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Cao Zhi

Cao Zhi (192-232) (曹植) was a Chinese poet (see list of Chinese language poets) during the Three Kingdoms period, and has remained the most respected poet of his time. His style eventually evolved into a school of poetry in the era of Southern and Northern Dynasties.


He was the third son of the Chinese ruler and poet Cao Cao and his consort Lady Bian. Cao Pi was his elder brother. Note that polygyny was popular among the Chinese populace at his time, let alone Cao Cao being the de facto ruler of Northern China. Cao Zhi demonstrated his spontaneous wit at an early age and was a front-running candidate of the throne; however, such ability was devoted to Chinese literature and poetry, which was encouraged by his father's subordinate officials. Later he surrounded himself with a group of poets and officials with literary interests, including some who continually showed off their smartness at the expense of Cao Cao and Cao Pi's subordinates and even Cao Cao himself. Yang Xiu and Kong Rong were later accused and executed by Cao Cao of misdemeanours.

Cao Zhi spent enormous time on drinking, poetry, and literature critics; Cao Pi, on the other hand, had assembled a group of political experts including Sima Yi and Chen Qun. The former eventually dominated the politics of the Kingdom of Wei after Cao Pi's death and became the revered ancestor of the Jin Dynasty. The latter founded the Nine grade controller system, which ranked local families and individuals according to their ability to civil services and remained in use for centuries in the period of Southern and Northern Dynasties.

Cao Zhi eventually lost the favour of his father and was demoted after Cao Pi's accession to an estate in Linzi Commandry in modern Shandong province. Various peerages were entitled; his last title was the King of Chen.

He spent the rest of his life as a recluse and passed away at the age of 40. The cause of his death was never confirmed, though poisoning by Cao Rui, the son of Cao Pi, was rumoured.


list of his poems should be added


Despite his success in Classical Chinese poetry, Cao Zhi is better recognised today for his struggles with his elder brother Cao Pi for the throne, which has been further popularised in the 14th century epic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. In one famous scene, Cao Pi forced Cao Zhi to produce a spontaneous poem within seven footsteps, otherwise facing significant punishment or even death. Cao Zhi was able to save his life with the following poem:

Frying beans with bean stalks as fuel.
Beans weep sadly in the pan.
From the same root we both grew.
Why is the hurry in the grill?

This is a metaphor in which Cao Zhi (represented by the beans) crtiticises why Cao Pi (the stalks) hurried to torture him despite both brothers being from the same parents.