Interview with Rafe de Crespigny

Rafe de Crespigny is Professor Emeritus at the Australian National University. He is considered to be one of the most important historians on early medieval China, focusing on the late second and third centuries, when the Han Dynasty collapsed and was replaced by the Three Kingdoms. Professor de Crespigny has written numerous books and articles related to this era, including his latest work, Imperial Warlord: A Biography of Cao Cao 155-220 AD. The book examines the life and legacy of the founder of the Three Kingdoms state of Wei, who has traditionally been portrayed as one of the greatest villains in Chinese history.

We interviewed Professor de Crespigny by email:

1. Cao Cao is certainly one the more famous individuals in Chinese history, but over the centuries he has been portrayed more as a Machiavellian-type villain (one of the famous quotes attributed to him has been “I would rather betray the world than allow the world to betray me.”). Is your book in part an attempt to give a more balanced view to this person?

Yes, I have long felt that the popular attitude to the history of the Three Kingdoms period has been distorted by the great novel Sanguo yanyi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms), and the favourable view which it takes of Liu Bei and the claim of his state of Shu to be the legitimate successor of Han. This “Romantic” tradition has been supported by plays, opera and other literary texts, and it is still the common approach. I believe that the bias affects our interpretation of history and – while recognising the power of the novel – I wanted to study the historical texts in their own terms.

It is remarkable how much information is available in early Chinese sources for the period, and particularly on Cao Cao. From that material I have sought to construct a reasonably coherent account of Cao Cao’s life and character. I have tried to make it a balanced history, but readily acknowledge that I have become increasingly impressed with his achievements and his conduct in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

In the final chapter of the work, I offer a summary of how Cao Cao’s reputation developed in the centuries after his death, with some suggestions why he became celebrated rather as a great villain than as a hero of his time. Often enough, the answer appears to lie in the political circumstances of later generations, and also in the nature of the literary works – plays and the novel itself – and their requirements of format and plot. In any event, villains are often more interesting and attractive than simple heroes!

2. Besides the chronicles and historical works about Cao Cao, you also have access to some of his own writings, including his poetry. How did reading Cao Cao’s own words change your perception of him?

It is fortunate that such a quantity of Cao Cao’s writings has been preserved. Military and political figures are generally known only by accounts of their actions, while – despite the Confucian tradition of scholarship -men of letters seldom play a major role in public affairs, and in few cases are their writings directly relevant to their careers.

In literary terms, however, even if he had not been so active in affairs at the end of Han, Cao Cao’s poetry would have been important in the developing forms of individual expression: I personally find the Jieshi poem both powerful and touching, with some splendid imagery. It was a notable literary family: Cao Cao’s son and successor Cao Pi and his son Cao Rui were both fine poets, and Cao Pi’s brother Cao Zhi is still considered one of the greatest in all Chinese history.

We also have texts from a number of Cao Cao’s official proclamations – unlike his rivals, it appears that he wrote them himself. Many are purely political, but others express opinions, and on 1 January 211, he published a formal and public explanation of his past career and his plans for the future. As Wolfgang Bauer observed in Das Anlitz Chinas, this Apologia is one of the earliest autobiographical writings in China, and though it is naturally self-justifying – what else would one expect? – it provides a good insight to Cao Cao’s personality.

Both in his poetry and his public announcements, Cao Cao appears self-confident, practical rather than idealistic, with concern for the state of his world and sympathy for its people. Faced with a time of disorder, he has little patience with social niceties: “War is not a matter of ritual and courtesy.” In similar fashion, he looks to employ men who are competent, even if not necessarily of high character, for he can use them and deal with them: here is a refreshing contrast to the high-minded morality which confused political debate as Later Han fell into ruin.

3. One of the key episodes in the rise of Cao Cao was his victory over Yuan Shao at the Battle of Guandu in the year 200. Could you outline some of your thoughts about the strategy Cao Cao used in the battle?

