Poetry of Cao Cao

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A Ming Dynasty portrait of Cao Cao from the Sancai Tuhui.

Cao Cao (155—220) was a warlord who rose to power towards the final years of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25—220 CE) and became the de facto head of government in China. He laid the foundation for what was to become the state of Cao Wei (220—265), founded by his son and successor Cao Pi, in the Three Kingdoms period (220—280). Poetry, among other things, was one of his cultural legacies.


Cao Cao was an accomplished poet, as were his sons Cao Pi and Cao Zhi. Cao Cao was also a patron of poets such as Xu Gan.[1] 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, eventually developed into the Jian'an style: Jian'an was the era name for the period from 196 to 220. Poets of the Cao family and others continued to write and develop the poetry of this style, after the end of the Han Dynasty and the subsequent founding of the Cao Wei state: these were the Jian'an poets. The effects of civil strife on poetry towards the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty contributed to the development of a solemn and heart-stirring tone of lament for life's ephemeral nature during the period of Jian'an poetry.

From its roots in Han poetry folk songs, Jian'an poetry evolved into a form of scholarly poetry that is characteristic of Six Dynasties poetry. Cao Cao and other Jian'an poets developed the characteristic Han fu (or yuefu) poetry style deriving from folk song or ballad traditions, such as of uneven line lengths. Irregular lines became transformed into regular five-character line-length styles, very similar (and inspirational to) the shi poetry of the Tang Dynasty's five-character regular line. Cao Cao has specifically been noted for his ballad-style verse, which he apparently set to music.[2]

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."[3] 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" (as translated by Wai-lim Yip).[4]


Though the Tortoise Lives Long[edit]

One of Cao Cao's most celebrated pieces, written in the old four-character line style, is titled Though the Tortoise Lives Long (龜雖壽). It is one part of a four part poem titled Steps through the Illustrious Gate (步出夏門行). It was written during the Battle of White Wolf Mountain in 207.


Though the Tortoise Lives Long


Though the tortoise blessed with magic powers lives long,
Its days have their allotted span;


Though winged serpents ride high on the mist,
They turn to dust and ashes at the last;


An old war-horse may be stabled,
Yet still it longs to gallop a thousand li;


And a noble-hearted man though advanced in years
Never abandons his proud aspirations.


Man's span of life, whether long or short,
Depends not on Heaven alone;


One who eats well and keeps cheerful
Can live to a great old age.


And so, with joy in my heart,
I hum this song.

Short Song Style[edit]

Cao Cao citing the Short Song Style while facing the rising moon at Mount Nanping. From Yoshitoshi's One Hundred Aspects of the Moon series of ukiyo-e woodblock prints

Another of Cao Cao's most well known poems, written right before the Battle of Red Cliffs in the winter of 208, is Short Song Style (短歌行). Translation by Anonymous.


Short Song Style


To my wine I sing a song: a man's life can last how long?


Ephemeral as morning dew; past days are bitterly endless


Indignity is matched by generosity; yet this worry is unforgettable


How can one be free from sorrow? There is only Du Kang's wine(1)


Your collar so blue, blue; forever my heart longs, longs for you(2)


Yet only for your sake; do I still sing to this day


"Yu, yu" call the deer; eating together on the plain


I too have my dear guests; drumming strings and blowing flutes(3)


Bright, bright shines the moon; Will there be a time it can be grasped?


Sorrow comes from deep within; never will it be ended


Crossing streets, passing roads; over a hard path you joined my service


Whether in work or play; my heart shall always remember that kindness


The moon outshines the sparse stars; the crows fly to the south


Circling the tree three times; on what branch can they find rest?


Mountains do not despise height; Seas do not despise depth


The Duke of Zhou spat out his meal; so the world turned its heart to him(4)

(1) 杜康 is the legendary inventor of wine
(2) This a quote from a love poem in the 詩經 anthology of classical poems
(3) This entire stanza is a quote from a poem in the 詩經
(4) When people visited the Duke of Zhōu while he was eating, he would spit out his food and meet them instead of finish his meal. Later commentators praised him for his self-sacrifice.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Davis, p. vi
  2. ^ Watson, p.38
  3. ^ Watson, p. 38
  4. ^ Yip, 130-133
  • A. R. (Albert Richard) Davis, Editor and Introduction (1970). The Penguin Book of Chinese Verse. Penguin Books. 
  • Burton Watson (1971). CHINESE LYRICISM: Shih Poetry from the Second to the Twelfth Century. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-03464-4. 
  • Yip, Wai-lim (1997). Chinese Poetry: An Anthology of Major Modes and Genres. (Durham and London: Duke University Press). ISBN 0-8223-1946-2
  • Xiao Tong (6th century). Wen Xuan.  Check date values in: |date= (help)