Incident at the Gaoping Tombs

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The Incident at the Gaoping Tombs was a coup d'état that took place on 5 February 249 in the state of Cao Wei during the Three Kingdoms period (220–280) of China. The parties involved were Sima Yi and Cao Shuang, who were both regents for the Cao Wei emperor Cao Fang, who was then about 17 years old. On that day, while Cao Shuang and his brothers accompanied the emperor on a visit to the Gaoping tombs, Sima Yi staged a coup d'état; taking control of the capital city of Luoyang and issuing a memorial which listed out the various crimes Cao Shuang had committed. Cao Shuang surrendered and gave up his powers after further receiving reassurance that he and his family would be spared, thinking that he could still live a life in luxury. Shortly thereafter, Cao Shuang, his brothers, and his supporters were charged with treason and executed along with their families on 9 February. The coup d'état increased the Sima family's influence and paved the way for the eventual replacement of the Cao Wei regime by the Sima family's Jin dynasty in 266.

Incident at the Gaoping Tombs
Date5 February 249
Result Sima Yi seized power from Cao Shuang
Sima Yi Cao Shuang
Commanders and leaders
Sima Yi Cao Shuang
Cao Xi
Cao Xun
Incident at the Gaoping Tombs
Traditional Chinese高平陵之變
Simplified Chinese高平陵之变


In 239, the Cao Wei emperor Cao Rui died and was succeeded by his seven-year-old adopted son, Cao Fang. Before his death, Cao Rui named General-in-Chief Cao Shuang and Grand Commandant Sima Yi as the regents to assist Cao Fang.

Cao Shuang wanted to dominate the Wei government so he used a series of political manoeuvres to consolidate and concentrate power in the hands of himself, his brothers Cao Xi (曹羲) and Cao Xun (曹訓), and their supporters. He heeded the advice of He Yan, Deng Yang and Ding Mi (丁謐), and relocated Empress Dowager Guo (Cao Rui's widow) to Yongning Palace (永寧宮) so that she could not interfere in politics. He also put his brothers in command of the military, promoted his close aides to higher positions in the imperial court, and made changes to the political structure to benefit himself and his clique. Sima Yi tried to stop Cao Shuang but failed to do so. Cao Shuang became increasingly distrustful and wary of Sima Yi.[1] In June or July 247, Sima Yi claimed that he was ill and withdrew from the political scene. At the time, there was a saying in Luoyang which went: "He (Yan), Deng (Yang) and Ding (Mi) create turmoil in the imperial capital."[2]

In April or May 248, Zhang Dang (張當), a palace eunuch, illegally transferred 11 women out of the imperial harem and presented them to Cao Shuang to be his concubines. Cao Shuang and his close aides thought that Sima Yi was seriously ill and could no longer do anything, so they plotted with Zhang Dang to overthrow the emperor Cao Fang and put Cao Shuang on the throne. However, they were still wary of Sima Yi and did not lower their guard against him.[3]

At the time, Li Sheng, one of Cao Shuang's supporters, had been recently reassigned to be the Inspector of Jing Province. Cao Shuang secretly instructed him to check if Sima Yi was as ill as he claimed, so Li Sheng visited Sima Yi before leaving for Jing Province. Sima Yi knew the true purpose of Li Sheng's visit, so he pretended to be frail and feeble. Li Sheng saw that Sima Yi could not move around and wear clothes without help from his servants, and could not even consume congee without soiling his clothes. He then told Sima Yi, "Everyone thought that your illness was a minor one; alas, who expected you to be in such poor health?" Sima Yi pretended to cough and pant as he replied, "I'm old and sick and I'm going to die soon. When you go to Bing Province, you should be careful because it is near barbarian territory. We might not see each other again, so I entrust my sons Shi and Zhao to your care." Li Sheng said, "I'm returning to my home province, not Bing Province." Sima Yi pretended to mishear and he said, "You're going to Bing Province, aren't you?" Li Sheng then said, "My home province is Jing Province." Sima Yi replied, "I'm so old and weak that I can't even hear you. So now you're going back to your home province. It's time for you to make some glorious achievements!" Li Sheng returned to Cao Shuang and told him, "Sima Yi is dying soon and no longer of sound mind. There's nothing for you to worry about." Later, he said, "It's sad to see that the Grand Tutor is no longer in a good state of health to serve." Cao Shuang lowered his guard against Sima Yi.[4]

