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Cao Pi
Cao Pi Tang.jpg
A 7th century Tang Dynasty era painting of Cao Pi and ministers at his side, by Yan Liben (600-673).
Emperor and Founder of Cao Wei
Born 187
Died 29 June 226 (aged 38–39)
Predecessor Cao Cao
Successor Cao Rui
Simplified Chinese 曹丕
Traditional Chinese 曹丕
Pinyin Cáo Pī
Wade-Giles Tsao P`i
Courtesy name Zihuan (子桓)
Posthumous name

Emperor Wen of (Cao) Wei (曹魏文帝)

  • Wen -literary meaning: "civil"
Temple name Gaozu (高祖, gāozǔ)
This is a Chinese name; the family name is Cao (曹).

Cao Pi (曹丕, 187 – 29 June 226[1]), formally Emperor Wen of (Cao) Wei (曹魏文帝), courtesy name Zihuan (子桓) was the first emperor of Cao Wei, one of the Chinese Three Kingdoms. Born in Qiao County, Pei Commandery (modern Bozhou, Anhui), he was the second son of the Chinese politician and poet Cao Cao.

Cao Pi, like his father, was a poet. The first Chinese poem using seven syllables per line (七言詩) was the poem 燕歌行 by Cao Pi. He also wrote over a hundred articles on various subjects.

Cao Pi was the eldest son of Cao Cao and his concubine (later wife) Princess Bian. Of all his brothers, Cao Pi was the most shrewd. Instead of studying hard or conducting military affairs, he was always in the presence of court officials in order to gain their support.[citation needed] He was mostly in charge of defense at the start of his career. After the defeat of Yuan Shao at Guandu, he took the widow of Yuan Shao's son Yuan Xi, Lady Zhen, as a consort, although eventually she lost his favor and was forced to commit suicide. After he became emperor, his other favorite, Guo Nüwang, became empress.

In 220, Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian to abdicate the throne and proclaimed himself emperor of Wei. Cao Pi continued his father's war against Liu Bei's Shu Han and Sun Quan's Eastern Wu but was unsuccessful. Unlike Cao Cao he concentrated most of his efforts on his home country, which prospered under his rule.

There were many internal conflicts during Cao Pi's rule. He demoted his brother Cao Zhi (who had contended with him the status as Cao Cao's heir) and had two of Cao Zhi's best friends executed. Allegedly, his younger brother Cao Xiong committed suicide out of fears for his brother, although this is undocumented in historical records. Cao Pi also put Yu Jin to shame for his loss to Guan Yu, which caused him to become ill and die. He further restricted the roles his other brothers had in the imperial administration. In addition, under regulations established by Cao Pi, Cao Wei princes (unlike princes of the Han Dynasty) had minimal authority even in their own principalities and were restricted in many ways. Many historians attribute these heavy constraints to Cao Pi's jealousy of Cao Zhi's literary talent and Cao Zhang's military might.


Family background and early career

Cao Pi was born in 187, to Cao Cao and one of his favorite concubines, Lady Bian. 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 that he would eventually carry out after the collapse of the imperial government in 190. After 190, when Cao Cao was constantly waging war, it is not known where Cao Pi and his mother Lady Bian were, or what their activities were. The lone reference to Cao Pi during this period was in 204, when he took Yuan Xi's wife Zhen Luo as his wife. (Lady Zhen gave birth to Cao Pi's eldest son Cao Rui only eight months later—which created murmurs that Cao Rui might have been biologically Yuan Xi's son and not Cao Pi's, although the possibilities appeared farfetched.)

The immediate next reference to Cao Pi's activities was in 211, when he was commissioned to be the commander of the imperial guards and deputy prime minister (i.e., assistant to his father, who was then prime minister and in effective control of the imperial government). His older brother Cao Ang having died earlier, Cao Pi was now the oldest son of Cao Cao, and his mother Lady Bian was now Cao Cao's wife (after Cao Ang's adoptive mother, Cao Cao's first wife Lady Ding, was deposed), making Cao Pi the presumptive heir for Cao Cao.

That status, however, was not immediately made legal, and for years there were lingering doubts whom Cao Cao intended to make heir, because Cao Cao greatly favored a younger son of his, also by Lady Bian—Cao Zhi, who was known for his literary talents; while Cao Pi was a talented poet, Cao Zhi was even higher regarded as a poet and speaker. By 215, the brothers were on the surface in concord but each having his set of associates, fighting with each other under the surface. Initially, Cao Zhi's party appeared to be prevailing, and they were successful in 216 in falsely accusing two officials supporting Cao Pi -- Cui Yan and Mao Jie. Cui was executed, while Mao 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 creating the sense that Cao Zhi was wasteful and lacking actual talent in governance. In 217, Cao Cao, who was by this point Prince of Wei, finally declared Cao Pi as his crown prince. He would remain as such until his father's death in 220.

