification of northern China in his early day has brought peace to the people there in a turbulent era.

His management and charisma in leading his people still holds many valuable lessons for people today.

Three Kingdoms (Library of Chinese Classics: Chinese-English, 5 Volume Set) (Chinese and English Edition)
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A translation of the "Romance of Three Kingdoms" in English.