Cao Cao and Oda Nobunaga

Cao Cao hands a sake cup to Oda Nobunaga in a cutscene from Warriors Orochi 2

On July 1, 2021, Dynasty Warriors fans were treated to a live action version of the video game that has been going strong for the past twenty years. Unfortunately, most fans did not receive this film well, for at the time I am writing this article, the Chinese made film has scored only a 22% on Rotten Tomatoes.(1) I am one of the few that thought it was any good, considering that it remained true to its source material unlike other films that have made their way to the Netflix platform…like Death Note.

So why am I bringing this up? Well, the film got me thinking about a popular comparison that has been done since the introduction of the Warriors Orochi franchise. The film covers the Yellow Turban Rebellion through the Battle of Hu Lao Gate, introducing us to figures like Liu Bei and Cao Cao. In one scene before the Battle of Hu Lao Gate, the other generals are questioning Liu Bei’s claims of royalty and asked him what he does for a living. He replied that he made sandals. If this sounds familiar to you, it is because before Toyotomi Hideyoshi became a general, he was a sandal bearer for Oda Nobunaga. This is not the first time I have been comparing the heroes of the Three Kingdoms Era of China and the Sengoku Jidai of Japan.

In the video game series Warriors Orochi, the characters from the Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors franchises are thrown into a different dimension that also features characters from both Chinese and Japanese mythologies. They have the choice to either team up with or defeat the Serpent King, Orochi. It is in the second installment that we are shown an interesting cutscene. Towards the end of the Wei Story Mode, Cao Cao thanks Nobunaga for his reinforcements. It is scary how similar these two men look and people have been making comparisons ever since. Yet, are they really that similar? In order to answer this question, we are going to take a step back from the games and look at the history of both men and see how they are similar and how they are different.

Cao Cao (158-March 15, 220)

Drawing of Cao Cao

Note: Wikipedia helped with giving me a history of Cao Cao since I only know of his more fictionalized account in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Source will be below under #2.

Starting with Cao Cao, he was the Chancellor of the Han Dynasty and laid the foundations for the Wei Kingdom. He was the son of Cao Song, whose family name might have been Xiahou, who was the adopted son of Cao Teng, one of Emperor Huan’s favorite eunuchs. Cao Cao was known for his craftiness which started at an early age. There is one incident where his uncle complained about him spending too much time hunting and indulging in music with Yuan Shao. Cao Cao threw a fit and his uncle rushed to tell Cao Cao’s father and brought him to his son. However, when Cao Cao’s father arrived, he was acting normally, thus severing the trust between his father and his uncle. Cao Cao had also visited a man named Xu Shao to get an evaluation that would help further his political career. After refusing, Xu Shao told him that he would be a minister in peacetime and a hero in chaotic times. Cao Cao simply laughed and left.

At the age of twenty, Cao Cao became the district captain of Luoyang to which he allowed his deputies to flog anyone who dared to break any law. Status did not matter either for an uncle of one of Emperor Ling’s most influential eunuchs was flogged after he was caught out after curfew. This got Cao Cao a promotion to governor of Dunqiu County. He remained in this position for slightly more than a year, being dismissed in 178 because of his distant ties to the disgraced Empress Song.

In 184, he took part in the opposition against a group known as the Yellow Turbans. He was appointed to Captain of the Calvary and was sent to Yingchuan in Yu Province to take care of the rebels. By 190, Cao Cao joined the alliance to stop Dong Zhou, who was using his position in the court to control Emperor Xian, who he had placed in power after he had disposed of the previous emperor, Emperor Shao. Cao Cao had turned down Dong Zhou’s offer of appointment and built his army, joining the coalition to overthrow him. While the coalition failed to do so, Dong Zhou would be killed by Lu Bu in 192.

Cao Cao began to expand his power regionally in 193, with a year long invasion of Xu Province. This was triggered by his father’s murder for which Cao Cao held Tao Qian, the governor of Xu Province, accountable for. While there was no clear evidence to support this theory, Cao Cao attacked anyway. Cao Cao even punished the civilians who lived in Xu Province, resulting in the deaths of over 100,000 people. Xu Province, however, was not under Cao Cao’s control, but Liu Bei’s, the man who would go on and form the Kingdom of Shu, and he had taken in Chen Gong and Lu Bu, who had fought against them at the Battle of Hu Lao Gate. Cao Cao decided to wait and focused on Yan Province instead of his defeated enemies in Xu.

