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Sima Zhao (211-265), courtesy name Zishang (子尚), was the son of chief military strategist Sima Yi of Cao Wei, during the Three Kingdoms era of Chinamarker.

He maintained control of Cao Wei, seized by his father Sima Yi and maintained by his elder brother Sima Shi, and had himself created the Lord of Jin -- the penultimate step before usurpation of the throne, although he would never actually take the throne. He took advantage of weakness in Shu Han to the west and attacked it, forcing the surrender of Shu's people. His military credit helped to set up the plot of overthrowing Cao Wei by his son, Sima Yan, who usurped the Cao Wei throne proclaimed the Jin Dynasty. After the establishment of Jin, Sima Yan posthumously honored him as Emperor Wen of Jin (晉文帝), with the temple name Taizu (太祖).

A Chinese idiom involving and inspired by Sima Zhao is one that states, "Everyone on the street knows what's in Sima Zhao's mind." (Sīmǎ Zhāo zhī xīn, lùrén jiē zhī, 司馬昭之心, 路人皆知) meaning that a person's supposed hidden intention (in this case, usurping the throne) is so well known that it is not really hidden any more. It came from a quote said by Emperor Cao Mao of Wei, who launched an unsuccessful uprising against Sima Zhao to try to take back imperial power.

Career up to 255

Sima Zhao was born in 211, as the second-born son of Sima Yi and his wife Lady Zhang Chunhua (張春華), younger only to Sima Shi. As his father was an important Cao Wei official, Sima Shi himself climbed up the ranks of officials fairly rapidly. Due to his father's achievements (not his own) in destroying the warlord Gongsun Yuan, he was created a marquess in 238.

Sima Zhao's involvement in his father's coup d'état against the regent Cao Shuang in 249 is unclear. According to Jin Shu, he was not told about the plan, hatched by his father and his older brother, until the last minute -- a view disagreed with by other historians, who believed that he was intimately involved in the planning. In the aftermaths of the successful coup, however, his father became regent, and he himself became important in status. In 251, when his father suppressed the failed rebellion of Wang Ling, Sima Zhao served as deputy commander. During the next few years, he was involved in commanding forces in repelling invasions by Shu Han's commander of the armed forces, Jiang Wei.

In 254, while Sima Zhao was at the capital Luoyangmarker, advisors to the Wei emperor Cao Fang suggested that the emperor surprise Sima Zhao and kill him to seize his troops, and then use those troops against Sima Shi. Cao Fang, apprehensive, did not act on the suggestion, but the plot was still discovered, and Sima Zhao assisted his brother in deposing the emperor and replacing him with Cao Mao. In the aftermaths of the removal of the emperor, the generals Wuqiu Jian and Wen Qin rebelled in 255 but were defeated by Sima Shi.

Sima Shi, however, had a serious eye illness that was aggravated by the campaign, and he died less than a month later. At that time, Sima Zhao was with his brother at Xuchangmarker (in modern Xuchang, Henanmarker). The 14-year-old emperor Cao Mao made an effort to regain imperial power. He issued an edict which, under the rationale that Sima Shi had just defeated Wuqiu Jian and Wen Qin's rebellion and that the southeastern empire was still not complete pacified, ordered Sima Zhao to remain at Xuchang and that Sima Shi's assistant Fu Jia return to Luoyang with the main troops. Under Fu Jia and Zhong Hui's advice, however, Sima Zhao returned to Luoyang anyway against edict, and was able to maintain control of the government. Indeed, from that point on, he would not let Cao Mao or Empress Dowager Guo to be out of his control.

As paramount authority

Consolidation of authority

During the next few years, Sima Zhao consolidated his authority further, leaving the emperor and empress dowager with little power. He further built up a series of events that were viewed as precipitations to usurpation of the Cao Wei throne. In 256, he had the emperor grant him the privilege of wearing imperial robes, crowns, and boots. He further tested waters by having his close aides hinting to the generals around the empire as to his intentions. In 257, when he sent Jia Chong to probe Zhuge Dan's intentions, Zhuge rebuked Jia Chong severely -- leading Sima Zhao to summon Zhuge Dan back to the capital under guise of a promotion. Zhuge Dan refused and started a rebellion, submitting himself to Eastern Wu for protection. Sima Zhao advanced quickly on Zhuge Dan's stronghold of Shouchunmarker (壽春, in modern Lu'an, Anhuimarker) and surrounded it, eventually capturing the city in 258 after cutting off any hope of an Eastern Wu rescue, killing Zhuge Dan and his family. After Zhuge Dan's death, there was no one who dared to oppose Sima Zhao further for the next few years. In 258, he would force the emperor to offer him the Nine Bestowments -- a step that put him closer to usurpation -- and then publicly declined them.

Death of Cao Mao and complete control of Cao Wei's government

In 260, Sima Zhao again forced Cao Mao to issue an edict granting Sima Zhao the Nine Bestowments, which Sima Zhao declined again, but which drew Cao Mao's ire. He gathered his associates Wang Chen (王沈), Wang Jing (王經), and Wang Ye and told them that, while he knew the chances of success were slight, he was going to act against Sima Zhao. He took lead of the imperial guards, armed himself with a sword, and set out toward Sima Zhao's mansion. Sima Zhao's brother Sima Zhou tried to resist, but after Cao Mao's attendants yelled loudly, Sima Zhou's forces deserted. Jia Chong then arrived and intercepted the imperial guards. Cao Mao fought personally, and Jia Chong's troops, not daring to attack the emperor, were also deserting. One of the officers under Jia Chong's command, Cheng Ji (成濟), after asking Jia what to do and was told by Jia to defend the Sima power regardless of the consequences, took a spear and killed Cao Mao with it.

