Cao Ren 曹仁 was a long serving general who helped establish the Wei empire. His most notable achievement was the defence of Fan Castle against Guan Yu despite several severe detriments to his forces.


When he was young, Cao Ren excelled at horseback archery and hunting. With the growing chaos throughout the land, many great heroes started rising up; Cao Ren was among them, he quietly collected a following of over 1,000 young men. Cao Ren's forces patrolled the area of former Zhou, between the Huai (淮) and Si (泗) rivers. When he was younger, Cao Ren's behaviour was undisciplined; it would only be after he grew older and became a general that he learned to respect laws and reguations.

Cao Ren was a younger cousin of Cao Cao, and when Cao Cao was raising forces, Cao Ren joined him. Cao Ren was made a Senior Major and Colonel of the Severe Edge (厲鋒). Cao Ren followed Cao Cao in the attack on Yuan Shu, where he beheaded and captured a large number of enemy soldiers.

In 196 A.D., Cao Ren participated in the Battle of Xu Province, and commanded a contingent of cavalry and led the army as the vanguard force. Cao Ren's unit separated to attack Tao Qian's general, Lü You, defeating him before reuniting with the main forces for a devastating attack on Tao Qian's forces at Peng city (彭城). Cao Cao's forces then seized Fei (費), Hua (華), Jimo (即墨) and Kaiyang (開陽); Tao Qian dispatched forces to aid the counties, but Cao Ren's cavalry attacked and defeated them.

Cao Cao attacked Lü Bu in Yan province; Cao Ren was given a separate unit and sent to attack Juyang (句陽) where he captured General Liu He alive. Cao Cao pacified the bandits in Yu province and received the Emperor at Xu city (許); wherever Cao Cao's fought, Cao Ren frequently performed meritorious service. Cao Ren was appointed as Grand Administrator of Guangyang (廣陽) for his work.

In 197 A.D., Cao Cao attacked Zhang Xiu. Cao Ren was given a separate command and sent to attack the nearby counties, he took over 3,000 men and women captive. Unfortunately for Cao Cao, a devastating surprise attack forced him to retreat, but he returned the following year. But again Cao Cao would not find victory, with word that Yuan Shao was planning on attacking his rear, Cao Cao called a retreat. Zhang Xiu's forces hurried in pursuit, to make matters worse, his ally, Liu Biao, had moved to cut off Cao Cao's escape.[1] Cao Cao's forces were demoralised, but Cao Ren's leadership roused their spirits and they managed to defeat the enemy forces and withdraw.

In May of 199 A.D., Cao Cao dispatched Cao Ren and Shi Huan across the Yellow river to attack Sui Gu, who had taken his forces to join Yuan Shao. Sui Gu left Xue Hong and Mou Shang to defend Shequan (射犬) while he himself led forces to Yuan Shao and request assistance. Cao Ren and Shi Huan ignored the defenders and pursued Sui Gu, catching up to him at Quan city (犬城). They fought and Sui Gu's forces were destroyed and Sui Gu killed. Thereupon the forces of Shequan surrendered.[2]

In 200 A.D., Cao Cao was stalemated at Guandu (官渡) against Yuan Shao. Yuan Shao secretly dispatched Liu Bei to harass the counties at Cao Cao's rear, and to make matters worse, many joined in support of Liu Bei. The populace south of Xu city were disturbed and Cao Cao was worried about his rear. Cao Ren said: "The southern districts know that our army is facing a crisis, and they realise we cannot bring them help. If Liu Bei comes with a strong force it is quite understandable that they turn away from us. Liu Bei, however, has not long held command of Yuan Shao's soldiers and he has not had time to get used to them. If we attack him we can defeat him."[3] Cao Cao was pleased and dispatched Cao Ren at the head of a cavalry unit to deal with Liu Bei. Cao Ren defeated Liu Bei, settled the counties in revolt and returned to Guandu.

To prevent his return, Yuan Shao had sent Han Jun to block the west road. However, Cao Ren caught Han Jun at Mt. Jiluo (雞洛山) and badly defeated him.[n 1] The defeat of Han Jun made Yuan Shao indecisive and from that point on he dared not separate his forces. Cao Ren then accompanied Shi Huan and they captured Yuan Shao's baggage train and burnt his food supplies.

At the start of 206 A.D. after the region north of the Yellow river was settled, Cao Ren followed Cao Cao in the siege of the city in Hu Pass (壺關城). Cao Cao had given orders that once the city was taken, that all the defenders were to be buried alive, but for three months the city did not fall.[4] Cao Ren remonstrated with Cao Cao, saying: "Besiegers must show to the gate keepers that there is hope of survival. When you announced that they would all be killed, it forced the defenders to defend to the last. Should the city be well-fortified and have a good supply of grain, then attacking will cost many soldiers and waiting for surrender will take a long time. To attack a fortified city against soldiers who expect to die is not an auspicious plan." Cao Cao understood and rescinded his orders, soon the city surrendered. Cao Ren was made a Marquis of a Chief Village.

