Ts'ao Ts'ao (155-220), the most popular hero in Chinese folklore, was also a truly great historical figure whose genius as a general and as a statesman saved North China from chaos when the Han dynasty crumbled at the end of the 2nd century A.D.
The origins of Ts'ao Ts'ao are obscure since his father, Ts'ao Sung, was the adopted son of a powerful eunuch, Ts'ao T'eng. This meant that the Ts'ao family was a rich one, but relatively newly rich, and of tainted lineage. An unruly and adventurous youth, Ts'ao was greatly pleased when a famous judge of character predicted that he would be "an able public servant in a world at peace, or a crafty, deceitful hero in a world at war." The world was at war, one of the bloodiest China had ever seen, and Ts'ao Ts'ao threw himself into the battle in 184, helping to quell the rebellion of the Yellow Turbans, the so-called T'ai-p'ing (or Taiping) Rebellion, that was to serve as a prototype for similar popular uprisings for two millennia.
Through the influence of his father and in recompense for his actions, Ts'ao Ts'ao rose in rank. When the empire was threatened by Tung Cho, a brutal condottiere who captured the Emperor and burned the capital, Ts'ao fled to the provinces, where he raised his own troops to fight, ostensibly to save the Han from dissolution. The next 20 years of his life were years of anarchic fighting among his warlord enemies. In 200, at the battle of Kuantu, Honan, he defeated Yüan Shao; and after continual battles against the Yüan family, Liu Piao, and the Wu-huan, Ts'ao became the sole power in the North.
In 208, another famous battle, at Ch'ih-pi on the south bank of the Yangtze in Hupei, showed he could not defeat his combined enemies in Wu and Shu. The end of his life was spent in consolidating his hold on the North, by far the most important part of China, becoming prime minister in 208, Duke of Wei in 213, and Prince of Wei in 216. At his death on March 15, 220, he had still not taken the imperial title. This his son, Ts'ao P'i, did, becoming the first emperor of the Wei dynasty on Dec. 11, 220.
Ts'ao Ts'ao's importance was hotly debated in China in 1959, the debate resembling the "rehabilitation" of Ivan the Terrible in Soviet Russia in the 1930s and being, consequently, highly doctrinaire. Whatever Ts'ao's attitudes toward the common people were, whether "progressive" or "reactionary, " it is a fact that he made intelligent use of military agricultural colonies (t'un-t'ien) near his capital, in which soldiers were set to farming unused farm land, reorganized and reused taxes, and by the repopulation of the vast areas that had been devastated by the unceasing wars—he succeeded in bringing peace and prosperity to North China and reestablishing a unified empire. His policies for appointing men "only by their talent" in an attempt to strengthen the central government, by ignoring the new real powers in the land, the rich regional landowners, ultimately were doomed to failure, but his vigorous unconcern for the deadwood of Confucian tradition helped liberate the minds of the intelligentsia and paved the way for a veritable renaissance of thought and literature.
Ts'ao Ts'ao himself was a powerful poet and prose writer. His spare and virile style was admirably suited to the popular ballad from (yüeh-fu) that he used in the 24 poems that bear his name and sing of his political ambitions, the pain of warfare, the shortness of life, and the joys of mystical journeying with Taoist immortals. For many Chinese, however, Ts'ao Ts'ao remains the archvillain of history, immortalized in the novel San-kuo chih yen-i (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms) as a crafty and unscrupulous usurper.
Further Reading on Ts'ao Ts'ao
The long résumé of events from 180 to 220 found in the Tzu-chih t'ung-chien of Ssu-ma Kuang was translated by Rafe de Crespigny as The Last of the Han (Centre of Oriental Studies, Monograph 9, Australian National University, Canberra, 1969). Some background appears in Kenneth Scott Latourette, The Chinese: Their History and Culture (1934; 4th rev. ed. 1964); C. P. Fitzgerald, China: A Short Cultural History (1935; 3d ed. 1961); Edwin O. Reischauer and John K. Fairbank, History of East Asian Civilization, vol. 1: East Asia: The Great Tradition (1958); and Ying-shih Yü, Trade and Expansion in Han China (1967).