While historical records indicate Cao Cao as a brilliant ruler, he was represented as a cunning and deceitful man in Chinese opera, where his character is given a white facial makeup to reflect his treacherous personality. When Luo Guanzhong wrote the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, he took much of his inspiration from Chinese opera.

As a result, depictions of Cao Cao as unscrupulous have become much more popular among the common people than his real image. There have been attempts to revise this depiction.

As the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms has been adapted to modern forms of entertainment, so has its portrayal of Cao Cao. Given the source material upon which these adaptations are founded, Cao Cao continues to be characterised as a prominent villain.

Through to modern times, the Chinese equivalent of the English idiom “speak of the Devil” is “speak of Cao Cao and Cao Cao arrives” (说曹操,曹操到).

After the Communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, many people in China began to believe that there were many similarities between Cao Cao and Mao Zedong. Because of this perceived similarity, propagandists began a long-term, sustained effort to improve the image of Cao Cao in Chinese popular culture. In 1959, Peng Dehuai wrote a letter to Mao, in which he compared himself to Zhang Fei: because of Mao’s popular association with Cao, Peng’s comparison implied that he had an intuitively confrontational relationship with Mao. Mao had the letter widely circulated in order to make Peng’s attitude clear to other Party members, and proceeded to purge Peng, eventually ending Peng’s career.

Agriculture and education

While waging military campaigns against his enemies, Cao Cao did not forget the bases of society – agriculture and education.

In 194, a locust plague caused a major famine across China. The people resorted to cannibalism out of desperation. Without food, many armies were defeated without fighting. From this experience, Cao Cao saw the importance of an ample food supply in building a strong military. He began a series of agricultural programs in cities such as Xuchang and Chenliu. Refugees were recruited and given wasteland to cultivate. Later, encampments not faced with imminent danger of war were also made to farm. This system was continued and spread to all regions under Cao Cao as his realm expanded. Although Cao Cao’s primary intention was to build a powerful army, the agricultural program also improved the living standards of the people, especially war refugees.

By 203, Cao Cao had eliminated most of Yuan Shao’s forces. This afforded him more attention on construction within his realm. In autumn of that year, Cao Cao passed an order decreeing the promotion of education throughout the counties and cities within his jurisdiction. An official in charge of education was assigned to each county with more than 500 households. Youngsters with potential and talent were selected for schooling. This prevented a lapse in the training of intellectuals in those years of war, and, in Cao Cao’s words, would benefit the people.

Poetry

Cao Cao was an accomplished poet, as were his sons Cao Pi and Cao Zhi. He was also a patron of poets such as Xu Gan. Of Cao Cao’s works, only a remnant remain today. His verses, unpretentious yet profound, helped to reshape the poetic style of his time and beyond, eventually contributing to the poetry styles associated with Tang dynasty poetry. Cao Cao, Cao Pi and Cao Zhi are known collectively as the “Three Caos”. The Three Caos’ poetry, together with additional poets, became known as the Jian’an style, which contributed eventually to Tang and later poetry. Cao Cao also wrote verse in the older four-character per line style characteristic of the Classic of Poetry. Burton Watson describes Cao Cao as: “the only writer of the period who succeeded in infusing the old four-character metre with any vitality, mainly because he discarded the archaic diction associated with it and employed the ordinary poetic language of his time.” Cao Cao is also known for his early contributions to the Shanshui poetry genre, with his 4-character-per-line, 14-line poem “View of the Blue Sea” (觀滄海).

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