Dive into the Wei Dynasty's blend of grandeur, mystical events, and extraordinary characters shaping its unique historical narrative.
Wei Wendi’s most beloved beauty was surnamed Xue, named Lingyun, and she hailed from Changshan. Lingyun’s father was named Xue Ye, serving as the magistrate of the Zongxiang township, while her mother was named Chen. Lingyun and her mother lived next to her father Xue Ye in the township. The family of Lingyun was impoverished, and their social status was lowly. In the evenings, Lingyun and her mother often joined neighboring women to spin hemp and weave cloth, using hemp stalks and mugwort for illumination. As Lingyun grew to the age of fifteen, she possessed an extremely beautiful appearance, unmatched in her time. Young men from neighboring households often came at night to catch a glimpse of her but never succeeded. In the first year of the Xianxi era, Gu Xi was appointed as the Prefect of Changshan. He heard that the village head Xue Ye had a beautiful daughter from a very poor family. Meanwhile, Emperor Wen of Wei was selecting girls from virtuous families to enter the palace as concubines. Gu Xi offered a significant bride price of a thousand gold pieces and numerous precious treasures to propose to Lingyun. After the marriage was settled, Gu Xi presented Lingyun to Emperor Wen. Upon hearing that she would be separated from her parents for a long time, Lingyun wept continuously, and her tears soaked her clothing. When Lingyun boarded the carriage to set off, she used a jade spittoon to collect her tears, and the tears inside the spittoon turned red. From Changshan to the capital city, by the time they arrived, the tears inside the spittoon had solidified into blood-like clots.
Emperor Wen of Wei sent ten lavishly decorated carriages to welcome Xue Lingyun. These carriages had intricately carved metalwork adorning the edges of their wheels, and the central part of the wheels was painted red. The curved wooden parts placed on the necks of the oxen were crafted into the forms of dragons and phoenixes, with each dragon and phoenix holding a hundred small bells in their mouths. When the carriages moved, the bells would collide, producing a resonant and melodious sound that echoed through the mountains and fields. The carriages were pulled by matched pairs of blue-hoofed oxen, each capable of traveling three hundred li (Chinese miles) in a day. These oxen were tribute animals from the Shitu Kingdom and had hooves resembling those of horses. On both sides of the main road, stone leaf incense was lit. This type of incense, arranged in overlapping layers resembling mica, emitted flames and fragrances that could dispel fierce diseases. It was tribute incense from the Futi Kingdom. When Xue Lingyun was still dozens of li away from the capital, the road was illuminated continuously by candlelight, and the road was filled with attendants and carriages, raising dust that obscured the starlight and moonlight. People at that time referred to it as the “Dust Night.” Emperor Wen also constructed a thirty-zhang high earthen platform called the “Candle Platform,” which was lit with candles below. It appeared as though the stars from the heavens had fallen to the earth. Along the sides of the main road, bronze mile markers were erected every li, each measuring five feet in height, to indicate the distance. Therefore, travelers sang, “Green and blue locust trees grow on both sides of the road, carriages and attendants raise dust. In the distance, the imperial palace towers magnificently. A gentle breeze carries the fragrance, and bronze columns stand on the land, while candlelight illuminates the entire earthen platform.”
The final seven words of these lyrics foreshadow abnormal phenomena. The bronze mile markers erected along the sides of the main road symbolize gold growing from the earth. Placing candles below the earthen platform represents fire beneath the earth. During the Han Dynasty, the rule was associated with the virtue of fire, while the Cao Wei Dynasty was associated with the virtue of earth. When fire descends, earth rises, and gold grows from the earth, heralding the rise of the Jin Dynasty after the fall of Cao Wei. When Xue Lingyun was just ten li away from the capital, Emperor Wen of Wei came to welcome her in a royal carriage adorned with carved patterns made of jade and stone. Upon witnessing the grand procession of carriages and attendants, Emperor Wen remarked, “In the past, people used to say, ‘In the morning, it turns into moving clouds, and in the evening, it becomes falling drizzle.’ But now, there are neither drifting clouds nor gentle rain; it’s neither morning nor evening.” Consequently, he changed Lingyun’s name to “Yelai.” After entering the palace, Yelai received great favor. Later, a foreign tribute included a pair of dragon and phoenix hairpins adorned with Fire Qi pearls. Upon seeing them, Emperor Wen remarked, “She finds even pearl and jade jewelry too heavy to wear, let alone dragon and phoenix hairpins!” and prevented them from being brought in. Yelai’s needlework was incredibly exquisite, and even in a dark room with multiple layers of curtains, she could quickly complete cutting and sewing without the need for light or candles. Any clothing not sewn by Yelai, Emperor Wen would not wear. She was renowned in the palace as the “Needle Goddess.”
