Beautiful painting of Cao Cao by Ishgsk
Statue of Cao Cao
Mask of Cao Cao, Qing Dynasty, produced at Anshun, Guizhou; photoed by Mountain, at Shanghai Museum
Cao Cao (155 – March 15, 220) was a warlord and the penultimate chancellor of the Eastern Han Dynasty who rose to great power during the dynasty's final years. As one of the central figures of the Three Kingdoms period, he laid the foundations for what was to become the state of Cao Wei and was posthumously titled Emperor Wu of Wei. Although often portrayed as a cruel and merciless tyrant, Cao Cao has also been praised as a brilliant ruler and military genius who treated his subordinates like his family. He was also skilled in poetry and martial arts and wrote many war journals.
Cao was born in the county of Qiao (present day Bozhou, Anhui) in 155. His father Cao Song was a foster son of Cao Teng, who in turn was one of the favorite eunuchs of Emperor Huan. Some historical records, including the Biography of Cao Man, claim that Cao Song's original family name was Xiahou.
Cao was known for his craftiness as an adolescent. According to the Biography of Cao Man, Cao's uncle complained to Cao Song about Cao Cao's indulgence in hunting and music with Yuan Shao. In retaliation, Cao Cao feigned a fit before his uncle, who immediately rushed to inform Cao Song. When Cao Song went to see his son, Cao Cao behaved normally. When asked, Cao Cao replied, "I have never had a fit, but I lost the love of my uncle, and therefore he deceived you." Afterwards, Cao Song ceased to believe his brother regarding Cao Cao, and thus Cao Cao became even more blatant and perseverant in his wayward pursuits.
At that time, a man living in Runan named Xu Shao was famed for his ability to evaluate one's potentials and talents. Cao paid him a visit in hopes of receiving an evaluation that would help him politically. At first, Xu 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 laughed and left. It is worth noting that there are two other versions of the comment in other unofficial historical records: "capable minister in peaceful times, unrighteous hero in chaotic times" and "sinister foe in peaceful times, great hero in chaotic times."
At the age of 20, Cao was appointed district captain of Luoyang. Upon taking up the post, Cao placed rows of multicolored stakes 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 Emperor Ling, was caught walking in the city after the evening curfew by Cao's men and was flogged. This prompted Jian Shuo and other higher authorities to "promote" Cao to a position outside the imperial capital, governor of Dunqiu County. Cao remained in this position for little more than a year, being dismissed from office in 178 for his distant family ties with the disgraced Empress Song. Around 180, Cao Cao returned to court as a Consultant and presented two memoranda against the eunuchs' influence in court and government corruption during his tenure, to limited effect.
When the Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out in 184, Cao was recalled to Luoyang and appointed "Captain of the Cavalry" and sent to Yingchuan to suppress the rebels. He was successful and was sent to Ji'nan as Chancellor to prevent the spread of Yellow Turban influence there. In Ji'nan, Cao Cao aggressively enforced the ban on unorthodox cults, destroyed shrines, and supported state Confucianism. He offended the local leading families in the process, and resigned on grounds of poor health around 187, fearing that he had put his family in danger. He was offered the post of Administrator of Dong Commandery, but he declined and returned to his home in Pei county. Around that time, Wang Fen tried to recruit Cao Cao to join his coup to replace Emperor Ling with the Marquis of Hefei, but Cao Cao refused. The plot came to nothing, and Wang Fen killed himself.
After eighteen months in retirement, Cao Cao returned to the imperial capital in 188. That year, he was appointed Colonel Who Arranges the Army, fourth of eight heads of a newly established imperial army, the corps of the Western Garden. The effectiveness of this new force never became known, since it was disbanded the next year.
In 189, Emperor Ling died and was succeeded by his eldest son (Emperor Shao), although state power was mainly in the hands of Empress Dowager He and others. The empress dowager's brother, General-in-Chief He Jin, plotted with Yuan Shao to eliminate the Ten Attendants (a group of influential eunuchs in the imperial court). He Jin summoned Dong Zhuo, a seasoned general of Liang Province, to lead his army into Luoyang to pressure the empress dowager to surrender power, despite accusations of Dong's "infamy". Before Dong arrived, He Jin was assassinated by the eunuchs and Luoyang was thrown into chaos as Yuan Shao's supporters fought the eunuchs. Dong's army easily rid the palace grounds of opposition. After he deposed Emperor Shao, Dong placed the puppet Emperor Xian on the throne, as he deemed that Emperor Xian was more capable than the original puppet Emperor Shao.
