Cao Rui

From New World Encyclopedia
Cao Rui
Emperor of Cao Wei
Born 205
Died 22 January 239
Predecessor Cao Pi
Successor Cao Fang
Simplified Chinese 曹叡
Traditional Chinese 曹叡
Pinyin Cáo Rùi
Wade-Giles Ts'ao Jui
Courtesy name Yuanzhong (元仲)
Posthumous name

Emperor Ming of Wei (魏明帝)

  • Ming - ("all-seeing")
Temple name Liezu (烈祖, liè zǔ)

Cao Rui (曹叡205-22 January 239[1]) was the son of Cao Pi (曹丕) and the second emperor of the Cao Wei (曹魏). He is also known as the Emperor Ming of Wei, ch. 魏明帝, py. wèi míng dì, wg. Wei Ming-ti. His courtesy name was Yuanzhong (元仲).

Cao Rui's reign has been viewed in many ways throughout Chinese history. He was known to have been a strong military strategist, astute in commissioning capable officials, and a supporter of the arts. However, he also expended excessive amounts of money and labor on construction projects, building palaces and ancestral temples, and on his harem, which consisted of thousands of concubines. During his reign, the stalemate between his empire, Shu Han (蜀漢), and Eastern Wu (東吳) became more entrenched. On his deathbed, he entrusted his son Cao Fang (曹芳) to the regency of Cao Shuang (曹爽) and Sima Yi (司馬懿), a fatal mistake for his empire, as Cao Shuang monopolized power and governed incompetently, eventually drawing a violent reaction from Sima, who overthrew him in a coup d'etat and took control of the Cao Wei government, eventually allowing his grandson Sima Yan (晋武帝) to usurp the Wei throne.

Family Background

When Cao Rui was born (likely in 205), his grandfather Cao Cao (曹操) was the paramount warlord of Han Dynasty, who had rendered Emperor Xian of Han (漢獻帝) a mere figurehead. His father, Cao Pi, was Cao Cao's oldest surviving son and the heir apparent. His mother, Zhen Luo (甄宓;甄洛), had been the wife of Yuan Shao's son Yuan Xi, but when she was seized by Cao Cao's army in 204, Cao Pi forced her to marry him, and she gave birth to Cao Rui only eight months after the wedding, leading to rumors that Cao Rui was actually biologically Yuan Xi's son and not Cao Pi's. This rumor was eventually was used to great advantage by Cao Pi's concubine, Guo Nüwang (郭女王), to create tension between Cao Pi and Lady Zhen. After his father's death in 220, when Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian to yield the throne to him and established Cao Wei, Lady Zhen was not allowed to accompany him to the new capital Luoyang (洛陽), and in 221 he forced her to commit suicide.

Because of what happened to Lady Zhen, even though Cao Rui was the oldest of Cao Pi's sons, he was not created Crown Prince early in his father's reign, but was only created the Prince of Pingyuan in 222. Sometime during his years as the Prince of Pingyuan, he took a daughter of an aristocrat, Lady Yu, as his wife and princess. He apparently had a cordial relationship with Lady Guo, who was created Empress (also in 222), and as she had no sons, his status as heir apparent was not seriously challenged. It is said that any thoughts that Cao Pi had at not making him heir were dispelled during a hunting episode. During the hunt, Cao Pi and Cao Rui had encountered a mother deer and a young deer. Cao Pi killed the mother deer with an arrow, and then ordered Cao Rui to kill the young deer. Cao Rui wept and said, "Your imperial majesty had already killed the mother, and I do not have the heart to kill the son as well." Cao Pi dropped his bow and arrows and became mournful.

In 226, when Cao Pi became ill, he finally created Cao Rui crown prince. He died soon afterward, and Cao Rui became emperor at the age of 21.

Treatment of Officials

Cao Rui, a young adult when he became emperor, quickly showed a knack for finding capable officials to empower, while maintaining steady control over them. His father had appointed three regents for him; his distant cousin Cao Zhen (曹真), the steady administrator Chen Qun (陳羣), and the shrewd strategist Sima Yi. Once Cao Rui became emperor, though he recognized the value of the advice offered by these senior officials, dealt with them by honoring them and making them regional governors, with full authority in the provinces they governed. By doing this, he made himself independent of them, while at the same time continuing to receive the benefit of their wisdom and advice.

Throughout his reign, Cao Rui showed great diligence in seeking out advice from multiple officials, rather than accepting the counsel of just a few, before making important decisions. He was generally cautious and not willing to take risks, but at the same time was able to avoid major disasters to his empire.

