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Cao Zhi

Cao Zhi
Portrait of Cao Zhi from a Qing Dynasty edition of Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Prince of Cao Wei
Born 192[1]
Died 232 (aged 40)[1]
Traditional Chinese 曹植
Courtesy name Zijian (Chinese: 子建; pinyin: Zǐjiàn; Wade–Giles: Tzu3-chien4)
Posthumous name Prince Si (Prince Szu; Chinese: 思王; pinyin: Sī Wáng; Wade–Giles: Szu1 Wang2)
Cao Zhi
Chinese 曹植

Cao Zhi (192–232),[1] courtesy name Zijian, was a prince of the state of Cao Wei in the Three Kingdoms period and an accomplished poet in his time. His poetry style, greatly revered during the Jin Dynasty and Southern and Northern Dynasties, came to be known as the Jian'an style. Cao Zhi 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. As Cao Zhi once engaged his elder brother Cao Pi in a power struggle to succeed their father, he was ostracised by his victorious brother after the latter became the emperor and established Wei. In his later life, Cao Zhi was not allowed to meddle in politics, despite his many petitions to seek office.


  • Biography 1
  • Poetry 2
  • In fiction 3
  • Family 4
  • Appointments and titles held 5
  • Modern references 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


Born in 192, Cao Zhi was the third son of the warlord Cao Cao and Lady Bian. According to the Records of the Three Kingdoms, Cao Zhi could recite the Shi Jing, Analects and more than ten thousand verses worth of poems before he even turned twenty. His literary talent made him a favorite son of Cao Cao in the early stage of his life.

However, Cao Zhi was an impetuous man with little self-discipline. He was also a heavy drinker. On the other hand, his older 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 to the servants and subjects around Cao Cao, and they spoke well of him. In 217, Cao Cao eventually picked Cao Pi to succeed himself. 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. This infuriated his father, who sentenced the chariot driver to death.

Having chosen a successor, Cao Cao took measures to emasculate other contestants. He did this by executing Yang Xiu, a chief advisor to Cao Zhi. This greatly unsettled Cao Zhi, but failed to jolt him back to his senses. On the contrary, he sank further into his drunken habits. In 219, Cao Cao's cousin and leading general Cao Ren was besieged at the fortress at Fancheng (樊城; present-day Fancheng District, Hubei) by Guan Yu. Cao Cao named Cao Zhi to lead a relief force to the rescue, in the hope that the task would instill into the latter a sense of responsibility. However, Cao Zhi was so drunk that he could not come forth to take the order. Cao Cao then gave up on this son.

Within months, Cao Cao died. One of the first things Cao Pi did was to do away with Ding Yi (丁仪) and Ding Yi (丁廙), two firm supporters of Cao Zhi. He also sent Cao Zhi, along with the other brothers, away from the capital (into a countryside estate) and prohibited them from taking part in central political issues.

Prospects for Cao Zhi did not improve after Cao Pi died in 226. He wrote to the second Wei emperor Cao Rui 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. Severely depressed by the setbacks, Cao Zhi soon died of illness, 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 poetry 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 heart-stirring tone, while lament over the ephemerality of life was also 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 folk songs into scholarly poetry.

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

More than ninety poems by Cao Zhi remain today, more than sixty 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. The most complete collection of Cao Zhi's poems and other literary works is Chen Si Wang Ji (陳思王集, Collection of Works by 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 need of his country and reflected Cao Zhi's own aspiration to contribute to his times.

Cao Zhi's full-length portrait on "Nymph of Luo River" (or "Goddess of Luo River") by Gu Kaizhi of the Jin Dynasty (265–420), which illustrates a fu (descriptive poem) of same title written by Cao Zhi.


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

Cao Zhi's most famous poem was the Seven Steps Verse, often translated as The Quatrain of Seven Steps.

In fiction

The 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 period. Exploiting the complicated relationship among the Cao Cao's sons, especially Cao Pi and Cao Zhi, Luo Guanzhong was able to create a palace scenario 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 pleaded for the life of her younger son. Cao Pi agreed.

However, Cao Pi's Chief Secretary (相国) Hua Xin then convinced him to put Cao Zhi's literary talent to a test. If Cao Zhi failed the test, it would be excuse enough to put him to death, Hua Xin suggested.

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, one of which was falling into a well. Cao Pi told his brother to make a poem based on the painting after walking 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 curving bones, a sturdy pair.

They met just by a hillock, both were strong,
Each would avoid a pit newly-dug there.

They fought unequal battle, for at length
One lay below a gory mess, inert.

'Twas not that they were of unequal strength –
Though wrathful both, one did not strength exert.

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:

煮豆燃豆萁, Cooking beans on a fire of beanstalks,
豆在釜中泣。 The beans weep in the pot.
本是同根生, Born of the same roots,
相煎何太急! Why the eagerness to destroy one another?
Translation by J. Wong

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.


Appointments and titles held

  • South General of the Household (南中郎將)
  • General Who Attacks Barbarians (征虜將軍)
  • Marquis of Pingyuan (平原侯)
  • Marquis of Linzi (臨菑侯)
  • Marquis of An (安鄉侯)
  • Marquis of Zhencheng (鄄城侯)
  • Prince of Zhencheng (鄄城王)
  • Prince of Yongqiu (雍丘王)
  • Prince of Junyi (浚儀王)
  • Prince of Dong'e (東阿王)
  • Prince of Chen (陳王)
  • Prince Si of Chen (陳思王) - granted to Cao Zhi posthumously

Modern references

In 2002, Hong Kong's TVB produced the television drama, Where the Legend Begins, featuring Cao Zhi as the intelligent and compassionate protagonist. Steven Ma played the role of Cao Zhi in the series.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Cao Zhi's biography in Records of the Three Kingdoms mentioned that Cao died in the 6th year of the Taihe era (227-233) in Cao Rui's reign. He was 41 years old (by East Asian age reckoning) when he died. ([太和六年] ... 遂發疾薨,時年四十一。) By calculation, Cao Zhi's birth year should be around 192.
  • Lo Kuan-chung; tr. C.H. Brewitt-Taylor (2002). Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Tuttle Publishing.  

External links

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