Cao Pi

"Emperor Wen of Wei" redirects here. For the emperor of Western Wei (Yuan Baoju), see Emperor Wen of Western Wei.
Cao Pi

A painting of Cao Pi and two ministers flanking him, by the Tang Dynasty artist Yan Liben
Emperor of Cao Wei
Predecessor Cao Cao (as King of Wei)
Successor Cao Rui
Born 187[1]
Qiao commandery (present-day Bozhou, Anhui), China
Died 29 June 226 (aged 38–39)[2]
Luoyang, China
Burial Shouyangling (首陽陵), Yanshi, Henan
(among others)
Cao Rui
Full name
Family name: Cao (曹)
Given name: Pi (丕)
Courtesy name: Zihuan (子桓)
Era name and dates
Huangchu (黃初): 220-226
Posthumous name
Emperor Wen (文帝)
Temple name
Gaozu (高祖)
Father Cao Cao
Mother Lady Bian
Cao Pi

"Cao Pi" in Chinese characters
Chinese 曹丕
This is a Chinese name; the family name is Cao.

Cao Pi (187[1] – 29 June 226[2]),[3] courtesy name Zihuan, was the first emperor of the state of Cao Wei in the Three Kingdoms period. He was born in Qiao (譙; present-day Bozhou, Anhui) as the second son of Cao Cao, a warlord who lived in the late Eastern Han Dynasty. However, he was the eldest son among all the children born to Cao Cao by his concubine (later wife) Lady Bian. Of all his brothers, Cao Pi was the shrewdest. Instead of focusing on academic studies or administering military affairs, he was always in the presence of court officials in order to gain their support. He was mostly in charge of defence at the start of his career. After the defeat of Cao Cao's rival Yuan Shao at the Battle of Guandu, he took the widow of Yuan Shao's son Yuan Xi, Lady Zhen, as a concubine, but in 221 Lady Zhen died and Guo Nüwang became empress.

In 220, Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian, the last ruler of the Han Dynasty, to abdicate the throne to him, and he proclaimed himself emperor and established the state of Cao Wei. Cao Pi continued the wars against the states of Shu Han and Eastern Wu, founded by his father's rivals Liu Bei and Sun Quan respectively, but did not make significant territorial gain in the battles. Unlike his father, Cao Pi concentrated most of his efforts on internal administration rather than on waging wars against his rivals. During his reign, he formally established Chen Qun's nine-rank system as the base for civil service nomination, which drew many talents into his government. On the other hand, he drastically reduced the power of princes, stripping off their power to oppose him, but at the same time, rendering them unable to assist the emperor if a crisis arose within the state. After Cao Pi's death, his successor Cao Rui granted him the posthumous name "Emperor Wen" and the temple name "Shizu".

Cao Pi was also an accomplished poet and scholar, just like his father Cao Cao and his younger brother Cao Zhi. He wrote Yan Ge Xing (燕歌行), the first Chinese poem in the style of seven syllables per line (七言詩). He also wrote over a hundred articles on various subjects.

Early life and career

Cao Pi was the eldest son of Cao Cao and his concubine Lady Bian, but he was the second among all of Cao Cao's sons. At the time of Cao Pi's birth, Cao Cao was a mid-level officer in the imperial guards in the capital Luoyang, with no hint that he would go on to the great campaigns he eventually carried out after the collapse of the imperial government in 190. Cao Pi was recorded as excellent swordsman as he studied martial arts from Shi E, a gentleman of household from "Rapid as Tigers"(虎賁) division of the imperial guards.[4] In the period after 190 when Cao Cao was constantly waging war against other rival warlords, it is not known where Cao Pi and Lady Bian were, or what they did. The lone reference to Cao Pi during this period was in 204, when he took Yuan Xi's wife Lady Zhen as his wife.

Succession struggle with Cao Zhi

The next immediate reference to Cao Pi's activities was in 211, when he was appointed General of the Household for All Purposes (五官中郎將) and Vice Chancellor (副丞相). This position placed him second to his father, who was then Chancellor (丞相) and the de facto head of government in China. The eldest of all of Cao Cao's sons, Cao Ang, had died early, so Cao Pi was regarded as the eldest among all his father's sons. Besides, Cao Pi's mother had also become Cao Cao's official spouse after Cao Cao's first wife Lady Ding was deposed. Cao Pi thus became the presumptive heir to his father.

However, Cao Pi's status as heir was not immediately made legal, and for years there were lingering doubts on whom Cao Cao intended to make heir. Cao Cao greatly favoured Cao Zhi (his third son with Lady Bian), who was known for his literary talents. Both Cao Pi and Cao Zhi were talented poets, but Cao Zhi was more highly regarded as a poet and speaker. By 215, the brothers appeared to be in harmony with each other, but each had his own group of supporters and close associates engaging the other side in clandestine rivalry. Initially, Cao Zhi's party appeared to be prevailing, and in 216 they were successful in falsely accusing two officials supporting Cao Pi - Cui Yan and Mao Jie. Cui Yan was executed, while Mao Jie was deposed. However, the situation shifted after Cao Cao received advice from his strategist Jia Xu, who concluded that changing the general rules of succession (primogeniture) would be disruptive — using Yuan Shao and Liu Biao as counterexamples. Cao Pi was also fostering his image among the people and created the sense that Cao Zhi was wasteful and lacking actual talent in governance. In 217, Cao Cao, who had received the title of a vassal king - "King of Wei" (魏王) - from the Han Dynasty's ruler Emperor Xian (whom Cao Cao still paid nominal allegiance to), finally declared Cao Pi as his Crown Prince (太子). Cao Pi would remain as such until his father's death in 220.

