Cao Pi

Cao Pi (187 – 29 June 226 ), formally known as Emperor Wen of Wei, was the first emperor of the state of cao wei during the three kingdoms period of Chinese history. Born in Qiao County, Pei Commandery (present-day Bozhou , Anhui ), he was the second son of the late han dynasty warlord Cao Cao.

Cao Pi, like his father, was a poet. The first Chinese poem using seven syllables per line (七言詩) was the poem Yan Ge Xing (燕歌行) by Cao Pi. He also wrote over a hundred articles on various subjects.

Cao Pi was the eldest son of Cao Cao and his concubine (later wife) Lady Bian. Of all his brothers, Cao Pi was the most shrewd. Instead of studying hard or conducting military affairs, he was always in the presence of court officials in order to gain their support. He was mostly in charge of defense at the start of his career. After the defeat of rival warlord Yuan Shao at the Battle of Guandu, he took the widow of Yuan Shao's son Yuan Xi, Lady Zhen, as a consort, although eventually she lost his favor and was forced to commit suicide. After he became emperor, his other favorite, Guo Nüwang, became empress.

In 220, Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian, last ruler of the han dynasty, to abdicate and proclaimed himself Emperor of Wei. Cao Pi continued his father's war against the rival states of Shu Han and Eastern Wu but was unsuccessful. Unlike his father, he concentrated most of his efforts on his home country. During his reign, he formally established Chen Qun's nine-rank system as the base for civil service nomination, which drew many talents into his government. On the other hand, he drastically reduced the power of princes, stripping off their power to oppose him, but at the same time, rendering them unable to assist the emperor if a crisis arose within the state.

Family background and early career

Cao Pi was born in 187, to Cao Cao and one of his favorite concubines Lady Bian. At the time of Cao Pi's birth, Cao Cao was a mid-level officer in the imperial guards in the capital Luoyang, with no hint that he would go on to the great campaigns he eventually carried out after the collapse of the imperial government in 190. In the period after 190 when Cao Cao was constantly waging war, it is not known where Cao Pi and his mother Lady Bian were, or what their activities were. The lone reference to Cao Pi during this period was in 204, when he took Yuan Xi's wife Lady Zhen as his wife. (Lady Zhen gave birth to Cao Pi's eldest son Cao Rui only eight months later—which created murmurs that Cao Rui might have been biologically Yuan Xi's son and not Cao Pi's, although the possibilities appeared farfetched. )

The next immediate reference to Cao Pi's activities was in 211, when he was commissioned to be commander of the imperial guards and deputy prime minister. This position made him assistant to his father, who was then prime minister and effectively in control of the imperial government. His older brother Cao Ang had died earlier, and Cao Pi was then the oldest son of Cao Cao. Further, his mother Lady Bian was now Cao Cao's wife (after Cao Ang's adoptive mother, Cao Cao's first wife Lady Ding, was deposed), thus making Cao Pi the presumptive heir to Cao Cao.

However, his status as heir was not immediately made legal, and for years there were lingering doubts on whom Cao Cao intended to make heir. Cao Cao greatly favored Cao Zhi, a younger son of his also by Lady Bian, who was known for his literary talents. Both Cao Pi and Cao Zhi were talented poets, but Cao Zhi was more highly-regarded as a poet and speaker. By 215, the brothers were in concord on the surface but each had his own set of associates fighting each other under the surface. Initially, Cao Zhi's party appeared to be prevailing, and in 216 they were successful in falsely accusing two officials supporting Cao Pi -- Cui Yan and Mao Jie. Cui was executed, while Mao was deposed. However, the situation shifted after Cao Cao received advice from his strategist Jia Xu, who concluded that changing the general rules of succession (primogeniture) would be disruptive—using Yuan Shao and Liu Biao as counterexamples. Cao Pi was also fostering his image among the people and created the sense that Cao Zhi was wasteful and lacking actual talent in governance. In 217, Cao Cao, who was by this point Prince of Wei, finally declared Cao Pi as his crown prince. He would remain as such until his father's death in 220.

As King of Wei

Cao Cao died in the spring of 220, while he was at Luoyang. Even though Cao Pi had been crown prince for several years, there was initially some confusion as to what would happen next. The apprehension was particularly heightened when, after Cao Cao's death, the Qing Province (青州, modern central and eastern Shandong ) troops under the powerful general, Zang Ba, suddenly deserted, leaving Luoyang and returning home. Further, the well-known military general Cao Zhang arrived in Luoyang in a hurry, creating the apprehension that he was intending to seize power from his brother. Upon hearing this news at Cao Cao's headquarters at Yecheng, Cao Pi hastily declared himself the new Prince of Wei and issuing an edict in the name of his mother, Princess Bian, before receiving an official confirmation from Emperor Xian of Han, of whom he was still technically a subject. After Cao Pi's self-declaration, neither Cao Zhang nor any other individual took action against him. He then ordered his brothers, including Cao Zhang and Cao Zhi, back to their fiefs. With the help of Jiang Ji, the political situation soon stabilized.

