Cao Wei

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The territories of Cao Wei (in yellow), 262 AD.
The territories of Cao Wei (in yellow), 262 AD.
CapitalXuchang (220–226),[1] Luoyang (226–266)
Common languagesOld Chinese
Taoism, Confucianism, Chinese folk religion
• 220–226
Cao Pi
• 226–239
Cao Rui
• 239–254
Cao Fang
• 254–260
Cao Mao
• 260–266
Cao Huan
Historical eraThree Kingdoms
• Abdication of Emperor Xian of Han
11 December 220[2][3]
• Eastern Wu declaring independence from Wei
• Cao Wei conquers Shu Han
• Abdication of Cao Huan
4 February 266[lower-alpha 1]
• 260
4,432,881 (disputed)[5][lower-alpha 2]
CurrencyChinese coin, Chinese cash (Wu Zhu)
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Eastern Han
Western Jin
Today part ofChina
North Korea
Vietnam[lower-alpha 3]
Cao Wei
Traditional Chinese曹魏
Simplified Chinese曹魏
Hanyu PinyinCáo Wèi
History of China
Neolithic c. 8500 – c. 2070 BCE
Xia c. 2070 – c. 1600 BCE
Shang c. 1600 – c. 1046 BCE
Zhou c. 1046 – 256 BCE
 Western Zhou
 Eastern Zhou
   Spring and Autumn
   Warring States
Qin 221–207 BCE
Han 202 BCE – 220 CE
  Western Han
  Eastern Han
Three Kingdoms 220–280
  Wei, Shu and Wu
Jin 266–420
  Western Jin
  Eastern Jin Sixteen Kingdoms
Northern and Southern dynasties
Sui 581–618
Tang 618–907
Five Dynasties and
Ten Kingdoms

Liao 916–1125
Song 960–1279
  Northern Song Western Xia
  Southern Song Jin Western Liao
Yuan 1271–1368
Ming 1368–1644
Qing 1636–1912
Republic of China on the mainland 1912–1949
People's Republic of China 1949–present
Republic of China in Taiwan 1949–present

Wei (220–266), also known as Cao Wei or Former Wei,[10][11] was one of the three major states that competed for supremacy over China in the Three Kingdoms period (220–280). With its capital initially located at Xuchang, and thereafter Luoyang, the state was established by Cao Pi in 220, based upon the foundations laid by his father, Cao Cao, towards the end of the Eastern Han dynasty. The name "Wei" first became associated with Cao Cao when he was named the Duke of Wei by the Eastern Han government in 213, and became the name of the state when Cao Pi proclaimed himself emperor in 220. Historians often add the prefix "Cao" to distinguish it from other Chinese states known as "Wei", such as Wei of the Warring States period and Northern Wei of the Northern and Southern dynasties. The authority of the ruling Cao family dramatically weakened in the aftermath of the deposal and execution of Cao Shuang and his siblings, the former being one of the regents for the third Wei emperor, Cao Fang, with state authority gradually falling into the hands of Sima Yi, another Wei regent, and his family, from 249 onwards. The last Wei emperors would remain largely as puppet rulers under the control of the Simas until Sima Yi's grandson, Sima Yan, forced the last Wei ruler, Cao Huan, to abdicate the throne and established the Jin dynasty.


Beginnings and founding

Towards the end of the Eastern Han dynasty, northern China came under the control of Cao Cao, the chancellor to the last Han ruler, Emperor Xian. In 213, Emperor Xian granted Cao Cao the title of "Duke of Wei" (魏公) and gave him ten cities as his dukedom. The area was named "Wei". At that time, the southern part of China was divided into two areas controlled by two other warlords, Liu Bei and Sun Quan. In 216, Emperor Xian promoted Cao Cao to the status of a vassal king — "King of Wei (魏王)" — and granted him more territories.

Cao Cao died on 15 March 220 and his vassal king title was inherited by his son Cao Pi. Later that year, on 11 December, Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian to abdicate in his favour and took over the throne, establishing the state of Wei. However, Liu Bei immediately contested Cao Pi's claim to the Han throne and declared himself "Emperor of Shu Han" a year later. Sun Quan was nominally a vassal king under Wei, but he declared independence in 222 and eventually proclaimed himself "Emperor of Wu" in 229.

