By Kenyon Stronski
Throughout all of history, there have been many larger-than-life figures that, as a contemporary society, we look at as myths or tall tales, yet their names are ever recognizable.
In Ancient Greece recounts, there are Trojan War heroes such as Achilles or Agamemnon who are present in Homer’s Iliad. Later on, you had Alexander the Great, the Macedonian who conquered Persia which was seen at the time to be an unshakeable empire.
Then there are the legendary figures of Ancient China — of who we will be focusing on one of the most famous statesmen and warlords of Chinese history, Cao Cao.
We’ll be focusing on the times leading up to the Three Kingdoms Period, which ran from 220 AD to 280 AD, and recounts the split of China into Cao Wei, Shu Han and Eastern Wu.
Cao Cao began cutting his teeth at the early age of 20 when he was appointed as a district captain in Luoyang which was China’s capital during the period. Now, Cao Cao wasn’t a particularly nice man and after one of the most influential eunuchs of the time was flogged due to a decree Cao Cao had mandated — he was moved out of the capital and placed into a different role before eventually being dismissed.
The Yellow Turban Rebellion then broke out in 184 AD, and Cao Cao was called back to the capital to become the Captain of the Calvary to suppress the rebellion. He was successful and was appointed as a Chancellor in a separate commandery to quell further resistance. It is recounted that he was incredibly ruthless in quelling any rebellion. This led to him offending the ruling families of the commandery — and eventually, he resigned by citing poor health.
The seeds of the Three Kingdoms Period begin to sow in 189 AD when Emperor Ling died and was succeeded by his eldest son — who was still quite young at the age of 13. This begins a motif that is evident in a large amount of fallen Chinese Dynasties, as the new Emperor Shao was easily influenced by different parties within the capital. Long story short, a plot was begun and ruthless and esteemed general Dong Zhou was called to the capital to help — who deserves his own column.
Upon Dong Zhou’s arrival, much of the plot was already uprooted and Luoyang was in absolute chaos. Dong Zhou rid Luoyang of any who opposed him and then appointed the even younger Emperor Xian as a puppet — who was only eight.
Cao Cao was offered an appointment by Dong Zhou, however, he denied it and went to his hometown where he raised an army and entered a military coalition with other warlords against Dong Zhou. The warlords were able to defeat Dong Zhou, but he fled, abducting the young emperor along with him.
Cao Cao then began drawing the lines of a new province alongside his father, Cao Song, and others a part of their coalition. The following years are some of the bloodiest in Chinese history.
Cao Song was killed in 193 AD by the governor of an opposing province, and in a fit of rage Cao Cao led two warbands into the province in both 193 AD and 194 AD where he would put thousands of civilians to the sword. However, this left the door open for others to attack, and another legendary warrior entered the field to put the people of Cao Cao’s province to the sword.
Lu Bu, the general leading the troops into the province, is said to be one of the fiercest, most decorated, and deadliest warlords of the era— his reputation causing many of Cao Cao’s men to surrender without a fight. Cao Cao would later return, which would lead to him and Lu Bu crossing swords a multitude of times in 194 AD and 195 AD where Cao Cao would win nearly every battle, eventually hammering the nail of Lu Bu’s army when he hid troops in the trees in an excellent ambush.
Lu Bu and Cao Cao would meet again in 199 AD when Cao Cao would move to conquer both the Xu and Yu provinces. Once again, Cao Cao proved to be the superior tactician which would lead to Lu Bu surrendering to Cao Cao — who had him summarily executed.
During the years leading up to the Three Kingdoms Period, Cao Cao had proven time and time again to be one of the most effective generals on the battlefield.
In modern-day society, Cao Cao is usually the villain when it comes to art — and there even is a Chinese expression that mostly translates to ‘speak of the devil.’ While he may be my favourite warlord of the time, once again, Cao Cao was ruthlessly cunning and was the protagonist in many other warlords’ stories. It is said that he was extremely influenced by the late Sun Tzu and through his time, he defeated many of his greatest rivals and is said to be one of the greatest generals by the end of the Han dynasty in 220 AD and I believe that’s where my fascination comes from.