(formally Empress Mingdao)
Empress shown on the right of this painting
Empress Mao, also known as Empress Mingdao, was the wife of Cao Rui, the second emperor of the state of Cao Wei during China’s Three Kingdoms period. She came from a poor family and became a concubine of Cao Rui while he was still a prince. When Cao Rui ascended to the throne, Mao was made Empress, which led to the jealousy of other court ladies, particularly Consort Guo, who gained favor over time.
In 237, a dispute arose between Empress Mao and Consort Guo when Cao Rui hosted a party and refused to invite the empress. Empress Mao found out about the gathering and confronted the emperor, leading to a deterioration of their relationship. Believing that Empress Mao had been informed by someone within the palace, Cao Rui reacted harshly and ordered her to commit suicide.
In the fictionalized account presented in the novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” Empress Mingdao’s story is depicted in a similar fashion, highlighting the emperor’s lavish lifestyle and lack of self-restraint. She is portrayed as a neglected empress who loses favor when Cao Rui becomes infatuated with Consort Guo. Ultimately, Empress Mao’s tragic end is brought about by her husband’s violent reaction and fear-driven actions.
It’s important to note that historical accounts and fictionalized retellings like “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” may not always align perfectly with one another, as the latter often includes embellishments and literary liberties for dramatic effect.
Empress Guo (formally Empress Mingyuan)
Empress shown on the left of this painting
Empress Guo, also known as Empress Mingyuan, was the wife of Cao Rui, the second ruler of Cao Wei during the Three Kingdoms period of China. She came from a powerful family in Xiping Commandery and became a concubine of Cao Rui after his ascension to the throne. Empress Guo was known for her intelligence and determination to prevent her empire from falling into the hands of the powerful Sima clan.
After the death of Cao Rui, Empress Guo became empress dowager during the reign of her adopted son, Cao Fang. The political power during this period was in the hands of regents, including Cao Shuang and later Sima Yi and his sons, who effectively ruled the empire while paying only nominal respect to Empress Dowager Guo.
Empress Guo tried to preserve some control over the empire and counteract the growing influence of the Sima clan. She showed wisdom during succession crises, advocating for Cao Mao, Cao Rui’s nephew, to become emperor instead of Cao Ju, which would have left Cao Rui without a direct heir. However, her efforts to maintain some power were ultimately futile, as the Sima clan gained complete control over Wei.
Empress Guo’s influence waned, and she could not prevent her adopted son, Cao Mao, from attempting a failed coup against Sima Zhao. Cao Mao’s actions led to his death, and Empress Guo was forced to issue an edict posthumously deposing him. Despite her efforts, the Sima clan continued to dominate, leading to the eventual establishment of the Jin dynasty.
Empress Guo passed away in February 264, unable to make any further impact against the power of the Simas. Sima Yan later usurped the throne in 266, establishing the Jin dynasty. Empress Guo was buried in April 264, and her efforts to preserve the Cao Wei empire were ultimately in vain.
Spouse: Cao Rui
Cao Rui (204 or 205 – 22 January 239), courtesy name Yuanzhong, was the second emperor of the state of Cao Wei during the Three Kingdoms period. His parentage is in dispute: his mother, Lady Zhen, was Yuan Xi’s wife, but she later remarried Cao Pi, the first ruler of Wei. Based on conflicting accounts of his age, Pei Songzhi calculated that, in order to be Cao Pi’s son, Cao Rui could not have been 33 (by East Asian age reckoning) when he died as recorded, so the recorded age was in error; late-Qing scholar Lu Bi and Mou Guangsheng argued instead that Cao Rui was Yuan Xi’s son.
Cao Rui’s reign was viewed in many different ways throughout Chinese history. He devoted many resources to building palaces and ancestral temples, and his reign saw the stalemate between his empire, Shu Han, and Eastern Wu become more entrenched. His building projects and his desire to have many concubines (who numbered in the thousands) greatly exhausted the imperial treasury.
On his deathbed, he has no biological son. He passed the throne to his adopted son Cao Fang and entrusted him to the regency of Cao Shuang and Sima Yi. This would prove to be a fatal mistake for his clan, as Cao Shuang monopolized power and governed incompetently, eventually drawing a violent reaction from Sima Yi, who overthrew him in a coup d’état (Incident at the Gaoping Tombs). Sima Yi became in control of the Wei government from AD 249, eventually allowing his grandson Sima Yan to usurp the throne in AD 266. After his death, Cao Rui was posthumously honored as “Emperor Ming” with the temple name “Liezu”.