Reigns of Cao Pi and Cao Rui

Cao Pi ruled for six years until his death in 226 and was succeeded by his son, Cao Rui, who ruled until his death in 239. Throughout the reigns of Cao Pi and Cao Rui, Wei had been fighting numerous wars with its two rival states — Shu and Wu.

Between 228 and 234, Zhuge Liang, the Shu chancellor and regent, led a series of five military campaigns to attack Wei's western borders (within present-day Gansu and Shaanxi), with the aim of conquering Chang'an, a strategic city which lay on the road to the Wei capital, Luoyang. The Shu invasions were repelled by the Wei armies led by the generals Cao Zhen, Sima Yi, Zhang He and others; Shu did not make any significant gains in the expeditions.

On its southern and eastern borders, Wei engaged Wu in a series of armed conflicts throughout the 220s and 230s, including the battles of Dongkou (222–223), Jiangling (223) and Shiting (228). However, most of the battles resulted in stalemate and neither side managed to significantly expand its territory.

Sima Yi's Liaodong Campaign

After Guanqiu Jian failed to subjugate the Gongsun clan of the Liaodong Commandery,[12] it was Sima Yi who, in June 238, as the Grand Commandant (太尉), launched an invasion with 40,000 troops at the behest of Emperor Cao Rui against Liaodong,[13] which at this point had been firmly rooted under Gongsun control for 4 decades. After a three-month long siege, involving some assistance from the Goguryeo Kingdom, Sima Yi managed to capture the capital city of Xiangping, resulting in the conquest of the commandery by late September of the same year.[14]

Goguryeo–Wei Wars

Around that time, as the Korean kingdom Goguryeo consolidated its power, it proceeded to conquer the territories on the Korean peninsula which were under Chinese rule.[15] Goguryeo initiated the Goguryeo–Wei Wars in 242, trying to cut off Chinese access to its territories in Korea by attempting to take a Chinese fort. However, Wei responded by invading and defeated Goguryeo. Hwando was destroyed in revenge by Wei forces in 244.[15] The invasions sent its king fleeing, and broke the tributary relationships between Goguryeo and the other tribes of Korea that formed much of Goguryeo's economy. Although the king evaded capture and eventually settled in a new capital, Goguryeo was reduced to such insignificance that for half a century there was no mention of the state in Chinese historical texts.[16]

Fall of Wei

In 249, during the reign of Cao Rui's successor, Cao Fang, the regent Sima Yi seized state power from his co-regent, Cao Shuang, in a coup. This event marked the collapse of imperial authority in Wei, as Cao Fang's role had been reduced to a puppet ruler while Sima Yi wielded state power firmly in his hands. Wang Ling, a Wei general, tried to rebel against Sima Yi, but was swiftly dealt with, and took his own life. Sima Yi died on 7 September 251, passing on his authority to his eldest son, Sima Shi, who continued ruling as regent.

Sima Shi deposed Cao Fang in 254, on grounds of planning to stage a rebellion, and replaced him with Cao Mao. In response, Guanqiu Jian and Wen Qin staged a rebellion, but were crushed by Sima Shi in an event that nevertheless took a heavy toll on Sima Shi's health, having undergone eye surgery prior to the insurrection, causing him to die on 23 March 255, but not before handing his power and regency over to his younger brother, Sima Zhao.

In 258, Sima Zhao quelled Zhuge Dan's rebellion, marking an end to what are known as the Three Rebellions in Shouchun. In 260, Cao Mao attempted to seize back state power from Sima Zhao in a coup, but was killed by Cheng Ji, a military officer who was serving under Jia Chong, a subordinate to the Simas. After Cao Mao's death, Cao Huan was enthroned as the fifth ruler of Wei. However, Cao Huan was also a mere figurehead under Sima Zhao's control, much like his predecessor. In 263, Wei armies led by Zhong Hui and Deng Ai conquered Shu. Afterwards, Zhong Hui and former Shu general Jiang Wei grouped and plotted together in order to oust Sima Zhao from power, however, various Wei officials turned against them when it was found out that Jiang Wei had urged Zhong Hui to get rid of these officials before the planned coup. Sima Zhao himself received and finally accepted the nine bestowments and the title Duke of Jin in 263, and was further bestowed with the title King of Jin by Cao Huan in 264, but he died on 6 September 265, leaving the final step of usurpation up to his eldest son, Sima Yan.

