Cao Cao’s Impact On Chinese History: Han Dynasty

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Cao Cao was an extremely significant warlord in ancient China, who single handedly determined the outcome of the 3 kingdoms war. During his reunification of China, the future leader of the Jin dynasty (265 Ad-462 Ad) was able to use his groundwork to win the war. A strong military ruler and a brilliant tactician, Cao Cao had a great impact on China because he knew his enemies and knew what his people needed, these actions would have a long-lasting effect the people of ancient China. He was able to quickly rise up to the status of an independent warlord. Joined the coalition against the tyrant Dong Zhou, Cao Cao’s actions against the tyrant resultred in his assassination. Cao Cao was also able to capture northern China, using his wit and influence he was able to conquer with little difficulty. Furthermore Cao Cao provided mandatory education to the youthful, allowing more intellectuals to enter and strengthen his army. Furthermore Cao Cao Established extensive agriculture, providing land to refugees and improving living standards. Even after death he was able to help establish the Wei and Jin dynasty leading to their victory in the 3 kingdoms war. Therefore, it must be said that Cao Cao’s influence over ancient China was unquestioned.

Cao Cao was adopted by his father Cao song who was the chief Eunuch ( attendant ) of the Han imperial court this meant that Cao Cao had an education and had a wealthy childhood (Cartwright, 2017). At this time the imperial court was filled with corruption and betrayal. When the emperor He died, his son took over as a child emperor so he gave authority to the Eunuchs who fought each other for power neglecting the needs of the people, this sprouted civil unrest (Zhou, 2018). In 175 Cao Cao rose to power and gained the rank of a military official, after many years of neglect the peasants decided to rise up wearing yellow , this became the great yellow turban rebellion (184 Ad). The Han dynasty simply did not have the manpower to quell the rebellion by themselves so they decided to hire independent warlords who quickly stopped the rebellion. By doing this the Han lost a great amount of power which allowed the war lords to act independently. Cao Cao had an important role in the quelling of the yellow rebellion resulting in his own personal army and thus began Cao Cao’s road to power (Three Kingdoms – OverSimplified, 2019).

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The assassination of the tyrant Dong Zhou was a major turning point in Cao Cao’s life as it enabled him to gain enough power to start acting on his own terms forming the start of his ambition. At this time another child emperor by the name of emperor Shao took the throne but instead of giving power to the eunuchs as usually, it was given to his uncle He Jin (The Fall of the Han and the Three Kingdoms Period, n.d.). To secure his power He Jin wanted the Eunuchs to disappear, his sister Empress Dowager (emperor Shao’s mother) rejected the idea, and this is where Dong Zhou comes in. He Jin hired one of the most feared warlords the tyrant Dong Zhou to walk into the capital and pressure Empress Dowager, but before he even arrived the eunuchs found out He Jin’s plan and killed him. With He Jin dead the palace was in riot, Dong Zhou was able to quickly quell the riot and since he was the only prominent figure there he took over the capital by killing the current emperor and replacing him with a puppet, Emperor Xian (Johnson, 2007). When Cao Cao heard of this he left the capital and went to Chenliu to build up his forces, he later then joined in the alliance against Dong Zhou along with other regional warlords and was successful in his death (Johnson, 2007). Cao Cao gained great power and influence from this event becoming a warlord himself, at this point Cao Cao began his unification of China.

At this point in time the entirety of China was in turmoil, with the fall of the Han dynasty there was an empty space for a new ruler and every warlord wanted that space and thus began Cao Cao’s legacy. Cao Cao held a small province between Yuan Shao and his brother Yuan Shu, he recruited yellow turban remnants from his province and with great ferocity and efficiency conquered the surrounding provinces(Three Kingdoms – OverSimplified, 2019). Cao Cao convinced emperor Xian to take refuge with him, with the emperor at his side it and a large amount of land it looked like Cao Cao would become the dominant power. Spring 200 Ad much progress has been made, Cao Cao had one more adversary to defeat in order to become the most powerful lord in the North, Yuan Shao. Yuan Shao sent his 100,000 men to Cao Cao’s capital Xuchang, Cao Cao stationed his 20,000 men at Guandu (strategic landing point), this would become an important battle that will decide who would rule the north. Stealth, strategy, diversions and sabotage led Cao Cao’s troops to victory even against greater numbers, with Cao Cao victorious he was able to take over the north with little difficulty (Johnson, 2007). Cao Cao’s strategic planning was what won the battle if he was not successful at Guandu then the Wei dynasty would have never existed. In the year 208 Ad 3 warlords stood above, Liu Bei, Sun Quan and Cao Cao who had already taken most of northern China, Liu Bei and Sun Quan knew of their predicament and decided to make an alliance against Cao Cao (The Fall of the Han and the Three Kingdoms Period, n.d.). Cao Cao marched his army down towards the Yangtze river beginning the battle of the red cliffs, if Cao Cao were to win this battle then his unification of China under the Han dynasty would be successful. Met with the forces of Liu Bei and Sun Quan, Cao Cao outnumbered their forces 200,000 (approximate) to their 50,000. Cao Cao suffered a disastrous defeat losing a majority of his troops to disease and attrition, he had failed his only chance to take the south (Chibi Ancient Battlefield of the Three Kingdoms, 2018). The impact Cao Cao had after this battle would continue the war into a stalemate, neither side making much progress.

