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腾蛇乘雾,终为土灰
December 30, 2009 8:57 AM   Subscribe

Man from the Margin: Cao Cao and the Three Kingdoms You'll perhaps have read or watched reports that archaeologists believe they have found the tomb of Cao Cao (曹操) (of course, not everyone agrees with the identification). Warrior, strategist, statesman and poet, Cao Cao lives on in the cultural memory of China, a by-word for cunning and of course a central character in the great historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms and hence also recent John Woo blockbuster Red Cliff. To understand the man in his historical context, there's little better in English than the 1990 George Ernest Morrison Lecture in Ethnology given by now-retired Professor Rafe de Crespigny, one of the foremost Western scholars of the Han Dynasty and Three Kingdoms periods of Chinese history. He makes several of his vastly erudite essays on Chinese history available at the ANU's website.
posted by Abiezer (21 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thanks. This part sounds a little too familiar:
Indeed it was a nice question whether the dynasty was maintained with the support of the landed gentry and the officials, or rather for their benefit. Toa considerable degree, the attitude of scholars and the men of good family was one of pious moralising against the imperial government, combined with a benevolent sympathy, largely unaccompanied by practical action, for those who were poorer and weaker. And the leaders of the Pure faction, though they were men of great honour and tragic courage, can also be regarded as the short-sighted representatives of a selfish landlord class, primarily concerned with its personal interests, and unable or unwilling to look beyond to the dangers which threatened society as a whole.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. At least we have the interwebs.
posted by wuwei at 9:11 AM on December 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


What I don't understand is this: Cau Cau beats Guan Yu in battle, but who gets deity status and a statue in every shrine in every single apartment in Hong Kong? (If all those triad movies are anything to go by, anyway.)
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:28 AM on December 30, 2009


What I don't understand is this: Cau Cau beats Guan Yu in battle, but who gets deity status and a statue in every shrine in every single apartment in Hong Kong?

Cao Cao is the Big Bad in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, not to mention I don't think he had a lot of martial prowess himself. His side was eventually victorious, but at least according to legend, he was personally bested by Guan Yu multiple times. Liu Bei is also a bit of a bastard, but Guan Yu is always depicted as stalwart and true. And in combat skills, he's considered the best of his era along with others like Zhao Yun who was a major badass in his own right.
posted by kmz at 9:42 AM on December 30, 2009


Cao Cao will live forever thanks to the three million different Dynasty Warriors games.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 9:44 AM on December 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


Thanks, kmz. I'd kind of assumed he represented some kind of treacherous government official to Guan Yu's romantic and loyal rebel. Which I thought made sense among the anti-communist triad and business types in HK.

I'll have to have a stab at the second half of Red Cliff soon. I got really annoyed when part one ended just as the action was about to start.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:49 AM on December 30, 2009


Cao Cao will live forever thanks to the three million different Dynasty Warriors games.

I remember laughing a lot when I first heard that Zhuge Liang is a playable character in those games, and his weapon is his fan.
posted by kmz at 9:50 AM on December 30, 2009


When I was teaching in Taiwan back in the '70s, one of the enlightening experiences was discovering that absolutely everybody was familiar with the Three Kingdoms period and used it as a point of comparison for current events. It was hard to avoid the comparison with my own country, where anything before the Vietnam War (update to 9/11 now) was ancient and irrelevant. Still haven't read the book, but it's on my life list!
posted by languagehat at 10:46 AM on December 30, 2009


> I remember laughing a lot when I first heard that Zhuge Liang is a playable character in those games, and his weapon is his fan.

Thanks to the Wikipedia entry, I have now learned of a far more questionable video game appearance by Zhuge Liang.

