As the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) began to collapse and rebellions ravaged the country, an imperial chancellor and military general named Cao Cao grasped the opportunity and took control of northern China. In 208 AD, he attempted to expand his empire further south but was foiled by an alliance between two warlords named Liu Bei and Sun Quan, who defeated him at the legendary Battle of the Red Cliffs. As living proof that ruthlessness is so often the path to success, Cao Cao was promoted by the reigning Emperor Xian (r. 189–220) to the status of vassal king in 216 and granted autonomy over his northern territory, which was renamed “Wei”.
In 220, he died with an illustrious legacy behind him as an excellent strategist, gifted official, and the venerable title of King of Wei. In the classical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, he is portrayed as the archetypal cunning and unscrupulous villain and has since become one of the most popular figures in Chinese folklore, although modern historians tend to look back on him far more kindly as a skilful tactician. But it seems his son, Cao Pi, was not content with just his father’s legacy and title.
In the very same year that Cao Cao died, Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian to abdicate and took the throne, declaring himself Emperor and founding the Wei Dynasty (220-265). In order to distinguish it from other kingdoms with similar names, historians often refer to it as the Cao-Wei Dynasty, further immortalising the family’s name. Yet, in spite of his great power and inimitable intellect, Cao Cao had failed to unite the kingdoms of the Chinese empire and had left large parts of China ungoverned. This left a window of opportunity wide open for several other formidable warlords and, in 221, Liu Bei took control of a south-westerly region known as Shu, establishing the Shu-Han Dynasty (221–263). The very next year, Sun Quan conquered China’s southeast and founded the Kingdom of Wu (222–280). This meant that, unlike previous ruling dynasties, the Wei Dynasty only controlled northern China. And, in spite of several tactical military campaigns, it would seem that all of Cao Pi’s attempts to conquer the south would tragically go south!
On his death in 226, he had only ruled for a meagre six years and passed the throne on to his son Cao Rui, who was aided by the regents Chen Qun, Cao Zhen, Cao Xiu, and Sima Yi. From the 220s through to the 230s, the Wei Dynasty engaged in several vicious battles with the Kingdom of Wu, the most notable being the battles of Dongkou (222-223), Jiangling (223), and Shiting (228). Unfortunately these skirmishes usually resulted in a stalemate and rarely represented any real gain for either kingdom. In fact, although both Cao Pi and Cao Rui managed to repel several invasions throughout their reigns, their desperate attempts to conquer the rival states of Shu and Wu were to no avail. Evidently the phrase “like father, like son” applies to failure as well as success!
Over the course of time, the other regents passed away, leaving behind only the wily and influential Sima Yi. In 238, at the age of just 35, Cao Rui passed away and left the throne to his adopted son Cao Fang, who was only 7 years old at the time. Cao Shuang and Sima Yi were appointed as regents, although Cao Shuang held the most influence in the imperial court. It was at this point that tensions began to arise between the Cao and Sima families. The Sima clan were a great landowning family and Cao Shuang already regarded them as a significant threat to the realm, so he would often place his own supporters in posts of importance and exclude Sima Yi. Sima Yi’s previous military victories also made him a particular danger, since he had proven himself to be an accomplished politician and military strategist. Like the Capulets and the Montagues, these two mighty families just couldn’t find a way to get along!
In 249, Sima Yi finally managed to outmanoeuvre Cao Shuang when the latter decided to make an excursion to the Gaoping Tombs. Seizing his chance, Sima Yi masterminded an epic coup and took control of the imperial capital of Luoyang. From then on, although the Cao Family continued to act as puppet rulers, it was the Sima Family that was truly in control. However, it would take two more generations before the Sima clan would take over completely. While Sima Yi’s son, Sima Zhao, was content to allow the Cao men to function as figurehead emperors, his grandson Sima Yan was far more ambitious. In 263, the Wei army managed to successfully conquer the Shu-Han Dynasty and, just two years later, Sima Yan forced the reigning Cao Huan to abdicate. In an action that spookily echoed Cao Pi’s rise to power, he seized the throne for himself and established the Jin Dynasty (265-420). Talk about history repeating itself!
Although the Wei Dynasty only lasted for less than 50 years, it had some effect on Chinese culture and the organisation of future dynasties. For example, it was the Wei minister Chen Qun who developed the nine-rank system for the nomination of civil servants, which was used by later dynasties until it was replaced by the imperial examination system in the Sui Dynasty (581-618). This system dictated that government authorities must select candidates and categorise them into a series of nine grades depending on their abilities. Theoretically, it was meant to help only the most talented of scholars to gain official positions, but in practice it tended to be abused by the rich families to promote their relatives. It seems that, even 1,500 years ago, money still did all of the talking!