Brotherly Love, like Beans and Beanstalks

Traditional Chinese painting, in and outside a royal garden
(Traditional Chinese painting - in and outside a royal garden)

Cao Zhi (192-232) was a prince in the state of Wei, and he was a talented poet too. Popular among quite some people, Cao Zhi had a large loyal following in the country. His elder brother Cao Pi, the King, became concerned and annoyed, feeling that his younger brother was taking attention away from the crown.

Burning with jealousy, the king started to persecute the young prince, frequently finding faults with him. On one particular occasion, the king threatened to execute Cao Zhi on some alleged wrongdoing. Councilors at the court, horrified to see the escalation of the king's ill feelings toward his brother, pleaded for clemency.

Unwilling to simply drop the matter, the king put his brother to a challenge. I heard that you are quite a poet, the king said. Now, you take seven steps here and come up with a poem right away. If your lines are any good, you live. Otherwise, you die.

Cao Zhi agreed to the test. He walked seven steps, stopped, and chanted immediately:

Beanstalks are burning under the pot,
And weeping in the pot are the beans:
We two came from the same root;
To fry me, why are you so keen?

Cao Zhi’s appeal for his brother’s love moved the officials present in the audience hall, and they continued to plead on the prince's behalf. The king let his offending brother go.

Cao Zhi eventually died at the age of forty, of natural cause. Well, as natural as it could be – the prince had lived his last years as a listless drunkard. He must have tried hard to convince his king brother that that he had no ambitions. Poetic, yes; political, no.