Even as a kid reading the kiddie version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms I remember thinking that Liu Bei (or Yoo Bee, as read in Korean) was a bit of a bastard and puzzled as to why he commanded such loyalty. Guan Yu was of course the totally cool badass, and Cao Cao (who? oh, Jo Jo) was all crafty mustache-twirling villain. Zhuge Liang was pretty cool, too, and my favorite character. Doesn't hurt that he's played by Kaneshiro Takeshi in Red Cliff.
posted by needled at 11:08 AM on December 30, 2009


Cao Cao. Mmmmmmm evil!
posted by Ironmouth at 11:13 AM on December 30, 2009


What's the best unabridged English edition of San Guo? Does it really read like a genre novel?
posted by johnasdf at 11:28 AM on December 30, 2009


When I was teaching in Taiwan back in the '70s, one of the enlightening experiences was discovering that absolutely everybody was familiar with the Three Kingdoms period and used it as a point of comparison for current events.
So true - one of the things with translation is how often a set phrase or allusion will turn out to be from the Three Kingdoms when you look it up to check. I actually have read the book but am obviously nowhere near as immersed in it as the locals.
Finding the tomb, if indeed it is Cao Cao's, seems on a par with coming up with King Arthur's grave in England. One of the pieces of evidence the team cite is a Later Zhao grave close by where the occupant has been identified (Chinese text), so they know it dates from some 125 years (345 CE) after the accepted date of Cao Cao's death (220 CE). An inscription from that tomb states that it's 43 paces (a set measurement at the time; about 300 metres they calculate) from the northwest corner of the tomb of Emperor Wu of Wei, Cao Cao's posthumous title. Although the Later Zhao inscription was found in 1998 it wasn't in the tomb itself (unearthed a few metres away) which complicated matters.
posted by Abiezer at 11:47 AM on December 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Er, thinking on, of course there's no doubts that Cao Cao was a historical figure, unlike there are with Arthur; was thinking in terms of place in later legend.
posted by Abiezer at 11:50 AM on December 30, 2009


Maybe a better analogy is, it's like finding George Washington's grave, two thousand years from now.

Or something like that.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:12 PM on December 30, 2009


Like finding Genghis Khan's grave?
posted by Hargrimm at 6:18 PM on December 30, 2009


Cau Cau beats Guan Yu in battle, but who gets deity status and a statue in every shrine in every single apartment in Hong Kong?

I've never understood this either, I've always been partial to Cao Cao myself. I suspect there might have been some pro Sichuan / pro southern revisionism going on when the three kingdoms legends were being formed.

Cao Cao is the Big Bad in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, not to mention I don't think he had a lot of martial prowess himself. His side was eventually victorious, but at least according to legend, he was personally bested by Guan Yu multiple times. Liu Bei is also a bit of a bastard, but Guan Yu is always depicted as stalwart and true. And in combat skills, he's considered the best of his era along with others like Zhao Yun who was a major badass in his own right.

Is there any evidence that the leaders actaully fought in battle? At Red Cliffs alone there was around 300,000 soldiers, so that seems kind of far fetched to me, but I could be wrong.
posted by afu at 9:11 PM on December 30, 2009


Fantastic post, thanks! Watched the movie Red Cliff, loved every moment of it, and yes, like languagehat, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms has been on my to-read list for a while now [along with The Journey to the West, must add :-) ]

From the Wikipedia article on Cao Cao, I found the following amusing:
Through to modern times, the Chinese equivalent of the English idiom "speak of the Devil" is "Speak of Cao Cao and Cao Cao arrives." ("說曹操,曹操到"; Pinyin: Shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo dào).
While I'm sure Cao Cao was a complex person, and had many nuances to his character, but it's quite interesting how people are cast into stock good or evil figures. Indeed, we have a similar historical figure in this part of the world too, a once Governor General of French India, Charles Joseph Patissier Marquis de Bussy-Castelnau, or 'boochaaDu' in the local vernacular, has frightened countless generations of Telugu-speaking kids into obeying their elders, his being typecast as a demon a direct result of his fight against Tandra Paparayudu in the Bobbili war.

This, of course, is not to distract from the sheer awesomeness of the Three Kingdoms epic or the great thread that is brewing here :-) ; just making a generic point on the fascinating overlap between myth-making and linguistics.
posted by the cydonian at 10:47 PM on December 30, 2009


Is there any evidence that the leaders actaully fought in battle? At Red Cliffs alone there was around 300,000 soldiers, so that seems kind of far fetched to me, but I could be wrong.
de Crespigny has this towards the end of the main article linked above; basically the massive armies of the time were ill-disciplined mobs and the general and his core band of retainers would have been in the thick of things:
The matter of controlling and maintaining an army in being was central to the success of Cao Cao and the failure of Yuan Shao. For the armies of this time were ramshackle affairs. The small regular forces of the Han dynasty, professional soldiers based at the capital and experienced troops on the northern frontier, had been well-disciplined and efficient, but elsewhere in the empire the government of Later Han had been more concerned about the loyalty of its people than with the need for competent soldiers, and it maintained no general system of militia training. In civil war, as the mobilisations of the warlords brought vast numbers to the competing banners, there were neither time nor resources for proper training. Many men with experience in the old imperial army gained advancement as commanders of the new recruits, but their units were overwhelmed by the hordes of newcomers, and the traditions, skills and discipline were lost. As for equipment, uniforms, supply and general co-ordination, the texts indicate either that they were completely lacking or, when they were present, that this was considered exceptional.

In reality, these armies were simple armed mobs, with landless troops driven variously by loyalty or fear, by personal desperation, and by the hope of plunder. And they were accompanied by a mass of camp-followers _women and children, cooks and prostitutes, peddlers and gamblers, and a few who specialised in care of the sick and wounded. In the ruin of the society of the past, these masses of ragged misery joined the command of any chieftain who might gain them a measure of security.

So the structure and fighting techniques of these armies were based upon small groups of men following individual leaders. The heart of each unit was the commander himself, supported by his Companions, skilled soldiers who owed him personal allegiance and served as a body-guard, and the most important tactic was expressed in the phrase "to break the enemy line". In aggressive action, the commander and his Companions acted as spearhead for a drive at the enemy array, and if they were successful they could hope to be followed by the mass of their followers, spreading out to attack the broken enemy from the flank and the rear.

Such tactics have been used at other times and places, and the reliance upon mass, concentrated at one point, is a natural technique for an ill-disciplined force, but it is a frightening operation for the leaders of a primitive army, with no certainty of support. Such attack requires great courage from the leader and his immediate followers, and a high level of personal authority to attract his men to follow in the charge. So if we read in the stories how one man held a bridge, or another advanced alone against an army, some part of the tale may be true
One of the other essays he offers is Later Han Military Organisation
As we have seen, any able-bodied man was liable for service in time of emergency, and the armies which fought rebels and bandits for the government of Han gained most of their troops by the technique of a press-gang. In the early 170s, for example, the future general Sun Jian obtained his first command against rebels in the southeast as a major with commission to recruit men as he found them and bring his contingent to join the forces of order. Men of rank and substance recruited their followers from retainers and mercenaries: so Cao Cao raised troops in 189 by distributing his family property.

At the core of any such levy, however, there was always a small group of family members or trusted friends, and this band of Companions (qinjin) gave security to the leader and coherence to his unit. As the civil war began with "loyal rebellion" against the court controlled by the usurper Dong Zhuo, conflicting claims of right action and allegiance soon defied the sophistries of even the highest officers who sought to serve the state. In practical terms, as social and economic conditions deteriorated ordinary men and their families were concerned primarily with survival, and the best chance for that was the protection of a successful warlord. As a result, whether the leader was a man of good family or a soldier of fortune, his power was based on personal loyalty, not upon an abstract concept of public duty, while his own security depended upon the support of the men he sought to command.
posted by Abiezer at 1:38 AM on December 31, 2009 [4 favorites]


Thanks for the update. I should have rtfa. Though I am still having trouble understanding how the "spearhead" strategy would work in armies of over 100,000 men.
posted by afu at 2:25 AM on December 31, 2009


Yep, does stretch credibility just a touch! Of course, barring certain embarrassing dust-ups at the football and in the schoolyard as a youth which also fitted the pattern, my personal experience of mass close-quarter battle is limited to Medieval: Total War where the morale system did sort of work this way - once someone breaks and runs the rest soon follow. Can think of a few battles in British history where similar was the case: few casualties during the actual clash of fronts but lots killed in the chase when one side turned tail. Numbers obviously nowhere like as large. Contrawise wasn't Cannae so bloody in part because for once it was two very determined professional armies meeting?
posted by Abiezer at 3:00 AM on December 31, 2009


说曹操,曹操就到!

I just saw Red Cliff 2 on the plane from Beijing. Not exactly a balanced portrayal of the man, but then again, it based on the Romance...
posted by flippant at 3:43 AM on December 31, 2009


His chicken has won the battle for my heart.
posted by clockzero at 10:08 AM on December 31, 2009


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