After rejecting Dong Zhuo's appointment, Cao left Luoyang for Chenliu (southeast of present day Kaifeng, Henan, Cao's hometown), where he built his army. The next year, regional warlords formed a military alliance under Yuan Shao against Dong. Cao joined them, becoming one of the few actively fighting members of the coalition. The coalition fell apart after months of inactivity, and China fell into civil war while Dong was killed in 192 by Lü Bu.
Through short-term and regional-scale wars, Cao continued to expand his power. In 193, Cao massacred thousands of civilians in Xu Province to avenge his father's death.
In 196, Cao joined Emperor Xian and convinced him to move the capital to Xuchang as suggested by Xun Yu and other advisors, as Luoyang was ruined by war and Chang'an was not under Cao's military control, and he was appointed chancellor. Cao became commander-in-chief and Marquis of Wuping, though both titles had little practical implication. While some viewed the emperor as a puppet under Cao's control, Cao adhered to a strict personal rule to his death that he would not usurp the throne. Later, when he was approached by his advisors to overthrow the Han Dynasty and start his own dynasty, he replied, "If heaven bestows such a fate upon me, let me be 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 lobbied to have Yuan appointed Minister of Works. However, this had the opposite effect, as Yuan believed that Cao was trying to humiliate him, since Minister of Works technically ranked lower than Commander-in-chief, and thus refused to accept the title. To pacify Yuan, Cao offered his own position to him, while becoming Minister of Works himself. While this temporarily resolved the conflict, it was the catalyst for the Battle of Guandu later.
In 200, Yuan Shao amassed more than 100,000 troops and marched southwards on Xuchang in the name of rescuing the emperor. Cao gathered 20,000 men in Guandu, a strategic point on the Yellow River. The two armies came to a standstill as neither side was able to make much progress. Cao's lack of men did not allow him to make significant attacks, and Yuan's pride forced him to meet Cao's force head-on. Despite his overwhelming advantage in terms of manpower, Yuan was unable to make full use of his resources because of his indecisive leadership and Cao's position.
Besides the middle battleground of Guandu, two lines of battle were present. The eastern line with Yuan Tan of Yuan Shao's army against Zang Ba of Cao's army was a one-sided battle in favor of Cao, as Yuan Tan's poor leadership was no match for Zang's local knowledge of the landscape and his hit-and-run tactics. On the western front, Yuan Shao's nephew, Gao Gan, performed better against Cao's army and forced several reinforcements from Cao's main camp to maintain the western battle. Liu Bei, then a guest in Yuan Shao's army, suggested that he instigate rebellion in Cao's territories as many followers of Yuan were in Cao's lands. The tactic was initially successful but Man Chong's diplomatic skills helped to resolve the conflict almost immediately. Man had been placed as an official there for this specific reason, as Cao had foreseen the possibility of insurrection prior to the battle.
Finally, a defector from Yuan Shao's army, Xu You, informed Cao of the location of Yuan's supply depot. Cao broke the stalemate by sending a special group of soldiers to burn all the supplies of Yuan's army, thus winning a decisive and seemingly impossible victory. Yuan Shao fell ill and died shortly after the defeat, leaving two 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 fought each other, as they fought Cao. Cao used the internal conflict within the Yuan clan to his advantage and defeated the Yuans easily. Cao assumed effective rule over all of northern China. He sent armies further out and expanded his control across the Great Wall into present-day Korea, and southward to the Han River.
However, Cao's attempt to extend his domination south of the Yangtze River was unsuccessful. He received an initial success when Liu Biao, Administrator of Jing Province, died, and his successor, Liu Cong surrendered to Cao without resistance. Delighted by this, he pressed on despite objections from his military advisors and hoped the same would happen again. His forces were defeated by a coalition of his arch-rivals Liu Bei and Sun Quan (who later founded the states of Shu Han and Eastern Wu respectively) at the Battle of Red Cliffs in 208.
In 213, Cao was titled "Duke of Wei", given the nine bestowments, and given a fief of ten cities under his domain, known as Wei. In 216, Cao was promoted to "King of Wei". Over the years, 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 without the balance tipping significantly in anyone's favor.
