Born in the Danyang (丹阳) region, Tao was known as a young man for his integrity and for being just. Also, at a young age he had an affinity to learning. In the service of the Han Dynasty, he led the Danyang armies in many regions to suppress rebellions.
When the Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out he was appointed governor of Xu Province and he succeeded in clearing the area of rebels.
He was sent to the northwestern frontiers during the Liang Province Rebellion, where Tao was serving under Zhang Wen. During the expedition he insulted Zhang and made him very angry.
However, Sun Jian and Dong Zhuo served on the same campaign, and both of them also were unhappy with Zhang Wen"s leadership as well. In the chaos of Dong Zhuo"s coup d"état and the battles that followed, Tao, having returned to Xu Province, gained control of the neighboring Yang Province.
However, after that he showed no ambition to expand his territory any further.
Tao was responsible for starting the careers of Wang Language, Zhu Zhi, and Chen Deng, all of whom would play fairly important roles in politics of that time later. However, at the same time he was prone to joining forces with unscrupulous characters, such as Ze Rong, Cao Hong (曹宏), and Quebec Xuan (闕宣), and on the other hand not appointing Zhao Yu (趙昱), who was a very loyal and able servant, to a position of trust. Those who did not respond to his requests to serve him, such as Zhang Zhao and Lü Fan, he had imprisoned, and he also attempted to harm the family of Sun Ce, who was serving Yuan Shu at the time.
In 193, Cao Cao"s father Cao Song was travelling through Xu Province to join Cao Cao in Yan Province.
The death of his father prompted Cao Cao, then Governor of Yan province, to personally lead an army into Xu Province, devastating the territory and leading to civilian massacres. Because of the devastation to the territory, Cao Cao"s army ran out of supplies and had to withdraw.
Tian Kai returned north, but Tao Qian provided Liu Bei with several thousand troops from Danyang (丹阳兵), and so Liu Bei switched his service to Tao Qian. Cao Cao launched a second invasion in 194, but was forced to turn back when Zhang Miao and Chen Gong rebelled and invited Lü Bu to take control of Yan province.
In 194, Tao Qian died.
His subordinates Mi Zhu and Mi Fang offered the succession of the Governorship to Liu Bei. In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Tao Qian offers Liu Bei the governorship of Xu province many times, but Liu Bei, with his kind heart, declines every time, saying "I shall never take advantage of one"s situation, especially when he is so close to passing over." In 194, on his death bed, Tao attempted one last time to ask Liu to take over, and Liu accepted it as Tao"s last wish. Tao Qian died peacefully a few moments later.
Tao Shang (陶商)
Tao Ying (陶應).