Cai Yan (fl. 190s–200s), courtesy name Wenji, was a poet and
musician who lived in the late Eastern Han dynasty. She was the
daughter of Cai Yong. Her courtesy name was originally Zhaoji, but was
changed to Wenji during the Jin dynasty to avoid naming taboo because
the Chinese character for zhao in her courtesy name is the same as
that in the name of Sima Zhao, the father of the Jin dynasty's
founding emperor, Sima Yan. She spent part of her life as a captive of
Xiongnu until 207, when the warlord Cao Cao, who controlled the
Han central government in the final years of the Eastern Han dynasty,
paid a heavy ransom to bring her back to Han territory.
3 Literary and artistic tributes
4 In popular culture
5 See also
Cai Yan was the daughter of Cai Yong, a famous Eastern Han dynasty
scholar from Yu County (圉縣), Chenliu Commandery (陳留郡), which
is around present-day Qi County, Kaifeng, Henan. She was married to
Wei Zhongdao (衛仲道) in 192 but her husband died shortly after
their marriage and they did not have any children. Between 194 and
195, when China entered a period of chaos, the
Xiongnu nomads intruded
into Han territory, captured Cai, and took her back as a prisoner to
the northern lands. During her captivity, she married the Xiongnu
Liu Bao (the "Wise Prince of the Left") and bore him two
sons. 12 years later, the Han Chancellor, Cao Cao, paid a heavy ransom
in the name of Cai's father for her release. After Cai was freed, she
returned to her homeland but left her children behind in Xiongnu
territory. The reason
Cao Cao wanted her back was that she was the
sole surviving member of her clan and he needed her to placate the
spirits of her ancestors.
After that, Cai married again, this time to Dong Si (董祀), a local
government official from her hometown. However, when Dong Si committed
a capital crime later, Cai pleaded with
Cao Cao for her husband's
acquittal. At the time,
Cao Cao was hosting a banquet to entertain
guests, who were stirred by Cai's distressed appearance and behaviour.
She asked him if he could provide her with yet another husband. He
pardoned Dong Si.
Later in her life, she wrote two poems describing her turbulent years.
Her year of death was not recorded in history.
An illustration of Cai Wenji from a
Qing dynasty collection of poems
by female poets, 1772
Like her father, Cai Wenji was an established calligrapher of her
time, and her works were often praised along with her
father's. Her poems were noted for their sorrowful
tone, which paralleled her hard life. The famous guqin piece Eighteen
Songs of a Nomad Flute is traditionally attributed to her, although
the authorship is a perennial issue for scholarly debate. The other
two poems, both named "Poem of Sorrow and Anger" (悲憤詩), were
known to be written by her.
The following is an excerpt from the "Poem of Sorrow and Anger" in
five-character form (五言):
Poem of Sorrow and Anger
My dwelling is often covered by frost and snow, The foreign winds
bring again spring and summer;
They gently blow into my robes, And chillingly shrill into my ear;
Emotions stirred, I think of my parents, Whilst I draw a long sigh of
Whenever guests visit from afar, I would often make joy of their
I lost no time in throwing eager questions, Only to find that the
guests were not from my home town.
In addition to her surviving poems, a volume of Collective Works of
Cai Wenji was known to have survived until as late as the Sui dynasty
but had been lost by the Tang dynasty.
Cai Wenji inherited some 4,000 volumes of ancient books from her
father's vast collection. However, they were destroyed in the ravages
of war. At Cao Cao's request, Cai recited 400 of them from memory and
wrote them on paper.
Literary and artistic tributes
A portrait, Cai Wenji Returns to Her Homeland (文姬歸漢圖),
dating from the
Southern Song dynasty
Southern Song dynasty and depicting Cai Wenji and her
Xiongnu husband. They are riding their horses along, each holding one
of their sons. The expression on Cai's face appears rather fulfilled,
peaceful and content, while her husband is turning his head back in
farewell (transl. by Rong Dong).
The stories of Cai reverberate primarily with feelings of sorrow, and
inspired later artists to keep portraying her past. Her return to Han
territory has been the subject of numerous paintings titled Cai Wenji
Returns to Her Homeland (文姬歸漢圖) by various painters since
the Tang dynasty, as well as renderings in traditional Beijing
In popular culture
Guo Moruo wrote a play on her life in 1959. In 1976, a crater on
Mercury was named Ts'ai Wen-chi after Cai Wenji, citing her as
"Chinese poet and composer". In 1994, a crater on Venus was named
Caiwenji after Cai Wenji, citing her as "Chinese poet".
Cai Wenji appears as a playable character in Koei's Dynasty Warriors:
Strikeforce 2 and
Dynasty Warriors 7 (her debut as a playable
character in North American and European ports). She also appears in
Koei's Romance of the Three Kingdoms video game series and in Dynasty
Warriors 6: Empires as a non-playable character. She is also a
playable character in Warriors Orochi 3.