In 208 A.D., Cao Cao headed south to annex Jing province. Cao Ren was promoted to General Who Subdues the South and stationed at Jiangling (江陵). Cao Cao's forces were defeated at Chibi and the forces of Wu used the momentum of their victory to lay siege to Nan commandery. Zhou Yu led a force of several tens of thousands against Cao Ren who made use of the river to block their advance. Meanwhile, Gan Ning was sent along an indirect route to seize Yiling (夷陵) and put pressure on Cao Ren's rear.[5] Gan Ning only had about 1,000 men under his command, so Cao Ren sent 5-6,000 troops to surround Yiling. Gan Ning's forces were in trouble but the timely arrival of Zhou Yu and the main force saved him.[6] The Wu forces managed to advance across the river and set up camp opposite Jiangling.

Zhou Yu sent a vanguard force of several thousand towards the city. Cao Ren was watching from the city walls and sent Niu Jin at the command of 300 men to meet their challenge. Heavily outnumbered, Niu Jin's forces were quickly surrounded. Chief Clerk Chen Jiao and others were watching from the walls and turned pale seeing the desperate situation Niu Jin was in. Cao Ren, feeling responsible for the treacherous situation, yelled at his attendant to fetch his horse. Chen Jiao and others however objected to Cao Ren heading out, they said: "The rebel forces are too numerous we cannot win. Abandoning several hundred people is not great loss, yet you would risk your own body to aid them." Cao Ren said nothing, instead he donned his armour and mounted his horse. Cao Ren handpicked several dozen elite warriors and led the charge out of the city.

Cao Ren's cavalry were only 100 m from the encirclement they reached a moat[n 2]. Chen Jiao thought that having reached the moat Cao Ren would halt there, but he urged his mount forward and jumped the moat, straight into the enemy encirclement. Cao Ren's cavalry made several passes through the mob, freeing some of the trapped soldiers each time. Although some of his forces were killed, Niu Jin was rescued and the Wu vanguard retreated. When Cao Ren had headed out, Chen Jiao was afraid he would not return. But seeing him come back, Chen Jiao sighed and said: "General Cao is truly godlike!"

Zhou Yu had besieged Jiangling for over a year and many had died on both sides. Zhou Yu himself was hit by an arrow and forced to withdraw. When Cao Ren heard Zhou Yu was incapacitated, he thought his chance for victory had finally arrived. Although Zhou Yu was injured he still managed to rally his forces and Cao Ren's attack backfired and he was defeated. Cao Ren retreated from Jing province and returned north. Cao Ren was demoted from General Who Subdues the South but enfeoffed as Marquis of Anping (安平) Village.[7]

In 211 A.D., Cao Cao dispatched forces west to annex Hanzhong, but the warlords of Liang province rose up in rebellion and blocked Tong Pass (潼關). Cao Ren was promoted to General Who Gives Tranquility to the West and sent to oversee all military operations in the west. After the Liang rebels were defeated, Cao Ren returned east to fight Su Bo and Tian Yin who had rebelled. Cao Ren was promoted to General of Valiant Cavalry and Chief Controller of seven armies and defeated the rebels.

Cao Cao was provisionally reappointed as General Who Subdues the South, presented the Staff of Authority and garrisoned at Fan (樊) Castle to guard Jing province. Hou Yin of Wan (宛) rebelled and Cao Ren led several armies against him, quelling his rebellion and beheading Hou Yin. Cao Ren was immediately appointed as General Who Subdues the South in earnest.

In 219 A.D., Guan Yu attacked Fan Castle. Yu Jin was sent at the head of seven armies to destroy Guan Yu, but the unfortunate flooding of the Han river obliterated the Wei forces. With the destruction of the Wei forces, Cao Ren was left with only 1,000 men and horses garrisoned at Fan Castle. The flood waters had also hit Fan pretty badly, only the tops of the walls were left dry,[n 3][8] and Guan Yu was able to sail his boats right up to the city walls and his encirclement was several ships deep.

The situation within the city looked grim, communications with the outside were severed, provisions had been destroyed by the flooding and what remained was limited and relief forces were not expected. It had been suggested to Cao Ren that they abandon the city, but Man Chong, who had arrived earlier in support, said that the city provided an important foothold and could not be abandoned, to which Cao Ren agreed. Man Chong sacrificed a white horse to raise morale and Cao Ren went about rallying the men and showing he was willing to die to hold the city, and the spirits of all soldiers were raised.[9]

The defenders held their ground and in time the flood waters receded and Xu Huang came with reinforcements. Xu Huang's men dug tunnels under the walls and shot arrows over the walls to communicate with those within the city. Xu Huang's forces were able to lift the siege and together they drove Guan Yu back to Xiangyang. With Wu pressuring Guan Yu's rear, he was forced to retreat. Cao Ren called a war council of the generals and said: "Guan Yu is threatened and anxious. We can chase him and take him." But Zhao Yan thought it best to let Wu handle him, so Cao Ren desisted.[10]

