In 2008 some workers were digging near the kiln where they plied their trade when they stumbled across some old stone tablets. Presumably hoping to profit from these apparently ancient artifacts, the men then kept quiet about their find. However, they were caught. And astonishingly, the tablets turned out to be from the tomb of one of China’s greatest ever warlords and leaders.
The man in question is Cao Cao, who ruled some 1,800 years ago. Born in the provincial city of Bozhou, Cao Cao lived in eastern China from 155 to 220 AD during a turbulent time in Chinese history known as the Three Kingdoms period. But the future ruler benefitted from minor aristocratic links, as his father had been adopted by Cao Teng, one of Emperor Huan’s favorite court eunuchs.
Cao Cao’s political career started at the youthful age of 20 when he was given the position of district captain of the city of Luoyang. And there he forged a reputation for ruthlessness by flogging people for even minor transgressions of city laws, no matter what the individual’s social standing.
The young Chinaman then served in various administrative posts, alternately falling in and out of favor at the imperial court, where the internal wranglings were complex and sometimes deadly. In fact, Cao Cao’s own father, Cao Song, was killed by rivals in 193, which demonstrates just how dangerous the politics of these restless years in China could be.
The reason for this rash of rebellions and attempted coups was the fact that the long-lasting Han dynasty was drawing to a close. The Han line of emperors was established in 206 BC and held sway over China for some four centuries. And as the dynasty came to an end, the country was thrown into chaos.
However, the political situation in eastern China, perilous though it was, offered opportunities to ambitious men like Cao Cao. He fought in a seemingly endless series of local conflicts, emerging in the year 196 as the man who controlled the last of the Han emperors, Xian. But although he now had Xian in his hands, Cao Cao declined to actually overthrow the emperor.
Cao Cao’s control of the emperor did not impress his rival warlords, though, and they continued to oppose him. But, after a complicated choreography of attack and counter-attack, Cao Cao had vanquished his main adversaries by around 199. This enabled him to control more territory.
However, one previously defeated warlord, Liu Bei, soon rebelled against Cao Cao’s authority, and warfare broke out again. Cao Cao, though, subsequently crushed Liu Bei’s troops, prompting the rebel to flee and join forces with another warlord, Yuan Shao. And together, the disaffected duo mustered an army of 100,000 with the aim of usurping Cao Cao’s power over the emperor.
But after a couple of years of warfare, Yuan Shao died, and his two sons now took on the fight. Cao Cao subsequently defeated both the brothers and other adversaries, though, to take control of almost all of northern China. What’s more, while the two sons tried to elicit the support of a local chieftain, this tribal leader killed them and had their heads delivered to Cao Cao – decisively ending their challenge to his authority.
With northern China thus firmly under his iron grip, Cao Cao now turned his attention to the south. However, things didn’t go to plan; the fearsome warlord had little success in a series of battles known as the Red Cliffs campaign. And after that disappointment, Cao Cao resolved to concentrate on crushing any opposition that remained in the north.
Cao Cao succeeded in suppressing his remaining northern enemies, too, earning him the title of King of Wei in 216. So, China itself remained divided into three kingdoms, with Cao Cao at the head of one of them. But his reign as king would last only four years, as he perished at the age of 65 in 220. He also left behind instructions that he should be buried simply, without valuable grave goods. However, his final wish was to be ignored by his own son.
You see, not long after his father’s death, Cao Cao’s son, Cao Pi, compelled Emperor Xian to abdicate. Cao Pi now declared himself as emperor and elevated his dead father to the position of Grand Ancestor Emperor Wu of Wei. At long last, then, albeit only posthumously, Cao Cao became an emperor.
What’s more, after Cao Cao’s death a legend grew that he’d had 72 tombs built for himself in a bid to foil grave robbers. And while that may not have been true, it transpired that Cao Pi had built his father a large and elaborate tomb – despite Cao Cao’s wish for a simple burial. It seems, however, that at some stage Cao Pi came to fear the depredations of tomb robbers and ordered that the mausoleum be demolished – or at least the parts of it that were above ground.
This led to a mystery that lasted for centuries: where was the tomb of this famous figure from Chinese history? But when the kiln workers stumbled across the mysterious stone tablet, it seemed that they had helped solve the riddle. Subsequently, the Henan Provincial Cultural Heritage Bureau announced in 2009 that the tomb of Cao Cao had been found.
Other experts cast doubt on these claims, however, and a hot-tempered controversy ensued. Then in 2018, after further exploration of the site, Henan authorities reiterated their belief that Cao Cao’s mausoleum had almost certainly been discovered.
In fact, the excavation of the tomb has yielded an array of stunning artifacts, including exquisite ornaments made from agate. Among the other relics, meanwhile, were inscribed stone tablets and paintings of Chinese life from nearly 2,000 years ago. And also discovered in the tomb were the remains of two women, although their identities remain a mystery.
You see, it had been believed that Cao Cao was interred with his spouse, who would have been in her 70s at the time. But the two women found in the tomb had been much younger when they died – in their 20s and 50s respectively. Meanwhile, another grave, adjacent to the main tomb, contained what may be the body of Cao Cao’s first son, who died while still young.
The mausoleum itself is of truly monumental proportions. It covers an area of nearly 8,000 square feet and is approached by a passageway that’s 130 feet long. What’s more, a total of some 250 items were retrieved from the tomb. And these artifacts have the potential to provide valuable insights into the China of almost two millennia ago.
There’s strong evidence that this is indeed the long-lost tomb of Cao Cao, too. Why? Because among the artifacts that were discovered are stone tablets attached to weapons and carrying the inscription, “This is what the King of Wei Wu used.” Wei, of course, being the kingdom that Cao Cao once ruled.
It’s clear that Cao Cao was both a fierce warrior and a skilled general. More than that, though, history tells us that this powerful ruler was an accomplished calligrapher and poet as well. And now plans are afoot to build a museum centered on the magnificent archaeological site believed to be his tomb. At last, then, there will be a suitable memorial to this important figure in Chinese history.