Xiao Qilu said: The changes in the Five Elements, for individuals, represent the cycles of life and death, while for dynasties, they signify the rise and fall that are all revealed in prophecies. In the Spring and Autumn period, the omen of the Duke of Jin annihilating the Guo state appeared in children’s rhymes. During the late Western Han Dynasty, the proliferation of prophecies during the reigns of Emperors Ai and Ping foreshadowed the decline of the country. Some of these prophecies were recorded in the classics of our ancestors, while others relied on various divination methods. A detailed study of the prophecies in the “He Tu” and “Luo Shu” reveals that these prophecies simply adapt to different circumstances. Tang Yao ruled with the virtue of fire and later abdicated the throne to Yu Shun, who possessed the virtue of earth. Similarly, the Han Dynasty ruled with the virtue of fire and was later succeeded by the Cao Wei, which embodied the virtue of earth. Each dynasty developed in accordance with the changing pattern of the Five Elements, appearing at the right time. The fame of scholars and the wealth of the nobility were also based on specific historical events. Some women were introduced to the palace because of their charming beauty, while others gained favor through their exquisite tailoring and sewing skills. They sought to showcase their graceful demeanor and secured rare wealth and splendor. Some even seized the power of the court, escaping their humble origins, and thus perpetuating their luxurious lifestyles.
When Emperor Ming of Wei constructed the Lingyun Terrace, he personally participated in digging the earth, and his ministers also carried tools to assist in excavation. During this time, the weather was cold, and many people perished from exhaustion and exposure. Their lifeless bodies were scattered on the ground. The bells and tripods in Luoyang and Ye regions would chime and move by themselves during the night, while mysterious sighs could be heard underground in the palace. High-ranking officials like Gao Tanglong and others jointly submitted a memorial to advise Emperor Ming. They emphasized that a ruler should govern with frugality and prioritize the welfare of the people. They expressed concern about the extravagant waste that was leading to these unusual occurrences and urged the emperor to promote thriftiness and simplicity in society. However, Emperor Ming ignored their advice and continued to seek rare and precious items, amassing treasures and constructing pavilions and towers. It took several years for the project to be completed. As more ministers offered counsel, Emperor Ming eventually reduced the heavy burdens on the people, returned to a more frugal way of life, and buried the remains of those who had died. It was only then that the common people and spirits were moved, and various auspicious signs began to appear. Below Mount Tai, there were two connected stone roots with intricate patterns, each twelve zhang (approximately 36 meters) high, resembling cypress trees. The stone patterns were clear and radiant, resembling meticulously carved artwork. These two stones were connected from the bottom to the top, with only a six-foot-wide gap in the middle, giving the appearance of a real tree. Local elders said, “During the late Qin Dynasty, these two stones were more than a hundred paces apart, covered with dense undergrowth, and there was no path between them. It was only since the founding of the Cao Wei that the two stones gradually moved closer, resembling the palace gates.” Earth and stones are both Yin elements, and the Cao Wei dynasty embodied the virtue of Earth. The connected stone roots were a supernatural omen. In both imperial gardens and ordinary households, there were plants connected by their roots. There was a type of mimosa called the “Godly Grass,” which resembled the appearance of a cypress tree during the day, with numerous stems and branches. However, at night, all the stems would come together to form a single stem, even if there were ten thousand stems, none would be left behind. A Kirin appeared in the land of Pei, and all of these were auspicious signs of Earth’s virtue. Consequently, Emperor Ming of Wei constructed the Wujitai altar. There was a yellow star that twinkled at night, and he later built the Maobitai altar to worship this yellow star, which represented Wei’s destiny. Emperor Ming offered sacrifices to it annually.
