Sima Zhao

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Sima Zhao
A Qing dynasty illustration of Sima Zhao (right)
King of Jin (晉王)
Tenure2 May 264 – 6 September 265
SuccessorSima Yan
Duke of Jin (晉公)
Tenure29 June 260 – 2 May 264
Regent of Cao Wei
TenureMarch 255 – 6 September 265
PredecessorSima Shi
SuccessorSima Yan
DiedSeptember 6, 265(265-09-06) (aged 53–54) [1]
Luoyang, Henan
SpouseWang Yuanji
(among others)
Full name
Family name: Sima (司馬)
Given name: Zhao (昭)
Courtesy name: Zishang (子上)
Posthumous name
Emperor Wen (文帝)
Temple name
Taizu (太祖)
HouseHouse of Sima
FatherSima Yi
MotherZhang Chunhua

Sima Zhao (About this soundpronunciation ) (211 – 6 September 265), courtesy name Zishang, was a military general, politician and regent of the state of Cao Wei during the Three Kingdoms period of China.

Sima Zhao maintained control of Wei, seized by his father Sima Yi and maintained by his older brother Sima Shi, and had himself created the King of Jin – the penultimate step before usurpation of the throne – although he never actually ascended to the throne. He took advantage of weakness in Shu Han to the west and attacked it, forcing the surrender of Shu's people. His military credit helped to set up the plot of overthrowing Wei by his son, Sima Yan, who usurped the Wei throne and proclaimed the Jin Dynasty. After the establishment of Jin, Sima Yan posthumously honored his father as Emperor Wen of Jin (晉文帝), with the temple name of Taizu (太祖).

A Chinese idiom involving and inspired by Sima Zhao states that "Everyone on the street knows what's in Sima Zhao's mind" (司馬昭之心, 路人皆知), meaning that a person's supposed hidden intention (in this case, usurping the throne) is so well known that it is not really hidden. It came from a quote by Cao Mao, fourth emperor of Wei, who launched an unsuccessful uprising against Sima Zhao to try to take back imperial power.

Early life[edit]

Sima Zhao was born in 211, as the second-born son of Sima Yi and his wife Zhang Chunhua, younger only to Sima Shi. As his father was an important Wei official, Sima Shi himself climbed up the ranks of officials fairly rapidly. Due to his father's achievements (not his own) in destroying the warlord Gongsun Yuan, he was created a Marquess in 238. In March 244, he partook in Cao Shuang's disastrous campaign against Shu, where he managed to drive off a night-raid on his camp by Shu forces. Despite the ultimate failure of the campaign, he was promoted to the rank of Consultant Gentleman (a position typically regarded as a placeholder, in which he himself was kept for over five years, which was likely bestowed upon him by Cao Shuang and his group so that he would be kept from further advancing politically).[2]

Career up to 255[edit]

Incident at Gaoping Tombs[edit]

Sima Zhao's involvement in his father's coup d'état against the regent Cao Shuang in 249 is unclear. According to the Book of Jin, he was not told about the plan, hatched by his father and his older brother, until the last minute — a view disagreed with by other historians, who believed that he was intimately involved in the planning. In the aftermath of the successful coup, however, his father became regent, and he himself received an addition of 1,000 households to his fief and became important in status. In 251, when his father suppressed the failed rebellion of Wang Ling, Sima Zhao served as deputy commander, and was rewarded with the addition of 300 households to his fief and a Marquis post for his young son, Sima You. During the next few years, he was involved in commanding forces in repelling invasions by Shu's commander of the armed forces, Jiang Wei.

Battle of Dongxing[edit]

In 253, Wei forces headed by Sima Zhao marched east to confront Wu, who had been overstepping their boundaries by building upon a lake and arming it with men on land which belonged to Wei. The Wei officers, feeling secure in their position and with their superior numbers, grew arrogant and allowed themselves to become drunk, and so were quickly overwhelmed by the Wu forces led by Ding Feng and Lü Ju, forcing the Wei forces to flee and retreat. After the loss at the Battle of Dongxing, Sima Zhao asked his Marshal Wang Yi in private who was responsible for the failure of the battle, to which Wang Yi responded that: “Responsibility lies with the army commander.”, which made Sima Zhao retort: “The Marshal means to make me shoulder the blame?”, after which he had Wang Yi executed. Sima Shi, the Wei regent and Sima Zhao's older brother, received memorials from ministers asking that Wang Chang, Guanqiu Jian, Hu Zun, and all the others who were a part of the campaign to be demoted for their failure, however, Sima Shi stated that: “It is because I did not listen to Gongxiu [Zhuge Dan] that we have come to this plight. In this I am culpable; how can the generals be at fault?”, causing him to promote the generals who partook in the battle, while demoting Sima Zhao by removing his enfeoffment.

Succeeding Sima Shi[edit]

In 254, while Sima Zhao was at the capital Luoyang, advisors to the Wei emperor Cao Fang suggested that the emperor surprise Sima Zhao and kill him to seize his troops, and then use those troops against Sima Shi. Cao Fang, apprehensive, did not act on the suggestion, but the plot was still discovered, and Sima Zhao assisted his brother in deposing the emperor and replacing him with Cao Mao. In the aftermath of the removal of the emperor, the generals Guanqiu Jian and Wen Qin rebelled in 255 but were defeated by Sima Shi.