In 196, Cao Cao convinced Emperor Xian to move the capital from Luoyang to Xuchang, which was under Cao Cao’s control and he was made chancellor. He also established a strict code for himself, that he would never usurp the Emperor’s throne. He was even approached by his advisors to overthrow the Han Dynasty and start his own, to which he said; “If heaven bestows such fate upon me, let me be King Wen of Zhou”. Around this time, his relationship with Yuan Shao was waning because he thought that Cao Cao was trying to humiliate him by offering him the Minister of Works position. Yuan Shao declined the position and this became the catalyst for the Battle of Guandu, which was fought from September to November 200.

Cao Cao was the man who finally brought down the fearsome Lu Bu. After successful campaigns in Jing Province, he surrounded the fierce warrior at Xiapi. Lu Bu eventually surrendered and was executed on February 7, 199. In the end, he would gain control of Xu Province. This led to a rivalry between Liu Bei and Cao Cao the following year. Cao Cao launched another attack into Xu Province, this time managing to capture Guan Yu and his family as well as some of Liu Bei’s family. Liu Bei sought refuge with Yuan Shao who in return sent an army to attack Cao Cao. This, added to the “demeaning” court title mentioned before, escalated into a war between the Cao family and the Yuans. Cao Cao would end up victorious and once the Yuan family was defeated in 207, he would rule all of northern China.

Once Yuan Shao was defeated, Liu Bei escaped to Jing Province at took refuge with the governor of Jing, Liu Biao. Liu Biao sent him to the northern part of the province to have Liu Bei keep an eye on Cao Cao’s movements and to fend off any attacks there. Once Cao Cao was done with his campaign against the Yuans in the north, he turned his attention to Jing Province after he learned of a succession dispute that had erupted after Liu Biao’s death in August 208. Liu Cong was made leader but Liu Qi challenged his younger brother for the title of governor. On top of this, Liu Bei was trying to make a move to gain control for himself at the same time Sun Quan of what would become the Kingdom of Wu, began attacking Jin in the east. Cao Cao did not waste this opportunity and he invaded Jing from the north in September 208. Liu Cong surrendered immediately and Liu Bei fled to the south, however, due to a large number of refugees following him, Cao Cao caught up with him at Changban in October. While Cao Cao captured the baggage train and the refugees, Liu Bei managed to escape with a handful of men. Liu Bei’s escape would prove to be costly for Cao Cao.

Once Liu Bei escaped, he was able to join forces with Liu Qi and meet with Sun Quan to form an alliance to take down Cao Cao. They would meet him at Chibi, known to Westerners as Red Cliffs. Liu Bei and Sun Quan met Cao Cao’s army on the large lake for a naval battle in the winter of 208. Unfortunately, this was a massive defeat for Cao Cao and it was after this that his forces began experiencing trouble. They had mixed success in the battles they fought in Jing Province and were able to hold off attacks at Hefei and Lu, but the strongholds in southern Jing surrendered.

In 211, Cao Cao began expanding to the northwest, personally leading a campaign to Liang Province. He outmaneuvered the rebel army at Tong Pass, and then spent a couple of months hunting down the leaders. In 216, Cao Cao was given the title “King of Wei” and he along with Liu Bei and Sun Quan would split China into three separate powers: Wu, Wei and Shu. These powers were for the most part even until Liu Bei took Hanzhong away from Cao Cao after a two year campaign from 217-219.

Cao Cao would pass away at the age of 65 in Louyang in the year 220. According to sources, he died of a “head disease”, which could be a number of things. He failed to unify China under his rule, but he set up the foundations for the state of Cao Wei, which was established by his son, Cao Pi. This would later become the foundations for the Kingdom of Jin which would be the power that united China in 280 with the fall of Wu.

Oda Nobunaga (June 23, 1534-June 21, 1582)

A Portrait of Oda Nobunaga by Giovanni Niccolò, most likely done after his death

Moving on to Oda Nobunaga, he was the first of the Three Unifiers of Japan and was one of the most powerful daimyō in the country during his lifetime. He was also a very capable military commander, changing the tactics used due to Western technology. He was known for being quite eccentric and ruthless, a reputation he received very early in life.