As emperor of Cao Wei

Succeeding Emperor Xian

In the winter of 220, Cao Pi made his move for the imperial throne, strongly suggesting to Emperor Xian that he should yield the throne. Emperor Xian did so, and Cao Pi formally declined three times (a model that would be followed by future usurpers in Chinese history), and then finally accepted, ending the han dynasty and starting a new Wei Dynasty. The former Emperor Xian was created the Duke of Shanyang. Cao Pi posthumously honored his grandfather Cao Song and father Cao Cao as emperors, and his mother Princess Dowager Bian as empress dowager. He also moved the imperial capital from Xu (許縣, in modern Xuchang, Henan ) to Luoyang.

Military failures against Sun Quan

After news of Cao Pi's ascension (and an accompanying false rumor that Cao had executed Emperor Xian) arrived in Liu Bei's domain of Yi Province (益州, modern Sichuan and Chongqing ), Liu Bei declared himself emperor as well, establishing Shu Han. Sun Quan, who controlled the vast majority of modern southeastern and southern China, did not take any affirmative steps one way or another, leaving his options open.

An armed conflict between Liu and Sun quickly developed, because in 219 Sun had ambushed Liu's long-serving general Guan Yu to retake his western jin dynastyg Province (荊州, modern Hubei and Hunan ), which Liu had controlled. Liu then wanted to take vengeance on Guan Yu's death. To avoid having to fight on two fronts, Sun formally paid allegiance to Cao, offering to be a vassal of Cao Wei. Cao's strategist Liu Ye (劉曄) suggested that Cao decline and instead attack Sun on a second front. This would effectively partition Sun's domain with Shu Han, and would eventually allow Cao to destroy Shu Han as well. Cao declined this suggestion, in a fateful choice that most historians believe doomed his empire to ruling only the northern and central China; Such an opportunity would not come again. Indeed, against Liu Ye's advice, he created Sun the Prince of Wu and granted him the nine bestowments.

Sun's submission did not last long, however. After Sun's forces, under the command of Lu Xun, defeated Liu Bei's forces in 222, Sun began to distance himself from cao wei. When Cao demanded that Sun send his heir Sun Deng (孫登) to Luoyang as hostage, Sun refused and formal relations broke down. Cao personally led an expedition against Sun, and in response, Sun declared independence from cao wei, establishing Eastern Wu. By this time, having defeated Liu, Eastern Wu's forces enjoyed high morale and effective leadership from Sun, Lu, and a number of other capable generals. Cao's forces were not able to make significant advances against them despite several large-scale attacks in the next few years. The division of the Han empire into three states has become firmly established, particularly after Liu Bei's death in 223. Liu Bei's prime minister Zhuge Liang, serving as regent for his son Liu Shan, re-established the alliance with Sun, causing cao wei to have to defend itself on two fronts and unable to conquer either. Exasperated, Cao made a famous comment in 225 that "Heaven created the Yangtze to divide the north and the south. "

Domestic matters

Cao Pi was generally viewed as a competent, but unspectacular, administrator of his empire. He commissioned a number of capable officials to be in charge of various affairs of the empire, employing his father's general guidelines of valuing abilities over heritage. However, he was not open to criticism, and officials who dared to cricitize him were often demoted and, on rare occasions, put to death.

Treatment of princes

Since Cao Pi was still fearful and resentful at Cao Zhi, he soon had the latter's fief reduced in size and had a number of his associates executed. Ding Yi, who was chief among Cao Zhi's strategists, had his whole clan wiped out as a result of assisting the latter in the past. Cao Pi's younger brother, Cao Xiong, was also said to have committed suicide out of fears for his brother. Legend also says Cao Pi assassinated his own brother, Cao Zhang. In 223, Cao Zhang was summoned to the palace by Cao Pi. During a casual conversation, Cao Zhang asked his brother if he could see his royal seal. This got Cao Pi worried and made up his mind to kill his brother. Since Empress Dowager Bian favored Cao Zhang, so Cao Pi had to make Cao Zhang's death seem natural. A few weeks later, Cao Pi invited his brother to a game of weiqi during their mother's birthday. The match was very close in the middle game when Cao Pi's servants brought some prunes, some of them were poisoned. Cao Pi made sure he ate the unmarked ones that were not poisonous and made sure his brother ate the other ones. When Cao Zhang realized that he had been poisoned, he screamed for help. Empress Dowager Bian got to the scene on her bare feet and tried to search for water to flush down the poison that was now in Cao Zhang's body. But unfortunately for Cao Zhang, the crafty Cao Pi had secretly placed all the containers away beforehand, so Empress Dowager Bian failed to get the water; Cao Zhang then died as a result.

In summary, under regulations established by Cao Pi, not only were the cao wei princes (unlike princes of the han dynasty) distanced from central politics, they also had minimal authority even in their own principalities and were restricted in many ways, particularly in the use of military.