Sima Shi, however, had a serious eye illness that was aggravated by the campaign, and he died less than a month later. At that time, Sima Zhao was with his brother at Xuchang (in modern Xuchang, Henan). The 14-year-old emperor Cao Mao made an effort to regain imperial power. He issued an edict which, under the rationale that Sima Shi had just quelled Guanqiu Jian and Wen Qin's rebellion and that the southeastern empire was still not complete pacified, ordered Sima Zhao to remain at Xuchang and that Sima Shi's assistant Fu Jia return to Luoyang with the main troops. Under Fu Jia and Zhong Hui's advice, however, Sima Zhao returned to Luoyang anyway against edict, and was able to maintain control of the government. Indeed, from that point on, he did not let Cao Mao or Empress Dowager Guo out of his control.

As paramount authority[edit]

Consolidation of authority[edit]

Third Rebellion of Shouchun[edit]

During the next few years, Sima Zhao consolidated his authority further, leaving the emperor and empress dowager with little power. He further built up a series of events that were viewed as precipitations to usurpation of the Wei throne. In 256, he had the emperor grant him the privilege of wearing imperial robes, crowns, and boots. He further tested waters by having his close aides hinting to the generals around the empire as to his intentions. In 257, when he sent Jia Chong to probe Zhuge Dan's intentions, Zhuge rebuked Jia Chong severely—leading Sima Zhao to summon Zhuge Dan back to the capital under guise of a promotion. Zhuge Dan refused and started a rebellion, submitting himself to Eastern Wu for protection. Sima Zhao advanced quickly on Zhuge Dan's stronghold of Shouchun (壽春, in modern Lu'an, Anhui) and surrounded it, eventually capturing the city in 258 after cutting off any hope of an Eastern Wu rescue, killing Zhuge Dan and his family. After Zhuge Dan's death, there was no one who dared to oppose Sima Zhao further for the next few years. In 258, he would force the emperor to offer him the Nine Bestowments—a step that put him closer to usurpation—and then publicly declined them.

Death of Cao Mao and complete control of the Wei government[edit]

In 260, Sima Zhao again forced Cao Mao to issue an edict granting Sima Zhao the Nine Bestowments, which Sima Zhao declined again, but which drew Cao Mao's ire. He gathered his associates Wang Shen, Wang Jing, and Wang Ye and told them that, while he knew the chances of success were slight, he was going to act against Sima Zhao. He took lead of the imperial guards, armed himself with a sword, and set out toward Sima Zhao's mansion. Sima Zhao's brother Sima Zhou tried to resist, but after Cao Mao's attendants yelled loudly, Sima Zhou's forces deserted. Jia Chong then arrived and intercepted the imperial guards. Cao Mao fought personally, and Jia Chong's troops, not daring to attack the emperor, were also deserting. One of the officers under Jia Chong's command, Cheng Ji (成濟), after asking Jia what to do and was told by Jia to defend the Sima power regardless of the consequences, took a spear and killed Cao Mao with it.

After Cao Mao's death, public sentiments called for Jia Chong's death, but what Sima Zhao did first was to force Empress Dowager Guo to posthumously demote Cao Mao to common citizen status and order that he be buried as such. He also executed Wang Jing and his family. The next day, after pleas from his uncle Sima Fu, Sima Zhao instead had Empress Dowager Guo order that Cao Mao be demoted back to duke but buried with the ceremonies of an imperial prince. Sima Zhao then summoned Cao Huan, the Duke of Changdao and a grandson of Cao Cao, to the capital to become the emperor; by now, Empress Dowager Guo was powerless to speak further. Nineteen days later, however, Sima Zhao publicly accused Cheng Ji and his brothers of treason and had them and their family executed to appease public sentiment while sparing Jia Chong. No one dared to act against Sima Zhao even in the aftermaths of the emperor's death, however, for Sima was effectively the imperial authority by this point.

Conquest of Shu[edit]

In 262, aggravated by Jiang Wei's incessant border attacks, Sima Zhao considered hiring assassins to murder Jiang Wei, but this plan was opposed by his two advisors, Zhong Hui and Xun Xu. Zhong Hui and Xun Xu believed that Jiang Wei had worn out his troops and that it would be an appropriate time to try to destroy Shu once and for all. Sima Zhao put Zhong Hui and Deng Ai in charge of the invasion forces (even though Deng Ai initially opposed the campaign), and they set out in spring 263.

