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Cao Zhang

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Title: Cao Zhang  
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Subject: Cao Wei family trees, Cao Ren, Sun Kuang, Sun Ce, Wu Zhi
Collection: 223 Deaths, Cao Cao and Immediate Family, Cao Wei Imperial Princes, Year of Birth Unknown
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Cao Zhang

Cao Zhang
Prince of Cao Wei
Born (Unknown)
Died 223[1]
Traditional Chinese 曹彰
Simplified Chinese 曹彰
Pinyin Cáo Zhāng
Wade–Giles Ts'ao Chang
Courtesy name Ziwen (Chinese: 子文; pinyin: Zǐwén; Wade–Giles: Tzu-wen)
Posthumous name Prince Wei (Chinese: 威王; pinyin: Wēi Wáng; Wade–Giles: Wei Wang)

Cao Zhang (died 223),[1][2] courtesy name Ziwen, was a prince of the state of Cao Wei in the Three Kingdoms period. He was a son of Cao Cao, a warlord who rose to power towards the end of the Han Dynasty and laid the foundation of Wei. Cao Zhang was said to have wrestled and killed wild animals with his bare hands. He was also a general under his father, having led his troops to significant victories against Wuhuan tribe incursions on the northern frontier.


  • Background 1
  • As a general 2
  • Death 3
    • Theory of death 3.1
  • Family 4
  • Appointments and titles held 5
  • In fiction 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8


The second of Cao Cao's four sons by Empress Dowager Bian, Cao Zhang was said to excel and obsessed in archery and armed combat in his youth so much so that he would fight fierce beasts with his bare hands. Though Cao Cao criticised his lack of academic learning, Cao Zhang had always aspired to pursue a career in the military. Once, his father sent him to the imperial University to study, but Cao Zhang lamented to his aides, saying a real man should command the army to make a name for himself instead of being a Doctor[3] (a Doctor was both an academic degree and a formal court title for many Chinese dynasties).

As a general

When the Wuhuan tribe rebelled on the northern frontier in 218, Cao Zhang, holding the rank of Northern General of the Household, acting on the authority of General of the Resolute Cavalry (驍騎將軍), led a force of 1,000 infantry and several hundreds of cavalry from central government to suppress the revolt.[4] Before his departure, Cao Cao summoned him and specially warned him: "We are father and son in home, but we are supervisor and subordinate when assigned a task: the law will be applied straightly if you ever made any mistake, keep this in mind." When Cao Zhang arrived the field, his force had not been joined by that of the local government as planned. Outnumbered by the enemy, Cao Zhang took up a passive stance and defended the vital passes and routes. The rebels could not gain an advantage and dissipated. Cao Zhang then led his force out in pursuit, displaying great valour in the ensuing battles. The Records of the Three Kingdoms says several arrows were embedded in his armor by the end of a half-day long battle. Despite opposition from his subordinates, he ordered the pursuit be continued after the initial victory. One of his staff came out and reminded him that Cao Cao's order was that the army could not cross the jurisdiction of Dai, and further pursuit was straightly prohibited,[5] but Cao Zhang argued that a good general did not follow dull orders, and threatened if anyone did not join the pursuit would be penalized with death sentence; thus, they performed a 24 hours dash to catch up with the Wuhuan cavalry, and dealt the latter a major blow which caused a few thousands casualties. The Xianbei tribe leader Kebineng had led a ten-thousand strong cavalry force nearby to observe the ongoing war between Han and Wuhuan. Having seen the splendid victories Cao Zhang scored, Kebineng submitted to him. Unrest on the northern frontier was then quelled.

Cao Zhang then hurried west to take part in the Hanzhong Campaign against Liu Bei. Upon reaching Chang'an, however, he found out that the war had already been lost. Cao Cao then promoted his son to General of the Elite Cavalry (越騎將軍) and left him to defend Chang'an against probable advances of Liu Bei.


