I've been doing a lot of reading up about the Three Kingdoms era of China, and Cao Cao stuck out to me as an interesting name. After some research I found that the words in Chinese are different, and there is a slight pronunciation difference. Cao Cao's given name (操) apparently roughly means "virtuous conduct"; although it looks as though the character could also be translated as Chinese slang for "f*ck," it can be assumed this wasn't the intention of his parents in ancient China, and the general consensus from that Wikipedia discussion confirms this. The other thing I gained from that discussion was that the family name Cao (曹) really has no meaning and stems from the state of Cao, but because the family background of Cao Cao's father is very hazy, the connection to the first prominent person to bear the name Cao (Cao Can) is iffy, but the two families are probably connected. The worrying thing from that Wikipedia discussion is the lack of citations, so I was hoping to affirm the points that were in there.

The other question I have is whether or not there was any recorded or reasonably theorized reason of why he would have been named Cao (操). The other part to this is whether or not anything addresses the similarity between his two names. I have absolutely no idea if there is a reasonable answer to the question, but I'm also just interested to hear theories based on whatever evidence we do have, preferably with more citations than on the Wikipedia discussion page.

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    Please consider that they only become similar in modern Putonghua. Some centuries after his lifetime, in Middle Chinese, his surname was *dzaw while name was tshaw-h (Departing Tone); thus, they not only differed in tone (as now) but in initial consonants as well, and, as they do not rhyme (level vs. non-level), perhaps would not considered to me similar at all! Commented May 24, 2019 at 7:34
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    In fact, strictly to say, he spoke later Han language, and, even more explicit, they were dzou vs. tshau, that is, even rimes were mismatched. That is, probably the very thesis that they were close during his own lifetime is misguided? Commented May 24, 2019 at 7:42
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    @AlexanderZ. 郎朗 says that when we look at just melody and rhythm plus your comment, then we have enough for an answer. Commented May 24, 2019 at 9:57
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    I'm not sure about ancient times, but repeating a word in Chinese can be diminutive. Commented May 24, 2019 at 11:27

2 Answers 2


I’m thinking I should rephrase my comment above as an answer. I believe the correct answer would be “they didn’t”, and that’s why.

While the surname and name of Cao Cao almost match in modern Mandarin (except the tone is different, Cáo Cāo, so they don’t), the similarity is but a figment produced by the language development that led to modern Mandarin. He was active in the 2nd-3rd centuries AD, when the accepted language was some kind of intermediate between Old Chinese and Middle Chinese. Even in “Middle Chinese” (Pulleyblank-Miyake reconstruction), representing an approximation to the refined spoken manner of early 7th-century Chang'an, much later than his life, his name is rendered /d͡zaw t͡sʰaw/; yes, they rhyme, and both have level tone, but they're are not identical, being with drastically different initial consonants (the leveling of those made the tones different now).

However, as mentioned before, he lived even at an earlier date, before the development of Middle Chinese, and spoke some late Han language. As for the Old Chinese rendering for his name, it would be (Baxter et al.) /N-tsˁu [tsʰ]ˁawʔ/, without a hint of any similarity; but even to the later Han period, it was something akin to /dzou tsʰau/ – for Old Chinese poetry, they wouldn’t have even rhymed.

To conclude: the fact his finals matched was an accident of several centuries after his life; the match of the initials was another accident of the dialect that grew into the modern normative language (and not universal, cf. the pronunciation of his name in Shanghainese as Záu Tshǎu). Hence, it would be strange to suspect he was given his name with any knowledge of the future development of the language.

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    Superb answer. Welcome to the site and thank you
    – MCW
    Commented Aug 31, 2019 at 19:29

Several points to be made here:

  • As the other answer mentioned, the names are far from identical. Linguists would probably categorise the language spoken at Cáo Cāo's time as Eastern Han Chinese. The Old Chinese reconstruction (Baxter-Sagart, 2014) would be /*N-tsˤu [tsʰ]ˤawʔ/.

  • As given in the Records of the Three Kingdoms, the only description of his name is (unhelpfully) "surname Cáo", "taboo name Cāo", "courtesy name Mèngdé".



    Records of the Three Kingdoms, Volume 1

    The founder of the dynasty was the Martial Emperor. He came from Qiáo in the principality of Pèi. His surname was Cáo, his taboo name was Cāo, and his courtesy name was Mèngdé. He was a descendant of the Han chancellor Shēn.

  • Any other claims about his name are from third-party sources. Most notably, the contemporary Biography of Cáo Mán, written in one of the kingdoms of Eastern Wú, makes several other claims:

  • Since there doesn't appear to be anything on the given name Cāo, it is ahistorical to speculate why his given name is Cāo.

Not related to the question, but there are some other things incorrect about the question and other answer:

  • "曹 has no meaning"

    This is not true, 曹 originally depicted two bags (東), indicating the meaning pair, group.

  • "Middle Chinese" ... representing an approximation to a refined spoken manner of early 7th Century

    Middle Chinese was not a spoken language, but a compromise between Northern and Southern topolects codified in rime dictionaries.

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    I wasn’t willing to engage in considerations about the exact value of Middle Chinese phonological data in a question without immediate relevance to those. However, I remain of an impression the contents of Qièyùn are normally not considered that much of an artificial construct (not pronounced exactly with all distinctions? Probably. Baseless or unpronounceable? Barely. After all, the preface to the work itself gives the impression of a prescriptivist nature in mind, which is impossible when representing reality not rendered in fact even if with effort). Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 14:58
  • @AlexanderZ. it's not "artificial" or "baseless" in the sense that it was made up from thin air, but nobody could speak it in the same sense that nobody can speak a forced mash between English and German.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 21:53
  • It's not ahistorical to, eg, note the general considerations given when selecting a Chinese name (eg balancing of the Five Elements among the characters and the person's time and date of birth). It'd just be nonsense to claim to know exactly why with certainty.
    – lly
    Commented Feb 29, 2020 at 11:58

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