Cao Cao: A Villain Hero
As a young girl reading the classic Chinese novel San Guo Yan Yi (三国演义) I always felt great sympathy for Liu Bei, the leader of the Shu-Han kingdom. The novel depicts the battles and adventures of heroes in the Three States Period (208-220 AD) and, as a result of author Luo Guanzhong’s pro-Shu stance, portrays Liu Bei as someone who always demonstrated a great deal of benevolence and empathy towards his generals and his people. Yet, as I have grown older, another main character, Cao Cao, has come to attract my attention and even admiration. He is a more sophisticated and rounded character; he is both a hero and a villain.
Contrary to the ‘weeping’ Liu Bei, who wins over the hearts of people through virtue, Cao Cao (曹操) is a treacherous and villainous leader. However, he is also very well-read, with an excellent knowledge of literature. Moreover, in history, Cao Cao is remembered as an excellent politician and military leader. He is a complex character with many layers.
In the novel, he appears as a scheming careerist. Cao Cao makes more plans than any other military leader, but they mostly fail. His biggest failure is that of the well-known battle at the Red Cliff, which was adapted and dramatized by Hong Kong director John Woo in a film with the same title in 2008. Luo Guanzhong adopts a pro-Liu position, and emphasising the selfish scheming and lust for power of the character of Cao Cao is a means of strengthening this stance.
For instance, Cao Cao utters a sentence that is well known in Chinese culture and literature: “宁教我负天下人，休教天下人负我” (CRIB: ‘I would rather wrong the world than the world wrongs me.’). Cao Cao says this after slaughtering the entire family of an innocent man, who even previously saved Cao’s life, as a result of a misunderstanding. The sentence denotes his cruelty and lack of remorse.
He is also said to have sharp suspicious eyes. As the translator Brewitt-Taylor commented in his review of the novel, Cao Cao is ‘the permanent villain of the San Kuo, the wicked minister whom gods and men detest […] Murder was as nothing in his eyes.’ Cao Cao at one point attempts to assassinate Tung Cho, a tyrant in Han’s court; as a powerful man, he sent hundreds to their death for failure, for treachery or for revenge.
However, some noble deeds are still to his credit in the novel. Though the author of this historical novel dramatizes the plot and characters, most are based on historical facts recorded in San Guo Zhi (三国志). The best known of these is his treatment of Guan Yu, who agrees to be a captive until he is able to find and join Liu Bei. Hoping to entice the man into his service, Cao Cao treats him well and when this fails, they nevertheless part on good terms. Even after Guan Yu causes the death of five of Cao Cao’s officers on his way back to his brother’s territory, Cao Cao chooses not to pursue the offender and orders his release.
Indeed, Cao Cao is a complicated man. He is both an excellent strategist and a scheming careerist. What happens after he defeated Yuan Shao’s army at the battle of Guandu provides a good example of his political ability and shrewdness. Evidence of treasonous correspondence between Yuan Shao and some of Cao Cao’s subordinates is found in the enemy camp. But in order to preserve harmony in his own ranks, and ensure that the guilty ones remain by his side, Cao Cao does not punish them. He has the documents burned without looking at them.
However, it is in his discourse on martial prowess, held while drinking mulled wine with Liu Bei, that Cao Cao truly displays in full his political acumen. With his generous treatment and release of Guan Yu and his own subordinates, he shows magnanimity and broad-mindedness. But in his manipulation of the emperor in order to control the lords, he reveals his far-reaching political ambitions. Moreover, if we place this character in the whole history, certain acts, such as unifying the northern parts of China and managing the Cao-Wei state quite well with efficient internal reforms, encourage a more positive interpretation of Cao Cao.
As the Qing scholar Zhang Xuecheng (章学诚) remarks, the book San Guo Yan Yi is “seven parts facts and three parts fiction” (七分史实, 三分虚构). The novel has been described as a compilation of subject matter built up over generations. Indeed, in the twelve hundred years between the historical events and the novel, various historians, officials, philosophers, and poets interpreted the stories in their special contexts. So, how to interpret and evaluate characters such as Cao Cao? Is he a villain or a hero? History and literature are interwoven here and we readers can easily become lost in others’ interpretations and our own illusions. In all likelihood, one thousand readers would imagine one thousand different Cao Caos.
In the end, perhaps our best insight into this ambivalent and complex character is to be found in his literary work, which is highly regarded and considered representative of an ancient Chinese literary school known as jianan (建安) . The following poem, A Short Song (Duangexing 短歌行), for example, truly captures the duality of his literary talent and boundless political ambition:
When goblets are brimming then song is near birth,
But life is full short and has few days of mirth,
Life goes as the dew drops fly swiftly away,
‘Neath the glance of the glowing hot ruler of day.
Man’s life may be spent in the noblest emprise,
But sorrowful thoughts in his heart oft arise.
Let us wash clean away the sad thoughts that intrude,
With bumpers of wine such as Tu Kang once brewed.
Gone is my day of youthful fire
And still ungained is my desire.
The deer feed on the level plain
And joyful call, then feed again.
My noble guests are gathered round,
The air is trilled with joyful sound.
Bright my future lies before me,
As the moonlight on this plain；
But I strive in vain to reach it.
When shall I my wish attain?
None can answer; and so sadness
Grips my inmost heart again.
Far north and south,
Wide east and west,
We safety seek；
Vain is the quest.
Mans heart oft yearns
For converse sweet,
And my heart burns
When old friends greet.
The stars are paled by the full moons light,
The raven wings his southward flight,
And thrice he circles round a tree,
No place thereon to rest finds he.
They weary not the mountains of great height,
The waters deep of depth do not complain,
Duke Chou no leisure found by day or night
Stern toil is his who would the Empire gain.
(Translated by C. H. Brewitt-Taylor)