Born on June 23, 1534 at Nagoya Castle, Oda Nobunaga was the second son to Oda Nobuhide, who was a deputy shugo in Owari Province. He was considered to be an evil child for he was known to chew off the nipples of wet nurses.(3) When he got older, he ran with a street gang and caused problems outside his family’s castle. He also spent much time fan dancing and reciting lines from plays and did not dress like someone who had high status within society.(4) His rebellious personality continued after his father passed away when he was fifteen years old. The incident at Nobuhide’s funeral is well-known. Nobunaga showed up late for the funeral, not wearing the traditional clothes of mourning, picked up incense and threw it at the alter. Some sources even claim that he muttered curses underneath his breath before leaving.(5) Many became nervous at the idea of Nobunaga taking control of the clan, but Nobunaga did not want that responsibility. While other theories have been speculated, it is commonly believed that Nobunaga’s personal tutor, Hirate Masahide, commited suicide to provoke him into taking things seriously. Masahide’s death had the desired effect, for Nobunaga stepped up and took on the role of clan leader, but no one took the man called “the Fool of Owari” seriously.

Nobunaga began cleaning house, taking care of the other Oda factions that resided within the province of Owari. In 1556, his younger brother, Oda Nobuyuki, tried to usurp power from Nobunaga. The following year, Nobunaga ordered for his brother to be executed and Nobuyuki was killed at Kiyosu Castle.(6) It was after his brother’s death that he was able to secure Owari Province and began on the path towards expansion. In 1558, he lost to his rival, the Imagawa clan of Suraga and Tōtōmi, at the Battle of Terabe. Nobunaga would pay them back in kind two years later at the Battle of Okehazama.

In June 1560, Imagawa Yoshimoto assembled an army of 25,000 to march on to Kyōto. During his march, the Imagawa invaded Owari Province. Nobunaga sent out scouts to monitor the invasion, and they came back with report of the destruction of some of Nobunaga’s fortresses and that the Imagawa Army was now resting in a wooded gorge called Dengaku-hazama, and they were celebrating their victories there. Many of his advisors tried to talk him out of an attack on the Imagawa Army, believing that they could hold out longer defending the castle. However, Nobunaga replied; “Do you really want to spend your entire lives praying for longevity? We were born in order to die!”(7) Taking about 3,000 men with him, Nobunaga sprung a sneak attack after a thunderstorm, destroying the Imagawa Army and killed Imagawa Yoshimoto. The Battle of Okehazama launched Nobunaga into the spotlight as a formable foe.

In 1561, Oda Nobunaga made peace with Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was a leader under the Imagawa clan. This alliance became critical for it allowed Nobunaga to march on Kyōto without worrying about other clans invading his lands of Owari. During this time, Nobunaga sought to control the province of Mino, who was under the leadership of Saitō Tatsuoki. Taking advantage of the new leader’s inadequacy, Nobunaga launched an invasion. In 1567, Nobunaga finally defeated the Saitō clan at the Siege of Inabayama and sent Tatsuoki into exile. He renamed the castle and the province to Gifu, a name that has stuck to this day.

In 1568, Ashikaga Yoshiaki, the brother to the recently assassinated shōgun Ashikaga Yoshiteru, came to Oda Nobunaga at Gifu Castle, asking him to help him restore the Ashikaga Shogunate. Nobunaga saw this as an opportunity to expand for now he had the support of the shōgun’s brother. Now everyone who went against Nobunaga went against the shōgun as well. On November 9, 1568, Nobunaga entered Kyōto and installed Yoshiaki as shōgun.(8)

Beginning in 1570, Oda Nobunaga would go to war with the Asakura, Azai, Takeda, Rokkaku, Miyoshi and Matsunaga clan as well as different sects of Buddhist warriors monks.(9) He would fight against the Asakura-Azai alliance, which became a problem after Nobunaga attacked the Asakura, believing that his brother-in-law, Azai Nagamasa, would simply let him attack a generation’s old alliance without a fight. He would fight them both at the Battle of Anegawa and not long after that, he would turn his attention to the Buddhist warrior monks of Ishiyama Honganji. The following year, he would lay siege to Mout Hiei, a massacre that would end with the mountain in flames and an estimated 20,000 men, women and children were killed. He would also leave no survivors at the final Siege of Nagashima in 1574.(10)

In 1572, tensions began to rise between the Oda and the Takeda clans. It intensified with the Takeda’s attack on the Tokugawa at the Battle of Mikatagahara in 1573, a battle that Ieyasu barely managed to survive. The leader of the Takeda clan, Takeda Shingen, passed away not long after this battle, which allowed for Nobunaga’s attention to be focused elsewhere. He was finally able to finish off his brother-in-law, Azai Nagamasa, at the Siege of Odani Castle that same year.

