Cao Ren (168 – 223) was a military general under the powerful warlord Cao Cao during the late Eastern Han Dynasty and Three Kingdoms era of China. He played a significant part in the civil wars leading to the disintegration of the Eastern Han Dynasty and the establishment of the Kingdom of Wei.
In 190, Cao Cao started raising an army to join the coalition against Dong Zhuo, the tyrannical warlord who was holding the emperor hostage in the imperial court. Cao Ren and his followers then joined Cao Cao. Throughout the early 190s he accompanied Cao Cao on various campaigns around northern China, against Dong Zhuo, Yuan Shu, Tao Qian (陶谦) and Lü Bu. Cao Ren performed very well during these early campaigns, often pitching himself in the forefront of battles.
In 196, after Cao Cao was entrusted with the custody of Emperor Xian in Xuchang, he gave Cao Ren the position of Grand Administrator of Guangyang (广阳太守). However, Cao Cao kept Cao Ren in Xuchang as he had greater use of the brave yet crafty man.
In 197, Cao Cao's camp was attacked by Zhang Xiu outside Wan. Caught unprepared, Cao Cao lost many troops and several trusted subjects, including his bodyguard Dian Wei and his own son Cao Ang. Zhang Xiu then pursued Cao Cao as the latter retreated north. Under such adverse circumstance, Cao Ren inspired the soldiers through his own bravery in battle and eventually defeated Zhang Xiu in a counterattack.
During the Battle of Guandu in 200, Yuan Shao incited Liu Bei to harass the rear of Cao Cao's territory. Leading a cavalry force, Cao Ren defeated Liu Bei. Later, Yuan Shao attempted to attack Cao Cao's rear again, which was once more thwarted by Cao Ren. Cao Ren also undertook the task of harassing Yuan Shao's line of supply.
In 208, after he lost the Battle of Red Cliffs, Cao Cao retreated north, leaving Cao Ren to defend the strategic city of Jiangling against the advance of Wu troops. The enemy commander Zhou Yu dispatched a several thousand-strong vanguard force to attack the city. Cao Ren sent his aide Niu Jin (牛金) with 300 men into battle, which soon turned against the defenders. Cao Ren then rode out with dozens of horsemen and successfully rescued Niu Jin. Upon his return, Cao Ren's subjects exclaimed, "General, you are truly a man from Heaven!"
Throughout most of the 210s Cao Ren held the position of General who Conquers the South (征南将军) and garrisoned at Fan (樊), a strategic city on the shores of the Han River that is vital to the defense of Jingzhou (荆州).
In 219, Liu Bei's most trusted general Guan Yu came in force to take Fan. He cut off communications and supply lines to the city and diverted the Han River to flood its walls. The food stock was depleting fast but Cao Ren roused his men and held out until a relief force under Xu Huang arrived. By this time the flood had subsided. Combined with Xu Huang's strength, Cao Ren forced Guan Yu to retreat.
After Cao Pi succeeded Cao Cao, he made Cao Ren General of Chariots and Cavalry (车骑将军), to be in charge of all military affairs of Jingzhou, Yangzhou (扬州) and Yizhou (益州). Cao Ren was later promoted to General-in-Chief (大将军) and subsequently Minister of Defense (大司马). In his last years, Cao Ren defended Hefei against a number of Sun Quan's offensives.
Cao Ren died in 223 and was posthumously enfeoffed as Marquis Zhong, literally meaning the loyal marquis. Indeed this was largely how he was remembered – a steadfastly loyal commander who obeyed and enforced laws and commands strictly.
¹ For a complete list of Cao Cao's sons, see Cao Cao.
Cao Ren is featured in the Koei video game series, Dynasty Warriors and Warriors Orochi. He is portrayed as a short-statured, peace-loving man who cares deeply for the peasants and labourers of Cao Wei. In Dynasty Warriors 4 and 5, he wears armor similar to that of a European knight, and fights using a shield that has a short, double-edged sword on it, which can be removed for combat. In Dynasty Warriors 6 he is more heavily armored and wields a double ended trident.