Cao Zhang (189 – 223) was the son of the powerful warlord Cao Cao during the late Eastern Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms era of China. Cao Zhang was said to wrestle and kill wild animals with his bare hands. He was also a general under his father, having led his troops to significant victories against Wuhuan tribe incursions on the northern frontier.
The second of Cao Cao's four sons by Empress Dowager Bian, Cao Zhang was said to excel in archery and armed combat in his youth so much so that he would fight fierce beasts with his bare hands. Though Cao Cao criticised his lack of academic learning, Cao Zhang had always aspired to pursue a career in the military.
When the Wuhuan tribe rebelled on the northern frontier in 218, Cao Zhang, holding the field rank of General of the Resolute Cavalry (骁骑将军), led a force of mixed infantry and cavalry to suppress the revolt. Outnumbered by the enemy, Cao Zhang took up a passive stance and defended the vital passes and routes. The rebels could not gain an advantage and dissipated. Cao Zhang then led his force out in pursuit, displaying great valour in the ensuing battles. The Records of Three Kingdoms says several arrows were embedded in his armor by the end of a half-day long battle. The Xianbei tribe leader Kebineng had led a ten-thousand strong cavalry force to observe the ongoing war. Having seen the splendid victories Cao Zhang scored, Kebineng submitted to him. Unrest on the northern frontier was then quelled.
Cao Zhang then hurried west to take part in the Hanzhong campaign against Liu Bei. Upon reaching Chang'an, however, he found out that the war had already been lost. Cao Cao then promoted his son to General of the Elite Cavalry (越骑将军) and left him to defend Chang'an against further advances of Liu Bei.
Shortly after returning to Luoyang in 220, Cao Cao fell ill. He died as Cao Zhang was en route to see him. His successor Cao Pi then sent all his brothers, including Cao Zhang, back to their individual fiefdoms, for fear that they might contest his position. In 222, Cao Zhang was enfeoffed as King of Rencheng (任城王). In the following year, Cao Zhang died due to sickness whilst attending court at the capital. He received the posthumous appellation of Wei (威), literally meaning awe-inspiring.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a historical novel by Luo Guanzhong, was a romanticization of the events that occurred before and during the Three Kingdoms era. The author probably exaggerated the tension between Cao Zhang and his elder brother Cao Pi just after their father Cao Cao's death.
Cao Pi, the eldest surviving son of Cao Cao and the rightful heir, succeeded his late father. However, news came that Cao Zhang, leading a hundred-thousand strong army from Chang'an, was approaching the capital. Cao Pi was gripped by fear that his brother would contest the heirship with the military power he held.
Jia Kui, a counsellor to Cao Pi, then volunteered to persuade Cao Zhang to desist. Going out of the city, Jia Kui met with Cao Zhang. The latter was then asked if he came as a mourner or a rival claimant to the heirship. "I come as a mourner with no ulterior motive," replied Cao Zhang. "That being so, why bring in your soldiers?" Jia Kui said, whereupon Cao Zhang ordered his troops to wait outside the city while he entered alone. When the brothers met, they embraced and wept. Cao Zhang then passed the command of his force to Cao Pi and returned to his own fiefdom. Thus Cao Pi's position was more or less secured.
There are legends surrounding the death of Cao Zhang. The most famous of these legends is that Cao Zhang was poisoned by his own brother Cao Pi After Cao Cao died, Cao Zhang was summoned to the palace by Cao Pi. During a casual conversation, Cao Zhang asked his brother if he could see his royal seal. This got Cao Pi worried that his brother wanted to succeed the throne of Cao Cao, which was rightfully Cao Pi's, and therefore Cao Pi decided to kill him. Cao Pi knew that Zhang was his mother Empress Bian's favourite son, so in order to get away with it, he had to make Cao Zhang's death seem natural. A few weeks later, Cao Pi invited his brother to a game of Go during their mother's birthday. The match was very close in the middle game when Cao Pi's servants brought some prunes, some that were poisoned. Cao Pi made sure he ate the unmarked ones that were not poisonous and make sure his brother ate the other ones. When Cao Zhang realized that he had been poisoned, he screamed for help. Empress Bian got to the scene on her bare feet and tried to search for water to flush down the poison that was now in Cao Zhang's body. But unfortunately for Cao Zhang, the crafty Cao Pi had secretly placed all the containers away beforehand and so Bian Hou failed to get the water; Cao Zhang then died at the hands of his own brother.