The most common interpretation of the Guandu campaign is that Yuan Shao had far greater resources than Cao Cao – he is said to have controlled four provinces – but made poor use of his army, embarking on a simple offensive without any real attempt at manoeuvre. Cao Cao managed to hold his ground against heavy odds, then defeated Yuan Shao by destroying his supplies.

While it is true that Cao Cao’s final attacks on Yuan Shao’s supply depots were decisive, it is my suggestion that Yuan Shao was always at a strategic disadvantage. Though he did control Ji province in the North China plain, he had done little to develop the territory, and his position further afield was tenuous at best. Faced with the growing power of Cao Cao, he summoned all his resources for a direct attack, but had no spare troops for operations elsewhere. He probably had a local superiority at Guandu, but he certainly did not outnumber Cao Cao by ten or even two to one.

Apart from Cao Cao’s oblique and surprise attack on Yuan Shao’s supplies, the comparison I would make with Sunzi is the manner in which Cao Cao prepared his defences and then obliged his enemy to fight on the ground he had chosen, while Yuan Shao was a long way from his base with a vulnerable line of communications. No military result can ever be guaranteed, but Cao Cao controlled the course of the campaign: in Sunzi’s terms, he obliged his enemy to submit to his will.

4. This is the latest in a series of books and articles you have done related to fall of the Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms period. How did you become interested in this time of Chinese history?

My first degree was in European history, and I then began studying Chinese under Hans Bielenstein, the great historian of the restoration of Han in the early first century AD. During my first year I read Brewitt-Taylor’s translation of Sanguo yanyi, and simply fell in love with the story. It has everything one could look for in the Western legend of King Arthur, with a basis in reality. So I wanted to find out what actually happened – the facts behind the fiction.

I am somewhat ashamed to say that I have never really cared for Liu Bei – high-minded rhetoric to justify treachery and double-dealing. So I first concentrated on the third kingdom, Wu, and then became involved in the question of what went wrong with Han itself: why and how did the empire fall? what was its structure and what were its fatal weaknesses? And that led into studies of frontier wars and geography, administration and tax, not to mention universities and rioting students, eunuchs and the harem.

In all this, my approach is that of an historian rather than a scholar of philosophy or literature. So I try to set people and their actions into the context of their time. When I was compiling A Biographical Dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms (23-220 AD) I did my best to record dates of birth and death – and was struck repeatedly by the thought that we all know our birthday, but very few can forecast their death: time, date and the order of events matter a great deal.

5. The early medieval period of Chinese history (roughly the end of the Han Dynasty to the Tang era) is becoming a more popular period for historians to do research in. Do you have any suggestions for graduate students and young historians on what they might want to study and work on from this period?

I find it disconcerting and somewhat disappointing that we do not yet have a detailed modern history of early medieval China. The first volume of the Cambridge series, for example, is stronger on Former than on Later Han, and the second volume is unlikely to appear in the foreseeable future. One problem is that chief attention has been given to the literature and philosophy of the period, and most historical studies are concerned with individual topics rather than narrative. Such subjects are certainly important, but I believe they need to be presented within the full perspective of politics, society and economic development.

I can offer two examples of such perspective. Firstly, the division of the Han empire into three rival states owed as much to changing demography – the retreat of Chinese population from the northern frontier and the expansion of colonisation in the south – as to the military efforts of the contending warlords. And secondly, as I have suggested on occasion, a major factor in the decline and fall of Han besides a series of under-age emperors and the rivalries of regent families and eunuchs, was that during the second century the central government was chronically short of money and may well have been effectively bankrupt. As a result, it was unable to perform its traditional functions of leadership and of benevolence in time of trouble, and it was vulnerable to the prosperous, confident, and increasingly independent-minded gentry of the provinces.

So my encouragement to any scholar planning work on medieval China would be to make a close study of a coherent period of history: as detailed an account as possible of what happened and how it came to pass; this will provide context and basis for exploring more specialised questions. There is plenty of traditional Chinese material which can be used for analysis, and the study of people is always worth while.

We thank Rafe de Crespigny for answering our questions.

Please also see his earlier article: Man from the Margin: Cao Cao and the Three Kingdoms

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine
Show Buttons
Hide Buttons