In ancient Chinese history, few warlords loom as large as Cao Cao.
The humble warlord and the son who ignored him
He was a strategist so brilliant, he even had plans for his afterlife.
Before he died of illness in AD220, Cao ordered that his burial site should do without ostentatious markings: some said to ward off enemies and looters alike.
Not archaeologists, though.
They got him in 2009, nearly 1,800 years after his death, when they unearthed remains in central China that they identified as Cao.
And they didn’t stop there.
On Saturday, archaeologists at the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Heritage and Archaeology announced new findings suggesting that Cao’s burial site wasn’t quite as low-key as Cao had wished.
Cao was a central figure in China’s Three Kingdoms period (AD220-280) who rose to power as the ruler of a central Chinese province.
He remains a household name in China as a charismatic antihero of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a loosely historical novel and one of the “Four Classic Novels” of Chinese literature.
Countless ensuing TV shows and video games have kept him alive in the public imagination.
The Chinese archaeologists said they had discovered evidence of new structures in a massive mausoleum park during a dig in 2016 and 2017.
Historical texts say that Cao made a will ordering that his burial site should not be marked or too flashy.
But the discovery of ruined overground architecture showed that Cao Pi, the warlord’s son and successor, did not follow his father's wishes, said Zhou Ligang, a researcher leading the excavation, according to news portal Red Star News.
Instead, he built a great mausoleum to honor his father, he said.
At first, that might seem to explain why the structures were ruined, on the assumption that they attracted Cao's detractors or looters.
But experts believe that it was the son who later ordered their destruction, citing a lack of debris at the site.
“The demolition was not an act of revenge but was planned,” Zhou said.
Cao Pi must have ordered a cleanup of the debris to honor his father, Zhou surmised.
The location of Cao Cao’s burial site had been shrouded in mystery for centuries, until the Chinese State Administration of Cultural Heritage determined that the site, in Anyang county in the central Chinese province of Henan, was Cao’s.
A museum is being built at the site and is expected to become a major, not-so-austere tourist attraction.
It seems like Cao Cao’s wishes are destined not to be respected after all.