Events of 220: inheritance of his father's position and seizure of the imperial throne

The coronation of Cao Pi (played by Yang Junyong) as depicted in the TV series Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Cao Cao died in spring 220, while he was at 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 Qing Province (青州, modern central and eastern Shandong) troops suddenly deserted, leaving Luoyang and returning home. Further, Cao Zhang, whom the troops were impressed by, quickly arrived in Luoyang, creating apprehension that he was intending to seize power from his brother. Cao Pi, hearing this news at Cao Cao's headquarters at Yecheng, quickly declared himself the new Prince of Wei and issuing an edict in the name of his mother, Princess Bian, to that effect—without confirmation from Emperor Xian of Han, of whom he was still technically a subject. After Cao Pi's self-declaration, neither Cao Zhang nor any other individual dared to act against him.

One of the first acts that Cao Pi carried out as Prince of Wei was to send his brothers, including Cao Zhang and Cao Zhi, back to their marches. Cao Pi, particularly fearful and resentful at Cao Zhi, soon had his march reduced in size and killed a number of his associates, including Ding Yi, who was chief among Cao Zhi's strategists.

In winter 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, ending Han Dynasty and starting a new Wei Dynasty. The former Emperor Xian was created the Duke of Shanyang. Cao Pi posthumously honored his grandfather Cao Song and father Cao Cao as emperors, and his mother Princess Dowager Bian as empress dowager. He also moved his capital from Xu (許縣, in modern Xuchang, Henan) to Luoyang.

As emperor of Cao Wei


Failure to take advantage of the conflict between Liu Bei and Sun Quan

Block print of Cao Pi wearing anachronistic clothing

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

An armed conflict between Liu and Sun quickly developed, because in 219 Sun had ambushed Liu's general and beloved friend Guan Yu to seize back western Jing Province (荊州, modern Hubei and Hunan), which Liu had controlled, and Liu wanted to take vengeance. To avoid having to fight on two fronts, Sun formally paid allegiance to Cao, offering to be a vassal of Cao Wei. Cao's strategist Liu Ye (劉曄) suggested that Cao decline—and in fact attack Sun on a second front, effectively partitioning Sun's domain with Shu Han, and then eventually seek to destroy Shu Han as well. Cao declined, in a fateful choice that most historians believe doomed his empire to ruling only the northern and central China—and this chance would not come again. Indeed, against Liu Ye's advice, he created Sun the Prince of Wu and granted him the nine bestowments.

Sun's submission did not last long, however. After Sun's forces, under the command of Lu Xun, defeated Liu Bei's forces in 222, Sun began to distance himself from Cao Wei. When Cao demanded Sun to send his heir Sun Deng (孫登) to Luoyang as hostage and Sun refused, formal relations broke down. Cao personally led an expedition against Sun, and Sun, in response, declared independence from Cao Wei, establishing Eastern Wu. By this time, having defeated Liu, Eastern Wu's forces enjoyed high morale and effective leadership from Sun, Lu, and a number of other capable generals, and Cao'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; his prime minister Zhuge Liang, serving as regent for his son Liu Shan, reestablished the alliance with Sun, causing Cao Wei to have to defend itself on two fronts and not being able to conquer either. Exasperated, Cao made a famous comment in 225 that "Heaven created the Yangtze to divide the north and the south."

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 cricitize him were often demoted and, on rare occasions, put to death.

Marriage and succession issues

An immediate issue after Cao Pi became emperor in 220 was who the empress would be. Lady Zhen was his wife, but had by this point long lost favor due to a variety of reasons—chief among which was the struggle she had with a favorite concubine of Cao's, Guo Nüwang. Lady Guo used the unlikely possibility that Zhen's son Cao Rui might be biologically Yuan Xi's son to full advantage in creating conflicts between Cao Pi and Lady Zhen. Cao therefore refused to summon Lady Zhen to Luoyang after he ascended the throne but instead ordered her to remain at Yecheng, which caused Lady Zhen to be resentful. When words of her resentment reached Cao, he became angry and forced her to commit suicide. In 222, Cao created Consort Guo empress.

Empress Guo, however, was sonless. Lady Zhen's son Cao Rui was the oldest of Cao Pi's sons, but because she had been put to death and because of Cao Pi's lingering doubt as to his paternity, was not created crown prince but only the Prince of Pingyuan after Cao Pi's ascension. Cao Pi, however, 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 created Prince Rui crown prince. He died soon thereafter, and Prince Rui ascended the throne.

