Ts’ao Ts’ao was born the son of Ts’ao Kao, who was a moderately wealthy merchant. Actually, they were not from the Ts’ao family at all, but from the Hsiahou family. Ts’ao Kao was adopted as son of a powerful eunuch whose last name was Ts’ao. Hence, it is not surprising that the Ts’ao and Hsiahou families were extremely close.
Ts’ao Ts’ao started his career as a minor captain in the Imperial Palace, but he was respected for his unbendable discipline. In one instance, one of the Ten Eunuchs violated the curfew to do something corrupt. Most captians would not have dared to question them, but Ts’ao Ts’ao ordered the powerful guy beaten with sandalwood.
Through his fame, Ts’ao Ts’ao emerged as a favorite of Ho Chin as mentioned in Book IV, but with the chaos that ensued, he was forced to serve the now all-powerful warlord Tung Ch’o. Ts’ao Ts’ao was a cunning man and quickly rose in favor of Tung Ch’o.
The nobles hated Tung Ch’o, and in one secret meeting, the senior noble Wang Yun was the host. Wang Yun was extremely loyal to the Han Dynasty, and he was weeping for its fate at the hand of Tung Ch’o when Ts’ao Ts’ao suddenly laughed like a madman.
Wang Yun: Ts’ao Ts’ao, why do you laugh like this? Do you not lament at the fate of Han?! Your family is descended from seven nobles but now, you serve the traitor Tung Ch’o. You should be ashamed of yourself.
Ts’ao Ts’ao: Haha, I laugh that the nobility is so weak. What is the point of crying? Why does no one try to rid the land of this tyrant?
Wang Yun: How dare you accuse the others when you yourself serve the tyrant himself? What have you done for Han?!
Ts’ao Ts’ao: I will kill Tung Ch’o myself! I have feigned loyalty to win his trust.
Wang Yun: Ha?!? Forgive me. I did not know you were such a patriot. In that case, please take this.
Upon saying that, Wang Yun reached out for the priceless Sword of Seven Jewels and handed it to Ts’ao Ts’ao in appreciation of his volunteer.
The next day, Ts’ao Ts’ao went to see Tung Ch’o, hiding the Sword of Seven Jewels in his cloak. He was about to strike Tung Ch’o when Lu Bu, the greatest warrior of China, appeared by his side, so he hid the Sword.
Tung Ch’o: Why are you so late?
Ts’ao Ts’ao: (thinking quickly)…My horse is old and thin. It is so slow like a donkey, my Lord.
Tung Ch’o: Haha, no problem. Why didn’t you say so? I let Lu Bu have the greatest horse in China (Great Hare). I think I will also give you a good horse. Lu Bu! Go fetch a good horse for Ts’ao Ts’ao.
Lu Bu nodded and went out to fetch a horse. Seeing the opportunity, Ts’ao Ts’ao tried to get closer to Tung Ch’o and stab him. Just then, Lu Bu reappeared!...But Tung Ch’o has already Sword. What should Ts’ao Ts’ao do?!?
Tung Ch’o: (slightly shocked) What are you doing, Ts’ao Ts’ao?! Are you trying to kill me?
Ts’ao Ts’ao thought quickly, bowed down, and presented Tung Ch’o with the Sword of Seven Jewels and said, “ No my Lord, I am here to present this precious sword to you. Sorry to have made you shocked.”
Tung Ch’o handled the precious sword admiringly, “Haha, this is indeed a peerless blade. Thank you, Ts’ao Ts’ao. Hey, try out your new horse, man.”
Ts’ao Ts’ao: Will do. Your grace. I humbly accept your blessings.
Ts’ao Ts’ao then sped off with the horse. After a long time, he still didn’t return, so Tung Ch’o got worried. Just then, Lu Yu, Tung Ch’o’s son-in-law and advisor, entered the room. Tung Ch’o discussed Ts’ao Ts’ao’s strange behavior with Lu Yu. After much consideration, Lu Yu felt that Ts’ao Ts’ao was actually conspiring to kill him, so they placed out an arrest warrant for Ts’ao Ts’ao.
By then, Ts’ao Ts’ao had already fled quite a far distance, but at one village, he was finally captured and brought to the magistrate Chen Kong. Chen Kong was a good and thoughtful man, so he asked, “I heard that you are one of the Minister Tung Ch’o’s favorite. I wonder why you have tried to betray him.”
Ts’ao Ts’ao: I am descended from seven generations of nobles, and we are loyal to Han. I’m not merely serving a tyrant just for my own good.
Chen Kong was deeply touched, so he said, “I too am a loyal servant of the Han. I will join a great man like you.”
Having said that, Chen Kong freed Ts’ao Ts’ao from his death sentence. He resigned from his post as magistrate, sold all his stuff, and fled with him from the authorities. While fleeing, the two comrades stopped at the house of a man who was Ts’ao Ts’ao’s father’s sworn brother. The man went out to buy beef for a party.
Ts’ao Ts’ao grew suspicious when the “uncle” was away for so long. Below, they heard sounds of knives sharpening and one of the servants saying “Get the rope! Tie them up!”
Suddenly, the comrades grew suspicious that the uncle would report them to the authorities. Having thought that, Ts’ao Ts’ao and Chen Kong went down and killed the entire family out of self-defense. Then, they found out that they had been mistaken. The ropes and knives were for the pigs for the feast, not them. Having realized their great mistake, the two comrades fled the house.
On the way, they met the unsuspecting uncle who asked “Why are you going so soon?”
Ts’ao Ts’ao: We have something to attend to.
Uncle: It is a pity. I thought we would have a feast together, but understand you are on a run. OK. Maybe, next time, man.
Just then, Ts’ao Ts’ao thought. Well, he may not have been ill-intended in the beginning but if he finds out his entire family is killed, he will certainly hunt us down with the authorities’ help. Having thought thus, he yelled “Uncle!”
The Uncle looked back, “What is it, son?” whereupon Ts’ao Ts’ao killed him.
That night, Chen Kong asked Ts’ao Ts’ao if he regretted his act, but Ts’ao Ts’ao said “Of course not. These things are normal in war. I would rather betray the world rather than have the world betray me.”
Chen Kong lost faith in Ts’ao Ts’ao. As the latter slept, Chen Kong thought of killing him, but changed mind. “Why should I dirty my hand on this evil man?” Then, he left around.
Ts’ao Ts’ao only realized what happened in the morning, and he was sad. But he still believed what he did was the right thing. After that, Ts’ao Ts’ao faked the royal decree against Tung Ch’o with the help of his father and created a decent sized army.
Now, the fugitive was readying himself to face the most powerful man in the Han Empire.