Despite his well-recognized achievements in politics, military affairs, and poetry, Cao Cao (155–220) has always been a controversial figure in Chinese history. Scorned by some as an unscrupulous usurper, yet admired by others as a legendary hero, Cao Cao has won the praise of most modern historians for his accomplishments.
Born in present-day Bozhou, Anhui province, Cao Cao, a gifted strategist, has been noted for his rigorous military discipline. After his early participation in suppressing the Yellow Turban Rebellion, Cao Cao strengthened his military forces through a punitive expedition against Dong Zhuo (d. 192). In 196, Cao Cao received the fugitive Emperor Xian (r. 189–220) of the Eastern Han (25–220) and then moved the capital to Xuchang, in modern Henan province, where he became prime minister. Instead of serving the declining Han dynasty, Cao Cao made the emperor a puppet with which to manipulate the feudal lords. After pacifying restless elements in the north, Cao Cao conferred the role of prime minister on his son Cao Pi (187–226), while he himself took the title “Duke of Wei,” and later “King of Wei.”
Cao Cao had many accomplishments in governance. He implemented the tuntian system in the new imperial capital Xuchang where vast areas of land, war-stricken and forsaken, were barren. The civilian tuntian required a 50–60% rent from fifty-person groups in a multi-level self-management structure. The military tuntian had a similar pattern comprised of soldiers. The tuntian system brought in an abundant harvest and was soon introduced to other regions. The land reform not only provided Cao Cao with sufficient provisions for his victorious northern campaigns, but also served as a model for later generations.
Selection of officials in the Eastern Han was based on recommendation limited to those with provincial credentials. This resulted in corruption and the formation of cliques. In view of this, Cao Cao initiated appointments based on military and administrative capabilities, regardless of the background and character of the candidates. A great number of talented people emerged and rendered their service in Cao’s pursuit of political supremacy.
An outstanding military strategist, Cao Cao formulated strict military regimen and carried out rewards and punishments expediently. He was also a renowned scholar who through his political status gathered numerous scholars together in a literary salon. The last years of Emperor Xian’s twenty-five-year reign were called Jian’an (196–220). The literature written during the four or five decades around this period is referred to as Jian’an literature and constitutes a significant school in Chinese literary history. Cao Cao introduced new literary styles in his works. His poetry, imbued with naturalness and simplicity, inspired Tang poets such as Bai Juyi (772–846) and Du Fu (712–770), while his refined and concise prose is the quintessence of Jian’an literature and has exerted lasting influence on later prose writing.
Cao Cao, together with his two sons Cao Pi and Cao Zhi (192–232), are collectively referred to as the “Three Caos.”