By Rafe De Crespigny
Lecture given at Australian National University in 1990
Introduction: Cao Cao was born in 155 AD, a subject of the dynasty of Later Han. His father, Cao Song, was the adopted son of a eunuch at court, and rose through influence and bribery to the highest position in the imperial bureaucracy. Cao Cao himself occupied a number of middle-range posts at the capital until 189, when the general Dong Zhuo took advantage of a failed coup d’etat and claimed power for himself.
The civil war which followed destroyed the authority of the empire, and for ten years the heart of China was ravaged and ruined by ragged armies of adventurers, in an infinite permutation of alliances and treachery.
From this confusion, Cao Cao emerged in triumph. He established a coherent government with the Emperor as his puppet, and by 200, when he defeated his chief rival in battle by the Yellow River, he was the master of north China.
In 208, however, when Cao Cao sought to extend his control to the south, he was defeated and driven back at the battle of the Red Cliffs, and he never succeeded in breaking the line of the Yangzi. When Cao Cao died in 220, his state of Wei still faced two major rivals: Shu-Han in the west under Liu Bei; and Wu in the south under the Sun family.
Forty years later, the Sima family seized power from Cao Cao’s successors and established their own dynasty of Jin, and they conquered Shu and Wu to restore a short-lived unity to the Chinese world. The position, however, was always insecure and after little more than twenty years the empire was divided again, with the north dominated by alien, non-Chinese rulers and peoples. Not until the end of the sixth century did a single state hold sway once more over the civilised world of China.
At this stage, let me offer some justification for the discussion of events so long ago and dynasties so far away. The heroes of the Three Kingdoms, Cao Cao, his colleagues and his rivals, have a notable place in the traditions of the Chinese people. They are celebrated in poetry and drama, their deeds are recounted in cycles of stories, and the policies and crises of their time have been the centre of intellectual and popular debate in modern China.