Cao Cao’s death in 220 Ad had a huge impact on the dynasty. Their warlord dead, losing his prowess in the battlefield, what would become of the Han dynasty. Cao Pi the son of Cao Cao used the foundations that his father laid out during his conquest and used it to create a turning point in the war heavily affecting the other 2 sides (Zhou, 2018). Cao Pi managed to abdicate emperor Xian from his throne and put an end to the Han dynasty, declaring himself as emperor of the newly reformed Wei Dynasty. Using his father’s work Cao Pi was able to stabilize the dynasty by employing one of his fathers guidelines, to commission officers based on ability rather than status (‘Cao Pi – New World Encyclopedia’, 2017). Word spread around on Cao Pi’s claim as emperor, in response to this Liu Bei and Sun Quan both declared themselves as the emperors forming the Shu Han (Liu Bei) and Wu (Sun Quan) dynasties (Three Kingdoms – OverSimplified, 2019).This further escalated the war with 3 self proclaimed emperors fighting for the rightful ruler of China. Using the foundations laid from his father, Cao Pi was able to stabilize the dynasty after his father’s death and bring forward a new dynasty, the Wei dynasty under the Cao family name.

The Wei dynasty under the Cao name would continue to fight Shu Han and Wu with little progress from all sides. With all the hard work that Cao Cao had put out Wei still couldn’t breach the other dynasties, even losing a piece of their land to the Shu Han. Cao Cao’s original goal of unifying China was lost in his descendants. (Three Kingdoms – OverSimplified, 2019). Meanwhile a family grew more powerful in the Wei imperial court the Sima clan, they knew the weakened state the dynasties. We launched a full scale attack on Shu Han and completely conquered the province. Sima Yan then abdicated the Cao family and declared himself as the new emperor of the Jin dynasty which would eventually defeat Wu and win the 3 kingdoms war (Jin dynasty, 2011). The impact Cao Cao had on the 3 kingdoms war was enormous, he alone was able to build the foundations and established the land that would eventually become the Jin dynasty.

Cao Cao’s impact on Chinese history did not end in his military exploits. Cao Cao had a huge influence on agriculture, education and even poetry in ancient China. Cao Cao was able to understand that to win a war he simply cannot win by military exploits alone, he knew that to win he needed to take care of his people (Johnson, 2007). One of the reasons that the Wei and Jin dynasty were so successful was because of the improved living standards Cao Cao imposed by his agriculture program. Cao Cao learning from past famines knew that an army could not fight on an empty stomach, to combat this he recruited refugees and gave them land to farm on. Encampments not directly in danger of war were also converted to farms. The large amount of farms allowed the living standards in Cao Cao’s provinces to improve bringing up happiness and an ample food supply and in turn allowed a bigger and stronger army. Cao Cao later went on to improve education for the youth in his territory, employing a decree that young people had to undergo schooling which would later benefit Cao Cao with less intellectuals in his ranks (Johnson, 2007). Not only was Cao Cao a distinguished leader he was also a distinguished poet. One of his famous poems “Duan Ge Xing”, is a poem directed at the highly talented and independent to convince them to join Cao Cao’s army to fulfill their life goals and serve under him, a ruler of greatness (‘The most famous Chinese drinking poem by a hero of Chaos – 短歌行’, 2013). Cao Cao’s military impact on ancient China was very prevalent but it did not end there, Cao Cao was able to introduce education for the youth and food for the hungry, Cao Cao knew that to win a war one must not forget the basis of society and this laid out the groundwork for the future dynasty of Wei and Jin.

Ancient China and the outcome of the 3 kingdoms period heavily relied on Cao Cao an individual who was able to quickly secure the position of a warlord. Take a major part of the assassination of Dong Zhou who threatened the current Han dynasty. Unified northern China under the Han dynasty eventually forming the Wei dynasty who would give prevalence to the Cao family name. Build a stable infrastructure enforcing education and building new farms. Contributing to the Jin dynasty who would win the 3 kingdoms war. The foundations that Cao Cao laid out during his unification of China was essential to the well being, military and influence that the Wei and Jin dynasty had during the war of the 3 kingdoms. Making Cao Cao’s influence of ancient Chinese history undeniably important. 


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