On 4 February 266,[lower-alpha 1] Sima Zhao's son, Sima Yan, forced Cao Huan to abdicate in his favor, replacing Wei with the Jin dynasty on 8 February 266.[lower-alpha 4] Cao Huan himself was spared, though, and continued to live until 302, before dying.


The system of government in Wei inherited many aspects from that of the Eastern Han dynasty. During his reign, Cao Pi established two separate government bodies – the Central Inspectorate (中書監) and the Mobile Imperial Secretariat (行尚書臺) — to reduce the authority of the Imperial Secretariat (尚書臺) and consolidate the power of the central government.

During this time, the minister Chen Qun developed the nine-rank system for civil service nomination, which was adopted by later dynasties until it was superseded by the imperial examination system in the Sui dynasty.

Cao Pi felt that the Han dynasty collapsed because the Governors (州牧) of the various provinces wielded too much power and fell out of the control of the central government. He reduced the role of a Governor to that of an Inspector (刺史), and permitted the Inspectors to administer only civil affairs in their respective provinces, while military affairs were handled by military personnel based in regional offices or in the capital.


The kaishu style of Chinese calligraphy was developed at some time between the late Eastern Han dynasty and the Cao Wei dynasty, as well as the Jian'an poetry style. The first known master of the former was Zhong Yao, an official of Wei,[18] of the latter; Cao Cao's son, Cao Zhi.

Since the beginning of the Cao Wei dynasty, finding their roots in Cao Cao's administrative influences, intellectual constraints were relaxed, leading to the formation of new groups of intellectuals, such as, for instance, the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. These freedoms were overturned by the time of the Jin dynasty (it was Sima Yi himself who associated with the orthodox Confucianists, who despised these new intellectual groups, and therefore were more willing to offer their support to the Sima clan).

Ruling class

According to the Book of Wei, the Cao family descended from the Yellow Emperor through his grandson Zhuanxu. They were of the same lineage as Emperor Shun. Another account says that the Cao family descended from Emperor Shun. This account was attacked by Chiang Chi, who claimed that those with the family name "Tian" descended from Shun, but not those surnamed "Cao". He also claimed that "Gui" (媯) was Emperor Shun's family name.[19]

List of territories

Province Commanderies and Kingdoms/Principalities
You Fanyang (范陽), Dai (代), Yuyang (漁陽), Youbeiping (右北平), Liaoxi (遼西), Lelang (樂浪), Shanggu (上谷), Yan (principality) (燕國), Changli (昌黎), Xuantu (玄菟), Liaodong (遼東), Daifang (帶方)
Ji Wei (魏), Yangping (陽平), Guangping (廣平), Qinghe (清河), Julu (鉅鹿), Zhao (principality) (趙國), Changshan (常山), Anping (安平), Pingyuan (平原), Leling (principality) (樂陵), Hejian (河間), Bohai (渤海), Zhongshan (principality) (中山國)
Qing Chengyang (城陽), Donglai (東萊), Beihai (principality) (北海國), Qi (principality) (齊國), Le'an (樂安), Jinan (principality) (濟南國)
Bing Shangdang (上黨), Xihe (西河), Taiyuan (太原), Leping (樂平), Xinxing (新興), Yanmen (雁門)
Si Henan (河南尹), Hongnong (弘農), Henei (河內), Hedong (河東), Pingyang (平陽)
Yan Taishan (泰山), Jibei (principality) (濟北國), Dongping (principality) (東平國), Dong (東), Rencheng (任城), Shanyang (山陽), Jiyin (濟陰), Chenliu (principality) (陳留國)
Xu Dongguan (東莞), Langye (principality) (琅琊國), Donghai (principality) (東海國), Guangling (廣陵), Xiapi (下邳), Pengcheng (principality) (彭城國)
Yong Jingzhao (京兆), Pingyi (馮翊), Fufeng (扶風), Beidi (北地), Xinping (新平), Anding (安定), Guangwei (廣魏), Tianshui (天水), Nan'an (南安), Longxi (隴西)
Yu Chen (陳), Yingchuan (潁川), Runan (汝南), Liang (principality) (梁國), Pei (principality) (沛國), Qiao (譙), Lu (魯), Yiyang (弋陽), Anfeng (安豐)
Liang Wuwei (武威), Jincheng (金城), Xiping (西平), Zhangye (張掖), Jiuquan (酒泉), Xihai (西海), Dunhuang (敦煌)
Yan Huainan (淮南), Lujiang (廬江)
Jing Jiangxia (江夏), Xiangyang (襄陽), Xincheng (新城), Nanyang (南陽), Nanxiang (南鄉), Shangyong (上庸), Weixing (魏興), Zhangling (Yiyang) (章陵 / 義陽)