After Cao Mao's death, public sentiments called for Jia Chong's death, but what Sima Zhao did first was to force Empress Dowager Guo to posthumously demote Cao Mao to common citizen status and order that he be buried as such. He also executed Wang Jing and his family. The next day, after pleas from his uncle Sima Fu, Sima Zhao instead had Empress Dowager Guo order that Cao Mao be demoted back to duke but buried with the ceremonies of an imperial prince. Sima Zhao then summoned Cao Huan, the Duke of Changdaoxiang and a grandson of Cao Cao, to the capital to become the emperor; by now, Empress Dowager Guo was powerless to speak further. Nineteen days later, however, Sima Zhao publicly accused Cheng Ji and his brothers of treason and had them and their family executed to appease public sentiment while sparing Jia Chong. No one dared to act against Sima Zhao even in the aftermaths of the emperor's death, however, for Sima was effectively the imperial authority by this point.

Campaign to destroy Shu Han

In 262, aggravated by Jiang Wei's incessant border attacks, Sima Zhao considered hiring assassins to murder Jiang Wei, but this plan was opposed by his two advisors, Zhong Hui and Xun Xu (荀勗). Zhong Hui and Xun Xu believed that Jiang Wei had worn out his troops and that it would be an appropriate time to try to destroy Shu Han once and for all. Sima Zhao put Zhong Hui and Deng Ai in charge of the invasion forces (even though Deng Ai initially opposed the campaign), and they set out in spring 263.

Zhong Hui and Deng Ai faced little opposition from Shu Han's forces, whose strategy was to draw the Cao Wei forces in and then close on them -- a strategy that backfired, as the Cao Wei forces, much quicker than expected, lept past Shu Han border cities and immediately onto the important Yang'an Pass (陽安關, in modern Hanzhongmarker, Shaanximarker), capturing it. Still, Jiang Wei was able to regroup and block off the Wei forces from further advances -- until Deng Ai led his troops over a treacherous mountain pass, descending on Jiangyoumarker (in modern Mianyangmarker, Sichuanmarker), defeating Zhuge Zhan and heading directly for the Shu capital, Chengdumarker. Surprised by Deng Ai's quick advances and believing that Jiang Wei would be unable to return fast enough to defend the capital against Deng Ai, the Shu Han emperor Liu Shan surrendered to Cao Wei. During the campaign, in light of the successes, Sima Zhao had the emperor Cao Huan bestow on him the title of the Duke of Jin and accepted the Nine Bestowments.

Another turmoil quickly came after Shu Han's destruction, however. Deng Ai, proud of his achievements, became arrogant in his correspondence with Sima Zhao, drawing Sima's suspicion. Zhong Hui, who had plans to rebel himself, quickly forged letters that further damaged the relations between Sima Zhao and Deng Ai beyond repair, and Sima ordered Deng to be arrested. Zhong Hui did so, seizing Deng Ai's troops and merging them with his own, and then, with Jiang Wei as his assistant (but with Jiang's actual intentions to eventually kill Zhong and restore Shu Han), declared rebellion in 264, but his troops rebelled against him and killed both him and Jiang Wei.

Death

After Zhong Hui's rebellion was defeated, Sima Zhao was granted the title King of Jin -- the penultimate step to usurpation. He set out to revise the laws and the civil service system in accordance of how he would want his own empire to be. He further sought peace with Eastern Wu, to prevent further complications for his planned takeover -- a gesture that was not reciprocated.

Later that year, Sima Zhao considered whom to make his heir. He considered his talented younger son Sima You, who had been adopted by Sima Shi because Sima Shi did not have sons of his own -- under the rationale that because Sima Shi had great achievement in the Simas' obtaining and retaining power, the succession should go back to his son. The majority of his advisors, however, recommended his oldest son Sima Yan instead, and Sima Zhao finally resolved to make Sima Yan his designated heir.

In the autumn of 265, Sima Zhao died, before he could receive actual imperial authority -- although he was buried with imperial honors. Four months later, however, Sima Yan would have the Cao Wei emperor Cao Huan abdicate in favor of him, ending Cao Wei and establishing the Jin Dynasty. After he did so, he posthumously honored Sima Zhao as Emperor Wen.

Personal information

  • Father
  • Mother
    • Lady Zhang Chunhua (張春華)
  • Wife
    • Princess Wang Yuanji (d. 268), mother of Emperor Wu and Princes You, Zhao, Dingguo, and Guangde, and Princess Jingzhao
  • Children
    • Sima Yan (司馬炎), later Emperor Wu of Jin
    • Sima You (司馬攸), Prince Xian of Qi, adopted by Sima Shi (created 265, d. 283)
    • Sima Zhao (司馬兆), died in childhood, posthumously created Prince Ai of Chengyang
    • Sima Dingguo (司馬定國), died in childhood, posthumously created Prince Daohui of Liaodong
    • Sima Guangde (司馬廣德), died in childhood, posthumously created Prince Shang of Guanghan
    • Sima Jian (司馬鑒), Prince Ping of Lean (created 265, d. 297)
    • Sima Ji (司馬機), Prince of Yan (created 265)
    • Sima Yongzuo (司馬永祚), died in childhood
    • Sima Yanzuo (司馬延祚), Prince of Leping
    • Princess Jingzhao


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