An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Wei Wendi 魏文帝 Cao Pi 曹丕

May 7, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Emperor Wei Wendi 魏文帝 (r. 220-226), personal name Cao Pi 曹丕 (187-226), courtesy name Zihuan 子桓, was the second son of the warlord Cao Cao 曹操 and founder of the Wei dynasty 魏 (220-265) that ruled over one of the Three Empires 三國 (220-280). He came from the district of Qiaoxian 譙縣 (modern Boxian 亳縣, Anhui) and was made Leader of the court gentlemen for miscellaneous uses (wuguan zhonglangjiang 五官中郎將) and Vice Counsellor-in-chief (fu chengxiang 副丞相) during the time when his father already dominated the court of the Later Han dynasty 後漢 (25-220). In 217 he was nominated heir (taizi 太子 "crown prince") of Cao Cao. On the death of his father, he succeeded his father as Prince of Wei 魏王 and Counsellor-in-chief. Shortly later he deposed Emperor Xian 漢獻帝 (r. 189-220) and proclaimed the Wei dynasty. As an emperor, he also proclaimed a new reign motto and shifted the capital back from the provisional seat in Xuxian 許縣 (modern Xuchang 許昌, Shanxi), where his father had had his stronghold, back to Luoyang 洛陽.

Cao Pi tried strengthening the power of the emperor by cutting the importance of the offices of the Three Dukes (sangong 三公) and giving more responsibility to the imperial secretariat (shangshutai 尚書臺). He could thus reign through a bureaucratic institution of clerks rather than with the support of powerful persons, and, in a very legalist manner, gained more power by making himself free of the influence of generals and relatives of empresses which had been a problem through the whole Han period. Cao Pi was also very careful with granting titles of nobility and only gave territories to princes and meritorious officials that would not provide them with sufficient economical and military resources to challenge the central government. At the same time, state officials supervised all activities of the princes and marquesses. Disobedience among the nobility was ruthlessly punished. For the recruitment of able persons staffing the bureaucracy, Cao Pi introduced the system of the nine ranks (jiupin zhongzheng zhi 九品中正制) by which all eminent families were classified into one of nine categories from which officials could be recruited for all nine ranks of the bureaucracy.

Cao Pi personally led three campaigns against the empire of Wu 吳 (222-280) in China's southwest, but he failed three times to defeat emperor Sun Quan 孫權, not to speak of conquering his empire.

Cao Pi's posthumous title is "Cultivated Emperor", Wendi 文帝. This is because Cao Pi is known for his love of literature, especially poetry. Like his brother Cao Zhi 曹植, he wrote a lot of poems, and his Yan ge xing 燕歌行 is one of the first poems written in seven-syllable verses. His book Dianlun 典論 "On the standards of literature", of which only the chapter Lunwen 論文 "Discussing literature" has survived, is China's oldest literary critique.

Zhu Zongbin 祝總斌 (1992), "Wei Wendi Cao Pi 魏文帝曹丕", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 3, 1213.
Goodman, Howard L. (1998). Ts’ao P’i Transcendent: The Political Culture of Dynasty-Founding in China at the End of the Han (Seattle: Curzon).
Leban, Carl (1982). "Managing Heaven’s Mandate: Coded Communication in the Accession of Ts’ao P’ei, A.D. 220", in David Roy and Tsuen-Hsuin Hsien, eds. Ancient China: Studies in Early Civilization (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press), 315-342.