Cao Cao Artwork (DW9)
Better I betray the world than have the world betray me!
~ Cao Cao's most famous quote, after escaping an 'assassination attempt'.

Cao Cao is an evil commander of the Wei empire, who seeks to become an emperor of China.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a historical novel by Luo Guanzhong, was a romanticization of the events that occurred during the Three Kingdoms period. While adhering to historical facts most of the time, the novel inevitably re-shaped Cao dramatically to some extent, so as to portray him as a cruel and suspicious villain. In some chapters, Luo created fictional or semi-fictional events involving Cao. They include:

While in reality Cao did leave Dong Zhuo, the tyrannical warlord who held Emperor Xian hostage in 190 to consolidate power, Luo Guanzhong took a step further in describing Cao's attempted assassination on Dong Zhuo.

Emperor Shao, the successor of the late Emperor Ling, and placed Emperor Xian on the throne. His autocratic behavior and acts of brutality against his political opponents and the common people incurred the anger of various court officials. One of them, Wang Yun, called for a secret meeting of the officials under the pretext of his birthday celebration. During the feast, Wang cried upon recalling the cruel deeds of Dong. His colleagues felt the same anguish and joined him in tears.

Cao, however, laughed and said, "All the officials of the court – crying from dusk till dawn and from dawn till dusk – can you make Dong Zhuo die by crying?" Wang met him in private later and lent him the Seven Gems Sword (七星劍) after Cao promised to assassinate Dong Zhuo personally.

The next day, Cao brought the precious sword to see Dong. Having much trust in Cao, Dong received the guest in his bedroom. Lu Bu, Dong's foster son, left the room for the stable to select a better horse for Cao, who complained about his slow ride. When Dong turned away, Cao prepared to unsheathe the sword. However, Dong saw Cao's action through a reflection in the mirror and hastily turned to question Cao's intention. Coincidentally, Lü Bu returned at that moment as well. In desperation, Cao knelt down and claimed that he wanted to present the sword to Dong. Cao seized the opportunity to escape from Luoyang under the pretext of trying a ride on the new horse. Dong realized later that Cao had intended to assassinate him and sent his men to summon Cao back to see him. However, Cao had already escaped and Dong issued an order for Cao's arrest.

Following the escape from Dong Zhuo is a legendary episode aimed at illustrating Cao's near-Machiavellian tendencies for later characterizations of him as a villain. Though never exactly proven, it is said that Cao escaped with Chen Gong, a county magistrate who arrested him earlier and released him out of admiration for Cao's sense of righteousness later. They sought shelter at the home of Lü Boshe, a close friend of Cao's father. Lü promised to protect him and left to purchase some materials in preparation for a feast. Cao and Chen overheard a conversation between Lü's servants about a murder plot. Cao's suspicious nature caused him to jump to the conclusion that Lü Boshe had deceived him and intended to kill him and hand over his corpse to Dong Zhuo for a reward. Cao and Chen burst in and killed everyone in the house, including Lü's wife and children. They discovered later that the servants were actually discussing how to "murder" (slaughter) a pig for the feast.

Cao and Chen fled immediately and ran into Lü Boshe, who had just returned from his errand. When questioned, Cao provided an excuse, saying that he was afraid of being followed, as the reason for his abrupt departure. Cao then asked Lü, "Who's that behind you?" When Lü turned around, Cao stabbed and killed him from behind. Chen was shocked and asked him why he committed that atrocity. Cao explained that it was for their safety, because if Lü went home and saw the ghastly sight, he would report the murder to the authorities and hence create serious trouble for them. Cao then raised his sword and famously said, "I'd rather let the world down than to allow the world to let me down." (寧教我負天下人,休教天下人負我). According to Cao's biography in Records of Three Kingdoms, Cao said "I'd rather let others down than to allow others to let me down." (寧我負人,毋人負我) with a sense of regret and remorse. The exact quote was altered in Luo Guanzhong's Romance of the Three Kingdoms, with "world" (天下人; literally: people under Heaven) replacing "others" (人; literally: people). Historian Yi Zhongtian speculated that Cao was probably trying to console himself after mistakenly killing Lü Boshe, by speaking with a sense of remorse. Yi believed that Luo had changed the quote to reflect that Cao had no sense of remorse (because "world" carries greater weight than "others"), so as to enhance Cao's image as a villain in his novel.

Du Mu's account of Cao's life states that he was such a strict disciplinarian. He cited the example of an incident, in which Cao condemned himself to death for having allowed his horse to stray into a field of corn, violating a military law that dictates any soldier who damages commoners' crops would be executed. However, in lieu of losing his head, he was persuaded to satisfy his sense of justice by cutting off a lock of his hair. "When you pass a law, see that it is not disobeyed; if it is disobeyed, the offender must be punished.

In 220, Cao died in Luoyang due to an unknown illness. Legends contain explanations for the cause of his death. Romance of the Three Kingdoms included some of these legends, as well as Luo Guanzhong's own story about the involvement of Hua Tuo, a renowned Chinese physician.

When Cao started complaining about splitting headaches in the last days of his life, his subjects recommended Hua Tuo, a physician with remarkable healing skills. Upon examination, Hua diagnosed Cao's illness to be a form of rheumatism in the skull. He suggested giving Cao a dose of hashish and then splitting open his skull with a sharp axe to extract the pus within.

Due to an earlier incident with another physician called Ji Ping, who attempted to poison him, Cao grew suspicious of any physician. Cao believed that Hua intended to kill him to avenge the death of Guan Yu. He had Hua imprisoned and Hua died a few days later. Without proper treatment, Cao died soon as well. In another account of Cao's cause of death, it was said that a curse befell him when he tried to cut down a sacred tree and use its wood to build a lavish villa.

Cao Cao appears in the Dynasty Warriors game series, where he can't be considered a villain, since in Wei's point of view, he is a hero. In the Warriors Orochi game series he also appears commanding resistance forces against Demon Armies.


  • He is similar with Claude Frollo from the novel version of The Hunchback of Norte Dame.