Treatment of officials

Cao Pi was recorded to frequently ridicule his subordinates. For example, Yu Jin was captured by Shu and was imprisoned in Eastern Wu. When Shu became a vassal, he was returned to Cao Pi. Cao reinstated Yu to be Borders-Pacifying General (安遠將軍) and announced to send him back to Eastern Wu - where he had been imprisoned - as an envoy. However, before Yu's departure, he was instructed to travel to Ye to pay his respects at Cao Cao's tomb. When Yu arrived, he found that the emperor had had artists paint on the tomb, scenes of the Battle of Fancheng, in which Yu was shown begging for his life to be spared and succumbing to the victorious Guan Yu, while his subordinate, Pang De, was shown dying an honorable death by resisting the invading forces to his last breath. Upon seeing the vivid mural, Yu was so filled with regret and shame that he fell ill and soon died. Cao further gave the deceased Yu a notorious posthumous title of "Marquis Li" (厲侯), for people to remember the latter as the "stony marquis (or vicious marquis)" Wang Zhong, a general who followed Cao Cao for many years, was also ridiculed by his young master. Even the Grand General of the Supreme Army, Cao Zhen, was taken advantage by Cao Pi for his chubby bodyshape.

Marriage and succession issues

An immediate issue after Cao Pi became emperor in 220 was who the empress would be. Lady Zhen was his wife, but by this point had long lost favor due to a variety of reasons including the struggle she had with a favorite concubine of Cao's, Guo Nüwang. Lady Guo used the unlikely possibility that Zhen's son Cao Rui might be biologically Yuan Xi's son to full advantage in creating conflicts between Cao Pi and Lady Zhen. Cao therefore refused to summon Lady Zhen to Luoyang after he ascended the throne but instead ordered her to remain at Yecheng, which caused Lady Zhen to be resentful. When words of her resentment reached Cao, he became angry and forced her to commit suicide. In 222, Cao created Consort Guo empress.

Empress Guo, however, was sonless. Lady Zhen's son Cao Rui was the oldest of Cao Pi's sons, but because she had been put to death and because of Cao Pi's lingering doubt as to his paternity, was not created crown prince. Instead, he was made only the Prince of Pingyuan following Cao Pi's ascension. Cao Pi, however, did not appear to have seriously considered any other son as heir. (It might have been because the other sons were all significantly younger, although their ages were not recorded in history. ) In the summer of 226, when Cao Pi was seriously ill, he finally created Prince Rui crown prince. On his deathbed, he entrusted his successor Cao Rui to the care of Cao Zhen, Chen Qun, and Sima Yi. Following Cao Pi's death, Prince Rui ascended the throne at the young age of 21.

Era name

Huangchu (黃初) 220-226

Personal information


Cao Cao


Lady Bian


Empress Zhen Wenzhao, bore Cao Rui and Princess Dongxiang, forced to commit suicide in 221

Empress Guo, promoted from concubine to empress in 222

Lady Li (李夫人)

Consort Li (李貴人), bore Cao Xie

Consort Yin (陰貴人)

Consort Chai (柴貴人)

Lady Pan (潘淑媛), bore Cao Rui (曹蕤)

Lady Zhu (朱淑媛), bore Cao Jian

Lady Chou (仇昭儀), bore Cao Lin

Consort Xu (徐姬), bore Cao Li

Consort Su (蘇姬), bore Cao Yong

Consort Zhang (張姬), bore Cao Gong

Consort Song (宋姬), bore Cao Yan

Lady Liu (劉氏), daughter of Emperor Xian

Lady Liu (劉氏), daughter of Emperor Xian

Lady Ren (任氏)


Cao Rui, instated as Duke of Qi in 221, promoted to Prince of Pingyuan a year later. Instated as crown prince in 226, became second emperor of cao wei in the same year. See Cao Rui#Family for details on Cao Rui's family.

Cao Jie (曹喈), died at a young age

Cao Xie (曹協), died at a young age, posthumously granted title Duke Sang of Jing in 231 and Prince Ai of Zan in 234

Cao Rui (曹蕤), instated as Prince of Yangping in 226, later promoted to Prince Dao of Beihai in 232, died a year later

Cao Jian (曹鑒), instated as Prince Huai of Dongwuyang in 225, died in the same year

Cao Lin (曹霖), instated as Prince of Hedong in 222, later promoted to Prince of Guantao in 225 and Prince Ding of Donghai in 232, died in 249.

Cao Li (曹禮), instated as Duke of Qin in 221, later promoted to Prince of Jingzhao in 222 and Prince Ai of Yuancheng in 225, died in 229

Cao Yong (曹邕), instated as Duke of Huainan in 221, later promoted to Prince of Huainan in 222, Prince of Chen in 223, and Prince Huai of Handan in 225, died in 229

Cao Gong (曹貢), instated as Prince Dao of Qinghe in 222, died in 223

Cao Yan (曹儼), instated as Prince Ai of Guangping in 222, died in 223

Princess Dongxiang (東鄉公主), personal name unknown

Last update 07-06-2012

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