The story appears on

Page B2

February 1, 2010

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature » Art and Culture

The DNA from Three Kingdoms

THE game is afoot, the hunt is on, the mystery is unfolding about one of China's greatest and most ruthless warlords, the notorious Cao Cao from the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 208-280).

For years, no one knew the final resting place of the legendary King of Wei Kingdom who was also a brilliant tactician, statesman and poet. He died in 220 AD.

But on December 27 last year, a likely and spectacular tomb was excavated in Anyang City, Henan Province.

The question that has archeologists, anthropologists, historians, geneticists and Netizens buzzing: Are the crumbling remains (bones and skull) in the elaborate tomb really those of Cao who was considered the founder of the Wei Kingdom (AD 220-265)? Numerous items from the period and carvings suggest so, and some archeologists are sure it's Cao.

But Cao was known to have as many as 72 decoy tombs and one report says his will called for simple burial. DNA may be contaminated, some say.

Shanghai Fudan University anthropologists, geneticists, archeologists and historians are calling on Chinese men surnamed Cao or the much rarer Xiahou (the name of Cao's original clan) to take part in a vast six-month DNA blood test to determine possible kinship. It might - but might not - help identify the remains.

Many people doubt this is possible, especially since there is no confirmed descendent of Cao (though there is in other cases, such as Confucius who has a clear family tree).

The plan has been met with widespread skepticism, even ridicule and hasn't gotten underway. The remains have not been tested. They are under guard in the tomb.

The research is theoretically possible but it would be unwise to draw conclusions, according to Professor Ding Mei from China Medical University in Beijing.

In an effort to counter a storm of skepticism, Fudan's head researcher for the project has tried to explain the science of the human genome and argue that the project is reasonable.

Researcher Li Hui says experts hope to identify Cao's or Xiahou's clan by a Y chromosome DNA mutation, which is called Single Nucleotide Polymorphism, or SNP, that occurs in base pairs randomly occurring among generations in males.

SNP which differs among clans would be compared with the DNA in the tomb remains. That could establish likely kinship, researchers argue, though not precise identity.

There's no guarantee of success.

"Even if the result cannot prove the tomb belongs to Cao Cao, still we can prove it belongs to an offspring or relation of the Cao and Xiahou family," Li says.

Hundreds of samples are needed. Some say the search should focus on Henan, Anhui and Shandong provinces, but researchers are casting their net nationwide.

If scientists knew of a direct descendant today, then it would be easy, but no one knows. In the best-case scenario from wide testing, however, there would be a match between remains and members of a Cao or Xiaohu clan. A kinship link could be established.

If these questions and controversy do nothing else, more people will learn about history, archeology, anthropology, genetics.

Many people are skeptical that people named Cao or Xiahou are likely relatives; Cao is such a common name. Netizens have ridiculed the plan, saying they are all surnamed Cao and asking for a part of their legal inheritance.

Researcher Li says a unique SNP mutation of the Cao (or Xiahou) clan can definitely be found in male offspring. The same goes for all other clans with distinctive mutations.

Researchers want to collect chromosome mutation information from men surnamed Cao to learn the characteristics of the Y chromosome of Cao's family, and then compare it with the remains in the tomb.

Since not everyone surnamed Cao is a descendant, researchers also want to collect samples from men surnamed Xiahou. Then they will compare both clans' Y chromosome mutations to seek a match.

Li says several hundred samples were needed (1-2ml each) and the genetic analysis would take six months.

Fudan anthropologist Han Sheng says DNA would be collected from the bones in the tomb and the procedure would be undertaken in a lab with the world's most advanced equipment.

"The latest technology of DNA identification should not be underestimated," says Han.

The explanations by scientists didn't create a flurry as did the first call for DNA.

Cao Minxu, a 22-year-old university student, says he was first opposed, but now is willing to give a sample.

"I'm eager to participate since the results interest me. If there's a match, I solve the mystery of my bloodline," he says. "But if they fail, they prove themselves liars."

"What's there to lose?" he asks.

Scientists point out it's not a win-lose issue and not everyone named Cao or Xiaohu is a descendant.

Legendary ruler and mystery tomb

CAO Cao (AD 155-220) was the founder of the Wei Kingdom (AD 220-265), the strongest and most prosperous state during the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 208-280). He was a warlord, a brilliant general and statesman, but also known to be cruel and ruthless.

He was the second-to-last chancellor of the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220) who rose to great power during the dynasty's final years.

He was famous and highly respected mainly because of his depiction in the 14th-century novel, "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" by Luo Guanzhong.

The fiction reshaped perception of Cao and portrayed him as a brilliant ruler and military genius, but also a cruel and suspicious villain.

In the novel, Cao says, "Better for me to wrong the world than for the world to wrong me."

He is generally remembered for outstanding military and political talents - "a capable minister in peaceful times, a righteous hero in chaotic times," as one scholar put it.

He is also known for his poems, some included in China's middle school textbooks.

Characters based on Cao appear in major traditional Chinese operas, including Peking Opera and Sichuan Opera. A Chinese proverb, "Speak of Cao Cao and he appears," is the equivalent of "speak of the devil" in English.

The tomb

The tomb, said by some to belong to Cao Cao, was excavated in Anyang City in central China's Henan Province on December 27, 2009.

The 740-square-meter tomb, a size appropriate for a king, was confirmed to have been built at the time of the Wei Kingdom. It was elaborately constructed in the form of a descending pyramid with steps.

A stone tablet discovered at the scene said it belonged to the king of Wei (Cao Cao was the king of Wei), and the remains in the tomb were determined to be those of a man in his 60s. Cao died at age 65.

No luxurious decorations were found in the tomb, but more than 250 weapons, pieces of armor, pottery and other articles were confirmed as the occupant's everyday belongings.

Some archeologists were convinced it was Cao's tomb because of the burial sacrifices, stone carvings and personal daily utensils.

Other scholars doubt the authenticity, saying they might be counterfeit and part of a huge hoax.

A famous tale says Cao was buried secretly and protected by 72 decoy tombs to thwart tomb raiders.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend