His surname was Cao [2nd tone], his first name was Cao [1st tone], his alias was Mengde, and his nickname was Aman. His family was from Qiao of the state of Pei in the Eastern Han Dynasty. He was smart, astute and cunning. He earned his position by suppressing the Yellow Turban rebels. During the time of Dong Zhuo’s chaos, he escorted Emperor Xian of the Han Dynasty to Xuchang and seized power. The emperor became his puppet. He subdued the rival warlords along the Yellow River through the strategy of ‘holding the emperor to command the warlords,’ and was thus granted the title Duke of Wei. However, in his battles against the states of Shu and Wu, he was defeated and was almost killed by fire in the battle at Chibi. He shed his armor and escaped, but was caught by Guan Yu on Huarong Path. He was terrified, yet begged for mercy. He narrowly escaped death and fled to Luoyang. This man was so crafty that throughout history there was no one like him. His son Cao Pei usurped the Han emperor and crowned himself Emperor Wen of Wei. After that, China was divided into three states.
Cao Cao was from Qiao county in the state of Pei in the Eastern Han Dynasty (present day Anhui Province). His alias was Mengde and his nickname Aman. He specialized in hiding the truth from his superiors and deceiving the people; he was very cunning. One day, he went to assassinate Dong Zhuo. A mirror hanging in Dong Zhuo’s room reflected the sword hidden behind his back. Dong Zhuo asked him, “Why do you carry a sword?” He immediately adapted himself to the changing situation and knelt down, handing the sword to Dong Zhuo. He said, “I came to present this valuable sword to you. This sword can cut through gold and split jade; therefore I sincerely present it to the Prime Minister.”
Dong Zhuo did not suspect or blame him, and kept the sword. This episode displayed his unrivaled cunning and astuteness. He knew how to watch the trends and constantly changed course in accordance with the direction of wind; that is, as soon as the circumstances changed, he immediately adapted himself to them.
At that time, the Yellow Turban rebels were causing problems. Why were they named the Yellow Turban rebels? Because each one wore a yellow band around his head. He followed the emperor’s order to suppress the Yellow Turban rebels. Using his cunning skills, he had killed many enemies and had some military achievements, thus he stood out from the crowd.
Later on, after Dong Zhuo was killed by Lü Bu, Cao Cao escorted Emperor Xian of the Han Dynasty from Luoyang to Xuchang. After the Han Emperor Xian granted him military power, he controlled the emperor as a puppet. He thus subdued those rival warlords along the banks of Yellow River by mean of ‘holding the emperor to command the warlords,’ and earned the title Duke of the State of Wei.
As the Duke of Wei, he attacked the Western Shu and Eastern Wu states. When the Western Shu was in danger, they joined together with the Eastern Wu to fight against him. Although he was cunning, there were many talented people in the Western Shu and the Eastern Wu, so he was defeated many times and was nearly engulfed in flames during the battle at Chibi.
Chibi was the name of a place located in the northeast of Jiayu County in Hubei Province. Cao Cao’s eight hundred thousand troops were distributed all over the river to fight against the Western Shu and the Eastern Wu. Most of Cao’s soldiers were from the north, so they were not experienced boatmen. On the waterway going southbound, with the tides going up and down, they all became dizzy and disoriented, and vomited all along the way.
In order to decrease the rocking of the boats, Cao Cao commanded that they use iron chains to tie the stern of every boat to the head of the next boat, thereby stabilizing them. He did not expect that one of Zhou Yu’s men, Huang Gai, would come up with a tactic to set fire to Cao Cao’s huge army. All of Cao’s boats were tightly locked together with iron chains, unable to move at all. Suddenly ferocious flames burst into the sky, and the fires, being blown by the wind, covered the river. Throughout Cao’s camp, the ceaseless sounds of men screaming and horses neighing could be heard as the fire spread. The army of eight hundred thousand was completely defeated.
Along with a few surviving generals and soldiers, and without any armor, Cao Cao barely escaped through Huaron Path. He ran into Guan Yunchang, who was guarding the path, and nearly scared him to death. He had no choice but to beg for mercy. He put on a pitiful appearance, and Guan Yu was merciful and released him. He narrowly escaped death and fled back to Xuchang in distress.
He was a very crafty and devious leader of his era. His treacherous cunning was unmatched throughout history. He was not only crafty but also very suspicious of others. That is, he always mistrusted others. So it is said: ‘Lord Cao was as crafty as a ghost.’
This is what happened once while he was commanding a war. One day, he was eating a piece of chicken tendon, and a soldier came to ask, “Prime Minister, what is today’s password?” He took a look at the chicken tendon in his hand and said, “Chicken tendon.” The military password was to prevent the penetration of spies. Only the soldiers in this troop would know the password, not the outsiders. When a soldier met a stranger, they identified each other by the password. When one said, “timely wind” the other should respond, “favorable rain.” If the response was “hailstorm” which was incorrect, he would be immediately arrested. If the password was “chicken tendon,” the response should be ‘fishbone’.
Yang Xiu, a man in Cao’s camp, knowing that Cao Cao had given the password ‘chicken tendon,’ told everyone, “Quickly pack your things! The Prime Minister is ready to return.” Seeing everyone packing up and ready to move out, Cao Cao asked, “What are you doing?” Someone responded, “Aren’t you going back?” Cao Cao was upset: “Who said that? Who said we are going back?” He answered Cao Cao, “Yang Xiu said that.” Cao Cao questioned Yang Xiu, “Why did you tell everyone to get packed and be ready to go back?”
Yang Xiu answered, “Because the Prime Minister gave the password ‘chicken tendon.’ Chicken tendon is something that is tasteless, yet deserves to be kept--so I knew that the Prime Minister wanted to go back.’ Hearing this, Cao Cao thought, “No one knows what I am thinking, but this man can read my mind. I can’t let him live.” He had the man killed, then ordered the troops to go back. He was so devious, so he was called the most treacherous leader of his era.
His son Cao Pei usurped the position of emperor of the Han Dynasty and gave himself the title Emperor Wen of Wei. China thus was divided equally into three states, Wei, Shu and Wu, for a long period of time.
Cao Cao intended to be the emperor, but dared not usurp the position. He was then granted the title Duke of Wei. Both of his sons, Cao Pei and Cao Zijian, were very smart and talented. Cao Cao at first wanted Zijian Cao to inherit his position which made Cao Pei very jealous.
Once Cao Pei became the emperor, he was eager to get rid of Cao Zijian. One day, he called Cao Zijian to the court and announced, “They all say that you are every talented. If you can compose a poem within seven steps, I will release you. If you can’t do it, you are falsely making a name for yourself so I will kill you.” Cao Zijian then walked seven steps and composed a very famous poem:
Making a fire with beanstalks to cook beans,
The beans in the pot are crying.
Both are produced from the same root.
Why does one cook the other with such haste?
This poem indicates that both the beans and the beanstalks grow from the same root. Yet the beanstalks are used to cook the beans, thus making the beans in the pot, cry. We are both from the same parents; why are you harming me with such haste?” Hearing this poem, Cao Pei did not kill him.
To be continued