The coup d'étatEdit

On 5 February 249, Cao Shuang and his brothers accompanied the emperor Cao Fang on a visit to the Gaoping Tombs (高平陵) to pay respect to the late emperor and Cao Fang's father, Cao Rui. On that day, Sima Yi seized the opportunity to stage a coup d'état against his co-regent. He went to Yongning Palace to meet Empress Dowager Guo and ask her to remove Cao Shuang and his brothers from power. In the meantime, he ordered his eldest son Sima Shi to lead his troops to the palace gates. After meeting the empress dowager, Sima Yi went to the camp where Cao Shuang's troops were based. Yan Shi (嚴世), one of Cao Shuang's subordinates, prepared to fire an arrow at Sima Yi but his colleague Sun Qian (孫謙) stopped him and said, "We wouldn't know what will happen." This process repeated three times.[5]

Huan Fan, the Minister of Finance (大司農) and one of Cao Shuang's supporters, managed to escape from Luoyang and head to the Gaoping Tombs. When Jiang Ji, the Grand Commandant (太尉), told Sima Yi that the "bag of wisdom" (Huan Fan's nickname) was gone, Sima Yi replied that they did not need to worry because he knew that Cao Shuang would not heed Huan Fan's advice.[6] Sima Yi then granted imperial authority to Gao Rou, the Minister over the Masses (司徒), appointed him as acting General-in-Chief (大將軍), ordered him to take command of Cao Shuang's troops. He also told Gao Rou, "You're now like Zhou Bo." He also appointed Wang Guan, the Minister Coachman (太僕), as acting Commandant of the Central Army (中領軍) and ordered him to seize command of the troops under Cao Shuang's brother Cao Xi (曹羲).[7]

Sima Yi, along with Jiang Ji and others, led troops out of Luoyang to the floating bridge above the Luo River, where he sent a memorial to the emperor Cao Fang, listing out Cao Shuang's crimes (e.g. not fulfilling his duty as regent, corrupting the government, conspiring against the throne) and requesting the emperor to remove Cao Shuang and his brothers from their positions of power.[8] Cao Shuang blocked the memorial from reaching Cao Fang and left the emperor at the south of the Yi River while ordering his men to cut down trees to build anti-cavalry blockades and station about 1,000 troops nearby to guard against Sima Yi's advances. During this time, Huan Fan advised Cao Shuang to bring the emperor to Xuchang, denounce Sima Yi as a traitor, and call on all military forces throughout Wei to attack Sima Yi. Cao Shuang refused to listen to Huan Fan, and that night he sent Xu Yun (許允) and Chen Tai to meet Sima Yi. Sima Yi explained to them he only wanted Cao Shuang to surrender and give up his powers. He also sent Yin Damu (尹大目), whom Cao Shuang highly trusted, to further persuade Cao Shuang to surrender. When Cao Shuang wanted to agree, Huan Fan attempted to stop him but Cao Shuang ultimately did not heed his advice. Cao Shuang said, "Sima Yi only wants to take away my powers. I can still return home as a marquis and live in luxury and comfort." Huan Fan could only sigh and thump his chest in frustration. Cao Shuang then let Cao Fang read Sima Yi's memorial and agreed to surrender and relinquish his powers.[9]


After returning to Luoyang, on 9 February 249[a] Cao Shuang was charged with plotting treason with the palace eunuch Zhang Dang (張當) and his associates He Yan, Ding Mi, Deng Yang, Bi Gui and Li Sheng. They were executed on the same day along with the rest of their families and relatives. Jiang Ji had attempted to persuade Sima Yi to spare Cao Shuang and his brothers in consideration of the meritorious service rendered by their father Cao Zhen, but Sima Yi refused.[11] Lu Zhi (魯芝) and Yang Zong (楊綜), two of Cao Shuang's subordinates, had previously tried to stop Cao Shuang from surrendering to Sima Yi. After Cao Shuang was arrested, Lu Zhi and Yang Zong were also implicated and arrested as well. However, Sima Yi pardoned and released them.[12]