As King of Wei

Cao Cao died in the spring of 220 in Luoyang. Even though Cao Pi had been Crown Prince for several years, there was initially some confusion as to what would happen next. The apprehension was particularly heightened when, after Cao Cao's death, the Qingzhou Corps under the general Zang Ba suddenly deserted, leaving Luoyang and returning home. Besides, Cao Pi's younger brother Cao Zhang (also born to Lady Bian) had arrived in Luoyang in a hurry, resulting in rumours that he was intending to seize power from his elder brother. Upon hearing these news at Cao Cao's headquarters at Ye (in present-day Handan, Hebei), Cao Pi hastily declared himself the new "King of Wei" (魏王) and issued an edict in the name of his mother Queen Dowager Bian, before receiving an official confirmation from Emperor Xian, to whom he still nominally paid allegiance. After Cao Pi's self-declaration, neither Cao Zhang nor any other individual took action against him. Cao Pi then ordered his brothers, including Cao Zhang and Cao Zhi, to return to their respective fiefs. With the help of Jiang Ji, the political situation soon stabilised.

As emperor of Cao Wei

Succeeding Emperor Xian

In the winter of 220, Cao Pi made his move for the imperial throne, strongly suggesting to Emperor Xian that he should yield the throne. Emperor Xian did so, and Cao Pi formally declined three times (a model that would be followed by future usurpers in Chinese history), and then finally accepted, establishing the state of Cao Wei. This event marked the official end of the Han Dynasty and the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period. The dethroned Emperor Xian was granted the title of "Duke of Shanyang" (山陽公). Cao Pi granted posthumous titles of emperors to his grandfather Cao Song and his father Cao Cao, while his mother Queen Dowager Bian became empress dowager. He also moved the imperial capital from Xuchang to Luoyang.

Military failures against Sun Quan

A block print of Cao Pi wearing anachronistic clothing.

After news of Cao Pi's ascension (and an accompanying false rumour that Cao Pi had executed Emperor Xian) arrived in Liu Bei's domain of Yi Province (益州; covering present-day Sichuan and Chongqing), Liu Bei also declared himself emperor in 221, establishing the state of Shu Han. Sun Quan, who controlled the vast majority of southeastern and southern China, did not take any affirmative steps one way or another, leaving his options open.

An armed conflict between Liu Bei and Sun Quan quickly materialised, because in late 219 Sun Quan had sent his general Lü Meng to invade Jing Province and seize the territories from Liu Bei, which resulted in the death of Liu's general Guan Yu. To avoid having to fight on two fronts, Sun Quan formally paid allegiance to Cao Pi, expressing his willingness to become a vassal under Wei. Cao Pi's strategist Liu Ye suggested to reject and instead attack Sun Quan on a second front. This would effectively partition Sun Quan's domain with Shu, and would eventually allow Cao Pi to destroy Shu as well. Cao Pi declined this suggestion, in a fateful choice that most historians believe doomed his empire to ruling only the northern and central China; such an opportunity would not come again. Indeed, against Liu Ye's advice, Cao Pi granted Sun Quan the title of "King of Wu" (吳王) and the nine bestowments.

Sun Quan's submission did not last long. After Sun Quan's forces, under the command of Lu Xun, defeated Shu forces at the Battle of Xiaoting in 222, Sun began to distance himself from Wei. When Cao Pi demanded that Sun Quan send his heir Sun Deng (孫登) to Luoyang as a hostage, Sun Quan refused and formally broke ties with Wei. Cao Pi personally led an expedition against Sun Quan, and in response, Sun declared independence from Wei, establishing the state of Eastern Wu (but he continued ruling as "King of Wu" and did not declare himself emperor until 229). By this time, having defeated Shu, the Wu forces enjoyed high morale and effective leadership from Sun Quan, Lu Xun and a number of other capable generals. Cao Pi's forces were not able to make significant advances against them despite several large-scale attacks in the next few years. The division of the Han empire into three states has become firmly established, particularly after Liu Bei's death in 223. The Shu chancellor Zhuge Liang, serving as regent for Liu Bei's son and successor Liu Shan, re-established the alliance with Sun, resulting in Wei having to defend itself on two fronts and unable to conquer either. Exasperated, Cao Pi made a famous comment in 225 that "Heaven created the Yangtze River to divide the north and the south."[5]

Domestic matters

Cao Pi was generally viewed as a competent, but unspectacular, administrator of his empire. He commissioned a number of capable officials to be in charge of various affairs of the empire, employing his father's general guidelines of valuing abilities over heritage. However, he was not open to criticism, and officials who dared to criticise him were often demoted and, on rare occasions, put to death.