In 220, Cao died in Luoyang at the age of 65, having failed to unify China under his rule. His will instructed that he be buried near Ximen Bao's tomb in Ye without gold and jade treasures, 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".
Cao's eldest surviving son Cao Pi succeeded him. Within a year, Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian to abdicate and proclaimed himself the first emperor of Cao Wei. Cao Cao was then posthumously titled "Grand Ancestor Emperor Wu".
- Foster grandfather: Cao Teng, eunuch official, descendant of Cao Shen
- Father: Cao Song, served as Grand Commandant during the reign of Emperor Ling
- Lady Bian, Cao Cao's official spouse, bore Cao Pi, Cao Zhang, Cao Zhi, Cao Xiong and Cao Jie
- Lady Ding, Cao Cao's first wife, fell out with him after Cao Ang's death
- Lady Liu, Lady Ding's servant, later became Cao Cao's concubine, died of illness at a young age, bore Cao Ang and Cao Shuo
- Lady Huan, bore Cao Chong, Cao Ju and Cao Yu
- Lady Du, bore Cao Lin, Cao Gun and Princess Jinxiang
- Lady Qin, bore Cao Xuan and Cao Jun
- Lady Yin, bore Cao Ju
- Lady Wang, bore Cao Gan
- Consort Sun, bore Cao Shang, Cao Biao and Cao Qin
- Consort Li, bore Cao Cheng, Cao Zheng and Cao Jing
- Consort Zhou, bore Cao Jun
- Consort Liu, bore Cao Ji
- Consort Song, bore Cao Hui
- Consort Zhao, bore Cao Mao
- Laiying'er, a prostitute from Luoyang, later fell in love with Cao Cao's bodyguard Wang Tu
- Consort Chen
- Cao Ang, raised by Lady Ding, killed in action at the Battle of Wancheng
- Cao Pi, became the first emperor of Cao Wei after forcing Emperor Xian of Han to abdicate. See Cao Pi#Family for details on Cao Pi's family.
- Cao Zhang, instated as Prince of Rencheng in 223. Fathered Cao Kai.
- Cao Zhi, instated as Prince of Chen in 225. See Cao Zhi#Family for details on Cao Zhi's family.
- Cao Xiong, died at a young age. Fathered Cao Bing.
- Cao Shuo, died at a young age, posthumously granted title of Prince of Shang by Cao Rui. Fathered Cao Qian. Cao Qian fathered Cao Yan.
- Cao Chong, died at a young age
- Cao Ju, instated as Prince of Pengcheng in 232. Fathered Cao Cong, Cao Fan and Cao Chan.
- Cao Yu, instated as Prince of Yan in 232. Fathered Cao Huan.
- Cao Lin, instated as Prince of Pei in 232. Fathered Cao Wei.
- Cao Gun, instated as Prince of Zhongshan in 232. Fathered Cao Fu.
- Cao Xuan, instated as Marquis of Xixiang in 211. Fathered Cao Heng.
- Cao Jun, instated as Prince of Chenliu in 232. Fathered Cao Ao.
- Cao Ju, died at a young age
- Cao Gan, instated as Prince of Zhao in 232
- Cao Shang, died at a young age
- Cao Biao, instated as Prince of Chu in 232. Forced to commit suicide in 251 after staging a rebellion with Wang Ling. Fathered Cao Jia.
- Cao Qin, died at a young age
- Cao Cheng, died at a young age
- Cao Zheng, instated as Marquis of Mei in 217
- Cao Jing, died at a young age
- Cao Jun, instated as Marquis of Fan in 217. Fathered Cao Wan, Cao Min and Cao Kang. Cao Wan fathered Cao Lian; Cao Min fathered Cao Kun; Cao Kang fathered Cao Chen.
- Cao Ji, died at a young age
- Cao Hui, instated as Prince of Dongping in 232. Fathered Cao Xi.
