Few ancient Chinese rulers are worthy of the title of poet or man of letters. Yet Emperor Wu Du of Wei, Cao Cao by name, who was an outstanding statesman and strategist, was a distinguished poet as well.
Su Shi, a famous man of letters in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), admired him so much that he called him a hero who “composed poetry with lance in hand.”
Cao Cao, whose literary name was Mengde and nickname Aman, was born to a powerful court official’s family in Boxian county, Anhui province.
As a child, he grew very fond of poetry, history and books on the art of war. And through constant practice on horseback and in archery, he excelled in martial arts.
At the age of 20, Cao Cao held the official position of Beibuwei in charge of public order in the capital, Luoyang.
On his first day at work, he bade some artisans to make a dozen colored sticks to be hung at both sides of the official mansion, and issued an order that “anyone who violates the law shall be beaten with these sticks.”
One evening while he was doing the rounds in town, he found the uncle of one of the court officials bullying some civilians. Without a moment’s hesitation, Cao Cao ordered that he be beaten to death in accordance with the law.
From then on, nobody dared violate the law in the area governed by Cao Cao. Order in the city was never this good, and Cao Cao’s name became known to all.
During the last years of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220), Emperor Xian Di of Han was obliged to leave Chang’an and take refuge at Luoyang, owing to the fighting among powerful military commanders.
Cao Cao was relatively weak in military terms at that time, but he was shrewd enough to take advantage of the opportunity to invite the emperor to come to Xuchang, which was his domain. Naturally, the town became the provisional capital of the Eastern Han Dynasty.
Then, Cao Cao began issuing orders in the name of Emperor Xian Di of Han, and gradually expanded his own military strength and sphere of influence.
By cutting taxes and launching water conservation projects, Cao Cao encouraged the peasants to increase production and successfully solved the problem of food supply.
His power grew in unifying north China and establishing his own regime, the Kingdom of Wei.
Cao Cao showed extraordinary talent in various fields, such as administration, diplomacy and military affairs. The Art of Warfare by Sunzi, which he annotated personally, was his constant companion.
In the famous battle at Guandu, Cao Cao defeated, with combined courage and wisdom, Yuan Shao’s army of 200,000 with a force of about 30,000 to 40,000 men under his command, creating in the annals of Chinese warfare a miracle of defeating an enemy numerically far superior and apparently more powerful.
It happened that Cao Cao was once riding at the head of his troops along a narrow path in some wheat fields and, beholding the luxuriant growth on both sides, gave orders that no one should be allowed to trample on the wheat and that anyone who disobeyed should be beheaded.
At this, the soldiers all dismounted and started marching on foot. Presently Cao Cao’s own horse bolted and rushed into the wheat fields.
In those days, laws were never applied to a sovereign, but Cao Cao said to his officers and men, “How can I expect my troops to follow me if I myself violate the military laws I made. But I am the commander-in-chief. Without me the army would be leaderless. So it behooves me to mete out my own punishment.”
With these words, Cao Cao drew his sword and cut off his head-dress in place of his head. Then he had it hung by the side of the path as a warning to all.
Once when Cao Cao was to receive an envoy from the Huns, he had some misgivings that his short stature and rather plain features would cause the Huns to despise the State of Wei.
So he had a handsome-looking minister with a long beard and a deep resounding voice sit on the throne in his place, while he himself stood by the side of the “emperor” with a broad sword in hand.
After the reception, Cao Cao secretly sent someone to ask the Hun envoy, “What do you think of the King of Wei?”
The envoy replied, “He looks distinguished indeed, but the man who stood beside him seems to be a true hero!”
Cao Cao lived in an age of war and chaos. Amidst all the tensions and hardships of a military life, he managed to write many great poems and essays in which he expressed his lofty aspirations to accomplish great military exploits and deeds.
Once when he was 53 years old, Cao Cao came to Mount Jieshi with his army after a successful military operation. Confronted with towering mountains and boundless seas, he felt a great surge of emotion and felt impelled to give voice to his poetic feelings.
The result was the impromptu “Long-lived Tortoise,” a poem of four-word lines, in which he wrote: Since ancient times, the tortoise which was believed to enjoy a longevity of thousands of years would still perish; short as the life of man is, he should not allow it to be wasted, but ought to lengthen it through unremitting efforts. He then compared himself to an aging horse that was still yearning to make a long journey, although it was for the moment resting tranquilly in the stable.
In this poem, Cao Cao expressed his ardent desire and determination to continue his struggles in old age. In some of his other poems, he revealed the misery of the people caused by ceaseless fighting among powerful military commanders. All of them are of great ideological and esthetical value.
Cao Cao’s literary talent had a profound influence on his two sons Cao Zhi and Cao Pi. The three together, referred to as the “three Caos,” were the standard bearers of literary creation in what is called the Jianan Period in Chinese literary history. Their literary activities occupy an important place in the history of the development of Chinese poetry.