Prince Rencheng, Cao Zhang, was the son of Wei Wu Emperor Cao Cao. From a young age, Cao Zhang displayed strength and determination. He studied the arts of Yin and Yang, as well as the divination and theology of oracle texts. He could recite thousands of sentences from classics like the “Six Classics” and the “Hongfan.” When Wei Wu Emperor Cao Cao sought strategies for campaigns against the Wu and Shu states, he consulted Cao Zhang for his valuable insights. Prince Rencheng excelled in archery, being able to shoot with precision using both hands, and he also mastered the art of fencing. He could hit the whiskers and hair on a person’s head from a hundred paces away. During that time, the kingdom of Lelang presented a tiger with beautiful patterns on its body, resembling brocade. The tiger was enclosed in an iron cage, and even the bravest warriors dared not approach. However, Cao Zhang fearlessly wrapped the tiger’s tail around his arm, and the tiger obediently submitted without making a sound. His incredible bravery earned him widespread admiration. Once, a small white elephant from the kingdom of Nanyue stood before Emperor Wu of Wei. Cao Zhang placed his hand on the elephant’s trunk, and the elephant immediately knelt down, remaining motionless. Emperor Wen of Wei had a massive bell weighing ten thousand jin cast and placed it in the Chonghua Hall. When the decision was made to move it later, even a hundred strong men couldn’t budge it, but Cao Zhang could lift the giant bell and walk with it. Hearing of Cao Zhang’s extraordinary valor, regional lords withdrew their troops and fortified their borders. Emperor Wen of Wei remarked to Cao Zhang, “With your strength and might, conquering the land of Ba-Shu would be as easy as an owl catching a dead mouse.” After Cao Zhang’s passing, his funeral was as grand as that of the Eastern Prince of Han, Dongping. During the procession, hundreds of voices were heard weeping in the sky. Those involved in the funeral procession mentioned that in the past, those who had died from chaotic warfare had not received proper burials. Cao Zhang, known for his compassion, collected and interred these remains. The deceased found solace underground, and their spirits were grateful. People praised Prince Rencheng, Cao Zhang, for his virtues. The Wei dynasty’s official historian also compiled a three-volume work titled “Records of Prince Rencheng’s Deeds.” In the early years of the Jin dynasty, this book was still preserved in the imperial archives.
In the third year of Jian’an (198 AD), the Xutu Kingdom presented a Chiming Stone Chicken. This chicken had feathers as red as cinnabar, was the size of a swallow, and usually lived underground. It would only chirp when it sensed favorable circumstances, and its call could be heard from a great distance. The people of Xutu would offer sacrifices of pigs and sheep whenever they heard the chicken’s call. People would dig in the vicinity where they heard the chicken, and they would find this unique bird. In times of peace throughout the land, these birds would soar both in the sky and underground, which was considered an auspicious omen, and they were known as “Treasure Chickens.” In Xutu, there were no regular chickens, so people relied on the underground chicken’s chirping to tell time. According to Daoist legends, “Long ago, the immortal Tongjun ventured into the mountains to collect stones. After entering a cave and traveling several miles, he obtained a Chiming Stone Chicken. Tongjun crushed the stone chicken to create medicinal pills. Consuming these pills would grant people a resonant voice, abundant energy, and the prospect of immortality.” In the first year of Yuanding during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han, many precious and exotic items were presented as tributes from countries in the Western Regions. Among them was a Tiger-Soul Swallow that, when placed in a quiet room, would chirp on its own. It may have been a similar creature to the Chiming Stone Chicken. The “Luoshu” divination text stated, “The treasures of the imperial court are the signs of Earth’s virtue, and the auspicious omens of Cao Wei.”
In the second year of Emperor Ming of Wei’s reign (228 AD), the Lingqin Garden was constructed. Exotic birds and animals brought from distant foreign lands as tributes were kept in the Lingqin Garden. Among them was a Hoopoe Golden Bird presented by the Kunming Kingdom. The emissaries from Kunming said, “Our country is nine thousand miles away from Ranzhou, where these birds are found. They resemble sparrows, with yellowish feathers that are soft and fine. They often soar above the sea, and capturing one is considered very auspicious. We have heard of the benevolence of the Great Wei reaching distant lands, so we crossed mountains and seas to present the Hoopoe Golden Bird.” Emperor Ming of Wei received this bird and kept it in the Lingqin Garden, feeding it with pearls and providing turtle brains as its drink. The Hoopoe Golden Bird often spat out tiny golden grains, about the size of millet seeds. These golden grains could be melted down to create various objects. In the time of Emperor Wu of Han, someone had presented a Divine Sparrow, likely a similar bird. The Hoopoe Golden Bird was sensitive to frost and snow, so Emperor Ming ordered the construction of a small cottage for it to live in and named it the “Cold-Avoidance Pavilion.” The cottage had doors and windows made of crystal to allow light to pass both inside and outside. Concubines and palace maids competed to use the golden grains spat out by the bird to decorate their golden hairpins and jade ornaments. They referred to these golden grains as “Cold-Avoidance Gold.” Consequently, palace women teased each other, saying, “If you don’t wear Cold-Avoidance Gold, how can you win the Emperor’s favor?” Some concubines and palace maids vied for the Emperor’s favor by carrying these precious golden grains as their personal accessories, even when walking or sleeping. After the downfall of the Wei Dynasty, the palaces, pavilions, and towers turned to ashes, and the Hoopoe Golden Bird flew away on its own.