Zhong Hui and Deng Ai faced little opposition from Shu's forces, whose strategy was to draw the Wei forces in and then close on them—a strategy that backfired, as the Wei forces, much quicker than expected, leapt past Shu border cities and immediately onto the important Yang'an Pass (陽安關, in modern Hanzhong, Shaanxi), capturing it. Still, Jiang Wei was able to regroup and block off the Wei forces from further advances, until Deng Ai led his troops over a treacherous mountain pass, descending on Jiangyou (in modern Mianyang, Sichuan), defeating Zhuge Zhan and heading directly for the Shu capital, Chengdu. Surprised by Deng Ai's quick advances and believing that Jiang Wei would be unable to return fast enough to defend the capital against Deng Ai, the Shu emperor Liu Shan surrendered to Wei. During the campaign, in light of the successes, Sima Zhao had the emperor Cao Huan bestow on him the title of the Duke of Jin and accepted the Nine Bestowments.

Zhong Hui's Rebellion[edit]

Another turmoil quickly came after Shu's destruction, however. Deng Ai, proud of his achievements, became arrogant in his correspondence with Sima Zhao, drawing Sima's suspicion. Zhong Hui, who had plans to rebel himself, quickly forged letters that further damaged the relations between Sima Zhao and Deng Ai beyond repair, and Sima ordered Deng to be arrested. Zhong Hui did so, seizing Deng Ai's troops and merging them with his own, and then, with Jiang Wei as his assistant (but with Jiang's actual intentions to eventually kill Zhong and restore Shu), declared a rebellion in 264, but his troops rebelled against him and killed both him and Jiang Wei.


After Zhong Hui's rebellion was defeated, Sima Zhao was granted the title King of Jin, the penultimate step to usurpation. He set out to revise the laws and the civil service system in accordance of how he would want his own empire to be. He further sought peace with Eastern Wu, to prevent further complications for his planned takeover, a gesture that was not reciprocated.

Later that year, Sima Zhao considered whom to make his heir. He considered his talented younger son Sima You, who had been adopted by Sima Shi because Sima Shi did not have sons of his own, under the rationale that because Sima Shi had great achievement in the Simas' obtaining and retaining power, the succession should go back to his son. The majority of his advisors, however, recommended his oldest son Sima Yan instead, and Sima Zhao finally resolved to make Sima Yan his designated heir.

On 6 September 265, Sima Zhao died before he could receive actual imperial authority, although he was buried with imperial honours on 20 October 265. Four months later, however, Sima Yan would have the Wei emperor Cao Huan abdicate in favor of him, ending Wei and establishing the Jin dynasty. After he did so, he posthumously honored Sima Zhao as Emperor Wen.


  • Parents:
    • Sima Yi, Emperor Xuan (宣皇帝 司馬懿; 179 – 251)
    • Empress Xuanmu, of the Zhang clan (宣穆皇后 張氏; 189–247), personal name Chunhua (春華)
  • Consorts and Issue:
  1. Empress Wenming, of the Wang clan of Donghai (文明皇后 東海王氏; 217 – 268), personal name Yuanji (元姬)
    1. Sima Yan, Emperor Wu (武皇帝 司馬炎; 236 – 290)
    2. Sima You, Prince Qixian (齊獻王 司馬攸; 248 – 283)
    3. Sima Zhao, Prince Chengyang'ai (城陽哀王 司馬兆)
    4. Sima Dingguo, Prince Liaodong Daohui (遼東悼惠王 司馬定國)
    5. Sima Guangde, Prince Guanghanshang (廣漢殤王 司馬廣德)
    6. Princess Jingzhao (京兆公主)
  2. Unknown
    1. Sima Jian, Prince Le'anping (樂安平王 司馬鑒; d. 297)
    2. Sima Ji, Prince Yan (燕王 司馬機)
    3. Sima Yongzuo (司馬永祚)
    4. Sima Yanzuo, Prince Leping (樂平王 司馬延祚)
    5. Princess Changshan (常山公主)

In popular culture[edit]

Sima Zhao is first introduced as a playable character in the seventh instalment of Koei's Dynasty Warriors video game series, in which he is depicted as having a lazy and carefree atmosphere, but underneath it actually being a talented leader and strategist. He is then introduced again as a playable character in Warriors Orochi 3.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Declercq, Dominik (1998). "Chapter 5". Writing Against the State: Political Rhetorics in Third and Fourth Century China. BRILL. p. 176. Retrieved 2 January 2015. Hardly was this rebellion crushed than Sima Shi died (in March 255); and his brother Sima Zhao took command...
  2. ^ Fang’s note 14 of Zhengshi 9;

    the title Gentleman Consultant [yilang] was typically used as a “placeholder”. It indicated that the court intended to grant the Gentleman Consultant an important position as soon as one became available. In the mean time, the Gentleman Consultant could participate in the court’s discussions and provide advice. While this position was often an honor, it could also be used to slow the advancement of one’s political rivals. Given that Sima Zhao remained a Gentleman Consultant for more than five years, this appointment was most likely an attempt by He Yan, Cao Shuang, and their party to curb his advancement.

Emperor Wen of Jin
Born: 211 Died: 6 September 265
Chinese royalty
Preceded by
as Duke of Jin
King of Jin
2 May 264 – 6 September 265
Succeeded by
Sima Yan
later became
Emperor Wu of Jin
Chinese nobility
New title Duke of Jin
29 June 260 – 2 May 264
Succeeded by
as King of Jin