In the Dian Lun
-- China's first collection of literary critisms, penned by Cao Pi (and which he sent an autographed copy of to Sun Quan
) -- the Emperor of Wei prefaced it with an autobiography. I know most of us here have negative feelings towards Cao Pi, but what's interesting about this essay is that it describes his very interesting childhood, as well as his fondness of martial arts (among many things). I think to most of us it would present a dimension of Cao Pi that we don't normally think about.
My Autobiography -- Cao Pi
During the first years of the Chuping reign, Dong Zhuo assassinated the emperor and poisoned the empress, causing great chaos in the Imperial House. At that time, all within the Four Seas were suffering from the misgovernment of the Zhongping reign and disgusted by Zhuo’s evil deeds. Each family thus was plotting an uprising, and every person looked out for himself. The governors east of the Mountains appealed to the teaching from the Spring and Autumn Annuals, that “The people of Wei conducted a punitive operation against Zhouxu at Pu” -- from which they concluded that it is every man’s duty to fight the evil ones. And thus, the volunteer coalition was formed; from renowned men of chivalrous honour, to those of wealthy families and powerful clans, all gathered together, coming from lands a thousand miles apart. The troops from Yan and Yu fought at Yingyang, and the armoured men south of the Yellow River laid formation at Mengjin. Thus Dong Zhuo forced the relocation of the emperor, and created a new capital at Chang’an. Those from east of the mountains – the powerful controlling provinces and states, the mediocre holding cities and towns, and the smaller groups gathering in the countryside – returned to their respective places and at once fought to take over each other. At the same time, the Yellow Turbans flourished near the Ocean and the Dai Mountains, and bandits rampaged in Bing and Ji provinces. Having scored a few victories, they rolled through southwards, attacking everywhere in sight. Whole villages would flee at the sight of smoke, and cities collapse when dust is spotted. Commoners from all families were killed, their exposed bones covering the land like weed.
At that time I was five years old. The Lord my father [Cao Cao], concerned with the disorder in the world, taught me how to use a bow. At six years of age I was capable at archery. He also taught me how to ride, and by the age of eight I was able to shoot from horseback. Since the world was in such disarray, every time my father went on a military expedition, I would follow him. In the beginning of the Jian’an reign, the Lord attacked Jing province, and when he arrived at Wan, Zhang Xiu surrendered. However, he rebelled within days. My late brother, the Filial and Incorrupt(1) Zixiu [Cao Ang], and my older cousin Anmin were both killed. At that time I was 10 years of age, and barely escaped on horseback.
Ways, literary or martial, are to be deployed according to the times. Born during the Zhongping years, and growing up among soldiers, my fondness of shooting and riding began at a young age and has not declined since. I would ride tens of miles in pursuit of game, and shoot on horseback targets a hundred paces away. My body strengthens as the days go by, but my heart never tires of this exercise. In the 10th year of Jian’an, Ji province was finally brought to submission. The lands of Sui and Mo paid tribute with fine bows, and Yan and Dai brought gifts of famous steeds. At the dawn of springtime that year, fair sunlight cast the perfect warmth, and the gentle breeze fanned the earth; the bow was dry, and hands were soft; the grass still short and beasts were fat. So my cousin Zidan [Cao Zhen] and I went on a hunt west of Ye city. At the end of the day we caught nine deer and thirty pheasants.
Some time after that, I was with the troops marching south to Quli, and Xun Yu, from the office of the Imperial Secretariat, was sent to reward the troops. Catching me at the end of a conversation, he said to me, “I have heard that you are able to shoot from both your right hand and your left. This is truly a remarkable thing!” I replied, “Sir, you have yet to see me take aim and shoot with just a slight turn of my head, aligning the arrow wherever I desire; or see me hit the moving Horseshoe targets while bending low on the horse, or the Yuezhi
target while reaching up.” Xun Yu was delighted. Smiling, he said, “Is that truly so!” I said, “Moving targets have set paths, and stationary targets have set locations. Even if one were able to hit a target with every shot, that is still not the peak of the art. But if one were to gallop through the plains and into the grasslands, pursue agile beasts and catch flying birds, and yet have his bow never to be drawn in vain, and every arrow pierce through the target – that, then, is wonderful.” The officer Zhang Jing was also present then, and he looked at Xun Yu, clapped his hands, and said, “That is fantastic!”