Earlier on, when Huan Fan escaped from Luoyang to join Cao Shuang at the Gaoping Tombs, he met Si Fan (司蕃), who was guarding the Changping Gate. As Si Fan used to serve under Huan Fan, he trusted Huan Fan and allowed him to pass through. Once he was out of Luoyang, Huan Fan turned back and told Si Fan, "The Imperial Tutor (Sima Yi) is planning to commit treason. You should come with me!" Si Fan followed Huan Fan but could not keep up so he gave up and retreated. After the coup d'état, Si Fan surrendered himself to Sima Yi and told him what happened earlier. Sima Yi asked, "What's the punishment for falsely accusing someone of treason?" "According to the law, the one who makes the false accusation shall be punished for treason," came the reply. Huan Fan was then executed along with the rest of his family, just like Cao Shuang and his supporters.[13]

In February or March 249, Cao Fang appointed Sima Yi as Imperial Chancellor (丞相), increased the size of Sima Yi's marquisate and awarded him additional privileges. However, Sima Yi declined the appointment of Imperial Chancellor.[14] In January or February 250, when Cao Fang granted him the nine bestowments, he refused to accept again.[15] In February or March 250, Cao Fang had an ancestral shrine built for the Sima family in Luoyang, increased the size of Sima Yi's personal staff, promoted some of Sima Yi's personal staff, and enfeoffed Sima Yi's sons Sima Rong (司馬肜) and Sima Lun as village marquises.[16]

In 251, Wang Ling and his nephew Linghu Yu (令狐愚) plotted a rebellion in Shouchun aimed at overthrowing Sima Yi and replacing Cao Fang with Cao Biao. Sima Yi knew that Wang Ling was plotting a rebellion and showed up near Wang Ling's base before Wang Ling could do anything. Wang Ling surrendered and committed suicide later while he was being escorted as a prisoner to Luoyang. Sima Yi had Wang Ling's co-conspirators, including Cao Biao, arrested and executed along with their families.

After Sima Yi's death on 7 September 251, his sons Sima Shi and Sima Zhao continued to control the Wei government and eliminate any form of political opposition. The Cao family's influence in Wei weakened over time as the Sima family's became stronger. In 266, Sima Zhao's son, Sima Yan, usurped the throne from Cao Huan and replaced the Cao Wei state with the Jin dynasty, with himself as the new emperor.

In popular cultureEdit

In the seventh instalment of Koei's Dynasty Warriors video game series, a stage is dedicated to the initial coup d'état against Cao Shuang, while the other two are mentioned in the narration. Cao Fang's visit to the tombs is not mentioned in the game; instead, he is mentioned to be on a hunting trip with Cao Shuang.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Cao Fang's biography in the Sanguozhi recorded that Cao Shuang and his associates – Ding Mi (丁謐), Deng Yang, He Yan, Bi Gui, Li Sheng and Huan Fan – were executed along with their extended families on the wuxu day of the 1st month of the 1st year of the Jiaping era of Cao Fang's reign.[10] This date corresponds to 9 February 249 in the Gregorian calendar.