In the second year of the Xianxi era (265 AD), a strange creature was discovered within the imperial palace during the night. This creature was entirely white, shining and pure, moving about the palace chambers. Upon seeing it, eunuchs reported the situation to Emperor Yuan of Wei. Emperor Yuan remarked, “If there are strange creatures in the depths of the palace, it surely portends no good omen.” He ordered the eunuchs to secretly observe, and sure enough, they saw a small white tiger moving among the palace chambers. Those who were waiting in secret hurled a spear at the white tiger, hitting it in the left eye. However, when they approached to examine it, they found only bloodstains on the ground and no sign of the small white tiger. A thorough search of the palace and various wells and ponds turned up no trace of the animal. Subsequently, an examination of the treasury where treasures were stored revealed a jade pillow shaped like a tiger. The jade tiger had an injured eye, and there were still fresh bloodstains on it. Emperor Yuan of Wei, well-versed in history, said, “After Dong Han’s Liang Ji was killed, a similar jade tiger pillow was found in his residence. It was said to have been presented by the State of Danchi. Upon inspecting the underside of the jade tiger, inscriptions in seal script were found, claiming it to be the pillow of King Zhou of Shang. King Zhou of Shang once shared this pillow with Daji. This is a treasure from the late Shang Dynasty.” According to the Records of the Grand Historian, the reign of King Zhou of Shang occurred toward the end of the Shang Dynasty. By the time of Emperor Yuan of Wei during the Xianxi era, many years had passed since the inception of this artifact. It seems that over time, extraordinary treasures such as these can develop a supernatural aura and may even become inhabited by spirits or supernatural entities.
In the year when Emperor Cao Huan of Wei abdicated the throne in favor of the Sima family of Western Jin, there was a bright white light resembling the shape of a bird or sparrow frequently flying about beneath the palace hall to the north of the imperial palace. Upon hearing of this, the responsible officials reported it to Emperor Yuan of Wei. Emperor Yuan ordered it to be captured and found that it was a white swallow. Everyone at the time considered it to be a divine and extraordinary phenomenon. Consequently, a golden cage was made, and the swallow was placed within the palace. However, ten days later, the bird disappeared without a trace. People speculated, “This is an auspicious sign of the Metal Element. In the past during the time of Shi Kuang, there was also a white swallow that came and built a nest.” Consulting the “Illustrated Records of Auspicious Signs,” it indeed confirmed the accounts. The color white aligns with the Metal Element, and Shi Kuang, who lived during the Spring and Autumn period in the state of Jin, carries historical significance in the context of the Five Elements theory.
Xue Xia, a native of Tianshui, was a highly learned and talented individual. When Xue Xia’s mother was pregnant with him, she dreamt of a person gifting her a box of clothing and saying, “Madam, you will give birth to a son of great talent and wisdom, who will be highly respected by emperors.” Xue Xia’s mother remembered the date of the dream. When Xue Xia was born and reached the age of twenty, his intellect and eloquence surpassed that of ordinary individuals. Emperor Wen of Wei once engaged in a conversation with Xue Xia that lasted an entire day without rest. Xue Xia effortlessly provided insightful answers to all questions, leaving no room for doubt. Emperor Wen remarked, “In the past, Gong Sunlong was renowned for his eloquence, quick wit, and talent, but his words sometimes tended to be extravagant and irrelevant. Today, your words are either those of sages or you refrain from speaking altogether. You possess the talent of disciples like Ziyou and Zixia, and none can surpass you. If Confucius lived in the Wei Kingdom, you would surely be one of his closest disciples.” Emperor Wen personally wrote the words “入室生” (born into the household) for Xue Xia, and he held the position of Minister of the Secretariat. Xue Xia lived a modest and humble life. Emperor Wen once took off his own clothes to gift to Xue Xia, aligning with the initial dream his mother had. Xue Xia became renowned throughout the realm during his time, known as a person of noble character and high moral standing.
