In 209 BCE, a low-level official named Liu Bang joined in a widespread wave of rebellion against the Qin Dynasty in China. Cao Shen (also often called Cao Can) was one of Liu Bang’s earliest supporters. Oddly enough, the life of Cao Shen before the revolt was that of a Qin law enforcement official in Pei, the region where Liu Bang eventually rebelled. Yet, when the revolts erupted, Cao Shen shed off any loyalty to the Qin and instead joined the rebels, devoting the rest of his life to serving Liu Bang and his descendants.
As a member of Liu Bang’s entourage, Cao Shen witnessed the fall of the Qin Dynasty and, in 206 BCE, the division of the empire into kingdoms led by the numerous rebel leaders. Liu Bang, now the king of Han, then embarked on a slew of hard-fought conquests, eventually becoming the first emperor of the Han Dynasty in 202 BCE. After gaining control of China, Liu Bang (posthumously remembered as Emperor Gaozu) rewarded Cao Shen with a noble title, appointing him as the marquis of Pingyang. As a further show of trust, the emperor nominated Cao Shen to serve as prime minister for Liu Fei, the king of Qi and the emperor’s eldest son.
In his role as a governing official, Cao Shen was a sworn adherent to the Huang-Lao Method, a governing philosophy based on the myths of Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor), as well as the Daoist teachings of Lao Tzu. One of the highest principles of the philosophy was that of inaction—his philosophical school believed in a minimalistic relationship between the ruler and the ruled, where the government strove to exert as little force as possible on the population so that the land would achieve a natural and harmonious stability. Cao Shen’s policies apparently worked well, for during his years working in Qi, Cao Shen gained a reputation as an able administrator.
Another promotion was awarded to Cao Shen in 193 BCE. The year, Prime Minister Xiao He of the imperial Han court fell fatally ill. On his deathbed, Xiao He advised that Cao Shen should be nominated as the next prime minister of Han. When Xiao He passed away and left his position vacant, Emperor Hui (Gaozu’s successor) followed the advice of the late minister and hired Cao Shen for the job.
As portrayed by the records of the Grand Historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), Cao Shen turned out to be quite the quirky government official once he entered the Capitol. Cao Shen was already a devotee of the philosophy of inaction. In addition to this, however, Cao Shen also believed that Xiao He had been an ideal lawmaker. Therefore, Cao Shen made no effort to improve or amend Xiao He’s policies and instead strove only to enforce his predecessor’s precedent. To do this, he was said to have filled the ministry dormitory with loyal and generous employees. With Xiao He’s preexisting laws in place and a group of by-the-book bureaucrats employed to implement the legal code, Cao Shen relaxed as the cogs of government cranked away on their own accord.
Suffice it to say, Cao Shen had a lot of free time. He apparently filled these idle hours with one of his favorite hobbies—drinking. According to Sima Qian, the vice spread throughout the whole ministry. In one story, the prime minister’s valet complained that the clerks in the ministry dormitory were obnoxiously singing and drinking during their time off. When he was told this, Cao Shen reportedly rushed to the dormitory, but not to scold the clerks. Instead, he brought in a mat and some casks of his favorite beverage and invited the clerks to party with him in a garden near the dormitory.
Antics such as these quickly caught the attention of other government officials, and even Emperor Hui became concerned. Cao Shen’s reputation, however, was so great that nobody thought to punish him for his behavior. Instead, the officials wanted to reform his lifestyle and, if possible, bring about an intervention to end the prime minister’s excessive drinking.
Various officials apparently sought out Cao Shen to convince him to restrain his drinking and focus on his duties. These concerned visitors, however, were always ushered by the charismatic Cao Shen into his office, where the prime minister would generously serve his guests ample helpings of strong wine. Before long, they would all be inebriated and no progress was made.
Eventually, Emperor Hui reportedly tasked Cao Shen’s son, Cao Ju, with the nigh impossible task of weaning the prime minister off the drink and refocusing him on his government duties. Unfortunately for Cao Ju, his father did not take kindly to the family intervention. Instead of deflecting the questions or charismatically talking his way out of the situation, Cao Shen did away with all tact and instead punished his son’s unfilial nosiness with a reported 200 whaps from a rod.
Eventually, the emperor apparently gave up on trying to reform Cao Shen. Despite his unorthodox behavior, the prime minister’s approach seemed to not have a negative impact on the Chinese government or people. In fact, when Cao Shen died around 190 BCE, after only three years as prime minister, he was given the posthumous title of Admirable Marquis. An anonymous poem about Cao Shen was recorded by Sima Qian, which read:
“Xiao He made us laws,
As plain as the figure ‘one,’
Cao Shen took his place
And upheld them without fault.
He governed with purity and stillness,
And the people were at peace.”
(The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji 54) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson)
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (A reproduction of an earlier Tang Dynasty (618-907) work of art, the reproduction is attributed to Emperor Huizong of Song (r. 1100–1125 AD), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.