Cao Zhen

Cao Zhen

Three Kingdoms infobox
Name=Cao Zhen

Title=Military general
Kingdom=Cao Wei
Pinyin=Cáo Zhēn
WG=Ts'ao Chen
Zi=Zidan (子丹)
Post=Marquis Yuan (元侯)

Cao Zhen (曹真,185 – 231) was a military general under the powerful warlord Cao Cao and the succeeding rulers of Cao Wei during the late Eastern Han Dynasty and Three Kingdoms era of China. He was also a distant nephew of Cao Cao, though the latter treated him like a son. Cao Zhen participated in many campaigns against the forces of Liu Bei and Sun Quan. From 227 onwards, he was very much involved with resisting the Northern Expeditions led by Zhuge Liang.

Cao Zhen was well known for his bravery. The "Records of Three Kingdoms" recorded a hunting trip during which the young Cao Zhen was chased by a tiger. Turning around, he fired an arrow and felled the beast with one shot.

Cao Zhen was also respected among his subjects and troops for his humility and generosity. During the excursions, Cao Zhen would share the labor of his men. When the treasury ran short of the wages due, he would always make it up with his own wealth.


According to the "Records of Three Kingdoms", Cao Zhen was a distant nephew of Cao Cao. In 190, when Cao Cao was raising an army to join the coalition against Dong Zhuo, the tyrannical warlord who held Emperor Xian hostage, Cao Zhen's father Cao Shao heeded the call but was killed before he could join Cao Cao.

The "Brief History of Wei" (魏略) by Yu Huan, however, says Cao Zhen was originally surnamed Qin (秦). Cao Zhen's father Qin Bonan had long been friends with Cao Cao. In 195, as Cao Cao was fleeing from rebels, he hid in the Qin's. When rebels asked for the whereabouts of Cao Cao, whom they did not recognize by face, Qin Bonan claimed to be the man and was slain.

Either way, Cao Cao took in the young Cao Zhen, whom he raised as his own son. He had Cao Zhen reside with his future successor Cao Pi and another distant nephew Cao Xiu. Impressed with Cao Zhen's bravery, Cao Cao also gave him a commanding post in the elite Tiger and Leopard Cavalry.

Henceforth Cao Zhen participated in campaigns against rebels and Liu Bei. In 215, after the veteran Wei general Xiahou Yuan was defeated and killed in the Battle of Mount Dingjun, Cao Zhen was charged with overseeing the retake of Yangping Pass (阳平关) by forces led by Xu Huang.

After Cao Pi succeeded Cao Cao in 220, Cao Zhen was made General who Guards the West (镇西将军) and charged with the defense of Yongzhou (雍州) and Liangzhou (凉州). He was recalled to the capital Luoyang in 222 and promoted to Supreme General of the Forward Army (上军大将军) and given command of all domestic and foreign military affairs. In the same year, Cao Zhen, together with Xiahou Shang, personally led a force against Sun Quan at Jiangling. After an initial victory, the force had to withdraw due to an epidemic outbreak.

In 227, Cao Rui succeeded the throne of Cao Wei and Cao Zhen was further promoted to Supreme General (大将军). Within months, Zhuge Liang, Chancellor of Shu Han, launched the first of his Northern Expeditions against Cao Wei. Cao Zhen placed his defenses at Mei (郿), near Chang'an, and Chencang (陈仓). He successfully fended off invasions for the next three years.

In 230, Cao Zhen headed for Luoyang for an audience with the emperor, during which he was made the Minister of Defense. He then proposed a shift from defensive to offensive stance, with a multi-pronged plan to attack Hanzhong, primary base of Zhuge Liang's intrusions. His proposal was accepted and in the same year, Cao Zhen led a force towards Hanzhong taking a route south of the Ziwu Trail (子午道), while Sima Yi led another force west along the Han River. The two forces were slated to converge at Nanzheng (南郑), southwest of Hanzhong.

The plan was thwarted by heavy rainfall, however, which lasted for more than a month and rendered the mountainous paths untraversable. Cao Zhen subsequently fell sick and returned to Luoyang, where he died in 231. He was given the posthumous title of Marquis Yuan (元侯), literally meaning the first marquis.

