Cao Cao (155-220)

Cao Cao (155-220)

By Ruru ZhouUpdated Sep. 15, 2021

Cao Cao was one of the main contenders for power in the region during the end of the Han Empire. Following the course of the Mandate of Heaven, after the rule of two unusually bad emperors, the Han Empire disintegrated and there were many natural disasters. Cao Cao's death itself in the year 220 instigated the end of the empire, because when he died, his son deposed the Han Emperor Xian and made himself an emperor. He tried to conquer the whole empire in the Battle of Red Cliffs, but he failed. During his long political career, he helped to defeat the Yellow Turban rebellion, gained power in Wei, defeated a powerful army with a lot smaller force, gained control of the dynastic court, lost the important Battle of Red Cliffs, and promoted policies to help his territory to prosper.

The discovery of Cao Cao's tomb in Xigaoxue Village in Anyang County, Henan Province has attracted the world's eyes in 2009. A large collection of artefacts has been evacuated from the tomb.

He was born in the year 155 in Anhui. He was born in a politically and economically troubled time. From about 135 onwards, there were many assassinations and conflicts in the ruling court. The main court factions were the eunuchs who were court officials, the Han Dynastic clan, and the Confucian bureaucrats. Two emperors named Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling relied on eunuchs to rule, and they were said to be particularly bad emperors who spent their time with hundreds of concubines and wasted the empire's treasury during the time of economic crisis. Under Emperor Ling who ruled for about twenty years until 189, it is said that the eunuchs auctioned off government offices and ruled in his place.

In 175, Cao Cao became a military official in Luoyang. When the Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out in 184, he was sent to quell the rebellion. Along with the conflicts in the ruling court were added regional civil wars between rebel armies and the regional rulers and the Han army. The regional rulers became relatively more powerful than the court. In the year 194, there was a great famine due to a plague of locusts.

In 195, Emperor Xian sought refuge with Cao Cao. Emperor Xian lived in Xuchang that was one of the cities that were in Cao Cao's territory. He reigned in the emperor's name and had the title of Chief Commander. Cao Cao gathered an army together that included tens of thousands of Yellow Turbans. There were many battles in many places in this decade.

In the year 200, a northern territorial ruler named Yuan Shao led an army of about 100,000 troops to attack Xuchang. Cao Cao met him with an army of 20,000 troops at the Yellow River. The two armies deadlocked for a while, and then Cao Cao's army won when they attacked Yuan Shao's supplies. By 207, Cao Cao had control of the area north of the Yangtze River. Liu Bei was the leader in the territory of Shu Han in the southwest around Sichuan, and Sun Quan was the leader in the region of Dong Wu in the southeast.

Battle of Red Cliffs (Year 208)

Cao Cao was successful in expanding his territory and defeating rivals until the Battle of Red Cliffs (the ruin of the battle site is located 36 kilometers northwest of Puqi City,on the south bank of the Yantze River. In the year 208, he marched south with a big army. His main rivals Sun Quan in Dong Wu and Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang in Shu Han made an alliance. Cao Cao's army was said to number about 200,000 troops. But he was defeated by about 50,000 troops of his rivals. Cao Cao's fleet was set on fire.

End of the Han Empire (Year 220)

Cao Cao died at the age of 64 or 65. Then his son named Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian to abdicate. He named himself the new emperor of the Wei Empire. There is evidence that Cao Cao and Cao Pi planned for Cao Pi to depose the emperor after he died. By trying to conquer the whole empire, he and his son played the main role in ending the Han Empire.

Advantageous Policies

The life of the common person at the fall of the Han Empire was tragic. The widespread famine due to a plague of locusts in 194 killed a lot of people. People migrated to find safety from wars and bands of bandits. Cao Cao wanted to enrich his empire, so he educated the people and set up agricultural policies. Cao Cao taxed the farmers in Cao Wei heavily to support his wars, but his territory was comparatively safe and stable, so the farmers could grow their crops in some safety. He also decreed that talented children should be selected for schooling. Officials were ordered to select talented children in their jurisdiction, and schools were set up for them.

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