Campaigns Against Shu Han

One immediate threat that Cao Rui had to face after he became emperor were attacks from Shu Han's regent, Zhuge Liang (諸葛亮). After the death of Shu Han's founding emperor, Liu Bei (劉備), Zhuge had initially taken a passive military posture with regard to the Shu Han-Cao Wei border, while re-establishing an alliance with Sun Quan's Eastern Wu, in order to rest the people and his troops. In 227, under the theory that Shu Han was naturally a weaker state than Cao Wei and, if it just did nothing, would eventually be swallowed up by Cao Wei anyway, started a series of five campaigns north.

During these campaigns, Cao Rui's response was to go to Chang'an, the target for which Zhuge was aiming, and then commission generals to the front lines to ward off Zhuge's attacks. This strategy had the effect of calming the troops and allowing him to be fairly quickly informed about events at the front, while still keeping the central empire under his watch. At least in part because of Cao Rui's effectiveness, Zhuge's campaigns were largely futile, and after his death in 234, were almost abandoned by his successors Jiang Wan (蔣琬) and Fei Yi (費禕). There were still skirmishes between the two states almost annually on the borders with Shu Han; however, there were no major confrontations on the scale of Zhuge's campaigns for the rest of Cao Rui's reign.

Campaigns Against Eastern Wu

During Cao Rui's reigns, many battles were also waged against the other rival empire, Eastern Wu. The first came only two months after Cao Rui had become emperor in 226. During that campaign, Cao Rui showed his acumen for assessing a situation correctly; judging that by the time that reinforcements could be sent, Eastern Wu's monarch Sun Quan would have already withdrawn, he concluded that sending reinforcements was pointless. During campaigns against Eastern Wu, he employed a strategy similar to that used with Shu Han; he personally went east to be close to the theater of the war, while remaining some distance away from the front lines. This proved to be effective. He also entrusted the southeastern border to the capable Man Chong (滿寵), and Man's stewardship averted many disasters.

A major military disaster occurred in 228, when the Eastern Wu general Zhou Fang (周魴) tricked Cao Rui's distant cousin and regional governor, Cao Xiu (曹休), into believing that he was ready to surrender his troops to Cao Wei. Instead he was preparing a trap for Cao Xiu. Cao Rui failed to see through Zhou Fang’s deception and enthusiastically approved Cao Xiu's plan. Cao Xiu's forces were saved by Jia Kui(賈逵) from total annihilation.

The greatest challenge posed by Eastern Wu occurred in 234, when Eastern Wu, in a semi-coordinated effort with Shu Han, launched an attack against Cao Wei simultaneously with Zhuge Liang. (See Northern Expeditions.) During the campaign, Cao Rui effectively coordinated the various forces that Cao Wei had on Eastern Wu's borders, and Eastern Wu was unable to make substantial gains.

Campaigns Against Liaodong

The only real military gain for Cao Wei during Cao Rui's reign was the end of the Gongsun clan's hold on Liaodong (modern central and eastern Liaoning 遼寧), started by Gongsun Du (公孫度) in 190. In 228, Gongsun Du's grandson Gongsun Yuan deposed his uncle Gongsun Gong in a coup and asked for an official commission from Cao Rui. Against Liu Ye (劉曄)'s advice to attack the Gongsuns while there was dissension within, Cao Rui gave Gongsun Yuan an official commission as the governor of Liaodong Commandery.

In 232, Cao Rui, angry that Gongsun Yuan had repeatedly communicated with and sold horses to Eastern Wu, ordered his generals Tian Yu and Wang Xiong (王雄) to attack Liaodong, against Jiang Ji (蔣濟)'s advice; the attacks were not successful, although Tian was able to intercept the Eastern Wu horse-buying fleet and destroy it. After this incident, Gongsun appeared to have still remained a formal vassal of Cao Wei, but the relationship was damaged.

The next year, however, that relationship improved. Gongsun, apprehensive of another attack from Cao Wei, sent ambassadors to Eastern Wu to formally submit to its emperor Sun Quan. Sun was so pleased that he immediately created Gongsun the Prince of Yan and granted him the nine bestowments, which were typically given only to the most powerful officials as a sign that the emperor was about to abdicate to them. When Sun's ambassadors arrived in Liaodong, however, Gongsun, realizing that Eastern Wu would be of little help in repelling an expedition against him, betrayed Eastern Wu, slaughtered Sun's ambassadors and seized their troops. As a reward, Cao Rui created Gongsun the Duke of Lelang. (Part of the Eastern Wu troops were able to escape and eventually return home with the assistance of Goguryeo, a rival of the Gongsuns.)