The battle that would change warfare in Japan was fought between the Oda-Tokugawa alliance and the Takeda clan. In June 1575, the armies would meet at Nagashino. The Takeda was well known for their calvary but this was put to the test against the new technology of firearms. Nobunaga took 3,000 gunmen and had them fire on the Takeda Army in volleys, which ended in slaughter for the Takeda forces. This showed the power of the new technology and marked the decline of traditional Japanese warfare.

Towards the end of the 1570s, Nobunaga continued to expand his territory. He would wrap up the ten year siege at Ishiyama Honganji and Toyotomi Hideyoshi was sent to take on the Mōri in 1577 while he would take on the Uesugi and lost at the Battle of Tedorigawa. He would launch an invasion of Iga in 1581 and the following year he would finish off the Takeda clan at the Battle of Tenmokuzan and he was preparing for an invasion of Shikoku. In June 1582, however, Nobunaga got word from Hideyoshi that he needed reinforcements to take on the massive Mōri Army that was coming his way. Nobunaga gathered a force and sent word to Akechi Mitsuhide to prepare for war as well. Unfortunately, while Nobunaga was staying at Honnōji in Kyōto, Mitsuhide turned traitor and attacked the temple where Nobunaga resided. Nobunaga perished at Honnōji in the early morning hours of June 21, 1582.

The Similarities

Photo from Reddit where a user did a face swap of Cao Cao and Nobunaga from the Koei franchises.

I feel like the comparison that has been done in Warriors Orochi might have tricked people into believing that Cao Cao and Oda Nobunaga are extremely similar, or even just the same person. I mean, someone on Reddit used the FaceSwap app to show that Koei used the exact same face structure for both characters.(11) As we have seen from their lives, they were completely different.

There are some things that do stand out that people will point to as being similar. For one thing, neither one of them were respectful youths. Both Cao Cao and Nobunaga did not act like children from higher classes, more so Nobunaga than Cao Cao. Today, we would just say that they were being kids, but because so much was expected from them at younger ages due to shorter life expectancies, their character seemed troublesome for those who were looking to them to be the leaders for the next generation.

Both have large amounts of innocent blood on their hands. As stated before, Cao Cao’s invasion of Xu Province resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 men, women and children. Nobunaga is not too far behind. Mount Hiei resulted in the deaths of about 20,000 and the people of Nagashima add another 20,000 to that, at least with the third and final siege in 1574. Nobunaga takes the cake for cruelty though, for it is known that he did get the skulls of Azai Nagamasa, Azai Hisamasa (Nagamasa’s father) and Asakura Yoshikage lacquered in gold, with some reports saying that he drank out of it at a New Year’s celebration in 1574.(12)

Both took on established generals with large armies to establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with. Cao Cao took on Yuan Shao, who was the commander of the alliance against Dong Zhou at Hu Lao Gate, at the Battle of Guandu, managing to defeat his large army after about two months of battle. Nobunaga took on Imagawa Yoshimoto at the Battle of Okehazama and crushed them in a matter of fifteen minutes.(13)

Lastly, both laid the foundations for others. Cao Cao set the course for his son Cao Pi to establish the Kingdom of Cao Wei, which would later be taken over by the Sima Family, who would establish the Kingdom of Jin, which would last for 154 years and would end up unifying China.(14) Unfortunately for Nobunaga, he would be betrayed before he could realize his dream for reunification, and his living sons would be used as pawns by others who wanted power, like Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, men who were once Nobunaga’s allies. Nobunaga was cut down in his prime, so to speak, resulting in unfinished business that was eventually picked up by Hideyoshi and solidified under Ieyasu.

