An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Cao Zhi 曹植

Jun 1, 2016 © Ulrich Theobald

Cao Zhi 曹植 (192-232), courtesy name Zijian 子建, was a famous writer of the Wei period 曹魏 (220-265). He was the third son of the warlord Cao Cao 曹操 and Ms Bian 卞太后, and younger brother of Emperor Wen 魏文帝 (r. 220-226). As a young boy he was very intelligent and able to recite poems, essays, and rhapsodies from memory. Cao Zhi was called the "embroidered tiger" (xiuhu 繡虎) because his writings were so beautiful. His father loved him so much that he planned to name Cao Zhi his successor, and was in this plan supported by Ding Yi 丁儀. Yet Cao Zhi was not strict and assertive enough and fond of wine. His older brother Cao Pi often envied him, thought about killing him, and once – planning to humilitate Cao Zhi – ordered him to compose a poem in the short time needed when doing seven paces. Cao Zhi just used a few seconds to reflect, and then answered by presenting the "Seven-paces poem" (Qibushi 七步詩), in which he compared the two brothers Cao with the bean straw that should not be used to cook beans. When Cao Pi mounted the throne he made brother Prince of Dong'a 東阿王, later of Chen 陳王. Cao Zhi asked several times to be appointed to a real government post, but was never granted this favour. His posthumous title is Prince Si 陳思王.

Most of Cao Zhi's regular poems (shi 詩) have five-syllable verses (wuyan shi 五言詩) and use comparisons (bi 比) and descriptive introductions (xing 興) as stylistic devices. His language is very refined and rich in terms. They can be seen as an advancement of the Han period music-bureau poems (yuefu 樂府) to a higher literary level. Representing the apogee of Han period poetry, Cao Zhi's poems are also the precursor of the very rich and complex poetry and prose-poetry of the Southern and Northern Dynasties period 南北朝 (300~600), and also influenced the famous Tang period 唐 (618-907) poetry. The critic Zhong Rong 鍾嶸 wrote in the book Shipin 詩品 that the structure of Cao's poems was "extraordinarily high", and his words "brilliant and multifaceted" (gu qi qi gao, ci cai hua mao 骨氣奇高,詞采華茂).

Part of Cao Zhi's early poems were written in an optimistic mood that the new Wei dynasty might guarantee peace and prosperity, like in the poem Baima pian 白馬篇. At the same time they also reflect the hardship the common people was enduring during the turbulent decades of the early 3rd century, like in Song Ying shi 送應氏, Taishan Liang Fu yin 泰山梁甫吟, Hashan pian 鰕䱇篇, Jiulu pian 薤露篇 or Qi'ai 七哀 and Meinü pian 美女篇. In the second phase of his life, Cao's personal situation is seen as a prince without concrete duties, and thus a lot of frustration about the court intrigues and his own uselessness. Such a situation is described in Zashi 雜詩, Zeng baima Wang Biao 贈白馬王彪, Xujie pian 吁嗟篇, Yetian huangque xing 野田黃雀行 or Yuange xing 怨歌行.

Cao's most famous rhapsody (fu 賦) is that on the Goddess of River Luo, Luoshen fu 洛神賦. Some of his rhapsodies describe events, like Dongzheng fu 東征賦, Dengtai fu 登臺賦 or Shuxing fu 述行賦, others are expressions of deliberations, like Lisi fu 離思賦, Ganjie fu 感節賦 or Xiji fu 喜霽賦, and a further groups described objects, like Baodao fu 寶刀賦, Midiexiang fu 迷迭香賦 or Shengui fu 神龜賦. In contrast to many earlier Han period rhapsodies, Cao Zhi's are much shorter, and are closer to the daily life than the descriptions of imperial activities in earlier times. They also breathe the "romantic" spirit of the saoti 騷體 rhapsodies based on the "Elegies of Chu" 楚辭.

The most important prose writing of Cao Zhi are the letters Yu Wu Jizhong shu 與吳季重書 and Yu Yang Dezu shu 與揚德祖書.
Cao Zhi also saw himself as a critic, arguing that only a writer would be able to understand what good and bad literature was. Unfortunately he did not wrote an individual book on literary critique, but his arguments are scattered in letters and other writings, mainly his letter to Yang Dezu. No one was perfect, was his main proposition, and writers therefore would have to rely on the advice of supporters and friends. Yet inspiration to poetry came also from the common people, he said.

In the field of philosophy, it can be seen that Confucianism had not any more the eminent place during that time that it had earlier. Cao's writings unveil Daoist thought, but also influence of Yin-Yang thought and legalism, even traces of Buddhism that just began to establish a firm place in China.

Cao Zhi assembled his own writings in a collection called Qianlu 前錄, with 78 chapters. It was supplemented by a much larger amount of writings after his death. The 30-juan long collection was compiled by Cao Rui 曹叡 (i.e. Emperor Ming 魏明帝, r. 226-239 CE). Cao Zhi had also written summary poems for the biographic collection on exemplary females, Lienüzhuan song 列女傳頌, and for a descriptive collection on paintings, Huazan 畫贊. Both are lost.

The transmitted writings fo Cao Zhi are assembled in the collection Cao Zijian ji 曹子建集, with a length of 10 juan, and 206 small chapters (or pieces, 80 of which are regular poems, and 40 prose writings). There are three different Ming period 明 (1368-1644) editions of a collection called Chen Siwang ji 陳思王集, but all based on Song period 宋 (960-1279) prints of Cao's collected writings. During the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) Ding Yan 丁晏 had compiled a critical edition, Cao ji quanping 曹集詮評, and Zhu Xuceng 朱緒曾 the Cao ji kaoyi 曹集考異. Huang Jie 黃節 compiled an annotated edition to the poems, Cao Zijian shi zhu 曹子建詩注.

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