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  • Speaking of Cao Cao
  • David A. Graff (bio)
Rafe de Crespigny . Imperial Warlord: A Biography of Cao Cao 155-220 A.D. Sinica Leidensia, vol. 99. Leiden: Brill, 2010. ix, 553 pp. Hardcover $248.00, ISBN 978-90-04-18522-7.

As both protector of the Han dynasty and founder of the Wei state that would replace it, and as a would-be reunifier of China whose rule, nevertheless, ushered in a prolonged period of disunity and division, Cao Cao is one of the most enigmatic and ambivalent characters in all of Chinese history. Statesman, battlefield commander, poet, strategist, and institutional reformer, he is a pivotal figure in the history of early imperial China. Furthermore, as the cunning villain of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (and now of derivative movies, television serials, and computer games as well), he arguably looms even larger in Chinese popular culture than before. Not surprising, he has been the subject of numerous modern biographies written in Chinese. More surprising, Rafe de Crespigny's Imperial Warlord is the first comprehensive, book-length treatment of Cao Cao to be published in English.1

This neglect is not specific to Cao Cao but is characteristic of the entire period from the second century C.E. through the sixth. Although Western sinologists have given considerable attention to the religion, philosophy, and literature of this period, relatively little has been written about its political, military, social, or economic history. Among the small number of historians outside of China and Japan who have specialized in the study of early medieval China, Rafe de Crespigny stands out as one of the most productive researchers. Since 1970, he has published more than half-dozen monographs and translations, including Northern Frontier: The Policies and Strategy of the Later Han Empire (1984) and Generals of the South: The Foundation and Early History of the Three Kingdoms State of Wu [End Page 201] (1990). Given the central role of Cao Cao in the political history of the late Eastern Han and the Three Kingdoms, Imperial Warlord comes closer than any of de Crespigny's earlier works to offering a comprehensive survey of this period. For this reason, the book's value extends well beyond its treatment of Cao Cao himself.

The author's stated aim is to offer a "rounded interpretation" of Cao Cao by setting aside "the slanders of his enemies and the romantic enthusiasm of later generations" to arrive at "the history behind the legend" (pp. 1, 4). The interpretation that emerges is, however, hardly new or surprising. We are presented with a political and military leader who was ferociously capable but not infallible, ruthless but not entirely without principles. As de Crespigny concludes, "There is no question that Cao Cao could be clever and cruel, and many of his actions were harsh and unjust. He was, however, an exceptional man in a dangerous time, and both his words and his actions are remarkable" (pp. 504-505). This book does not challenge us with a radical reinterpretation of its subject, nor does it argue any central thesis. What we see instead is a very great number of narrowly bounded arguments. Wherever there is disagreement or uncertainty regarding any aspect of Cao Cao's life, de Crespigny seeks to resolve the issue by carefully reasoned analysis drawing upon an impressive amount of evidence from diverse sources. The first such problem we encounter is that of Cao Cao's ancestry. That his father Cao Song was the adopted son of a powerful court eunuch (Cao Teng) is well known, but from where did Cao Song come? The author makes a convincing case in support of the claim, controversial since the third century, that Cao Teng adopted his heir from the Xiahou, a gentry family of his home district of Pei (today's Boxian, Anhui); he points to the presence of numerous Xiahou in Cao Cao's later following and to recently uncovered archaeological evidence of extensive marriage ties between the Cao and the Xiahou. He dismisses the longstanding objection that Cao Cao—not known as a stickler for Confucian ritual niceties—would not have given his daughter in marriage to a Xiahou had they been...