In 237, however, Cao Rui again considered attacking Liaodong, angered by reports that Gongsun had repeatedly defamed him. He commissioned Guanqiu Jian (毌丘儉,) to prepare for an attack, and then ordered Gongsun to come to Luoyang for an official visit. Gongsun refused and declared independence. Guanqiu attacked him, but was stopped by torrential rains. Gongsun then declared himself the Prince of Yan and entered into alliances with the Xianbei (鲜卑) tribes to harass Cao Wei's borders.

The following year, Cao Rui sent Sima Yi instead and gave him 40,000 men. Gongsun, upon hearing this, again requested aid from Eastern Wu. Sun, angry at Gongsun's last betrayal, pretended to agree, but did not send Gongsun any actual help. Sima's expeditionary force was, like Wuqiu's, initially halted by torrential rains, but Sima waited out the rains and surrounded Gongsun's capital of Xiangping (襄平, in modern Liaoyang, Liaoning), starving Gongsun's troops. After nearly three months of siege, Xiangping fell, and Gongsun fled, but was captured and executed by Sima. Liaodong became part of Cao Wei's domain.

Building Projects and Harem

Almost immediately after Cao Rui ascended the throne, he initiated large-scale palace and temple-building projects. Part of this was justified; the Luoyang palaces were remnants of the ones not destroyed by Dong Zhuo, and the temples were needed for the cults of his ancestors. However, he went beyond what was minimally required, and continued to build temples and palaces throughout the rest of his reign, severely draining the imperial treasury. While he occasionally halted projects at the officials' behest, the projects would restart after brief breaks. He not only built palaces in Luoyang, but also built a palace in Xuchang ( 許昌). In 237, he moved many of the magnificent statutes and monuments that were commissioned by Emperor Wu of Han from Chang'an to Luoyang, at great expense and cost in human lives. He commissioned gigantic bronze statutes of his own and placed them on a man-made hill inside his palace, surrounded by rare trees and plants and populated by rare animals.

Cao Rui was also adding to his collection of women, and his concubines and ladies in waiting numbered thousands. His palace-building projects might have been intended to house them. In 237, he even ordered that beautiful married women all be formally seized unless their husbands were able to ransom them, and that they would be married to soldiers instead, but that the most beautiful among them would become his concubines. Despite some officials' protestations, this decree was apparently carried out, much to the distress of his people.

Marriages, Succession Issues and Death

When Cao Rui became Emperor, it was commonly expected that his wife, Princess Yu, would be created Empress, but she was not. Rather, he created a favorite concubine, Consort Mao (毛皇后), Empress in 227. Princess Yu was exiled to their original palace. Cao Rui loved Empress Mao dearly, and a number of her relatives, including her father and brother, became honored officials (but without actual powers).

Despite his collection of women, Cao Rui was without any son who survived infancy. He adopted two sons to be his own, Cao Fang and Cao Xun, and created them princes in 235. (It is usually accepted that they were sons of his cousins, although their exact parentage is not clear.) In 237, Cao Rui took the unprecedented (and unrepeated in Chinese history) action of setting his own temple name of Liezu and ordering that his temple, in the future, never to be torn down. (Based on Confucian regulations, except for the founder of the dynasty, rulers' temples would be destroyed after six generations.) He carried out these actions apparently in apprehension that he would be given an unflattering temple name (or none at all) and that his temple would eventually be destroyed, due to his lack of biological issue.

By 237, Cao Rui's favorite was no longer Empress Mao, but Consort Guo (郭皇后). Once, when Cao Rui was attending a feast hosted by Consort Guo, she requested that Empress Mao be invited to join as well, but Cao Rui refused and further ordered that no news about the feast was to be given to Empess Mao. However, the news got out, and Empress Mao talked to Cao Rui about the feast. He became exceedingly angry, and killed a number of his attendants whom he suspected of leaking the news to Empress Mao. Inexplicably, he ordered Empress Mao to commit suicide, even though she was still buried with honors due an empress, and her family remained honored.

In 238, Cao Rui grew ill. He created Consort Guo Empress in preparation of allowing her to become Empress Dowager after his death. He initially wanted to entrust his adopted son, Cao Fang ]] (曹芳), the Prince of Qi, to his uncle Cao Yu (曹宇), as the lead regent, along with Xiahou Xian (夏侯獻), Cao Shuang (曹爽), Cao Zhao (曹肇), and Qin Lang (秦朗). However, his trusted officials Liu Fang (劉放) and Sun Zi (孫資) were unfriendly with Xiahou and Cao Zhao, and were apprehensive about their becoming regents. They managed to persuade him to make Cao Shuang (with whom they were friendly) and Sima Yi regents instead. Cao Yu, Cao Zhao, and Qin were excluded from the regency. In spring of 239, Cao Rui created the seven-year-old Cao Fang crown prince, and died the same day. Cao Shuang, as regent, monopolized power and governed incompetently, eventually evoking a violent reaction from Sima, who overthrew him in a coup d'etat and took control of the Cao Wei government, eventually allowing his grandson Sima Yan (晋武帝) to usurp the Wei throne.

