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Chinese celebrities: the story of Cao Cao

The creation of celebrity in China

In a civilization as old as China’s, thousands of men and women have caught the public imagination. As power and military exploits have always figured as the dominant force in the creation of a celebrity in China, most Chinese historical celebrities are encompassed within war and the conquest of enemies, within and without. They are people that the crowds flocked to see and on many occasions are given God-like attributes. Chinese celebrities loom large in Chinese history.

Cao Cao

Cao Cao, also known by the name Mengde, was a Chinese warlord who became very influential during the final years of the Eastern Han Dynasty. He served as the penultimate Chancellor of the dynasty and was widely regarded as one of the greatest generals in the last years of this period. After the Han Dynasty had lost its powers, the Three Kingdoms period was ushered in by the state of Wei.

Cao Cao was a very prominent figure of that era and played a key role in laying the foundations for the state of Cao Wei. He was the adopted grandson of the favorite eunuch of the Imperial court and showed signs of military promise and cunningness from an early age. Even as an adolescent, he was known to be sly and manipulative. He was made the Captain of the Cavalry when the Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out and achieved the task of suppressing the rebels.

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It depends on who tells the story

He proved to be a bold, shrewd and domineering leader, who gradually rose to power. He was a skillful general and one of the most prominent figures of Chinese legend. Highly skilled in martial arts, he is often characterized as a cruel, and merciless tyrant in subsequent literature.

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Like all celebrities, his life and legacy is an enigma determined by whoever is telling the story. Cao Cao has also been praised as a brilliant ruler and a military mastermind, who treated his subordinates like his family. A famous quote from Cao Cao is, “I’d rather betray the world than let the world betray me.”

Outnumbered 5 – 1

In 196 Cao Cao was appointed the General-in-Chief and many viewed the Emperor as a puppet in his hands. Cao Cao’s former ally Yuan Shao had become the most powerful warlord in China and Cao Cao wanted to maintain good relations with him. However, his attempt at goodwill was misinterpreted as an effort to humiliate Yuan Shao. In 200 Yuan Shao and his formidable troops of 100,000 men met Cao Cao and his troops of 20,000 men in Guandu, an important point on the Yellow River.  The two armies met in battle and, though Cao Cao’s men were outnumbered 5 to 1, under Cao Cao’s brave and skillful leadership, they won the battle.

Historical records indicate that Cao Cao was a brilliant leader known for his aggressive leadership and cunningness. He was a brave warrior skilled in the art of fighting. The battle of Guandu, which was fought by Cao Cao against the great warlord Yuan Shao, in the final years of the Han Dynasty, was a tremendous victory he achieved. The victory marked the beginning of the gradual expansion of northern China, which ultimately led to the establishment of the state of Cao Wei.

Chinese celebrities and the element of romance

The cult of celebrity and its adherents need to have an element of romance and intrigue about them. Cao Cao’s life is no exception. He was also a talented lyricist and his verses played a significant role in refining the poetic style of his time. Most of his written works have been destroyed over time, but some can be read in historical collections.
He fused the new styles of poetry with the traditional four-character meter successfully, thus evolving the art of writing during that time.

He is credited to having contributed significantly to the Shanshui poetry genre. In 203, Cao Cao passed a decree, promoting the education of his subjects throughout the counties and cities under his jurisdiction. Youngsters with potential and talent were selected for schooling. In this way, the legend of Cao Cao and his devotion to the people grew.

Chinese celebrities need romance

With the poetic nature and distinguished military career, there is always romantic links with famous women of the time; Cao Cao was no different. He had several wives and concubines including Lady Ding, Lady Wang, Lady Yin, Lady Huan, Consort Zhou and Consort Liu. He also had numerous children through these many romantic attachments.

He died of illness in 220, but his exploits, on the battlefield and his fame as a lady’s man and a man of vision, have imprinted his name indelibly in Chinese folklore. The famous Chinese warlord, a celebrity of his time, appears as a character in the video game series, Koel’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms. He appears in literature through the ages and in films in the 20th century in varying forms and degrees of villainy and heroism. There are a few Chinese television series’ based on Cao Cao’s life, which aimed to paint a more historically valid favor of him. More recent depictions of him tend to prefer the image of a misunderstood good guy. Like all romantic figures, Cao Cao has been interpreted in many ways, but the very fact that his legend endures and is taken up again and again through the ages testifies to his status as a historical celebrity.

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