- Cao Mao, instated as Prince of Quyang in 232
- Cao Ping, instated as Marquis of Wu in 232
- Cao Jie, empress of Emperor Xian
- Cao Hua, concubine of Emperor Xian
- Princess Anyang, personal name unknown, married Xun Yu's son Xun Yun
- Princess Jinxiang, personal name unknown, married He Yan
- Princess Qinghe, personal name unknown, married Xiahou Mao
- Princess Linfen, personal name unknown
- Foster children:
- Cao Zhen, distant nephew
- Cao Xian, daughter of Lady Huan and her ex-husband Bian Rang, concubine of Emperor Xian
- Qin Lang, son of Lady Du and her ex-husband Qin Yilu
- He Yan, son of Lady Yin and her ex-husband He Wei
Appointments and titles held:
- Filial and Incorrupt - nominated candidate to be a Gentleman Cadet
- Gentleman Cadet
- Captain of the North District of Luoyang
- Prefect of Dunqiu
- Commandant of Cavalry
- Chancellor of Jinan
- Colonel Who Arranges the Army
- Colonel of Valiant Cavalry
- General Who Uplifts the Military
- Governor of Yan Province
- General Who Builds Virtue
- General Who Guards the East
- Marquis of Fei Village
- Marquis of Wuping
- Excellency of Works
- General of Chariots and Cavalry
- Imperial Chancellor
- Duke of Wei
- King of Wei
The following two titles were granted to Cao Cao posthumously
- King Wu
- Grand Ancestor Emperor Wu - sometimes shortened to "Emperor Wu of Wei"
Agriculture and education
While waging military campaigns against his enemies, 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 Records of Three Kingdoms, the people ate each other out of desperation. Without food, many armies were defeated without fighting. From this experience, 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 wasteland 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 as his realm expanded. Although 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 had eliminated most of Yuan Shao's force. This afforded him more attention on construction within his realm. In autumn of that year, Cao passed an order decreeing the promotion of education throughout the counties and cities within his jurisdiction. An official in charge of education was assigned to each county with at least 500 households. Youngsters with potential and talents were selected for schooling. This prevented a lapse in the output of intellectuals in those warring years and, in Cao's words, would benefit the people.
Cao was an accomplished poet. Although few of his works remain today, his verses, unpretentious yet profound, contributed to reshaping the poetic style of his time. He and his sons Cao Pi and Cao Zhi are collectively known as the "Three Caos" in poetry. Along with those of several other poets, their poems formed the backbone of what was to be known as the jian'an style (jian'an is the era name for the period from 196 to 220).
The civil strife towards the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty gave the jian'an poems their characteristicly 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's most celebrated poems, written during the Battle of White Wolf Mountain against the northern Wuhuan in 207, is Though the Tortoise Lives Long.
Though the Tortoise Lives Long
Though the tortoise blessed with magic powers lives long,
Its days have their allotted span;
Though winged serpents ride high on the mist,
They turn to dust and ashes at the last;
An old war-horse may be stabled,
Yet still it longs to gallop a thousand li;
And a noble-hearted man though advanced in years
Never abandons his proud aspirations.
Man's span of life, whether long or short,
Depends not on Heaven alone;
One who eats well and keeps cheerful
Can live to a great old age.
And so, with joy in my heart,
I hum this song.
Another Cao Cao's most well known poems, written right before the Battle of Red Cliffs in the winter of 208 AD, is Short Song Style.
Short Song Style
I lift my drink and sing a song,
for who knows if life is short or long?
Man's life is but the morning dew,
past days many, future ones few.
The melancholy my heart begets,
comes from cares I cannot forget.;
What can unravel these woes of mine?
I know but one drink – Du Kang Wine.
Disciples dress in blue,
my heart worries for you.
You are the cause,
of this song without pause.
Across the bank a deer bleats,
in the wild where it eats.
Honored my guests I salute,
strike the harp! Play the flute!
Bright is the moon's spark,
when can I pick it apart?
Thoughts of you from deep inside,
cannot settle, cannot subside.
Friends drop by via a country road,
the respect they pay really show.
A long due reunion we fest,
sharing past stories we possessed.
Stars around the moons are few,
southward the crows flew.
Flying with no rest,
where shall they nest?
No mountain too steep,
no ocean too deep.
Sage pauses [from meals] when guests call,
so at his feet the empire does fall!
While historical records indicate Cao as a brilliant ruler, he was represented as a cunning and deceitful man in Chinese opera, where the character of 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, unscrupulous depictions of Cao have become much more popular among the common people than his real image. There have been attempts to revise this depiction.
As the Romance of the Three Kingdoms has been adapted to modern forms of entertainment, so has its portrayal of Cao. Given the source material upon which these adaptations are founded, Cao continues to be characterised as a prominent villain.
