Cao Cao's invasion of Xu Province

Victims Unknown
Result Decisive but temporary Cao Cao victory
Date 193–194 CE
Criminal penalty Unknown


Cao Cao's invasion of Xu Province was a punitive invasion launched by the warlord Cao Cao against Tao Qian, the Governor of Xu Province, in the late Eastern Han dynasty. The casus belli for the invasion was the murder of Cao Cao's father, Cao Song, in Xu Province. Although Tao Qian's culpability was questionable, Cao Cao nonetheless held him responsible. The invasion took place in two separate waves in 193 and 194, during each of which Cao Cao captured a number of towns and engaged in collective punishment of the civilian populace.


Cao Cao's father Cao Song was living in his hometown Qiao (譙; present-day Bozhou, Anhui) after retirement until it became a battlefield when the Campaign against Dong Zhuo happened. So Cao Song along with the rest of Cao's family moved to Langya (琅邪; present-day Linyi, Shandong) in Xu Province. By 193, Cao Cao had established a base in Yan Province (covering present-day southwestern Shandong and eastern Henan), and invited his father over to his territory. However, before Cao's family could reunite, they were murdered on the border of Xu Province and Yan Province. There were two accounts of how they were murdered. One was that the governor of Xu Province, Tao Qian, sent his men to kill Cao's family because he was defeated by Cao several times. The other was that Tao Qian actually sent people to protect Cao's family because he was afraid of Cao Cao. But his men killed Cao's family for the great fortune they owned. Regardless of Tao Qian's culpability, Cao Cao intended to hold him responsible for the murder of his father.

The first invasion

In the summer or autumn of 193, Cao Cao invaded Xu Province with an unspecified number of troops and easily captured over ten cities. After conquering Pengcheng (彭城; present-day Xuzhou, Jiangsu), Cao Cao killed possibly more than 10,000 defenders. Tao Qian fled to Tan (剡; present-day Tancheng County, Linyi, Shandong), which Cao Cao assaulted unsuccessfully.

Thwarted and low on rations Cao Cao turned his army around, sacking in the process the counties of Qulü (取慮), Suiling (睢陵), and Xiaqiu (夏丘). The local population was swollen with refugees from the violence of the capital regions. Cao Cao's army killed over 100,000 civilians, including both men and women, such that the Si River was stoppered up with their corpses. His army took the chickens and dogs for food and tore down the villages into ruins.

The second invasion

In the spring of 194, Cao Cao's army returned to Xu Province, and Tao Qian begged aid from Tian Kai in the nearby Qing Province (青州). Tian Kai sent Tao Qian a force of some thousand men commanded by Liu Bei. Tao Qian, seeking to open a southern front against Cao Cao, appointed Liu Bei as the Inspector of Yu Province, and transferred 4,000 soldiers into his service. Along with Tao Qian's officer Cao Bao, Liu Bei encamped east of Tan ().

Cao Cao's army plundered Langya and Donghai (東海; near present-day Tancheng, Shandong), destroying all in its path. Returning west, Cao Cao engaged and defeated Tao Qian's forces led by Liu Bei. According to one source, Cao Cao conquered the nearby city of Xiangben (襄賁) after this.

Xu Province was only granted reprieve when Zhang Miao betrayed Cao Cao and invited Lü Bu to take over Cao Cao's home base in Yan Province (兗州). Cao Cao broke off his vengeance against Tao Qian and turned his army back to attack Lü Bu.


Liu Bei shifted his alliance from Tian Kai towards Tao Qian and he remained in Xu Province after Cao Cao left. When Tao Qian died of illness later in 194, his sons Tao Shang (陶商) and Tao Ying (陶應) were passed over for governorship by the local elite in favour of Liu Bei. Thus Liu Bei gained his first territory as a result of Cao Cao's campaign.

In popular culture

Cao Cao's invasion of Xu Province is featured as playable stages in the seventh and eighth instalments of Koei's Dynasty Warriors video game series.


  • Records of the Three Kingdoms, 1.11, biography of Cao Cao: 興平元年春,太祖自徐州還,初,太祖父嵩去官後還譙,董卓之亂,避難琅邪,為陶謙所害,故太祖志在復讎東伐。
  • Zizhi Tongjian, 60.1945: 秋,操引兵擊謙,攻拔十餘城,至彭城,大戰,謙兵敗,走保郯。
  • Records of the Three Kingdoms, 8.249, biography of Tao Qian: 初平四年,太祖征謙,攻拔十餘城,至彭城大戰。謙兵敗走,死者萬數,泗水為之不流。謙退守剡。
  • History of Chinese Warfare, vol. 4, p 67
  • Records of the Three Kingdoms, 8.249, biography of Tao Qian: 太祖以糧少引軍還。
  • Book of the Later Han, 73.2367: 謙退保郯,操攻之不能克,乃還。過拔取慮、雎陵、夏丘,皆屠之。
  • Book of the Later Han, 73.2367: 凡殺男女數十萬人,雞犬無餘,泗水為之不流,自是五縣城保,無復行迹。
  • Zizhi Tongjian, 60.1945: 初,京、雒遭董卓之亂,民流移東出,多依徐土,遇操至,坑殺男女數十萬口於泗水,水為不流。
  • To Establish Peace, 1.13 n 6
  • Zizhi Tongjian, 61.1949–50: 陶謙告急於田楷,楷與平原相劉備救之。備自有兵數千人,謙益以丹陽兵四千,備遂去楷歸謙,謙表為豫州刺史,屯小沛。曹操軍食亦盡,引兵還。
  • History of Chinese Warfare, 4.68
  • Zizhi Tongjian, 61.1950: 曹操使司馬荀彧、壽張令程昱守甄城,復往攻陶謙,遂略地至琅邪、東海,所過殘滅。還,擊破劉備於郯東。謙恐,欲走歸丹陽。
  • Records of the Three Kingdoms, 8.249, biography of Tao Qian: 興平元年,復東征,略定琅邪、東海諸縣。謙恐,欲走歸丹楊。會張邈叛迎呂布,太祖還擊布。
  • Records of the Three Kingdoms, 1.11, biography of Cao Cao: 太祖擊破之,遂攻拔襄賁,所過多所殘戮。
  • Zizhi Tongjian, 61.1950: 會陳留太守張邈叛操迎呂布,操乃引軍還。
  • Records of the Three Kingdoms, 8.250 n 2, biography of Tao Qian: 謙二子:商、應,皆不仕。
  • Records of the Three Kingdoms, 32.873, biography of Liu Bei: 謙病篤,謂別駕麋笁曰:「非劉備不能安此州也。」謙死,笁率州人迎先主,先主未敢當。 ... 先主遂領徐州。