Cao Cao Tomb

Cao Cao and his seventy-two decoy tombs – so which one is real?


Cao Cao (155 to 220 AD) was a warlord and the penultimate Chancellor of the Eastern Han dynasty who rose to great power in the final years of the dynasty. Although he is often portrayed as a cruel and merciless tyrant, Cao Cao was also praised as a brilliant ruler and military genius. According to legend, Cao Cao made a careful plan before his death – to prevent looters disturbing his peace after death, he had 72 coffins made, which were carried out to 72 separate burial sites on the day of his funeral. In 2009, the Henan Provincial Cultural Heritage Bureau claimed to have found Cao Cao’s tomb, however, many experts are sceptical as to whether it really is the final resting place of the infamous ruler.

In the late second century, Cao Cao emerged as one of the main warlords in China as the Han Dynasty crumbled. He successfully built up the state of Wei in northern China, ruling from 208 AD until his death in 220 AD. Soon after his death, his son Cao Pi formally removed the last Han emperor from the throne and started the Wei Dynasty. In literature and legend Cao Cao is depicted as a ruthless leader, who was said, "to be able enough to rule the world, but evil enough to destroy it."

Despite Cao Cao’s significant role in Chinese history, the whereabouts of his final resting place has been a matter of conjecture for decades as the ruler reportedly went to great lengths to keep the location of his tomb a secret – perhaps he realised that his way of ruling had earned him many enemies who may have wished to desecrate his burial chamber after his death.

On 27 December 2009, the Henan Provincial Cultural Heritage Bureau announced one of the greatest Chinese archaeological discoveries of the year – the discovery of Cao Cao's burial chamber. The tomb, covering an area of 740 square metres, had been found in Xigaoxue Village, Anyang County, Henan, in 2008 while workers at a nearby kiln were digging up mud to make bricks. Its discovery was not reported initially and the local authorities knew of it only when they seized a stone tablet carrying the inscription 'King Wu of Wei' — Cao Cao's posthumous title — from grave robbers who claimed to have stolen it from the tomb.

The entrance to the Cao Cao tomb

The entrance to the tomb believed to be Cao Cao’s. Photo source .

Archaeologists began excavations and uncovered the remains of three people – a man in his 60s, a woman in her 50s and another woman in her 20s – believed to be those of Cao Cao, one of his wives, and a servant. They also dug up more than 250 artifacts, including gold, silver, pottery, paintings, a sword, scabbard, and 59 engraved stone plates logging the name and amount of articles buried in the tomb. Most significantly, was the discovery of stone tablets attached to eight weapons and artifacts, bearing the inscription: “This is what the King of Wei Wu used”.

"The stone tablets bearing inscriptions of Cao's posthumous reference are the strongest evidence," archaeologist Liu Qingzhu, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was quoted as saying. "No one would or could have so many relics inscribed with Cao's posthumous reference in the tomb unless it was Cao's."

Stone tablets inscriptions King Wei Wu

Stone tablets bearing inscriptions that referred to the King of Wei Wu. Photo source .

Since the discovery of the tomb, there have been many experts who have questioned its authenticity, and in August 2010, 23 experts and scholars presented evidence at a forum held in Suzhou, Jiangsu to argue that the findings and the artifacts of the tomb were fake, and that the Anyang County government fraudulently produced evidence to associate an ancient tomb with a legendary warlord in order to cash in on tourism.

Li Luping, an expert on calligraphy and stone scripture, said several words written on the stone tablets displayed grammar that was either wrong or in modern form. Huang Zhengyun, a professor on ancient literature with China University of Political Science and Law, said several artifacts show evidence of being made with modern tools.  Scholars have also maintained that the idea of labelling items as belonging to Cao Cao is ridiculous.

"These tablets were like illustrations of museum items. Cao Cao would not want that in his grave," said one expert, "not to mention that Cao was not called King of Wei Wu until many years after he died."

Cao Cao tomb

Experts have claimed the ancient tomb does not belong to Cao Cao. Photo source .

In September 2010, an article published in Kaogu, an archaeology magazine, claimed that the tomb and the adjacent one actually belonged to Cao Huan (last ruler of Cao Wei) and his father Cao Yu (a son of Cao Cao).  The defining piece of evidence was a seal that was initially thought to be a simple official seal, but was later discovered to be actually a seal bearing the name of the owner of the tomb. When the seal was first revealed after it was excavated from the tomb, it was presented upside down so the Chinese character inscribed on it in seal script did not make any sense. After the error was corrected, archaeologists recognised that the Chinese character on the seal reads Huan, hence they deduced that the tomb owner was Cao Huan. Cao Huan died at the age of 57, which was rather close to the age at which the man in the tomb died.

Nevertheless, despite evidence indicating that the tomb is not the enigmatic burial site of Cao Cao, the local government in Anyang is proceeding with plans to create the Cao Cao Mausoleum Museum, a move which will indeed attract tourists from far and wide.

So what is the real story behind the supposed discovery of Cao Cao’s tomb? Did the local county government plant evidence in order to cash in on tourism? Does the tomb belong to Cao Huan and Cao Yu? Or is it really the enigmatic tomb of Cao Cao? The government would have us believe the latter, but the evidence is highly questionable.

Featured image: The supposed tomb of Cao Cao. Photo source .   

By April Holloway


Tomb of Cao Cao – Ancient Chinese Culture

Ancient Legendary Ruler's Tomb Found – Discovery News

Tomb of Cao Cao, famous Chinese ruler, discovered – Medieval News

Tomb of legendary general Cao Cao unearthed in central China - CCTV

Experts: Cao Cao "tomb" is a phony - CNTV

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