Gongjin's Campaign Memorials
Gongjin's Campaign Memorials

Wei 魏 was one of the three empires during the period of the Three Kingdoms (220-280). It fought for supremacy over the lands of China and contested against the states Shu-Han and Wu. Wei was most probably the most powerful of the three, having conquered the northern, most flourishing, lands of China. Despite being the most powerful, it was second to fall. In 265 AD it was replaced by Jin.

Historians often refer to Wei as 'Cao Wei' (曹魏), this is done to distinguish the state from other Chinese states with the same name.

Brief history[]

In the 180's and 190's the Han dynasty's reign was slowly crumbling and ambitious warlords rose. One of these warlords was Imperial Chancellor Cao Cao 曹操, a man from Pei state 沛 in Yu Province. He fought for the Han against the Yellow Turbans and joined the Coalition against Dong Zhuo 董卓. When Dong Zhuo was killed in 192 AD by his adopted son Lü Bu 呂布, the Anti-Dong Zhuo coalition had already disbanded and China fell into civil war.

Through short-term and regional-scale wars, Cao Cao started to expand his power. He took control of the Emperor and defeated enemy warlords such as Lü Bu and Yuan Shu and took their troops and land and became a strong force in the centre/north.

Few years later Yuan Shao 袁紹 had defeated Gongsun Zan and the Heishan bandits at Yijing and with it, had taken control of the four northern provinces. Before this, Cao Cao had tried to maintain a good relationship with Yuan Shao by lobbying to have Yuan Shao appointed as Minister of Works. This, however, had an opposite effect, as Yuan Shao thought Cao Cao was trying to humiliate him. A year later a deciding battle ensued between the two warlords. Though Cao Cao's army was slightly smaller than Yuan Shao's, Yuan Shao set up his base in Guandu, which was under Cao Cao's control, and made it difficult to recieve supplies. Furthermore Yuan Shao had not yet developed the lands he took from Gongsun Zan and his finest general Qu Yi had already died. One could argue that Yuan Shao may not have been the top force in this engagement. In 200 Yuan Shao was defeated and his land divided between his sons. Cao Cao defeated them and took control of the north.

Cao Cao then focussed on the southern warlords Liu Bei 劉備 and Sun Quan 孫權, but, despite have vastly superior numbers in terms of soldiers, suffered a devastating loss at Chibi in 208 AD which forced him back north, while the rest of the land would eventually be divided between Liu Bei and Sun Quan. A time of Three Kingdoms was thus born.

In March 15, 220 AD Cao Cao passed away and he was succeeded by his son Cao Pi 曹丕, who, later that year on December the 11th aborted the Han dynasty and founded his own Wei dynasty. Following this, Liu Bei declared himself emperor of Shu-Han in 221 AD and Sun Quan declared himself emperor of Wu in 229 AD. Cao Pi made several campaigns southwards, but was never really succesful. Despite that fact, Cao Pi was not without talent and his early death weakened Wei. Through Cao Pi's successors the Sima family of Sima Yi 司馬懿 gained more influence over Wei, just like Dong Zhuo and Cao Cao had done with Emperor Xian of Han.

In 263 AD Wei, now under rulership of Cao Huan 曹奐, attacked and conquered Shu-Han. Shortly afterwards, in 265, the Wei dynasty was overthrown by its own last Imperial Chancellor, Sima Yan 司馬炎, grandson of Sima Yi 司馬懿, who then founded the Jin dynasty.

Why the name Wei?[]

How the character was drawn at the time of the Three Kingdoms.

During the later years of the Zhou dynasty 周朝, at the time of the Warring States period, there was a state 國 called Wei 魏 (403 BC–225 BC). In 225 BC Wei was conquered by the Qin 秦 state and the name was used for a commandery.

During Later Han, Cao Cao made his capital at Ye city, the chief city of that Wei commandery, and so chose that territory for his ducal state. When Cao Cao was made King, he chose to be made King of Wei.

Naturally, when Cao Cao passed away, his son Cao Pi inherited all his titles, 'King of Wei' included. Above 'King' there is only 'Emperor', so when Cao Pi founded his own dynasty, it naturally became Wei. Basically the name for the dynasty was picked by Cao Cao.

On the character wei[]

Definitions and other usages:

  1. A common Chinese surname (like Wei Yan 魏延 of Shu-Han).
  2. Used as the name of a kingdom or state.
  3. definition: high [1]
  • Traditional Chinese: 魏
  • Simplified Chinese: 魏
  • Pinyin with tonemarks: Wèi (wei4)
  • Wade-Giles: wei4

The reign colour of Wei[]

Main article: Five Powers

The Later Han dynasty had reigned Red and ruled through the Power of Fire. According to the cycle of natural succession, Fire would give way to Earth. When Cao Pi forced the abdication of Emperor Xian and took the imperial title for himself his dynasty would rule through the next power in the cycle of natural succession, which was Earth, and its corresponding colour was Yellow. In accordance with this theory, Cao Pi took the reign title Huangchu 黃初, which means "Yellow Beginning".[2]

List of sovereigns of Wei[]

Posthumous name Temple name Name Reign Reign title(s) Notes
Emperor Gao of Wei
Wèi Gāo huángdì 魏高皇帝
n/a Cao Teng 曹騰 n/a n/a [note 1]
Emperor Tai of Wei
Wèi Tài huángdì 魏太皇帝
n/a Cao Song 曹嵩 n/a n/a [note 2]
Emperor Wu of Wei
Wèi Wǔ huángdì 魏武皇帝
Taizu 太祖
"Great Ancestor"
Cao Cao 曹操 n/a n/a [note 3]
Emperor Wen of Wei
Wèi Wén huángdì 魏文皇帝
Shizu 世祖
"Epochal Ancenstor"
Cao Pi 曹丕 220-226
Emperor Ming of Wei
Wèi Míng huángdì 魏明皇帝
Liezu 烈祖
"Ardent Ancestor"
Cao Rui 曹叡 227-239
  • Taihe 太和[Eng 2]
  • Qinglong 青龍
  • Jingchu 景初
n/a n/a Cao Fang 曹芳 240-249
  • Zhengshi 正始
  • Jiaping 嘉平
[note 4]
n/a n/a Cao Mao 曹髦 254-260
  • Zhengyuan 正元
  • Ganlu 甘露
[note 5]
Emperor Yuan of Wei
Wèi Yuán huángdì 魏元皇帝
n/a Cao Huan 曹奐 260-265
  • Jingyuan 景元
  • Xianxi 咸熙

See also[]


  1. Cao Teng was posthumously honoured as Emperor Gao by Cao Rui.
  2. Cao Song was posthumously honoured as Emperor Tai by Cao Pi.
  3. Cao Cao was posthumously honoured with a temple name and as Emperor Wu by Cao Pi.
  4. Cao Fang was never honoured with a posthumous Imperial title, though he was posthumously granted the title Duke Li of Shaoling 邵陵厲公 during Western Jin.
  5. Cao Mao was never honoured with a posthumous Imperial title, though he was posthumously granted the title Duke of Gaogui 高貴鄉公.
  1. "Yellow Beginning"
  2. "Great Harmony"

Fact vs. Fiction[]


  1. De Crespigny, notes to "Jian'an 1" in To Establish Peace 1
  2. De Crespigny. "Cao Pi" in A Biographical Dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms.