An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Empire of Cao-Wei 曹魏 (220-265)

Oct 30, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

The empire of Wei 魏 (220-265) was one of the Three Empires 三國 (220~280). It was founded by Cao Pi 曹丕 (Emperor Wen 魏文帝, r. 220-226), son of the warlord Cao Cao 曹操 (155-220). The dynasty is also called Cao-Wei 曹魏 in order to avoid confusion with the regional state of Wei 魏 of the Zhou period 周 (11th. cent.-221 BC) or the Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 (386-534) that was founded by the Türkish people of the Taɣ​bač (Tuoba 拓跋). The Cao-Wei dynasty ruled over northern China and was traditionally seen as the rightful successor of the Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE).

In the mid-190s, Cao Cao dominated north China and began to establish a parallel state structure which was possible because the state of the Han dynasty had practically ceased to exist. Having been abducted by the mighty general Dong Zhuo 董桌 (d. 192), Emperor Xian 漢獻帝 (r. 189-220) of the Han dynasty was forced to live in Chang'an 長安 (today's Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi). The empire was shaken by the Yellow Turban uprising (huangjin qiyi 黃巾起義) and fell apart by the competition for power by several regional warlords. In 196, Cao Cao received the abandoned emperor in his residence in Xu 許 (today's Xuchang 許昌, Henan). This was by no way unreasonable, as the capitals Luoyang 洛陽 (today in Henan) and Chang'an were devastated.

Four years later, the warlord Yuan Shao 袁紹 (d. 202) attempted to destroy Cao Cao' base, and the two parties met in the battle of Guandu 官渡 (today's Zhongmou 中牟, Henan), where Cao defeated his opponent and began to conquer step by step the northern parts of the Central Plain. Cao made himself Counsellor-in-chief (chengxiang 丞相) and de-facto regent for Emperor Xian. At the same time, he was allowed to bear the title of King of Wei 魏.

On 11 Dec 220, Cao Cao' sucessor Cao Pi urged Emperor Xian to abdicate (see shanrang 禪讓) and lay the Heavenly Mandate into the hands of the Cao family. Half a year later, Liu Bei 劉備 (161-222), master over the region of Shu 蜀 (Sichuan), proclaimed himself emperor of Han (Shu-Han) 蜀漢 (221-263). In 222, Cao Pi allowed the warlord of the southeast, Sun Quan 孫權 (182-252), to bear the title of King of Wu 吳 (222-280). In 229, Sun also adopted the imperial title. These were Three Empires.

In order to consolidate his rule, Cao Pi tried to abolish the institutional problems by which the Later Han dynasty had suffered from and to which it had finally succumbed. It was forbidden to present submissions or petitions to empresses, bypassing the authority of the emperor. Furthermore, kinsmen of empresses were excluded from official posts and titles of nobility. Relatives and princes of the imperial house were endowed with land far away from the capital, were ordered to reside within these estates and not in the capital Luoyang. Their personal troops were not to surpass a certain number of soldiers. On the one hand, the dynastic threats by rivalry for throne succession and the interference of the families of empresses were eliminated, but on the other, the Wei emperors were largely isolated and found not enough support among the officialdom and the social elite. Although Cao Cao had not been a real member of the northern Chinese aristocracy, he was accepted as a leader due to his military and political successes. Nonetheless, he tried to oust his political opponents among the aristocracy with brutal force and thereby provoked the hostility of the distinguished families (shizu 士族) with their prestige and power. Cao Cao looked not only for supporters among the families of a higher education and a higher social background (mingshi 名士), but also among the lower social strata and tried to promote people of ability rather than simply because of social background.

Like his father, Cao Pi relied on a very austere and economical household policy and interdicted the organisation of extravagant burials and tombs as it had been popular among the Han-period aristocracy and officialdom.

At the northern frontier, general Jiang Ji 蔣濟 (d. 249 CE) pacified the tribal federations of the Xiongnu 匈奴 or the city states of Shanshan 鄯善, Qiuci 龜慈, and Yutian 于闐. They accepted the suzerainty of the new emperor of China (see tribute system). Cao Wei installed a commandant "protecting" the federation of the Xianbei 鮮卑 (hu Xianbei xiaowei [also read jiaoyu] 護鮮卑校尉), whose leader Ke-bi-neng 軻比能 (190-235) for some time challenged the security of the northern frontier. The Western Territories were governed as administrative prefecture (Xiyu zhangshi fu 西域長史府). Following the tradition of territorial expansion of the Han empire to the Central Asian oasis cities, military agro-colonies (tuntian 屯田) were arranged especially in the area of Gaochang 高昌 (modern Turfan 吐魯番, Xinjiang).

The southern frontier towards the empires of Wu and Shu was relatively stable and quiet for the coming decades, although several military campaigns were carried out against two southern empires. In the region of River Huai 淮水, too, military agro-colonies guaranteed the self-subsistence of the military border garrisons. A Wei invasion of the lower Yangtze region in 224 failed. In the late 220s, the chief counsellor of Shu, Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮 (181-234), launched several campaigns across the Qinling Range 秦嶺 and was able to occupy some territory in the region of what is today southern Shaanxi. The death of the great strategist in 234 ended the military advance of Shu. 245, Guanqiu Jian 毌丘儉 (d. 255) forced the state of Koguryŏ 高句麗 into submission. The influence of the Wei empire even extended to Japan, from where Queen Himiko 卑彌呼 (c. 170-c. 248) of Yamatai 邪馬台, one of the Wa states 倭, sent tributes to Luoyang.