A Visionary and A Modernizer

Cao Cao’s official artwork from Dynasty Warriors 5

I think the difference in Cao Cao and Nobunaga lies within how one was a visionary while the other was a modernizer. Cao Cao was a man who followed Sun Tzu’s The Art of War well. He studied it and even added his own reflections on the matter, which is included in certain translations of this classic.(15) There are not really any groundbreaking strategies created by Cao Cao during this time, at least historically. While he was successful in military campaigns, he did not let things outside of war fall at the wayside. He put in place agricultural programs in places like Xu City and Chenliu when the locust ravaged the crops in 194, making the local populations result to cannibalism in order to survive. If there was some encampments that were out of danger of attack for a time, they started farming, which helped increase the standard of living for the people under his rule. After the defeat of Yuan Shao, Cao Cao had the time to focus on building up the lands under his rule and he made education a priority. Officials were assigned to counties with more than 500 households and educated those who were selected for schooling, to build up the intellectual minds even in times of war, which again, would benefit the people under Cao Cao’s domain.(16)

Oda Nobunaga’s official artwork from Samurai Warriors 2

Nobunaga, on the other hand, was a modernizer, but this probably has to do with the changing times during this era. The Portuguese introduced many things to Japan, which greatly intrigued Nobunaga. It seems like while on his path towards reunification, he wanted to modernize Japan. Obviously, we can see this being played out in his battle tactics, especially with his usage of firearms, but it can be seen in society as well. The one most people cite is his welcoming attitude towards the foreigners and Christian faith and it has been speculated by the missionaries at the time as well as historians today if Nobunaga wanted to become Christian, or if he was using the possibility of conversion as a pawn to get the foreigners to obey. Nobunaga established a free market system, making monopolies a thing of the past, and closed anything he saw as problematic to commerce. This began in the provinces of Owari and Gifu. Nobunaga also brought about currency regulations and constructed roads and bridges for more unification.(17) This is extremely modern thinking and some of these things did not last long after Nobunaga’s death. Things like trade with foreigners were monopolized and Christianity was banned throughout Japan once the Tokugawa rose to power.(18)

Final Thoughts

Considering the major differences in these men, I do not think they are close as Koei has made them. These men were very different and it mainly had to do with what was going on in their worlds during their lifetimes. My guess is that they were compared for their military prowess and even then, I do not think the comparison is all that sound. One thing is for sure though, they are some of the greatest men from their respective eras and countries. The fact that we are still talking about them in the 21st Century says a lot. Despite their differences, Cao Cao and Oda Nobunaga are still worthy of comparison due to the grand figures they strike in history.

Sources

  1. “Dynasty Warriors Rotten Tomatoes”, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/dynasty_warriors, last visited 7/16/2021
  2. “Cao Cao”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cao_Cao, last visited 7/19/2021
  3. Yoda, Hiroko & Matt Alt. Ninja Attack!: True Tales of Assassins, Samurai, and Outlaws (2012), p. 91
  4. Chaplin, Danny. Sengoku Jidai: Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan (2018), p. 56
  5. Chaplin, Danny. Sengoku Jidai: Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan (2018), p. 57
  6. Ōta Gyūichi. The Chronicle of Lord Nobunaga (2011), p. 93
  7. “Warring States Japan: Sengoku Jidai-Battle of Okehazama-Extra History-#1”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDsdkoln59A, last viewed 7/19/2021
  8. “Oda Nobunaga”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oda_Nobunaga, last visited 7/19/2021
  9. Hubbard, Ben. The Samurai Warrior: The Golden Age of Japan’s Elite Warriors 1560-1615 (2014), p. 27
  10. “Sieges of Nagashima”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sieges_of_Nagashima, last visited 7/19/2021
  11. For Reddit thread:https://www.reddit.com/r/dynastywarriors/comments/miq32w/to_prove_cao_cao_and_nobunaga_oda_arent_the_same/, last visited 7/19/2021
  12. “Azai Nagamasa”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azai_Nagamasa, last visited 7/19/2021
  13. Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan (2021), Episode 1. Historian Stephen Turnbull states that the Battle of Okehazama lasted only fifteen minutes. Can be found on Netflix.
  14. “Jin Dynasty”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jin_dynasty_(266–420), last visited 7/19/2021
  15. Here is a translation that has Cao Cao’s notes along with the book: https://www.amazon.com/Art-War-Essential-Translation-Classics/dp/0140439196/ref=pd_ybh_a_30?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=VD4V3T6QXVB5DDQHTF76
  16. “Cao Cao”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cao_Cao, last visited 7/19/2021
  17. “Oda Nobunaga”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oda_Nobunaga, last visited 7/19/2021
  18. “Tokugawa Shogunate”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tokugawa_shogunate, last visited 7/19/2021