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Scholars and Warriors: Cao Cao

Ancient World

Scholars and Warriors: Cao Cao

Screen shot from “Cao Cao's War Poem”


By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB

This series, which we are calling “Scholars and Warriors”, hopes to challenge a modern-day stereotype: the idea that a man must either like poetry and literature or be interested in sports or fighting, never both. Men who like poetry are too often seen as effeminate or weak, and the ones who like sports or martial arts are seen as brainless hooligans. People today often don’t realize that it’s possible to like both, even though in earlier periods these things often went hand in hand.

Today we are going to talk about a man who had a real passion for poetry, the Chinese warlord Cao Cao.

Historical Background: The Three Kingdoms

Cao Cao rose to power in a period of Chinese history known as the Three Kingdoms. At the time a number of warlords were fighting either to revive or to destroy the Han Dynasty. Cao Cao was the most powerful man in that period, as he controlled the emperor through his post as chancellor, and he was known in his time as a cruel and merciless man. Among his cruelties was the murder of the emperor’s pregnant high consort. Even today the Chinese have the saying “Speak of Cao Cao and Cao Cao arrives” (说曹操), which is equivalent to the English “Speak of the Devil”.

After Cao Cao’s death, his son Cao Pi would eventually overthrow the emperor, which would divide China into three kingdoms, each with its own emperor.

Cao Cao: Warlord and Poet

The Chinese still see Cao Cao as a scoundrel, even though some have tried to see him in a different light – at one time the Chinese Communist Party compared his life to that of Mao Zhedon. The Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms, the main historical record of the time, describes him as a man who more than likely would have appreciated Machiavelli’s teachings if he’d just been born in a different epoch. Cao Cao never said that the end justifies the means, but his personal motto was “I would rather betray the world than let the world betray me.”

No matter how wicked he was or might have been, we can’t deny his talent for poetry. One of my favorite quotes from Cao Cao is “老驥伏櫪,志在千里” (An old war-horse may be stabled, yet still it longs to gallop a thousand li).

Now I would like to share with you his best piece, at least in my opinion. Cao Cao wrote this a few days before the Battle of Red Cliffs (check out our article on this battle at this link: http://www.carmentablog.com/2017/11/07/ancient-chinas-battle-red-cliffs/)


I lift my drink and sing a song, for who knows
if one’s life is short or long
Man’s life is like the morning dew, past
days many future days few.
The melancholy my heart begets, comes
from cares I cannot forget
Who can unravel these sorrows of mine,I
know of only one man, the God of Wine.

I hope you enjoyed this article. If you would like to hear the whole poem, recited for his guests before the Battle of Red Cliffs, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIX8vEaX6CE.


André Bastos Gurgel
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Latin (the last of which he learned with Carmenta) and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. Mr. Gurgel is currently studying Old English through Carmenta as well.

Click here to read Mr. Gurgel’s full profile.



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