List of sovereigns

Cao Wei rulers
Temple name Posthumous name Family name (in bold) and personal name Reign Era names and their year ranges Notes
(N/A) Emperor Gao
Cao Teng
(N/A) (N/A) Cao Teng's posthumous name was granted posthumously by Cao Rui.
(N/A) Emperor Tai
Cao Song
(N/A) (N/A) Cao Song's posthumous name was granted posthumously by Cao Pi.
Emperor Wu
Cao Cao
216–220 (N/A) Cao Cao's temple and posthumous names were granted posthumously by Cao Pi.
Emperor Wen
Cao Pi
  • Huangchu
    黃初 (220–226)
Emperor Ming
Cao Rui
  • Taihe
    太和 (227–233)
  • Qinglong
    青龍 (233–237)
  • Jingchu
    景初 (237–239)
(N/A) (N/A) Cao Fang
  • Zhengshi
    正始 (240–249)
  • Jiaping
    嘉平 (249–254)
Cao Fang became "Prince of Qi" (齊王) after his dethronement. He was posthumously granted the title "Duke Li of Shaoling" (邵陵厲公) in the Western Jin dynasty.
(N/A) (N/A) Cao Mao
  • Zhengyuan
    正元 (254–256)
  • Ganlu
    甘露 (256–260)
Cao Mao was granted the posthumous name of "Duke of Gaogui" (高貴鄉公).
(N/A) Emperor Yuan
Cao Huan
  • Jingyuan
    景元 (260–264)
  • Xianxi
    咸熙 (264–266)

Cao Wei family tree

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Cao Huan abdicated on the renxu (壬戌) day of the 12th month in the 1st year of the Taishi era of the reign of Emperor Wu of Jin.[4] This date corresponds to 4 February 266 in the Gregorian calendar.
  2. This figure, based on numbers given in the Sanguozhi, has been called into question since the census system is claimed to have been flawed. The actual population is likely to be far greater.[6] Tanner (2009) estimates the population of Wei to be over ⅔ of the Han population.[7]
  3. (221–222—through Eastern Wu vassalage;[8][9] 263–266)
  4. On the bingyin (丙寅) day of the 12th month of the 1st year of the Taishi era, Sima Yan became emperor and adopted "Taishi" (泰始) as the era name of his reign.[17] This date corresponds to 8 February 266 in the Gregorian calendar.