Shortly after returning to Luoyang in 220, Cao Cao fell ill. He died as Cao Zhang was en route to see him. His successor Cao Pi then sent all his brothers, including Cao Zhang, back to their individual fiefdoms, for fear that they might contest his position. In 222, Cao Zhang was enfeoffed as King of Rencheng (任城王). In the following year, Cao Zhang died due to sickness whilst attending court at the capital. He received the posthumous appellation of Wei (威), literally meaning awe-inspiring.

Theory of death

There are legends surrounding the death of Cao Zhang. The most famous of these legends is that Cao Zhang was poisoned by his own brother Cao Pi [1]. After Cao Cao died, Cao Zhang was summoned to the palace by Cao Pi. During a casual conversation, Cao Zhang asked his brother if he could see his royal seal. This got Cao Pi worried that his brother wanted to succeed the throne of Cao Cao, which was rightfully Cao Pi's, and therefore Cao Pi decided to kill him. Cao Pi knew that Zhang was his mother Empress Bian's favourite son, so in order to get away with it, he had to make Cao Zhang's death seem natural. A few weeks later, Cao Pi invited his brother to a game of weiqi during their mother's birthday. The match was very close in the middle game when Cao Pi's servants brought some prunes, some that were poisoned. Cao Pi made sure he ate the unmarked ones that were not poisonous and make sure his brother ate the other ones. When Cao Zhang realized that he had been poisoned, he screamed for help. Empress Bian got to the scene on her bare feet and tried to search for water to flush down the poison that was now in Cao Zhang's body. But unfortunately for Cao Zhang, the crafty Cao Pi had secretly placed all the containers away beforehand and so Empress Bian failed to get the water; Cao Zhang then died at the hands of his own brother.


Appointments and titles held

  • North General of the Household (北中郎將)
  • General of Valiant Cavalry (驍騎將軍)
  • Prince of Rencheng (任城王)
  • Prince Wei (威王) - granted to Cao Zhang posthumously

In fiction

Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a historical novel by Luo Guanzhong, was a romanticization of the events that occurred before and during the Three Kingdoms era. The author probably exaggerated the tension between Cao Zhang and his elder brother Cao Pi just after their father Cao Cao's death.

Cao Pi, the eldest surviving son of Cao Cao and the rightful heir, succeeded his late father. However, news came that Cao Zhang, leading a hundred-thousand strong army from Chang'an, was approaching the capital. Cao Pi was gripped by fear that his brother would contest the heirship with the military power he held.

Jia Kui, a counsellor to Cao Pi, then volunteered to persuade Cao Zhang to desist. Going out of the city, Jia Kui met with Cao Zhang. The latter was then asked if he came as a mourner or a rival claimant to the heirship. "I come as a mourner with no ulterior motive," replied Cao Zhang. "That being so, why bring in your soldiers?" Jia Kui said, whereupon Cao Zhang ordered his troops to wait outside the city while he entered alone. When the brothers met, they embraced and wept. Cao Zhang then passed the command of his force to Cao Pi and returned to his own fiefdom. Thus Cao Pi's position was more or less secured.

See also


  1. ^ a b Cao Zhang's biography in Records of the Three Kingdoms stated that Cao died in the 4th year of the Huangchu era (220-226) in Cao Pi's reign. ([黃初]四年,朝京都,疾薨于邸,謚曰威。)
  2. ^ de Crespigny, Rafe (2007). A biographical dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms (23–220 AD). Brill. p. 50.  
  3. ^ 『丈夫一為衛、霍,將十萬騎馳沙漠,驅戎狄,立功建號耳,何能作博士邪?』Cited is Cao Zhang's original line from the Records of the Three Kingdoms.
  4. ^ (夏四月,代郡、上谷烏丸無臣氐等叛,遣鄢陵侯彰討破之。) Chen Shou. Records of the Three Kingdoms, Volume 1, Biography of Cao Cao.
  5. ^ (又受節度,不得過代,不可深進) Cao Cao's order was that Cao Zhang's force was restricted to retain within the domain of Dai Commandery, and that a pursuit into deep territory of foreign tribes was prohibited.
  • Lo Kuan-chung; tr. C.H. Brewitt-Taylor (2002). Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Tuttle Publishing.  

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