After Cao Pi's death in 225, his son Cao Rui 曹叡 became emperor (Emperor Ming 魏明帝, r. r. 226-239 CE), supported by the regents Cao Zhen 曹真 (d. 231), Chen Qun 陳群 (d. 236), Cao Xiu 曹休 (d. 228 CE), and Sima Yi 司馬懿 (179-251).

Cao Rui was the initiator of a new criminal and administrative codex called Weilü 魏律 or Xinlü 新律. Under his rule several military campaigns against the empires of Wu and Shu took place, and the autonomous rule of Gongsun Yuan 公孫淵 (d. 238) in Liaodong 遼東 (modern Liaoning) was ended.

In order to pursue an official career, it was necessary to take part in a kind of examination system that was based on the Confucian Classics. These procedures were partially a response to the philosophical movement of the "School of the Mystery" (xuanxue 玄學) that preferred to discuss metaphysical questions rather than social and state-political matters. The School of the Mystery was very widespread among the educated class during the third and fourth centuries, as can be seen in the "liberal" lives and writings of the Seven Worthies from the Bamboo Grove (Zhulin qixian 竹林七賢).

In these administrative regulations the origin of the state examination system can be found that was to dominate access to official career until the very beginning of the twentieth century. The rulers of the Wei dynasty also introduced the custom to divide the ranks of state offices into nine grades (jiupin 九品) with upper, mean and lower sub-ranks (counting 27 ranks in total, later only upper and lower ranks). All eminent families of the state were likewise classified into nine grades, and their sons were allowed to be appointed to offices with a corresponding rank, and not higher.

The policy of austerity that had been pursued under the rule of Cao Cao and Cao Pi was gradually given up. There was again material and personal unthriftiness at the central court and among the aristocracy. Emperor Ming died childless in 239, and the ageing regent Sima Yi took over the government for the child emperor Cao Fang 曹芳 (r. 239-254). Yet Sima Yi was maneuvered out by the court clique around Cao Shuang 曹爽 (d. 249 CE), a faction to which also the philosopher He Yan 何晏 (190-249) belonged. Only when Sima Yi, backed by other eminent families, was able to establish a coalition with the Empress Dowager, Cao Shuang was eliminated. In 251, the Defender-in-chief Wang Ling 王淩 (172-251) overthrew the child emperor Cao Fang and installed Cao Biao 曹彪 as new ruler.

In turn, Sima Yi's son Sima Shi 司馬師 (208-255) was able to disempower the clique of Wang Ling, Guanqiu Jian, and Zhuge Dan 諸葛誕 (d. 258), and installed another puppet ruler named Cao Mao 曹髦 (r. 254-260 CE). Sima Shi's brother Sima Zhao 司馬昭 (211-265) was bestowed the title of Duke of Jin 晉公 and, after Cao Mao's untimely death, brought to the throne yet another puppet emperor, Cao Huan 曹奐, posthumously called Emperor Yuan 魏元帝 (r. 260-265).

Under the nominal rule of Emperor Yuan, Jiang Wei and Deng Ai advanced through the Han River region (Hanzhong) and conquered Chengdu, the capital of the empire of Shu. Sima Zhao, who held the high command in Wei, was rewarded with the post of Counsellor-in-chief and the title of King of Jin.

The potentate Sima Zhao was succeeded by his son Sima Yan 司馬炎 (known as Emperor Wu of Jin 晉武帝, r. 265-289) in 265, as both King of Jin and Counsellor-in-chief. He did not hesitate very long to dethrone Cao Huan, demoted him to the rank of Prince of Chenliu 陳留, and on February 4, 266 proclaimed the Jin dynasty 晉 (265-420).

Table 1. Rulers of the Cao-Wei Empire 曹魏 (220-265)
Capital: Luoyang 洛陽 (modern Luoyang, Henan)
posthumous title {temple name} personal name reign-periods
Duke of Wei 魏 in 213, King of Wei in 216.
Wei Wudi 魏武帝 (r. 215-220)
Cao Cao 曹操 --
Wei Wendi 魏文帝 (r. 220-226)
{Wei Gaozu 魏高祖}
Cao Pi 曹丕 Huangchu 黃初 (220-226)
Wei Mingdi 魏明帝 (r. 226-239)
{Wei Liezu 魏烈祖}
Cao Rui 曹叡 Taihe 太和 (227-232)
Qinglong 青龍 (233-236)
Jingchu 景初 (237-239)
Counter-emperor Gongsun Yuan 公孫淵 (237-238)
Shaohan 紹漢 (237-238)
The Minor Emperor (Wei Shaodi) 魏少帝 (r. 239-253)
Demoted as Prince of Qi 齊王, then Duke Li of Shaoling 邵陵厲公.
Cao Fang 曹芳 Zhengshi 正始 (240-248)
Jiaping 嘉平 (249-253)
Emperor 254-259
Demoted as Township Duke of Gaogui 高貴鄉公.
Cao Mao 曹髦 Zhengyuan 正元 (254-255)
Ganlu 甘露 (256-259)
Wei Yuandi 魏元帝 (r. 260-265)
Demoted as Prince of Chenliu 陳留王, then Township Duke of Changdao 常道鄉公.
Cao Huan 曹奐 Jingyuan 景元 (260-263)
Xianxi 咸熙 (264-265)
265 Wei dynasty replaced by Jin 晉 (265-420)
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