Service to Cao PiEdit

Since Emperor Cao Pi took the Imperial throne, Cao Ren was promoted to General of Chariots and Cavalry, appointed Chief Controller of Jing, Yang and Yi provinces with authority over all military operations therein; he was enfeoffed as Marquis of Chen (陳) and his fief increased to 3,500 households; furthermore, Cao Ren's late father was posthumously titled Solemn (穆) Lord of Chen and 10 houses were appointed to guard his grave. Cao Ren was then stationed at Wan Castle.

Sun Quan dispatched Chen Shao to seized Xiangyang and Cao Pi ordered Cao Ren and Xu Huang to attack him. The two generals drove Chen Shao away and relieved Xiangyang. Cao Ren then had Gao Qian and the other generals relocate the people from the south bank of the river to the north side so they would be better protected. Cao Ren was promoted to General-in-Chief.

Cao Ren was later stationed at Linyang (臨潁) and promoted to Grand Marshal, with the additional authority over the forces around the Wujiang (烏江) and responsible for the defence of Hefei (合肥).

In 223 A.D., Cao Pi launched an invasion of Wu of the three fronts, Cao Ren led tens of thousands of troops against Ruxu (濡須) Fortress[n 4]. Cao Ren first spread misinformation that he was planning on attacking Xianxi and so Zhu Huan sent a detachment of his forces to defend Xianxi (羨溪). Cao Ren's forces were only 35 km away when Zhu Huan realised his mistake; Zhu Huan instead tore down his flags and put away his drums to give a false show of weakness, which Cao Ren fell for. Instead of leading the attack himself, Cao Ren held back to command a support force; he gave 10,000 troops to his son Cao Tai to attack Ruxu and sent Chang Diao to capture a river islet where the families of the Wu soldiers lived.[11]

Cao Ren's advisor, Jiang Ji 蔣濟, tried to counsel Cao Ren against attacking the river islet because the Wu forces were upstream from them and thus held the advantage on water.[12] Jiang Ji's advice went unheeded and the Wei forces on the river were heavily defeated. Cao Tai's attack on Ruxu fortress also went poorly and he burned his own camp and withdrew.[13]

On 16 June 223 A.D., Cao Ren passed away. He was posthumously titled Loyal (忠) Lord of Chen.




  • Cao Bao (曹褒) - Grand Administrator of Yingchuan (潁川).


  • Cao Chi (曹熾) - Palace Attendant and Colonel of the River Encampments. Posthumously titled Solemn (穆) Lord of Chen due to Cao Ren's achievements.


  • Cao Tai - Cao Ren's heir. Served as General of Eastern Pacification, held the Staff of Authority and was Marquis of Ningling (甯陵).
  • Cao Kai (曹楷) - Made a marquis.
  • Cao Fan (曹範) - Made a marquis.


  • Cao Chu (曹初) - Son and heir of Cao Tai.


  1. The quick defeat of Liu Bei meant Cao Ren arrived earlier than anticipated and caught Han Jun before he was prepared.
  2. The text says 100 bu (步), where 1 bu is about 1.5 m, I'm not quite sure whether it should be taken literally. Presumably this was prepared by the Wu forces as part of the preparations for a camp.
  3. Text says several "ban" 板 of the city was not submerged. One ban was 0.45 m, so only about 2 m of the walls would remain above the water level.
  4. A fortified harbour which was constructed back in 213 A.D. on the advice of Lü Meng

Fact vs. FictionEdit


  1. SGZ: Biography of Cao Cao.
  2. SGZ: Biography of Cao Cao.
  3. de Crespigny. Chapter 63 in To Establish Peace Vol 2, Jian'an 5, section T
  4. SGZ: Biography of Cao Cao.
  5. SGZ: Biography of Zhou Yu.
  6. SGZ: Biography of Gan Ning.
  7. SGZ: Biography of Zhou Yu.
  8. de Crespigny. Chapter 68 in To Establish Peace Vol 2, Jian'an 24, section P
  9. SGZ: Biography of Man Chong.
  10. SGZ: Biography of Zhao Yan.
  11. SGZ: Biography of Zhu Huan.
  12. SGZ: Biography of Jiang Ji.
  13. SGZ: Biography of Zhu Huan.


  • de Crespigny, Rafe. To Establish Peace. Vol. 1. Canberra: Faculty of Asian Studies, The Australian National University, 1996. 2 vols.
  • de Crespigny, Rafe. To Establish Peace. Vol. 2. Canberra: Faculty of Asian Studies, The Australian National University, 1996. 2 vols.
  • Fang, Achilles. The Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms. Vol. I. Harvard University Press, 1952. 2 vols.