Cao Zhi

From New World Encyclopedia

Cao Zhi
Portrait Cao Zhi.jpg
Excerpt of Cao Zhi's in Nymph of Luo River by Gu Kaizhi
Born: 192
Died: 232
Occupation(s): Poet
Literary movement: Jian An

Cao Zhi (Chinese: 曹植 192 – 232; Ts'ao Chih, also called (Wade–Giles romanization) Ch'en Ssu Wang, or Prince Ssu Of Ch'en) was a Chinese poet during the late Eastern Han Dynasty (漢朝) and Three Kingdoms period. His poetry style, greatly revered during the Jin Dynasty (晋朝) and Southern and Northern Dynasties (南北朝), came to be known as the jian'an style. Cao Zhi is widely acknowledged as the most accomplished writer and poet of the Jian-an era, and his surviving works surpass those of the other writers of the time in both number and quality.[1]

Cao Zhi was also the son of the powerful warlord Cao Cao (曹操). He and his elder brother Cao Pi (曹丕), they were the strongest contenders for their father's position. Cao Pi eventually succeeded Cao Cao in 220 and within a year declared himself the first emperor of the Kingdom of Wei (曹魏). As in many powerful families, tension among brothers was high. In his later life, Cao Zhi was not allowed to participate in politics, despite his many petitions seeking to hold office. In spite of his genuine desire to serve is country, he was held in suspicion by both of the Wei emperors he served under, and died depressed and frustrated at the age of 41.


Cao Zhi was born in 192, the third son of the powerful warlord Cao Cao and Princess Bian ( (卞太后). According to the Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms (三國志), Cao Zhi could recite the Shi Jing (詩經), Analects (論語) and more than 10,000 verses of poetry before he was 20. His literary talent made him a favorite son of Cao Cao in the early stage of his life. Once, Cao Cao took all his sons up to the newly completed Bronze Sparrow Pavilion, and ordered each one of them to write an ode on it. Cao Zhi picked up the writing brush and composed a beautiful poem on the spot, amazing Cao Cao and all those who were present. Cao Cao believed that Cao Zhi had great promise and had high expectations of him. In the sixteenth year of Jian’an (212 C.E.), Cao Zhi was made Earl of Pingyuan.

However, Cao Zhi was an impetuous man with little self-discipline, and a heavy drinker. His elder brother, Cao Pi, was a shrewd man who knew how to feign emotions at the right times. Cao Pi also enjoyed a much closer relationship with the servants and subjects around Cao Cao, and they spoke well of him.

Simplified Chinese: 曹植
Traditional Chinese: 曹植
Pinyin: Cáo Zhí
Wade-Giles: Ts'ao Chih
Zi: Zijian (子建)

In 215, Cao Zhi was moved to Linzi and was made Earl of Linzi. In the same year, Cao Cao marched off to wage war against Sun Quan. Before leaving, he ordered Cao Zhi to guard the important city of Ye, admonishing him, “When I was Magistrate of Dunqiu, I was 23 years old. Thinking back to what I did at that time, I have no regrets at all. Now you are also 23 years of age – would you not strive for excellence in your tasks?” In the twenty–second year of Jian’an (218), Cao Zhi’s fief was increased by 5,000 households, to a total of 10,000 households, and all were certain that Cao Zhi was going to be made Cao Cao’s heir.

In 217, however, Cao Cao chose Cao Pi as his successor. This further aggravated Cao Zhi's already eccentric behavior. He once rode his chariot along the road reserved for the emperor and through the front gate of the palace, infuriating his father, who sentenced the chariot driver to death.

Having chosen a successor, Cao Cao took measures to emasculate other contenders to the throne. He executed Yang Xiu, a chief advisor to Cao Zhi. This greatly unsettled Cao Zhi, but failed to shock him into changing his wanton behavior. Instead, he sank further into drunkenness. In 219, Cao Cao's cousin and leading general, Cao Ren, was besieged at Fancheng (樊城, present day Xiangfan, Hubei) by the enemy general Guan Yu. Cao Cao named Cao Zhi to lead a relief force to the rescue, with the hope that the task would instill responsibility in him. However, Cao Zhi was so drunk that he could not come forth to take the order. Cao Cao then gave up on his son.

