Cao Jie 曹節

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About Cao Jie 曹節

Cao Jie 曹節 [30275] RM, p. 986. — RMH

Cao Jie, Empress of Emperor Xian

Empress Cao (Xiandi Cao Huanghou), c. 196–260, was empress to Emperor Xian (Liu Xie, 181–234; r. 189–220) of Eastern Han. She was the second daughter of Cao Cao (155–220), the posthumous Emperor Wu of Wei, and her name was Cao Jie. During the chaotic last years of Eastern Han, rebellious peasants joined the Yellow Turban Uprising and local governors annexed territory. As Counselor-in-Chief (chengxiang) of Han, Cao Cao monopolized the court, wielding almost absolute power in the Yellow River and Huai River region of north China. He defeated the governors who had declared their independence and in the fifth month of 213 declared himself Duke of Wei. In the traditional preliminary to usurping the throne, he granted himself the “nine presents” (jiu xi) and two months later presented his three daughters—Cao Xian, Cao Jie, and Cao Hua—to the court as concubines. All three were given the title Worthy Lady (guiren) but because Cao Hua was still a child she remained at home for a further year. As a show of strength, Cao Cao had Wang Yi, who was Chamberlain of the National Treasury (taichang dasi) and Marquis Ting of Anyang, come to his home with betrothal gifts of jade and thousands of bolts of silk. Among the party were five armed officials who had been given the civil title Court Gentlemen for Consultation (yilang) and another who was called their deputy.

Empress Fu (q.v. Fu Shou, Empress of Emperor Xian) had long been deeply concerned at Cao Cao’s growing power and had written to her father asking help in containing him. When this plot was revealed, in 214, Cao Cao had Empress Fu confined in the Drying House, where she died. The following year, Worthy Lady Cao Jie was promoted to empress, a position she held until the Han dynasty finally collapsed in 220.

After Cao Cao died in 220, his son—and Empress Cao’s brother—Cao Pi (187–226) forced Emperor Xian to abdicate, demoting him to Duke of Shanyang. Cao Pi declared a new dynasty—the Wei dynasty—and installed himself as emperor (Emperor Wen, r. 220–226). Not long after this, he sent emissaries to his sister, the former Empress Cao, requesting her to return the emperor’s imperial seal and ribbon. Several times she refused to see the emissaries but finally she called them in and proceeded to reprimand them one by one for the crime of usurpation. She then flung the seal and ribbon at them and, in such a rage that none dared look up at her, cried: “You will not be blessed by heaven!” Empress Cao was demoted to Duchess of Shanyang and lived in retirement with the former emperor until his death in 234. She lived on as a widow for another twenty-six years, dying in 260, and was buried alongside her husband in Shan Tomb, her funeral ceremonies following the tradition of the Han dynasty. It is notable that Empress Cao remained loyal not to her father or to her brother, but to her husband, in the Confucian tradition of the “three followings” (sancong), whereby a woman’s husband is her heaven and she is obliged to belong to him; this is known as “double heaven.”

WANG Bugao

  • Chen Quanli and Hou Xinyi, eds. Hou fei cidian. Xi’an: Shaanxi renmin jiaoyu chubanshe, 1991, 29.
  • Hou Han shu. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1965, vol. 2, 9.388–91; vol. 2, 10xia.455–58.
  • Sanguo zhi. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1989, vol. 1, 1.1–55.
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