蒿里行 – Marching amid Wormwood

Image

Cao Cao, as portrayed by Zhang Fengyi in the Red Cliff films.

If 诸葛亮 Zhuge Liang (as mentioned in this post) is the Chinese name for genius, then the name for intrigue, sneakiness and cunning plans would have to be 曹操 Cao Cao (155 − 220 CE), a name which has unfortunately been frequently savaged by English dubbers of Japanese games. (The c is pronounced ts, like in cats, or dots.)

Full disclosure here – in the Three Kingdoms fandom, I’ve always been very partial to Cao Cao. If there is one complaint about the Romance of the Three Kingdoms that I have, it is that it turned him into the villain – but also a figure of fun, someone who is alternately horribly cruel and horribly idiotic.

The historical record begs to differ; indeed, while Zhuge Liang was a skilled strategist who could write good prose, the all round Renaissance Man of that turbulent century was Cao. His ability to win battles and wars is one thing; but he was also an accomplished poet, an innovative policy-maker who revived agriculture in a country that had lost about 30% (if not more) of its population, and a patron and manager of people whose retinue included inventors, urban architects, and all sorts of other talents. In poetry terms, he – along with his oldest son and successor 曹丕 Cao Pi, and his third son 曹植 Cao Zhi – are still known as the ‘Three Caos’.

But this poem was written before he was any of those things – when he was still one warlord among many, and a relatively small one at that. When in 191 the tyrannical 董卓 Dong Zhuo took control of the Han court, an alliance of regional commanders to depose him was quickly formed; Cao Cao was one of its most ardent supporters, and much of his later career – his suspicion of people and instinct for power – might have been shaped by his disillusionment at how the alliance fell apart almost before it got going. But it also gave a sense of him not often seen in his war-making, as a person who actually did feel concern for how the Han Dynasty had gone way down the drain and the world was being ruined.

Poem

關東有義士,興兵討群凶。

East of the Passes [1] righteous heroes gathered,

Raising troops to stand against the tyrants.

初期會盟津,乃心在咸陽。

Coming together first at Mengjin Ford,

They set their hearts and minds towards Xianyang [2].

軍合力不齊,躊躇而雁行。

But the allied armies never pushed as one,

Dawdling and dallying like wild geese.

勢利使人爭,嗣還自相戕。

The prospect of profit lured them into conflict,

And soon their blades were on each other turned.

淮南弟稱號,刻璽於北方。

In Huainan the younger Yuan [3] enthroned himself,

And his brother [4] carved his own jade seal up north.

鎧甲生虮虱,万姓以死亡。

Meanwhile lice and fleas infest the soldiers’ mail,

And countless innocents are lost to death.

白骨露於野,千里無雞鳴。

Their bleached bones lie unburied in the waste;

For vast distances not even a cock-crow sounds.

生民百遺一,念之斷人腸。

Where a hundred once lived, now just one remains;

To think of it suffices to wrench the gut.

1 – The Passes refers to a complex of mountain passes which guarded the former capital of the Han Dynasty, 长安 Chang’an. ‘East of the Passes’ therefore refers to the vast area that is now Shandong, Hebei and Henan provinces.

2 – Xianyang was the Qin Dynasty name for Chang’an. While the Han capital by this time was actually in 洛阳 Luoyang, Dong Zhuo burned that city down and retreated west to the more defensible position. Scorched earth tactics are a terrible thing, really…

3 – The younger Yuan is 袁术 Yuan Shu, one of the key members of the anti Dong Zhuo alliance, who later got hold of the Imperial Seal and decided to enthrone himself. Cao Cao would destroy him several years later, in 199.

4 – The older brother would be 袁绍 Yuan Shao, the titular leader of the alliance and one of the most respected aristocrats of his age. Having lost the Imperial Seal to other claimants, he decided to simply carve his own, and attempted to support a member of the imperial clan to be his puppet emperor. Cao Cao eventually got rid of him too, in 202.

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