Within months, Cao Cao died. One of Cao Pi’s first actions was to do away with Ding Yi (丁仪) and Ding Yi (丁廙), two firm friends and supporters of Cao Zhi. He also sent Cao Zhi, along with his other brothers, away from the capital and prohibited them from taking part in central political issues or even communicating with one another. Imperial fief surveyors were assigned to keep surveillance on all the relatives of the emperor. One of these surveyors once accused Cao Zhi of being “intoxicated and arrogant, threatening the messengers of the Emperor.” Many in the court petitioned to have Cao Zhi punished severely, but their mother, the Empress Dowager, interceded, and Cao Zhi was only demoted to Earl of Anxiang. In the same year, Cao Zhi was moved to be the Earl of Yingcheng, and a year later he was promoted to Prince again, and given a fief of 2,500 families.

The next year, Cao Zhi was moved again, this time to Yongqiu. That year (224), Cao Pi granted audience to all the princes, and Cao Zhi and his brothers paid homage to the emperor in the Capital city. This was the first time Cao Zhi had met with his brothers in a long while, as Cao Pi did not allow the fiefdoms to communicate with each other at all. Unfortunately, Cao Zhang, Cao Zhi’s brother from the same mother, died suddenly while in the capital. As soon as the ceremonies were over, the princes were ordered to go directly back to their enfeoffments. Cao Zhi and his brother Cao Biao, Prince of Baima, both had to take the road eastwards, however, the fief surveyors did not allow them to travel together. In anguish, Cao Zhi wrote what is probably his most well-respected work – “To Biao, the Prince of Baima,” a sorrowful seven-section poem expressing his frustration and distress at being forced to be separated from his brothers.

Cao Zhi’s relationship with Cao Pi improved slightly in the sixth year of Huangchu (226), when the Emperor, returning from his eastward campaign and passing by Yongqiu, visited Zhi’s palace, and granted him an increase of 500 households.

Prospects for Cao Zhi did not improve after Cao Pi died in 227. Immediately, Cao Zhi was moved to Junyi, and then the next year he was moved back to Yongqiu. He wrote to the second Wei emperor Cao Rui (曹叡) many times, seeking a position to apply his talents. In 232, he even sought a private meeting with Cao Rui to discuss politics. However, Cao Rui probably still considered him a threat to the throne and declined all the offers. In the third year of Taihe (229), Cao Zhi was moved again, this time to Dong’e. In the first month of the sixth year of Taihe (232), Cao Rui summoned all the lords for an audience, and in the second month he made Cao Zhi Prince of Chen, with a fief encompassing the four counties of Chen totaling 3,500 households. During his time in the capital city, Cao Zhi often sought a private audience with the emperor to discuss political matters, hoping again for a position of importance, but he never was admitted.[2]

Upon his return to his state he was depressed and felt utter hopelessness. Severely depressed by the setbacks, Cao Zhi soon died due to sickness, leaving behind instructions for a simple burial.


Despite his failure in politics, Cao Zhi was hailed as one of the representatives of the poetic style of his time, together with his father Cao Cao, his elder brother Cao Pi and several other poets. Their poems formed the backbone of what was to be known as the jian'an style (建安風骨). The civil strife towards the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty gave the jian'an poems their characteristic solemn yet stirring tone. Lament over the ephemerality of life was a central theme of works from this period. In terms of the history of Chinese literature, the jian'an poems were a transition from the early folksongs into scholarly poetry.

Although jian'an refers to the time period between 196 and 220, Cao Zhi's poems can be categorized into two periods, with the year 220 as the watershed. The earlier period consisted of poems that expressed his ambitions, optimistic and romantic in nature. His political setbacks after the death of his father in 220 gave rise to the grievous tone of his later works.

More than 90 poems by Cao Zhi remain today, more than 60 of which are five-character poems (五言詩). These are held in high esteem for their significant influence over the development of five-character poetry in later ages. A most complete collection of Cao Zhi's poems and other literary works is Chen Si Wang Ji (陳思王集, Collection of King Si of Chen), compiled during the Ming Dynasty. One of Cao Zhi's most celebrated poems is On the White Horse.. Written in the early years of his life, the poem portrayed a young warrior who answered fearlessly to the needs of his country and reflected Cao Zhi's own aspiration to contribute to his times.

On the White Horse

A white horse, in a halter of gold,
Galloping swiftly to the northwest.

Ask which family's son is the rider –
A noble knight, who hails from You and Bing.

He left his home in early youth, and now,
His name is known throughout the deserts.

Morning and evening he clutches his bow;
How many arrows hang at his side!

He pulls his bow—the left-hand target is pierced,
He shoots at the right and cuts it through.

Upwards his arrows seek the flying monkeys,
Downward they destroy another object.

His dexterity surpasses that of monkeys,
His courage that of leopard or dragon.

Alarms are heard from the frontier!
Northern tribesmen pour into the country in their thousands.

Letters are sent from the north, and
Reining his horse he clambers up the hill.

