Nobody seems to have quite gone the lengths Cao Cao did in Xu and very few would have used diplomacy to chase a childhood rival and have him sent back from Jiaozhi so the warlord could kill them. Cao Cao could be extremely brutal, if anything I think the novel softens that edge but makes him more obviously Han disloyal, and there is decent case for saying he was evil.
Are they evil too? Could they be "bad guys" just because they serve Cao Cao and his cause?
We do judge men by who they serve to an extent if we consider one side blatantly evil (but we tend not to with the three kingdoms) but we also judge men by their deeds
If Cao Cao was so evil, why would great warriors such as Xu Chu and Zhang He join him instead of serving the Han Dynasty?
Why would they commit career suicide for a dynasty that the gentry didn't care about (for most part) and which the people revolted against on mass in 184? Remember Zhang He had served Yuan Shao, who had refused to rescue the Emperor, so Zhang He doesn't seem to have been a Han loyalist.
Lady Wu wrote:It kinda depends on how you define "evil".
Since Cao Cao took the court under his wing, basically if you served in the Han court you'd be serving under Cao Cao as well. Cao Cao did start out protecting the Han, in a way---after all he reunited a lot of the land that was torn apart by warlords, and he himself did not usurp the throne. Lots of people who served Cao Cao were true Han loyalists (like Xun Yu), and Cao Cao did have a place for them until they really got in the way.
True to first part and to an extent I agree with the second.
Han loyalists were a part of Cao Cao's court. Most came when he took Emperor Xian in though Xun Yu served before hand as he felt Cao Cao was the Han's best hope.Some were resigned to the Han's fate and either changed loyalties in the end or walked away (Yang Biao, though he had very good reason), some tried to change it through Cao Cao (Xun Yu), some tried to kill Cao Cao (Dong Cheng). It was a double edged sword for Cao Cao.
Cao Cao's officer core would have had a lot who joined due to 1) family or superior joining him so they went along too, 2) location, particularly as he expanded his reach further, 3) the officers of warlords he defeated. To those who didn't fall into his ranks, there are several reasons why they might have served him, reasons that don't make them evil. Cao Cao was a scholar in a way most warlords weren't which would have got the interest of some gentry, he was a man who already had a wide range of acquittance/friends from his early days (Han Sui and Cai Mao two of the more famous ones) which would have spread his fame. Cao Cao was charismatic which would have helped, for the ambitious there was the good mix of his being extremely capable and badly needing officers (see Jia Xu's discussion with Zhang Xiu). There were those who, judging by their conversations on the matter, joined because they felt Cao Cao's strict administration was the best path for the land. After a certain point, many perhaps joined because they thought Cao Cao would win.
There is disagreement on Cao Cao being evil nowadays and I doubt during their own time, he was widely viewed as evil. Officers no doubt served him for a variety of reasons, some more or less noble then others, but I would certainly hesitate to call Wei the baddies.
On the issue of why people serve evil: many reasons. Location, family, ambition, they believe in whatever cause the leader is espousing. Many of the great evil rulers that were successful to any extent were able and very charismatic men but doesn't mean all their subordinates were bad. Depends on their actions.
“You, are a rebellious son who abandoned his father. You are a cruel brigand who murdered his lord. How can Heaven and Earth put up with you for long? And unless you die soon, how can you face the sight of men?”