Tian Chou was a native of Youbei Ping. When Liu Yu was killed by Gongsun Zan, Tian Chou held deep admiration and longing for Liu Yu. He went to Liu Yu’s tomb, where he offered chickens and wine as a tribute, and he wept bitterly. His mournful cries echoed through the woods and mountains, causing birds to wail and beasts to howl in sorrow. Tian Chou lay in the grass near Liu Yu’s tomb when suddenly he heard someone announce, “Liu Yu has arrived and wishes to discuss the experiences of his life with Mr. Tian.” Tian Chou, a man of extraordinary intelligence and far-reaching knowledge, recognized that this was the spirit of Liu Yu. Before long, the spirit of Liu Yu approached, and Tian Chou knelt in reverence, his tears flowing uncontrollably. They sat down together, exchanged drinks, and shared meat. As Tian Chou became intoxicated, Liu Yu spoke, “Gongsun Zan is searching for you, and the situation is perilous. You should go into hiding to evade pursuit.” Tian Chou, still kneeling, replied, “I have heard of the noble principles between lords and subjects, and as long as I am alive, I must fulfill the duty of a loyal subject. Today, I have the honor of meeting your spirit, and I hope to join you in the afterlife. Dying alongside you will ensure my name lives on for eternity. How could I flee?” Liu Yu said, “You are one of the rare individuals throughout history known for unwavering determination and upright conduct. You should prudently safeguard your life!” With those words, Liu Yu disappeared, and Tian Chou’s drunkenness wore off.
Cao Hong was the cousin of Wei Wudi Cao Cao, and he was exceptionally wealthy with numerous fine horses. During Cao Cao’s campaign against Dong Zhuo, Cao Cao lost his own horse during a night march. Cao Hong then offered his own horse, named “White Goose,” to Emperor Wu. When this horse galloped, it seemed as if the wind whistled past, and its hooves barely touched the ground. When they reached the banks of the Bian River, Cao Hong had no means to cross, so Emperor Wu pulled him up onto the horse, and they crossed the river together. In just the blink of an eye, they covered hundreds of miles. After crossing the river, not a single hair on the horse’s legs was wet. People at the time believed that this horse must have been propelled by the power of the wind, making it a legendary and divine steed. There was even a saying: “The one who races through the sky is Cao Hong’s White Goose.”
Xiao Qilu said, “Monarchs expand their territory and establish their states by relying on the vast sea and towering mountains to build cities. This is originally the foundation for appeasing the people and cultivating moral virtue, leading to the ultimate goal of governing without excessive action. Eliminating the expenses of extravagant tours, guiding the people to focus on etiquette, and avoiding the admiration of grand palaces, a small garden is sufficient. Even a single oak tree should not be cut down, as Tang Yao exemplified through his enlightened frugality. Residing in simple and humble houses, consuming plain and simple food, Xia Yu used this to guard against the extravagance of his time. However, in the three generations of Xia, Shang, and Zhou, the rulers abandoned these virtues. They squandered the wealth of the state, depleted the strength of the people, and indulged in extravagant and luxurious living, boasting about it among themselves. The magnificence of their palaces was a display of extraordinary craftsmanship, achieved at the expense of the toil and hardship of the laboring people. By the time of the Spring and Autumn period, the royal families had declined, and the laborers who built the cities often wrote songs to express their grievances, exhausted from their arduous toil. Duke Jin’s construction of the Siqi Palace led to widespread complaints due to the prolonged labor. The laborers who built Zemen for King Wen of Song lamented their fatigue and exhaustion. There was the labor-intensive Gusu Terrace in the past, and the wearying Afang Palace in the later period. They believed that these grand constructions would secure the imperial legacy and the stability of the state for generations, but in the end, the imperial rule crumbled, and the state was lost. It is for this reason that we grieve deeply.”
I see that Emperor Ming of Wei trod upon the vast plains of the Central Plains, his prestige reverberating throughout the four directions, surpassing all emperors of the past. During his reign, there were continuous records of auspicious omens and miraculous treasures, and the treasury overflowed with precious offerings from distant lands. This led to the situation of the Three Kingdoms vying for supremacy, dominating the realm. However, during this period, the Confucian rites and teachings were not as exemplary as the times of Emperor Yao and Great Yu. The social morals of Wei’s generations fell short of those in the Zhou Dynasty and the two Han Dynasties. Moreover, they were blocked in the east by Min and Wu, and troubled in the west by the Shu Kingdom of Qiongdi. Continuous warfare drained the state’s resources. Emperor Ming failed to adapt to the changing times to improve the lives of the common people, instead pursuing grand palaces, vast ponds, and splendid pavilions. Ultimately, this led to the downfall, possibly preordained. Prince of Rencheng, Cao Zhang, was a deep thinker and extraordinarily brave, with meticulous strategy and outstanding martial prowess. Even those with exceptional swordsmanship and archery skills like Lai Dan and Feng Meng could not surpass him. Tian Chou treated his deceased friend as if he were still alive, maintaining his integrity. His sincerity even moved the spirits. Cao Hong was loyal, caring for his family and worrying about the state. Only King Mu of Zhou’s divine steed could be said to match his “White Goose” in prowess.