He charges Hun soldiers to the right;
Looking left he assaults the Xianbei.

He's staked himself on the edge of his sword;
How can he treasure his life?

Even his father and mother he puts at the back of his mind,
Let alone his children and wife.

If his name is to enter the roll of the heroes,
He can't be concerned about personal matters.

Giving up his life for the sake of his country,
He looks toward death as a journey home...

Translation by Wu Fusheng and Gradham Hartill

Ironically, Cao Zhi's most famous poem was found in the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. Often mistitled The Quatrain of Seven Steps after a real poem by Cao Zhi, it was presented, without a title but with slight variations, in the novel. Cao Zhi was said to have formulated the poem without even taking a second of thought.

Cao Zhi in Romance of the Three Kingdoms

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a historical novel by Luo Guanzhong (羅貫中), was a romanticization of the events that occurred before and during the Three Kingdoms period. Exploiting the intricate relationship among the Cao Cao's sons, especially Cao Pi and Cao Zhi, Luo Guanzhong was able to create a palace scene where the elder brother, having succeeded his father, tried to do away with his younger brother.

After the death of Cao Cao, Cao Zhi failed to turn up for the funeral. Men sent by Cao Pi found Cao Zhi drunk in his own house. Cao Zhi was then bound and brought to Cao Pi. When Empress Bian, their common birth mother, heard of this, she went to Cao Pi and pled for the life of her younger son. Cao Pi acquiesced. Cao Pi's Chief Secretariat (相国) Hua Xin then convinced him to put Cao Zhi's literary talent to a test. Hua Xin suggested that if Cao Zhi failed the test, it would be excuse enough to put him to death.

Cao Pi agreed and held audience with Cao Zhi, who in great trepidation bowed low and confessed his faults. On the wall there was a painting of two oxen fighting, and one of them was falling into a well. Cao Pi then told his brother to make a poem based on the painting within seven paces. However, the poem was not to contain explicit reference to the subjects of the drawing.

Cao Zhi took seven paces as instructed, and the poem was already formulated in his heart. He then recited:

Two butcher's victims lowing walked along,
Each head bore cuving bones, a sturdy pair.
兩肉齊道行,頭上帶凸骨。 两肉齐道行,头上带凸骨。

They met just by a hillock, both were strong,
Each would avoid a pit newly-dug there.
相遇塊山下,欻起相搪突。 相遇块山下,欻起相搪突。

They fought unequal battle, for at length
One lay below a gory mess, inert.
二敵不俱剛,一肉臥土窟 二敌不俱刚,一肉卧土窟。

'Twas not that they were of unequal strength –
Though wrathful both, one did not strength exert.
非是力不如,盛氣不泄畢 非是力不如,盛气不泄毕。

Translation by C. H. Brewitt-Taylor

However, Cao Pi was not satisfied. He then bade Cao Zhi make another poem on the spot based on their fraternal relationship, without using the word "brother." Not taking a second to think, Cao Zhi recited:

They were boiling beans on a beanstalk fire,
Came a plaintive voice from the pot.

"O why, since we sprang from the selfsame root,
Should you kill me with anger hot?"

Translation by C. H. Brewitt-Taylor

Having heard this, Cao Pi was moved to tears. He then let his brother go after merely degrading the peerage of the latter as a punishment.

The Cao Clan

For a complete list, see Cao Cao.

Direct descendant

  • Cao Zhi (曹志)

Immediate family

  • Cao Cao (father)
    • Cao Ang (elder half-brother)
    • Cao Pi (elder brother)
    • Cao Zhang (elder brother)
    • Cao Xiong (younger brother)
    • Cao Chong (younger half-brother)

Extended family

  • Cao Ren (uncle)
  • Cao Chun (uncle)
  • Cao Xiu (distant cousin)
  • Cao Zhen (distant cousin)
    • Cao Shuang

Modern references

In the 2002 TVB produced serial, Where the Legend Begins 洛神, Cao Zhi is portrayed as the protagonist and shown to be a man of high intelligence and compassion. Hong Kong actor Steven Ma acted out the role of Cao Zhi in the series.

See also


  1. Cao Zhi, Lady Wu, 2003, Translated from Chen Shou’s Sanguozhi. Retrieved December 20, 2007.
  2. Ibid.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Chen Shou. 2002. San Guo Zhi. Yue Lu Shu She. ISBN 7806651985
  • Lo Kuan-chung, and C.H. Brewitt-Taylor (trans.). 2002. Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 0804834679
  • Luo Guanzhong. 1986. San Guo Yan Yi. Yue Lu Shu She. ISBN 7805200130


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