Born in 192, Cao Zhi was the third son of the warlord Cao Cao and Lady Bian. According to the Records of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguozhi), Cao Zhi could recite the Shi Jing, Analects and more than ten thousand verses worth of poems before he even turned 20. His literary talent made him a favorite son of Cao Cao in the early stage of his life.
However, Cao Zhi was an impetuous man with little self-discipline. He was also a heavy drinker. On the other hand, his elder brother Cao Pi was a shrewd man who knew how to feign emotions at the right times. Cao Pi also enjoyed a much closer relationship to the servants and subjects around Cao Cao, and they spoke well of him. In 217, Cao Cao eventually picked Cao Pi to succeed himself. This further aggravated Cao Zhi's already eccentric behaviour. He once rode his chariot along the road reserved for the emperor and through the front gate of the palace. This infuriated his father, who had the chariot driver executed.
Having chosen a successor, Cao Cao took measures to emasculate other contestants. He did this by executing Yang Xiu, a chief adviser to Cao Zhi. This greatly unsettled Cao Zhi, but failed to jolt him back to his senses. On the contrary, he sank further into his drunken habits. In 219, Cao Cao's cousin and leading general Cao Ren was besieged at the fortress at Fancheng (樊城; present-day Fancheng District, Hubei) by Guan Yu. Cao Cao named Cao Zhi to lead a relief force to the rescue, in the hope that the task would instil into the latter a sense of responsibility. However, Cao Zhi was so drunk that he could not come forth to take the order. Cao Cao then gave up on this son.
Within months, Cao Cao died. One of the first things Cao Pi did was to do away with Ding Yi (丁儀) and Ding Yi (丁廙), two firm supporters of Cao Zhi. He also sent Cao Zhi, along with the other brothers, away from the capital (into a countryside estate) and prohibited them from taking part in central political issues.
Prospects for Cao Zhi did not improve after Cao Pi died in 226. He wrote to the second Wei emperor Cao Rui many times, seeking a position to apply his talents. In 232, he even sought a private meeting with Cao Rui to discuss politics. However, Cao Rui probably still considered him a threat to the throne and declined all the offers. Severely depressed by the setbacks, Cao Zhi soon died of illness, leaving behind instructions for a simple burial.
Despite his failure in politics, Cao Zhi was hailed as one of the representatives of the poetic style of his time, together with his father Cao Cao, his elder brother Cao Pi and several other poets. Their poems formed the backbone of what was to be known as the Jian'an poetry style (建安風骨). The civil strife towards the end of the Eastern Han dynasty gave the Jian'an poems their characteristic solemn yet heart-stirring tone, while lament over the ephemerality of life was also a central theme of works from this period. In terms of the history of Chinese literature, the Jian'an poems were a transition from the early folk songs into scholarly poetry.
Although Jian'an refers to the era name between 196 and 220, Cao Zhi's poems could in fact be categorised into two periods, with the year 220 as the watershed. The earlier period consisted of poems that expressed his ambitions. These poems were optimistic and romantic in nature. On the other hand, his setbacks in political pursuits after the death of his father in 220 gave rise to the grievous tone of his later works.
More than 90 poems by Cao Zhi remain today, more than 60 of which are five-character poems (五言詩). These are held in high esteem for their significant influence over the development of five-character poetry in later ages. The most complete collection of Cao Zhi's poems and other literary works is Chen Si Wang Ji (陳思王集, Collection of Works by King Si of Chen), compiled during the Ming dynasty. One of Cao Zhi's most celebrated poems is On the White Horse. Written in the early years of his life, the poem portrayed a young warrior who answered fearlessly to the need of his country and reflected Cao Zhi's own aspiration to contribute to his times.
Cao Zhi's most famous poem was the Seven Steps Verse, often translated as The Quatrain of Seven Steps.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a 14th-century historical novel, was a romanticisation of the events that occurred during the late Eastern Han dynasty and Three Kingdoms period. Exploiting the complicated relationship among the Cao Cao's sons, especially Cao Pi and Cao Zhi, Luo Guanzhong was able to create a scenario where the elder brother, having succeeded his father, tried to do away with his younger brother.
After the death of Cao Cao, Cao Zhi failed to turn up for the funeral. Men sent by Cao Pi found Cao Zhi drunk in his own house. Cao Zhi was then bound and brought to Cao Pi. When Empress Bian, their common birth mother, heard of this, she went to Cao Pi and pleaded for the life of her younger son. Cao Pi agreed. However, Hua Xin then convinced Cao Pi to put Cao Zhi's literary talent to a test. If Cao Zhi failed the test, it would be excuse enough to put him to death, Hua Xin suggested.
Cao Pi agreed and held audience with Cao Zhi, who in great trepidation bowed low and confessed his faults. On the wall there was a painting of two oxen fighting, one of which was falling into a well. Cao Pi told his brother to make a poem based on the painting after walking seven paces. However, the poem was not to contain explicit reference to the subjects of the drawing.
Cao Zhi took seven paces as instructed, and the poem was already formulated in his heart. He then recited:
However, Cao Pi was not satisfied. He then bade Cao Zhi make another poem on the spot based on their fraternal relationship, without using the word "brother". Not taking a second to think, Cao Zhi recited:
Having heard this, Cao Pi was moved to tears. He then let his brother go after merely degrading the peerage of the latter as a punishment.