Era name

  • Huangchu (黃初; py. huáng chū) 220-226

Modern references

Cao Pi as he appears in Koei's Dynasty Warriors 6.

Cao Pi appears in the Koei video game Dynasty Warriors 6, the latest in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms-based franchise. He is portrayed as a serious and stoical warlord who admires his father but sees things in his own way. He states he wishes to create a land "Where everyone has a chance to live up to their potential."

In Dynasty Warriors 5, Cao Pi is portrayed as a cold, ruthless, and unfeeling warlord, eager to advance over his father Cao Cao. He had longer hair, and he used two swords that could become a double bladed spear. He later thinks of the people after uniting the land. In Zhen Ji's story, he tells her he united the land because he loved her. In his story, he told Sima Yi the dangers of losing a dynasty and the possibilities of making China better again. He also tells Sima Yi to do whatever he wants after he dies. In DW5 Xtreme Legends, he teams up with Xu Huang and Sima Yi to defeat the traitor Meng Da from escaping.

In Warriors Orochi, a crossover between Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors, Cao Pi inherits the kingdom of Wei after the alleged death of Cao Cao. He fought for Orochi and Da Ji in the beginning and made an uneasy alliance with Mitsunari Ishida. He would defect from Orochi after allowing Sun Ce to escape. When Mitsunari witnessed this he struck a friendship with Cao Pi and continued to fight alongside him. They would eventually find out that Cao Cao was still alive. But Cao Pi was to lead the final battle against Orochi. He also has an important role in the other storylines, thus making him one of the main protagonists in the game along with Zhao Yun, Sun Ce, and Nobunaga Oda.

In Warriors Orochi 2, Cao Pi tells Cao Ren & Zhen Ji that it was Cao Cao's choice to put faith in the immortal mystic Nu Wa. After their conversation, they go to defend He Fei Castle. Cao Pi, Cao Ren, Pang Tong & Zhen Ji attack the Nanman & Wu to spur them into action. Cao Pi's forces successfully protect Komaki-Nagakute, and they get reinforcements from Cao Cao. In Dream Mode in WO2, he teams up with Guan Ping and Gracia to surpass their fathers in a test.

Personal information

  • Father
  • Mother
  • Wife
  • Major Concubines
    • Consort Li
    • Consort Yin, mother of Prince Xie
    • Consort Liu, daughter of Emperor Xian of Han
    • Consort Liu, daughter of Emperor Xian of Han (two daughters of Emperor Xian were Cao Pi's consorts, Liu being Emperor Xian's family name)
    • Consort Pan, mother of Prince Ruí
    • Consort Zhu, mother of Prince Jian
    • Consort Chou, mother of Prince Lin
    • Consort Xu, mother of Prince Li
    • Consort Su, mother of Prince Yong
    • Consort Zhang, mother of Prince Gong
    • Consort Song, mother of Prince Yan
  • Children
    • Cao Ruì (曹叡), initially Prince of Pingyuan (created 222), later Crown Prince (created 226), later Emperor Ming of (Cao) Wei
    • Cao Xie (曹協), died early (unclear when), posthumously created Duke Sang of Jing (231) then Prince Ai of Zan (234)
    • Cao Ruí (note different tone than Emperor Ming) (曹蕤), initially the Prince of Yangping (created 226), later Prince Dao of Beihai (created 232, d. 233)
    • Cao Jian (曹鑒), Prince Huai of Dongwuyang (created and d. 225)
    • Cao Lin (曹霖), initially the Prince of Hedong (created 222), later the Prince of Guantao (created 225), later Prince Ding of Donghai (created 232, d. 249), father of Cao Mao
    • Cao Li (曹禮), initially the Duke of Qin (created 221), later the Prince of Jingzhao (created 222), later Prince Ai of Yuancheng (created 225, d. 229)
    • Cao Yong (曹邕), initially the Duke of Huainan (created 221), later the Prince of Huainan (created 222), later the Prince of Chen (created 223), later Prince Huai of Handan (created 225, d. 229)
    • Cao Gong (曹貢), Prince Dao of Qinghe (created 222, d. 223)
    • Cao Yan (曹儼), Prince Ai of Guangping (created 222, d. 223)
    • Princess Dongxiang


External links

Emperor Wen of Cao Wei
Born: 187 Died: 226
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Cao Cao
as King of Wei
Emperor of Cao Wei
220 – 226
Succeeded by
Cao Rui
Titles in pretence
Preceded by
Emperor Xian of Han
Emperor of China
220 – 226
Reason for succession failure:
Three Kingdoms
Succeeded by
Cao Rui


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