Through to modern times, the Chinese equivalent of the English idiom "speak of the Devil" is "Speak of Cao Cao and Cao Cao arrives." (traditional Chinese: pinyin: Shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo dào).
Purported discovery of Cao Cao's tomb
The discovery of Cao's tomb in Xigaoxue Village in Anyang County, Henan was reported by archaeologists in December 2009. Legends tell that the tomb was protected by 72 decoys to keep its location secret, though the recent discovery casts doubt on that legend. The tomb was unearthed by workers of a nearby kiln when they were digging mud for making bricks, but the discovery was not initially reported to the authorities. Tomb raiding had been carried on since the tomb's initial discovery, until local authorities seized stone tablets carrying inscriptions of "King Wu of Wei" — Cao's posthumous reference — from tomb raiders and brought the tomb to light. Archaeologists began excavating the tomb in December 2008.
The 740-square-meter tomb, a size appropriate for a king, was determined to have been built at the time of Wei and to be that of Cao. Within the tomb were stone tablets identifying Cao as the owner of the tomb, 250 artifacts including weapons, armour, and pottery, the remains of a man in his 60s, and the bones of two women in their 50s and 20s. No luxury items were found in the tomb, which is in accordance to Cao's will that he should be buried simply. The bodies are believed to be Cao and his wife, along with her female servant.
Since its discovery, there have been many skeptics and experts who pointed out problems with the discovery and doubt about the tomb's authenticity. For instance, Professor Yuan Jixi of Renmin University's Faculty of Ancient Chinese Study suggests that because this tomb had been greatly disturbed by tomb raiders, the items found in the tomb cannot be guaranteed as original, and the most important evidence carrying inscriptions of "King Wu of Wei" may have been created by modern antique traders. A total of 23 experts and scholars from across China presented evidence at the National High-Level Forum on Culture of the Three Kingdoms Period held in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province in August 2010 to argue that the findings and the artifacts of the tomb were faked.
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 adhering to historical facts most of the time, the novel inevitably re-shaped Cao dramatically to some extent, so as to portray him as a cruel and suspicious villain. In some chapters, Luo created fictional or semi-fictional events involving Cao. They include:
Planned assassination of Dong Zhuo
While in reality Cao did leave Dong Zhuo, the tyrannical warlord who held Emperor Xian hostage in 190 to consolidate power, Luo Guanzhong took a step further in describing Cao's attempted assassination on Dong:
Dong deposed Emperor Shao, the successor of the late Emperor Ling, and placed Emperor Xian on the throne. His autocratic behavior and acts of brutality against his political opponents and the common people incurred the anger of various court officials. One of them, Wang Yun, called for a secret meeting of the officials under the pretext of his birthday celebration. During the feast, Wang cried upon recalling the cruel deeds of Dong. His colleagues felt the same anguish and joined him in tears.
Cao, however, laughed and said, "All the officials of the court – crying from dusk till dawn and from dawn till dusk – can you make Dong Zhuo die by crying?" Wang met him in private later and lent him the Seven Gems Sword after Cao promised to assassinate Dong Zhuo personally.
The next day, Cao brought the precious sword to see Dong. Having much trust in Cao, Dong received the guest in his bedroom. Lü Bu, Dong's foster son, left the room for the stable to select a better horse for Cao, who complained about his slow ride. When Dong turned away, Cao prepared to unsheathe the sword. However, Dong saw Cao's action through a reflection in the mirror and hastily turned to question Cao's intention. Coincidentally, Lü Bu returned at that moment as well. In desperation, Cao knelt down and claimed that he wanted to present the sword to Dong. Cao seized the opportunity to escape from Luoyang under the pretext of trying a ride on the new horse. Dong realized later that Cao had intended to assassinate him and sent his men to summon Cao back to see him. However, Cao had already escaped and Dong issued an order for Cao's arrest.
Murder of Lü Boshe
Following the escape from Dong Zhuo is a legendary episode aimed at illustrating Cao's near-Machiavellian tendencies for later characterizations of him as a villain. Though never exactly proven, it is said that Cao escaped with Chen Gong, a county magistrate who arrested him earlier and released him out of admiration for Cao's sense of righteousness later. They sought shelter at the home of Lü Boshe, a close friend of Cao's father. Lü promised to protect him and left to purchase some materials in preparation for a feast. Cao and Chen overheard a conversation between Lü's servants about a murder plot. Cao's suspicious nature caused him to jump to the conclusion that Lü Boshe had deceived him and intended to kill him and hand over his corpse to Dong Zhuo for a reward. Cao and Chen burst in and killed everyone in the house, including Lü's wife and children. They discovered later that the servants were actually discussing how to "murder" (slaughter) a pig for the feast.