Treatment of princes

Since Cao Pi was still fearful and resentful of Cao Zhi, he soon had the latter's fief reduced in size and had a number of his associates executed. Ding Yi, who was chief among Cao Zhi's strategists, had his whole clan wiped out as a result of assisting the latter in the past. Cao Pi's younger brother, Cao Xiong, was also said to have committed suicide out of fears for his brother. In summary, under regulations established by Cao Pi, not only were the Wei princes (unlike princes of the Han Dynasty) distanced from central politics, they also had minimal authority even in their own principalities and were restricted in many ways, particularly in the use of military.

Treatment of officials

Cao Pi was recorded to frequently ridicule his subordinates. For example, Yu Jin was captured by Liu Bei's general Guan Yu at the Battle of Fancheng in 219, and was later taken back to Wu and detained there after the Wu invasion of Jing Province. Yu Jin was allowed to return to Wei after Wu briefly became a vassal state under Wei in 221. Cao Pi reinstated Yu Jin as Borders Pacifying General (安遠將軍) and announced to send him back to Eastern Wu - where he had been imprisoned - as an envoy. However, before Yu Jin's departure, he was instructed to travel to Ye to pay his respects at Cao Cao's tomb. When Yu Jin arrived, he found that the emperor had had artists paint on the tomb scenes of the Battle of Fancheng, in which Yu Jin was shown begging for his life to be spared and succumbing to the victorious Guan Yu, while his subordinate Pang De was shown dying an honourable death by resisting the invading forces to his last breath. Upon seeing the vivid mural, Yu Jin was so filled with regret and shame that he fell ill and soon died. Cao Pi further gave the deceased Yu Jin a notorious posthumous title of "Marquis Li" (厲侯), for people to remember the latter as the "stony marquis (or vicious marquis)".[6] Wang Zhong, a general who followed Cao Cao for many years, was also ridiculed by Cao Pi.

Succession issues and death

An immediate issue after Cao Pi became emperor in 220 was who the empress would be. Lady Zhen was his wife. Cao Pi summoned Lady Zhen to Luoyang, but Lady Zhen refused because of her poor health. In 221 Lady Zhen died and the title of empress went to Guo Nuwang.

Guo Nüwang did not bear Cao Pi any children. Cao Rui was the eldest of Cao Pi's sons, but because of his mother's death, he was not instated as the crown prince. Instead, Cao Rui was appointed "Prince of Pingyuan" after his father's ascension to the throne. Cao Pi did not appear to have seriously considered any other son as heir. (It might have been because the other sons were all significantly younger, although their ages were not recorded in history.) In the summer of 226, when Cao Pi was seriously ill, he finally named Cao Rui as his crown prince. On his deathbed, he entrusted Cao Rui to the care of Cao Zhen, Chen Qun, and Sima Yi. Following his father's death, Cao Rui ascended the throne at the young age of 21.


Modern references

Cao Pi appears as a playable character in Koei's Dynasty Warriors and Warriors Orochi video game series. He also appears in Koei's Romance of the Three Kingdoms series.


  1. 1 2 The Sanguozhi mentioned that he was born in the winter of the fourth year of the Zhongping era (184-189) in the reign of Emperor Ling of Han. Quote from Sanguozhi vol. 2: (中平四年冬,生于譙。)
  2. 1 2 The Sanguozhi mentioned that Cao Pi died on the dingsi day of the fifth lunar month in the seventh year of the Huangchu era (220-226) in his reign. He was 40 years old (by East Asian age reckoning) at the time of his death. Quote from Sanguozhi vol. 2: ([黃初七年五月]丁巳,帝崩于嘉福殿,時年四十。)
  3. de Crespigny, Rafe (2007). A biographical dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms (23–220 AD). Brill. p. 45. ISBN 978-90-04-15605-0.
  4. 曹丕, 典論 Cao Pi, Dianlun; the Gentlemen of the Household Rapid as Tigers [huben zhonglang] were a corps of soldiers who served as the emperor’s bodyguards. It is theorized that they were candidates for military appointments, though the phrasing in the Dianlun gives one the impression that they were a permanent fixture.
  5. De Crespigny, Rafe. "Online Publications" (PDF). Asian Studies. Retrieved 2 January 2015. "Alas. It is truly the will of Heaven which divides the south from the north." And he gave the order to withdraw.
  6. (暴慢無親曰厲。殺戮無辜曰厲。) There are two possibilities for someone to be given a posthumous title as "Li": Being Cold-blooded and arrogant, or having innocent people slaughtered. See Lost book of Zhou. Rules on assigning a posthumous name. Archived June 15, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
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Emperor Wen of Cao Wei
Born: 187 Died: 29 June 226
Regnal titles
Preceded by
as King of Wei
Emperor of Cao Wei
Succeeded by
Cao Rui
Chinese royalty
Preceded by
Cao Cao
King of Wei
Himself as Emperor of Wei
Titles in pretence
Preceded by
Emperor Xian of Han
Emperor of China
Reason for succession failure:
Three Kingdoms
Succeeded by
Cao Rui
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