Biography (SGZ): Cao Zhi (Zijian)

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Cao Zhi (Zijian)
(AD 192-232)

Sanguozhi Officer Biography (1)
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Cao Zhi (styled Zijian), the third son of Cao Cao and Prince Si of Chen, is widely acknowledged as the most accomplished writer and poet of the Jian-an era, and his surviving works surpass that of the other writers of the time in both number and quality.

An easy-going man, Cao Zhi was never pompous or overly ceremonious with his friends. He was beloved of Cao Cao for his quick wit and ability to answer the most difficult of questions on the spot. In the earlier parts of his life he was given to partying and sports, but possessed genuine concern for his country. In spite of that, Cao Zhi was the object of suspicion of both Wei emperors he served under, and died at the age of 41 as a frustrated and depressed man, never having held an important position in government.

Cao Zhi’s literary talents showed at a young age. When he was still in his teens, he had already learnt many books and essays by heart, totaling a hundred thousand lines of text. 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 such a beautiful poem on the spot, that Cao Cao and all those who were present were greatly amazed.

Cao Cao believed that Cao Zhi had great promise and had high expectations of him. In the 16th year of Jian’an (AD 212), Cao Zhi was made Earl of Pingyuan. Three years later, he was moved to Linzi and was made Earl of that place. In the same year, Cao Cao marched off to wage war against Sun Quan, and before leaving he left Cao Zhi to guard the important city of Ye. Cao Cao admonished his son thus: “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 22nd year of Jian’an (AD 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 heir.

In fact, Cao Cao would have made Cao Zhi heir many times over if only Cao Zhi were less wanton in his ways and more moderate in his drinking. His elder brother, Cao Pi, in comparison, was a shrewd and careful man, and at times expressed feigned emotions to solicit support from those in the court. As a result, those in the court all spoke well of Cao Pi, and Cao Cao eventually made him heir. From this time on, Cao Pi developed a deep suspicion of Cao Zhi, even though Zhi never expressed interest in contending for heirship.

Once, Cao Zhi was coursing through the streets in his carriage, and exited the city by the Sima Gate, which only those in military command were supposed to use. Cao Cao was furious, and sentenced the driver to death. From that time on Cao Cao kept a close eye on all his sons, and Cao Zhi’s favor diminished by the day. And then, when Yang Xiu, one of Cao Zhi’s closest friends, was executed, he became even more uneasy.

Cao Cao hadn’t given up hope entirely on Cao Zhi yet. In the 24th year of Jian’an (AD 220), Cao Ren was surrounded by Guan Yu’s troops. Wishing to give Cao Zhi a chance to redeem himself, Cao Cao conferred onto him the title “Enemy-defeating General”, and was about to send him to save Cao Ren, with the hope that the task would regulate Cao Zhi’s temperament a little. However, Cao Zhi was so drunk at that time that he could not take the orders. Cao Cao regretted the move and took back the orders.

In that same year, Cao Cao passed away and Cao Pi declared himself emperor. Among the first thing he did was order the execution of two of Cao Zhi’s very close friends, Ding Yi and Ding Yi (2), along with their families. Cao Zhi and the other lords were sent back to their fiefs and were prohibited from being involved in the affairs of the government. Furthermore, imperial fief surveyors were assigned to keep surveillance on all the enfeoffed 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 asked to have Cao Zhi punished severely – and Cao Pi would have done so too, if it were not for the intercessions of the Empress Dowager, who was mother of both Pi and Zhi. And so Zhi was only demoted to be the 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.

Cao Zhi got moved again the next year, and this time was to Yongqiu. That year (AD 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 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 of the same mother, died suddenly while in the capital. And then, 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 go together. Out of 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 6th year of Huangchu (AD 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.

Things did not get much better for Cao Zhi when Cao Pi died the next year and Cao Rui became emperor. Immediately, Cao Zhi was moved to Junyi, and then the next year he was moved back to Yongqiu. He was often frustrated and angry at himself for not being able to apply his talents; thus he wrote to the emperor describing his abilities at military and administrative affairs, hoping to get a chance to prove himself – but Cao Rui declined. In the third year of Taihe (AD 229), Cao Zhi was moved again, this time to Dong’e. In the first month of the sixth year of Taihe (AD 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 had often sought a private audience with the emperor to discuss political matters, hoping again that he would be used – but he never was admitted. Upon his return to his state he was depressed and felt utter hopelessness.

Despite his title as Prince, Cao Zhi did not have a good life. The laws of the time were harsh upon the princes – incompetent rascals were given as servants and no more than 200 old and feeble soldiers were assigned to be guards. Cao Zhi received half of that, on the account of his earlier faults. In the course of 11 years, he was relocated thrice, never having a chance to establish a permanent residence or contact with his kinsfolk. All these reasons caused Cao Zhi to become severely depressed. He fell ill and died at the age of 41, leaving in his will instructions for a simple burial.

In his lifetime, Cao Zhi remained eager to contribute to his country and family until the very end, in spite of all the setbacks and disappointments. Many of his poems reflect his yearning to prove himself, as seen in the following excerpts from two poems, written as late as during Cao Rui’s reign:

… Man’s lifetime in this world goes by
as quickly as the wind upon the dust.
Would I be able to employ my talents
to exert myself in the service
of the enlightened ruler! …(“Dew upon grass”)

Another poem likens the author to an imaginary young warrior who is fearless and ready to answer the nation’s call to arms:

… I give myself up, the nation’s honor to defend,
Death, I view lightly, as homecoming at the end. (“The white horse”)

As this hoped died near the end of his life, the eager warrior gave way to bleaker imagery. After his relocation to Dong’e, he wrote the poem “Passage of Sighs”, which summarizes the miseries of his life:

Passage of Sighs (Cao Zhi, AD 229)
Alas! This rolling tumbleweed
Living alone in this world – Oh why? Oh why?
Long have I left my roots and gone
Resting never, day nor night
From east to west, from south to north.
A whirlwind rises, blowing me
into the clouds, where I thought
was the ends of Heaven
But all of a sudden –
I fall
deep into an abyss.
I am carried out by a rapid gust.
If only it were to take me back to the fields!
Southwards I am bound, but it takes me north;
Supposing it blows to the east, it turns to the west.
Straying, drifting, with nothing to rely on –
“Surely I expire,” I say, but my life goes on
To wander through the hills and plains
Turning, tumbling, with no place to stay –
Who would understand my agony, I pray?
May I be grass growing in a forest
To burn when autumn flames rage fiercest!
Destroyed by fire – know I naught of the pain?
I’d rather that, but with my roots remain.

(1) Lady Wu: Although the Sanguozhi translation is included, this text contains additional material (the poems, for example). <return>

(2) Lady Wu: Although the Ding brothers share the same name in pinyin, their names use different Chinese characters: 丁儀 is the older brother, and 丁廙 is the younger. is a much older form of the character , which would be used if the former character isn’t compatible with your input program. <return>

Copyright © 2002 - 2003
Translated from Chen Shou’s Sanguozhi