Romance of Three Kingdoms: Cao Cao’s Death and Sacred Trees

Credit: Chinancient.com.

Pear tree. Credit: Chinancient.com.

Among the many fascinating anecdotes (both fictional and historically attested) in Romance of Three Kingdoms, one particular story caught my attention. This story supposedly has its roots in the Shiyu (世語) and Cao Man Zhuan (曹瞞傳) annotations to Chen Shou’s Records (though I haven’t tracked down either of those texts to verify). More importantly for the purposes of this blog, it highlights an aspect of ancient Chinese religion that I hadn’t heard of before: sacred trees, specifically dynastic sacred trees.

Cao Cao held the position of Chancellor during the reign of the last Han emperor, and was one of the primary enemies of Guan Yu’s liege lord, Liu Bei. After Cao Cao’s death, his son usurped the throne and established the Kingdom of Wei. In his translation, Moss Roberts provides a rare footnote to explain the context for this story: “In ancient China fallen dynasties had their sacred tree roofed over to cut off communication with the heavens” (250).

The following translation is by C.H. Brewitt-Taylor:

In Luoyang, although Cao Cao had given honorable burial to the remains of Guan Yu, yet he was continually haunted by the dead man’s spirit. Every night when he closed his eyes, he saw Guan Yu as he knew the warrior so well in the flesh. These visions made him nervous, and he sought the advice of his officers. Some suggested the building of new rooms for his own use.

“There is much witchcraft and malign influence in this old Palace at Luoyang. Build a new Palace for your own occupation,” said they. “I would, and it should be called ‘The New Foundation’,” said he. “But where is the good architect?”

Jia Xu said, “There is one Su Yue, a very cunning artificer in Luoyang.” Su Yue was called and set to work on the plans for a nine-hall pavilion for Cao Cao’s own use. […] His plans pleased Cao Cao greatly. [Cao Cao said] “You have planned just such a place as I wished, only where will you find the main beam for such a building?”

The architect suggests a pear tree growing next to a shrine:

“I know a certain tree that will serve,” said the architect. “About ten miles from the city there is the Pool of the Leaping Dragon. Near it is a shrine, and beside that grows a fine pear tree. It is over a hundred spans high, and that will serve for the roof tree.”

Cao Cao at once sent people to fell the tree. But after one whole day of labor they came back to say they could make no impression on it neither with saw nor ax. Cao Cao, doubting their word, went to see. When he had dismounted and stood by the tree, he could not but admire its size and proportions, as it rose above him tall, straight and branched till the wide-spreading and symmetrical top reached into the clouds. But he bade the men attack it again.

The local elders protest, triggering Cao Cao’s ire:

Then a few aged people of the village came and said, “The tree has stood here some centuries and is the haunt of a spirit. We think it should not be cut down.”

Cao Cao grew annoyed, saying, “I have gone to and fro in the world now some thirty years, and there is no one, from the Emperor to the commoner, who does not fear me. What spirit is there who dares oppose my wish?”

Drawing the sword he was wearing, Cao Cao went up to the tree and slashed at the trunk. The tree groaned as he struck, and blood stains spattered his dress. Terror-stricken, he threw down the sword, mounted his horse and galloped off.

Cao Cao then reaps the consequences of his impious act:

But that evening when he retired to rest, he could not sleep. He rose, went into the outer room, and sat there leaning on a low table. Suddenly a man appeared with his hair unbound, dressed in black and carrying a naked sword.

The visitor came straight toward Cao Cao, stopped in front of him and, pointing, cried out, “Behold the Spirit of the Pear Tree! You may desire to build your nine-hall pavilion, and you may contemplate rebellion. But when you began to attack my sacred tree, the number of your days was accomplished. I am come now to slay you.”

“Where are the guards?” shouted Cao Cao in terror. The figure struck at him with the sword. Cao Cao cried out and then awoke. His head was aching unbearably. They sought the best physicians for him, but they failed to relieve the terrible pain.

Moss Roberts translates the tree spirit’s second sentence as “Building the new mansion signals your intent to usurp the dynasty” (250).

Now, not only is Cao Cao being haunted by Guan Yu, he is also being attacked by the Spirit of the Pear Tree. The ghosts of his many victims then appear to Cao Cao as well. The ultimate irony is that Cao Cao had “always refused belief in the supernatural” (at least according to the novel). Some time after the first apparition of the Spirit of the Pear Tree:

That night Cao Cao became worse. As he lay on his couch he felt dizzy and could not see, so he rose and sat by a table, upon which he leaned. It seemed to him that someone shrieked, and, peering into the darkness, he perceived the forms of many of his victims—the Empress Fu, the Consort Dong, Fu Wan, Dong Cheng, and more than twenty other officials—, and all were bloodstained.

They stood in the obscurity and whispered, demanding his life. He rose, lifted his sword and threw it wildly into the air. Just then there was a loud crash, and the southwest corner of the new building came down. And Cao Cao fell with it. His attendants raised him and bore him to another palace, where he might lie at peace.

But he found no peace. The next night was disturbed by the ceaseless wailing of men and women’s voices. When day dawned, Cao Cao sent for his officers, and said to them, “Thirty years have I spent in the turmoil of war and have always refused belief in the supernatural. But what does all this mean?”

“O Prince, you should summon the Daoists to offer sacrifices and prayers,” said they.

Cao Cao sighed, saying, “The Wise Teacher said, ‘He who offends against heaven has no one to pray to.’ I feel that my fate is accomplished, my days have run, and there is no help.”

But he would not consent to call in the priests. Next day his symptoms were worse. He was panting and could no longer see distinctly. He sent hastily for Xiahou Dun, who came at once. But as Xiahou Dun drew near the doors, he too saw the shadowy forms of the slain Empress and her children and many other victims of Cao Cao’s cruelty. He was overcome with fear and fell to the ground. The servants raised him and led him away, very ill.

Cao Cao died shortly thereafter. The year was 220 CE.

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