Cao and Chen fled immediately and ran into Lü Boshe, who had just returned from his errand. When questioned, Cao provided an excuse, saying that he was afraid of being followed, as the reason for his abrupt departure. Cao then asked Lü, "Who's that behind you?" When Lü turned around, Cao stabbed and killed him from behind. Chen was shocked and asked him why he committed that atrocity. Cao explained that it was for their safety, because if Lü went home and saw the ghastly sight, he would report the murder to the authorities and hence create serious trouble for them. Cao then raised his sword and famously said, "I'd rather let the world down than to allow the world to let me down.". According to Cao's biography in Records of Three Kingdoms, Cao said "I'd rather let others down than to allow others to let me down." with a sense of regret and remorse. The exact quote was altered in Luo Guanzhong's Romance of the Three Kingdoms, with "world" (literally: people under Heaven) replacing "others" (literally: people). Historian Yi Zhongtian speculated that Cao was probably trying to console himself after mistakenly killing Lü Boshe, by speaking with a sense of remorse. Yi believed that Luo had changed the quote to reflect that Cao had no sense of remorse (because "world" carries greater weight than "others"), so as to enhance Cao's image as a villain in his novel.
Du Mu's account of Cao's life states that he was such a strict disciplinarian. He cited the example of an incident, in which Cao condemned himself to death for having allowed his horse to stray into a field of corn, violating a military law that dictates any soldier who damages commoners' crops would be executed. However, in lieu of losing his head, he was persuaded to satisfy his sense of justice by cutting off a lock of his hair. "When you pass a law, see that it is not disobeyed; if it is disobeyed, the offender must be punished."
Death of Cao Cao and Hua Tuo
In 220, Cao died in Luoyang due to an unknown illness. Legends contain explanations for the cause of his death. 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 started complaining about splitting headaches in the last days of his life, his subjects recommended Hua Tuo, a physician with remarkable healing skills. Upon examination, Hua diagnosed Cao's illness to be a form of rheumatism in the skull. He suggested giving Cao a dose of hashish and then splitting open his skull with a sharp axe to extract the pus within.
Due to an earlier incident with another physician called Ji Ping, who attempted to poison him, Cao grew suspicious of any physician. Cao believed that Hua intended to kill him to avenge the death of Guan Yu. He had Hua imprisoned and Hua died a few days later. Without proper treatment, Cao died soon as well. In another account of Cao's cause of death, it was said that a curse befell him when he tried to cut down a sacred tree and use its wood to build a lavish villa.
Film and television
The "Father of Hong Kong cinema", Lai Man-Wai, played Cao Cao in The Witty Sorcerer, a 1931 comedy film based on the story of Zuo Ci playing tricks on Cao Cao. In the Shaw Brothers film The Weird Man, Cao Cao was seen in the beginning of the film with Zuo Ci. Zuo Ci was playing tricks on him by giving him a tangerine with no fruit inside. This was later referenced in another film titled Five Element Ninjas. Other notable actors who have portrayed Cao Cao in film and television include Bao Guo'an (Romance of the Three Kingdoms), Damian Lau (Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon), Zhang Fengyi (Red Cliff), Chen Jianbin (Three Kingdoms), and Jiang Wen (The Lost Bladesman).
Cao Cao appears in all 11 installments of Koei's Romance of the Three Kingdoms strategy game. In each game, his statistics and skills make him one of the best faction leaders in the game. In Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI, the sum of all of his statistics added up to a grand total of 449 out of 500, making him one of the most versatile characters in the entire game if used properly.
Cao is also a playable character in Koei's Dynasty Warriors and Warriors Orochi series. He is portrayed as a relentless opponent backed by strong armies and loyal generals. He is ruthless and wants to end the land's chaos no matter the cost. Unlike Liu Bei and the Sun family, he cares nothing about morals, status or tradition but judges his men based solely on their achievements and abilities. In battle, he wields a jeweled sword and can be found surrounded by his legion of generals and confidants.
As with most of the other relevant generals of the period, Cao is portrayed as a young female character in the Koihime Musō franchise.