List of people of the Three Kingdoms
^ de Crespigny, Rafe (2007). A biographical dictionary of Later Han to
the Three Kingdoms (23–220 AD). Brill. p. 29.
^ Hans H. Frankel, "
Cai Yan and the Poems Attributed to Her". Chinese
Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews, Vol. 5, No. 1/2 (Jul 1983), pp.
^ a b Chang, Saussy and Kwong, p. 22. This explanation, however, is
not fully reconcilable with other historic records, such as the fact
that Cai Wenji's father had at least two other daughters and possibly
a son. (See Cai Yong.) One of the daughters was known to have mothered
a few notable figures, including Yang Huiyu, an empress dowager of the
Jin dynasty. If one of them was not able to placate the spirits of
their ancestors, Cai Wenji would not be able to either, because
females were not considered direct posterity. The reason
Cao Cao gave
was probably only an excuse used to convince the Han ministers to
justify the ransom.
^ A large number of modern historians, including Hu Shih, disputed the
traditional attribution, the earliest survival of which was by the
Southern Song dynasty
Southern Song dynasty scholar Zhu Xi. (
Guo Moruo 1987, p97.) Guo
Moruo, on the other hand, wrote six articles in half a year's time in
early 1959 to dispute the dispute. (Two of which were included in Guo
Moruo 1987, pp 96-109.) This led to a heated debate, with both sides
holding their ground, even though Guo's opinion was in the minority.
((This) debate about Eighteen Songs cited historic facts of all kinds.
Even though differences in opinion persist, it is extremely beneficial
to list such exhaustive historic facts, to engage in factual analysis,
and to express individual opinions. This laid a good foundation to
further clarify the problem related to the Eighteen Songs of a Nomad
Flute.") (Lu卢, Xingji兴基 (1987),
Cai Yan and the Author of
Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute",
of Debates since 1949 about Ancient Literature, Lu Xingji comp. (in
Chinese), 齐鲁书社 Qilu Publishing House, retrieved
^ Wei, Zheng (636). Book of Sui. Collections (in Chinese). 30, Book
Collections 4. Tang dynasty. Retrieved 2015-01-14. (魏徵 et
al., 隋书 志第三十经籍四; c.f. Book of Sui) Quote:
"後漢董祀妻《蔡文姬集》一卷，..., 亡。" (Wife of Later
Han Dong Si Collective Works of Cai Wenji, one volume - dissipated.)
^ Fan Ye et al. (420-479). Quote:
Cao Cao asked: "I have heard that Madame's home used to host many
ancient books. Can you still remember?" Wenji said: "My late father
left me with some 4,000 volumes. Along with my life in displacement
and turmoil, few remain. All I can recite now are but a little more
than 400." ... Thus (Wenji) wrote down the books and presented them
(to Cao Cao). There was no omission or error in the text.")
^ See references in curator's notes from Taipei National Palace Museum
. According to NPM, earliest surviving pieces were from the
Southern Song dynasty; this article  points out one piece in the
Jilin Provincial Museum identified as dating from the Jurchen Jin
dynasty, which coexisted with the Southern Song dynasty.
^ 《文姬归汉》Cai Wenji Returns to Her Homeland, Traditional
Beijing opera repertoire, retrieved 2015-01-14
^ Guo, Moruo (1959). 《蔡文姬》 Cai Wenji (in Chinese). Beijing:
文物出版社 (Antiquities Publishing House). Collected in Guo
Moruo 1987, pp3-95
^ "Ts'ai Wen-chi". USGS. 1976. Retrieved 2015-01-19. . See also
List of craters on Mercury
^ "Caiwenji". USGS. 1994. Retrieved 2015-01-19. See also List of
craters on Venus.
^ Famitsu scan from the week beginning 18th Jan 2010
Fan, Ye, "Wife of Dongsi", Chronicles of Notable Women, Book of the
Later Han (in Chinese), Liu Song dynasty, 84, Book 74, retrieved
Kang-i Sun Chang; Haun Saussy; Charles Yim-tze Kwong (1999). Women
writers of traditional China: an anthology of poetry and criticism.
Stanford University Press.
Guo, Moruo (1987), "Cai Wenji" (PDF), Literature Collection, Complete
Guo Moruo (in Chinese), 人民文学出版社 (People's
Literature Publishing House), 8: 1–121, retrieved 2015-01-14
Jieshi Diao Youlan
Xiao Xiang Shuiyun
Jinyu Qin Society
London Youlan Qin Society
New York Qin Society
Emperor Song Huizong
Notable people at the end of the Han dynasty (189–220)
Empresses and noble ladies
Empress Dowager Dong
Li Jue & Guo Si
Zhou Yu (Renming)
Other notable women
Other notable figures
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