  1. ^ (曹爽用何晏、鄧颺、丁謐之謀,遷太后於永寧宮,專擅朝政,兄弟並典禁兵,多樹親黨,屢改制度。帝不能禁,於是與爽有隙。) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  2. ^ (五月,帝稱疾不與政事。時人為之謠曰:「何、鄧、丁,亂京城。」) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  3. ^ (九年春三月,黃門張當私出掖庭才人石英等十一人,與曹爽為伎人。爽、晏謂帝疾篤,遂有無君之心,與當密謀,圖危社稷,期有日矣。帝亦潛為之備,爽之徒屬亦頗疑帝。) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  4. ^ (會河南尹李勝將莅荊州,來候帝。帝詐疾篤,使兩婢侍,持衣衣落,指口言渴,婢進粥,帝不持杯飲,粥皆流出霑胷。勝曰:「衆情謂明公舊風發動,何意尊體乃爾!」帝使聲氣纔屬,說「年老枕疾,死在旦夕。君當屈并州,并州近胡,善為之備。恐不復相見,以子師、昭兄弟為託」。勝曰:「當還忝本州,非并州。」帝乃錯亂其辭曰:「君方到并州。」勝復曰:「當忝荊州。」帝曰:「年老意荒,不解君言。今還為本州,盛德壯烈,好建功勳!」勝退告爽曰:「司馬公尸居餘氣,形神已離,不足慮矣。」他日,又言曰:「太傅不可復濟,令人愴然。」故爽等不復設備。) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  5. ^ (嘉平元年春正月甲午,天子謁高平陵,爽兄弟皆從。是日,太白襲月。帝於是奏永寧太后廢爽兄弟。時景帝為中護軍,將兵屯司馬門。帝列陣闕下,經爽門。爽帳下督嚴世上樓,引弩將射帝,孫謙止之曰:「事未可知。」三注三止,皆引其肘不得發。) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  6. ^ (大司農桓範出赴爽,蔣濟言於帝曰:「智囊往矣。」帝曰:「爽與範內踈而智不及,駑馬戀短豆,必不能用也。」) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  7. ^ (於是假司徒高柔節,行大將軍事,領爽營,謂柔曰:「君為周勃矣。」命太僕王觀行中領軍,攝羲營。) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  8. ^ (帝親帥太尉蔣濟等勒兵出迎天子,屯于洛水浮橋,上奏曰:「先帝詔陛下、 ... 伺察非常。」) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  9. ^ (爽不通奏,留車駕宿伊水南,伐樹為鹿角,發屯兵數千人以守。桓範果勸爽奉天子幸許昌,移檄徵天下兵。爽不能用,而夜遣侍中許允、尚書陳泰詣帝,觀望風旨。帝數其過失,事止免官。泰還以報爽,勸之通奏。帝又遣爽所信殿中校尉尹大目諭爽,指洛水為誓,爽意信之。桓範等援引古今,諫說萬端。終不能從,乃曰:「司馬公正當欲奪吾權耳。吾得以侯還第,不失為富家翁。」範拊膺曰:「坐卿,滅吾族矣!」遂通帝奏。) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  10. ^ ([嘉平元年春正月]戊戌,有司奏収黃門張當付廷尉,考實其辭,爽與謀不軌。又尚書丁謐、鄧颺、何晏、司隷校尉畢軌、荊州刺史李勝、大司農桓範皆與爽通姦謀,夷三族。) Sanguozhi vol. 4.
  11. ^ (既而有司劾黃門張當,并發爽與何晏等反事,乃收爽兄弟及其黨與何晏、丁謐、鄧颺、畢軌、李勝、桓範等誅之。蔣濟曰:「曹真之勳,不可以不祀。」帝不聽。) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  12. ^ (初,爽司馬魯芝、主簿楊綜斬關奔爽。及爽之將歸罪也,芝、綜泣諫曰:「公居伊周之任,挾天子,杖天威,孰敢不從?舍此而欲就東市,豈不痛哉!」有司奏收芝、綜科罪,帝赦之,曰:「以勸事君者。」) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  13. ^ (範不從,乃突出至平昌城門,城門已閉。門候司蕃,故範舉吏也,範呼之,舉手中版以示之,矯曰:「有詔召我,卿促開門!」蕃欲求見詔書,範呵之,言「卿非我故吏邪,何以敢爾?」乃開之。範出城,顧謂蕃曰:「太傅圖逆,卿從我去!」蕃徒行不能及,遂避側。 ... 會司蕃詣鴻臚自首,具說範前臨出所道。宣王乃忿然曰:「誣人以反,於法何應?」主者曰:「科律,反受其罪。」乃收範於闕下。時人持範甚急,範謂部官曰:「徐之,我亦義士耳。」遂送廷尉。) Weilue annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 9.
  14. ^ (二月,天子以帝為丞相,增封潁川之繁昌、鄢陵、新汲、父城,并前八縣,邑二萬戶,奏事不名。固讓丞相。) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  15. ^ (冬十二月,加九錫之禮,朝會不拜。固讓九錫。) Jin Shu vol. 1.
  16. ^ (二年春正月,天子命帝立廟于洛陽,置左右長史,增掾屬、舍人滿十人,歲舉掾屬任御史、秀才各一人,增官騎百人,鼓吹十四人,封子肜平樂亭侯,倫安樂亭侯。) Jin Shu vol. 1.