Sima Zhao's Ambitions
Decisive wars, especially those that had taken place in Guandu and Chibi, eventually cleared the political map of the Eastern Han Dynasty, leaving three dominant powers on it: Cao Cao, Liu Bei and Sun Quan. In 220 Cao Pi, Cao Cao's son, deposed the emperor and made himself Emperor of Wei. Liu Bei and Sun Quan quickly responded by proclaiming themselves emperors as well.
In AD 249 Sima Yi launched a coup in the Wei Kingdom and became its virtual leader. Although he died short afterwards, he passed state power onto his sons Sima Shi and Sima Zhao. Sima Zhao was ruthless when he became the prime minister. He killed off many people from the royal family.
By 260 Sima Shi had become so powerful that he openly disrespected the throne by wearing his sword while walking into the palace. Emperor Cao Mao (r. 254-260) was so intimidated that he rose up from his throne every time Sima Shi came to see him. Court officials said to the emperor, "Great General Sima is held in great esteem and therefore should be given a dukedom." The emperor lowered his head, silent. Seeing this, Sima Zhao bellowed, "My father and we two brothers have made great contritution for the country. Can't I be a duke?" The emperor had to say, "How dare I am!"
The emperor did not dare to say no directly to his prime minister, but back in his private chambers he summoned his courtiers Wang Shen, Wang Jing and Wang Ye to remonstrate.
"Everybody knows what Sima Zhao is up to," said the enraged emperor, "I would rather confront him and die than just sit here doing nothing."
He then produced his decree scribed on a piece of yellow silk that condemned Sima Zhao for treason, and declared: "What could be worse than that? I am determined. I am not afraid to die."
But Wang Shen and Wang Ye were fearful, and informed Sima Zhao of the emperor's decision.
Wild with anger, Emperor Cao Mao stormed out of his palace and marched to Sima Zhao's residence, bringing only a few hundred guards with him. Before he could do anything to Sima Zhao, he was killed by Cheng Ji, one of Sima Zhao's followers.
But when an emperor was killed, regardless of the circumstances, it was no small matter. In an attempt to escape responsibility, Sima Zhao pretended to be very sorry and blamed it on Cheng Ji, his instrument. He not only killed Cheng Ji but also his parents and wife and all their extended families. Then he made an emperor of Cao Huan, Cao Cao's grandson. The new emperor was a complete puppet. Sima Zhao had almost achieved his ambition to be emperor.