In recent exciting news, archaeologists involved in the excavation of a burial site in a village in Henan province are now convinced that the remains of an adult male discovered in 2016-17 are those of Cao Cao. But who was Cao Cao?
A note on pronunciation before we proceed. In pinyin, the consonant “c” approximates the English “ts” in “cats” but strongly aspirated; it is not a hard “c”. Thus, Cao Cao is not pronounced “cow cow” but “ts’ao ts’ao”.
As China stumbled from the second century into the third, the 400-year-old Han empire (206BC-AD220), considered by many to be China’s first golden age, was in its death throes. A weak and corrupt central government resulted in local governors and military commanders carving out their own fiefdoms away from the imperial capital. It was a time for brave and ambitious men to embark on heroic enterprises, and one of these men was Cao Cao (AD155–220).
Cao Cao was appointed a court gentleman at the age of 20, later making a name for himself for his role in forming a military alliance against Dong Zhuo, a warlord who tyrannised the nine-year-old Emperor Xian. But it was his suppression of a large army of Yellow Turban rebels and the recruitment of their best troops in 192 that made him a force to be reckoned with.
In 195, Emperor Xian and his entourage fled the capital, which was on the verge of collapse due to the fighting between two rival generals. Cao Cao scored a political coup by offering the emperor exile in his territory, where a new court was established. With Emperor Xian at his behest, Cao Cao ruled in the emperor’s name, appointing himself counsellor-in-chief, the duke of Wei and, finally, the prince of Wei in 216. Emperor Xian of the Han dynasty was sovereign only in name.
After his death in 220, at the age of 66, his son, Cao Pi, did the inevitable and overthrew Emperor Xian, by now a middle-aged man, proclaiming himself the founding emperor of the Wei dynasty. Two other warlords in the southeast (Wu state) and southwest (Shu state) also declared independence soon afterwards, formally ushering in the Three Kingdoms period.
Cao Cao was already a controversial figure in his time, but it was the latter-day fictionalisation of the Three Kingdoms period and its principal figures, especially in the perennially popular novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, that condemned Cao Cao to historical ignominy. Less savoury aspects of his personality, such as his conniving and overbearing nature were highlighted and remembered, consigning to the shadows attributes such as his brilliance as a military strategist and his literary flair.
In recent years, there have been several revisionist interpretations of that period that looked at Cao Cao the person, as opposed to Cao Cao the personification of malevolence and deceit. Now, the identification of his skeletal remains will give a more human face to this historically vilified figure.