I have also learnt swordfighting. Many teachers of the art have I seen, and though the techniques varied from place to place, those of the Capital are the best. Sometime during the reigns of Emperors Huan and Ling, there was one Wang Yue of the Tiger Guards, who was a expert of this art, and was of great fame in the Capital. Shi E from Henan said that he was once a companion of Wang Yue, and had thoroughly learnt the techniques from him. I then studied in great depth with Shi E, and became proficient. Once I was drinking together with Liu Xun, General who Pacifies the Caitiffs, and Deng Zhan, General who Displays Majesty. Long had I heard that Deng Zhan was strong in his arms, was adept at five weapons, and furthermore could counter a sword attack with his bare hands. I had a long discussion with him on the subject of swordplay, and I said to him, “General, your techniques are wrong.” Since he knew that I was fond of the art, and had good instruction, he begged to fight with me. Right then we were all quite intoxicated and flushed from the wine, and had just started munching on sugar canes. So we took the sugar canes as our staves, descended from the hall, and fought several bouts. I hit him thrice on the arm, and all around were laughing. Deng Zhan would not let it be, and requested for a re-match. I said that my techniques are rapid, and would hit hard on his face; so that’s why I’ve only played up to arm-height. Zhan said that he would fight again. I knew that he was going to go for my centre, and so I pretended to move forward to the side, and truly he advanced into my trap. With a slight shift of my feet, my staff hit him squarely on the face. All present were astonished. I returned to my seat, smiled, and said, “In the olden days, Yang Qing had Chunyu Yi forget his old ways and re-taught him with his secret art. Now I would also hope that you, General Deng, would give up your old practice and relearn the proper techniques.” Everyone was amused. In no thing should one claim to be an expert. When I was younger, I learnt the art of using twin weapons, and believed that I could not be equalled -- in common slang they call the twin halberds the "metal sitting-room", and the decorated shield as the "wooden covering-door". Later, I was under the instruction of Yuan Min from the state of Chen. He would use single weapons to fend against double weapons, and was so fantastic in his technique that his opponent would have no idea where his next stroke would be coming from. If, in the former days, I had made an enemy of Yuan Min and engaged in a fight with him, I would have been defeated right away!
In general I have few interests in gambling and games, but at the chess-shooting game(2) I am quite skilled, and even wrote ballads on the subject when I was young. There used to be several talented players in the Capital region -- Marquis Ma of Hexiang, Dongfang Anshi, and Master Zhang. I often regret not ever having a chance in competing with these gentlemen.
The Lord had a refined interest in poetry, writings, and books, and though he be in the army he was never found without a book in his hands. Sometimes he would stop what he’s doing and relax, and say that when a man is young and willing to learn, his thoughts are directed and concentrated, but once he is old he becomes forgetful; Yuan Boye and him alone were those who are keen of learning even when they have grown up. When I was young I memorised the Book of Odes and the Analects, and when I was older and more experieced I read the Five Classics, the Four Collections, Memoires of the Grand Historian, the History of Han, and the writings of all the philosophers and teachers –- there wasn’t anything that I did not read thoroughly.
(1) Filial and Incorrupt
-- a title given to men recommended to the court's service by local governors, based on the two virtues of filial piety and uprightness.
(2) Chess-shooting game -- how this game is played exactly is unknown. From what I could gather from various dictionaries and records, it is an upper-class version of marbles (i.e. each player has several round pieces of stones, which they try to shoot in designated ways).