Historical Assessment

Cao Rui's reign was paradoxical in many ways. He was clearly intelligent and capable, yet never fulfilled his potential in his governance of the country or in his military campaigns. He showed great compassion at times, yet was capable of great cruelty. He carried out many acts that were beneficial for the empire, but at least as many of his actions were hurtful. Despite his uncle Cao Zhi (曹植)'s successive petitions, Cao Rui continued the strict prohibition against princes' holding office that his father, Cao Pi, had instituted. This was commonly viewed by traditional historians as an eventual factor in the downfall of Cao Wei; when the Simas took power after Cao Rui's death, the imperial princes had no real power to oppose them.

Cao Rui's reign was viewed in many ways throughout Chinese history. He was known as an emperor who was a strong military strategist and a supporter of the arts. He was also known to be astute in commissioning capable officials. However, he expended excessive amounts of money and labor on construction projects, building palaces and ancestral temples, and the stalemate between his empire, Shu Han (蜀漢), and Eastern Wu(東吳) become more entrenched during his reign. His building projects and his large harem of concubines, who numbered in the thousands, greatly exhausted the imperial treasury. He is criticized for making Sima Yi regent for his successor, an action that eventually resulted in the Simas taking over the throne.

Era names

  • Taihe (太和 tài hé) 227-233
  • Qinglong (青龍 qīng lóng) 233-237
  • Jingchu (景初 jĭng chū) 237-239

Personal information

  • Father
    • Cao Pi (Emperor Wen of Cao Wei)
  • Mother
    • Lady Zhen Luo
  • Wives
    • Princess Yu of Pingyuan
    • Empress Mao (created 227, d. 237)
    • Empress Guo (created 239, d. 264)
  • Biological children
    • Cao Jiong (曹冏), Prince of Qinghe (created and d. 226)
    • Cao Mu (曹穆), Prince of Fanyang (created 228, d. 230)
    • Cao Yin (曹殷) (b. 231, d. 232), posthumously created Prince Ai of Anping
    • Cao Shu (曹淑), the Princess Pingyuan (d. and posthumously created 232)
  • Adopted children
    • Cao Fang (曹芳), initially the Prince of Qi (created 235), later crown prince (created 239), later emperor
    • Cao Xun (曹詢), the Prince of Qin (b. 230?, created 235, d. 244)


  1. 前魏明帝景初3年12月. Retrieved December 16, 2007.

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Preceded by:
Cao Pi (Emperor Wen)
Emperor of Cao Wei
Succeeded by:
Cao Fang

Prominent people of the Three Kingdoms Era
Rulers Han: Emperor Ling - Emperor Shao (Prince of Hongnong) - Emperor Xian
Wei: Cao Cao - Cao Pi - Cao Rui - Cao Fang - Cao Mao - Cao Huan
Shu: Liu Bei - Liu Shan
Wu: Sun Jian - Sun Ce - Sun Quan - Sun Liang - Sun Xiu - Sun Hao
Jin: Sima Yan

Others: Dong Zhuo - Gongsun Zan - Han Fu - Liu Biao - Liu Yao - Liu Zhang - Lü Bu - Ma Teng - Meng Huo - Yuan Shao - Yuan Shu - Zhang Jiao - Zhang Lu

Advisors Wei: Guo Jia - Jia Xu - Sima Shi - Sima Yi - Sima Zhao - Xu You - Xu Shu - Xun You - Xun Yu - Dong Zhao - Mi Heng
Shu: Fei Yi - Jiang Wan - Jiang Wei - Pang Tong - Zhuge Liang
Wu: Gu Yong - Lu Su - Lu Kang - Lu Xun - Zhang Zhao - Zhou Yu - Zhuge Jin - Zhuge Ke
Others: Chen Gong - Li Ru - Li Su - Tian Feng
Generals Wei: Dian Wei - Xiahou Dun - Xiahou Yuan - Xu Chu - Xu Huang - Zhang He - Zhang Liao
Shu: Guan Ping - Guan Xing - Guan Yu - Huang Zhong - Ma Chao - Wei Yan - Zhang Fei - Zhao Yun
Wu: Gan Ning - Huang Gai - Ling Tong - Lü Meng - Taishi Ci - Xu Sheng - Zhou Tai - Zhu Ran
Others: He Jin - Hua Xiong - Ji Ling - Wen Chou - Yan Liang
Others Diaochan - Guan Lu - Hua Tuo - Sima Hui - Sun Shangxiang


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