Cao Zhen in Romance of the Three Kingdoms

"Romance of the Three Kingdoms", a historical novel by Luo Guanzhong, was a romanticization of the events that occurred before and during the Three Kingdoms era. In it Cao Zhen made a late appearance in Chapter 84, where he accompanied the first emperor of the Kingdom of Wei Cao Pi on a campaign against the Kingdom of Wu.

Cao Zhen's importance rose since Chapter 91 as Zhuge Liang, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Shu, launched his Northern Expeditions against Wei. However, his contributions towards the series of battles and manoeuvres for the next eight chapters were largely played down by the author in an effort to accentuate the resourcefulness of Sima Yi, a Wei advisor. Luo Guanzhong even attributed Cao Zhen's death to his failure to heed Sima Yi's forewarning of a Shu offensive.

In Chapter 100, Sima Yi warned that Shu troops would come within ten days for Mount Qi (祁山), a strategic point which would allow further incursions into the heart of Cao Wei, but Cao Zhen did not believe his words. The two then held a bet. Each leading a half of the army, they guarded the valleys to the east and west of the mountain.

Cao Zhen was only half-hearted in preparing for an assault. Seven days later, however, scouts spotted a small number of Shu soldiers approaching the valley. Cao Zhen then sent his aide Qin Liang (秦良) with 5,000 troops to survey the situation. As Qin Liang was drawn deeper into the valley, his force was ambushed and eradicated by the Shu force. Taking the clothings and armors of the Wei soldiers, Zhuge Liang then had his men disguised and infiltrated into the enemy camp.

Meanwhile, Sima Yi had encountered and defeated a subdivision of the Shu force under Wei Yan but reports from Cao Zhen claimed that no enemies were sighted on the other side. Fearing for the worse, Sima Yi drew a force and came for Cao Zhen's camp. True enough, the Shu troops and the infiltrators had launched a surprise attack, sandwiching Cao Zhen's men. Sima Yi arrived in time to ward off the attack, but Cao Zhen felt so insulted by the defeat that he fell ill.

Zhuge Liang then wrote Cao Zhen a letter full of insulting remarks, upon reading which the latter was so filled with rage that he died that very night in camp. Sima Yi then had Cao Zhen's body sent back to the capital Luoyang for burial.

The Cao clan

Direct descendants

*Cao Shuang
*Cao Xi (曹羲)
*Cao Xun (曹训)
**Cao Ze (曹则)
**Cao Yan (曹彦)
**Cao Ai (曹皑)

Extended family

*Cao Cao¹ (曹操)(distant uncle)
**Cao Pi (曹丕)
***Cao Rui (曹叡)
****Cao Fang (曹芳)
*****Cao Mao (曹髦)
******Cao Huan (曹奐)
**Cao Zhang (曹彰)
**Cao Zhi (曹植)
**Cao Xiong (曹熊)
**Cao Ang (曹昂)
**Cao Chong (曹冲)
*Cao Ren (distant uncle)
**Cao Tai (曹泰)
***Cao Chu (曹初)
**Cao Kai (曹楷)
**Cao Fan (曹范)
*Cao Chun (distant uncle)
**Cao Yan (曹演)
***Cao Liang (曹亮)
*Cao Hong (distant uncle) (曹洪)
*Cao Xiu (distant cousin)
**Cao Zhao (曹肇)
*Cao Anmin (distant cousin) (曹安民)

¹ For a complete list of Cao Cao's sons, see Cao Cao.


*cite book|author=Chen Shou|title=San Guo Zhi|publisher=Yue Lu Shu She|year=2002|id=ISBN 7-80665-198-5
*cite book|author=Luo Guanzhong|title=San Guo Yan Yi|publisher=Yue Lu Shu She|year=1986|id=ISBN 7-80520-013-0
*cite book|author=Lo Kuan-chung; tr. C.H. Brewitt-Taylor|title=Romance of the Three Kingdoms|publisher=Tuttle Publishing|year=2002|id=ISBN 0-8048-3467-9

ee also

*Three Kingdoms
*Personages of the Three Kingdoms
*Northern Expeditions of Zhuge Liang
*"Records of Three Kingdoms"
*"Romance of the Three Kingdoms"

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