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Cao Zhen 曹真

Oct 31, 2015 © Ulrich Theobald

Cao Zhen 曹真 (died 231), courtesy name Zidan 子丹, was a military commander of the very late Eastern Han period 東漢 (25-220 CE).

He came from Qiao 譙 in the princedom of Pei 沛 (modern Boxian 亳縣, Anhui). His original family name was Qin 秦, but the warlord Cao Cao 曹操 adopted him and fostered him with his own sons. Cao Zhen, as he was called from then, accompanied Cao Cao on his military campaigns in the Tiger-and-Panther Guard (hubaoqi 虎豹騎), and achieved his first victory as Determined General (pian jiangjun 偏將軍) against some commanders of Liu Bei 劉備. This won him the title of Central-Sturdy General (zhongjian jiangjun 中堅將軍), and an given the title of neighbourhood marquis (tinghou 亭侯) of Lingshou 靈壽. Arrived in Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi) he was made capital commandant (zhonglingjun 中領軍).

When Xiahou Yuan 夏侯淵 installed himself in Yangping 陽平, Cao Cao made his foster son XXX 征蜀護軍 and ordered him to attack the Sichuan Basin. Together with Xu Huang 徐晃 he defeated Gao Xiang 高詳 at Yangping 陽平. Cao Cao then sent him to Wudu 武都, where he met Cao Hong 曹洪 to secure the region of Hanzhong 漢中 against the Liu Bei, who ruled over the Sichuan Basin. They fortified the city of Chencang 陳倉.

When Cao Pi founded the Wei dynasty 曹魏 (220-265), he made his quasi-brother General Suppressing the West (zhenxi jiangjun 鎮西將軍) and entrusted him with the military command over the provinces of Yongzhou 雍州 (modern Shaanxi) and Liangzhou 凉州 (modern Gansu), and gave him the title of Marquis of Dongxiang 東鄉侯.

In 222 he was made General-in-Chief of the Upper Army (shangjun da jiangjun 上軍大將軍), and became so the highest military commander of the empire. His eminent position was even more strengthened when the Emperor fell ill and made Cao Zhen regent, together with Sima Yi 司馬懿. In 228, the army of Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮, counsellor of the empire of Shu 蜀漢 (221-263), besieged Qishan 祁山, and three commanderies of the border region defected to Zhuge Liang. Cao Zhen was ordered to punish them, and suppressed the rebellion, as well as that of Zhang Jin 張進 in Jiuquan 酒泉.

He won, together with Xiahou Shang 夏侯尚, the battle of Niuchu 牛渚 against the empire of Wu 吳 (222-280) in he southeast and defeated Ma Su 馬謖, a general of the empire of Shu. He was therefore made Commander-in-Chief (da sima 大司馬), made Marquis of Shaoling 邵陵侯, and was granted extraordinary gifts and permissions at the court. His troops greatly admired him because Cao Zhi shared all hardships with his soldiers, and was not stingy to those who had displayed bravery. Cao Zhen's last campaign against Shu was aborted because of heavy rain. His posthumous title is Marquis Yuan 邵陵元侯.

Cao Zhen is also known because in 1813 a stone stele was discovered in Xi'an, Shaanxi, that bears his name: the so-called Cao Zhen bei 曹真碑. The inscriptions of the stele presents an ode hailing the military virtue of Cao. It must have been erected shortly after his death. Today it is stored in the Imperial Palace Museum (Gugong bowuyuan 故宫博物院) in Beijing. The stele is highly admired for its beautiful calligraphy, and one of the earliest surviving examples of this type of document. Unfortunately the first two characters of the phrase Shu zei Zhuge Liang 蜀賊諸葛亮 "Zhuge Liang, the bandit from Shu" were erased shortly after the discovery of the stele, and the name of the counsellor damaged. The original has only survived on a rubbing (tuoben 拓本) that is reproduced in the collection Shudao quanji 書道全集.

Huang Zhixian 黃惠賢, ed. (1997). Ershiwushi renming da cidian 二十五史人名大辭典 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou renmin chubanshe), Vol. 1, 111.
Li Mingfang 李名方, Chang Guowu 常國武, ed. (1991). Zhongguo shufa mingzuo xinshang cidian 中國書法名作鍳賞辭典 (Nanjing: Nanjing daxue chubanshe), 97.
Zhang Huizhi 張撝之, Shen Qiwei 沈起煒, Liu Dezhong 劉德重, ed. (1999). Zhongguo lidai renming da cidian 中國歷代人名大辭典 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe), Vol. 2, 2127.
Zhang Shunhui 張舜徽, ed. (1992). Sanguozhi cidian 三國志辭典 (Jinan: Shandong jiaoyu chubanshe), 406.