  1. Achilles Fang. Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms. Spring, first month (Feb. 15 – Mar. 15). The Emperor was about to come to Xu-chang when the south gate of Xu-chang collapsed from some unexplained cause. The Emperor was displeased at this and did not enter the city.
  2. Achilles Fang. Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms. In the tenth month of 220 (November), various ministers proposed that Cao Pi replace Liu Xie as the emperor, citing various astrological signs. On November 25, Liu Xie performed various ceremonies in preparation for abdicating the throne. On December 11, Liu Xie formally abdicated the throne and Cao Pi ascended as the new emperor.
  3. Rafe de Crespigny. To Establish Peace. On 11 December Cao Cao's son and successor Cao Pi received the abdication of the Han Emperor and took the imperial title for himself, with a new reign period Huangchu "Yellow Beginning," named in honour of the new Power of Yellow and Earth which had been foretold should succeed to the Red and Fire of Han. (Cf. note 84 to Jian'an 24.)
  4. ([泰始元年]十二月,壬戌,魏帝禪位于晉;) Zizhi Tongjian vol. 79.
  5. Zou Jiwan (Chinese: 鄒紀萬), Zhongguo Tongshi – Weijin Nanbeichao Shi 中國通史·魏晉南北朝史, (1992).
  6. Institute of Advanced Studies (December 1991). Barme, Gerome (ed.). Easy Asian History: THE CONTINUATION OF Papers on Far Eastern History (PDF) (Number 2 ed.). Canberra, Australia: Australian National University. pp. 149–152. Retrieved 29 March 2015.
  7. Tanner, Harold M. (13 March 2009). "Chapter 5: The Age of Warriors and Buddhists". China: A History. Hackett Publishing. p. 142. When it was established, Wu had only one-sixth of the population of the Eastern Han Empire (Cao Wei held over two-thirds of the Han population).
  8. Sima Guang. Zizhi Tongjian. In the eighth month of 221, Sun Quan sent ambassadors to Wei declaring himself a subject of Cao Pi’s state
  9. Achilles Fang. Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms. Eighth month (Sept. 5 – Oct. 3). Sun Quan sent an envoy to declare himself the subject of the Wei
  10. BSod-nams-rgyal-mtshan, Per K. Sørensen (1994). The Mirror Illuminating the Royal Genealogies. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. p. 80. ISBN 3447035102.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  11. Ching-hsiung Wu, ed. (1940). T'ien Hsia Monthly. 11. Kelly and Walsh. p. 370.
  12. Achilles Fang. Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms. The Emperor sent a sealed edict to summon Gongsun Yuan. In the end, Gongsun Yuan arose in an armed rebellion, meeting Guanqiu Jian at Liaosui. It so happened that it rained for more than ten days and the water of Liaosui rose greatly. Guanqiu Jian fought him, but was unsuccessful and withdrew his troops to Youbeiping.
  13. Achilles Fang. Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms. The Emperor summoned Sima Yi from Chang'an and had him lead an army of forty thousand men in a campaign against Liaodong.
  14. Achilles Fang. Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms. On the day ren-wu (September 29), Xiangping fell. Gongsun Yuan and his son Gongsun Xiu, leading several hundred mounted men, got through the encirclement and fled towards the southeast. The large Wei forces instantly struck at them and killed Gongsun Yuan and his son on the Liangshui.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Charles Roger Tennant (1996). A history of Korea. Kegan Paul International. p. 22. ISBN 0-7103-0532-X. capital on the middle reaches of the Yalu near the modern Chinese town of Ji'an, calling it 'Hwando'. By developing both their iron weapons and their political organization, they had reached a stage where in the turmoil that accompanied the break-up of the Han empire they were able to threaten the Chinese colonies
  16. Byington, Mark E. "Control or Conquer? Koguryǒ's Relations with States and Peoples in Manchuria," Journal of Northeast Asian History volume 4, number 1 (June 2007):93.
  17. ([泰始元年十二月]丙寅,王卽皇帝位,大赦,改元。) Zizhi Tongjian vol. 79.
  18. Qiu Xigui (2000). Chinese Writing. Translated by Mattos and Jerry Norman. Early China Special Monograph Series No. 4. Berkeley: The Society for the Study of Early China and the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley. ISBN 1-55729-071-7; p.142-3
  19. Howard L. Goodman (1998). Ts'ao P'i transcendent: the political culture of dynasty-founding in China at the end of the Han (illustrated ed.). Psychology Press. p. 70. ISBN 0-9666300-0-9. Retrieved 2012-04-01.

Further reading