Cai Wenji

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Cai Yan
畫麗珠萃秀 Gathering Gems of Beauty (漢蔡文姬) 2.jpg
Cai Wenji as depicted in the album Gathering Gems of Beauty (畫麗珠萃秀)
Poet and musician
Born (Unknown)
Died (Unknown)
Traditional Chinese 蔡琰
Simplified Chinese 蔡琰
Pinyin Cài Yǎn
Wade–Giles Ts'ai Yen
Courtesy name
This is a Chinese name; the family name is Cai.

Cai Yan (birth and death dates unknown),[1] 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 Jin's founding emperor Sima Yan. She spent part of her life as a captive of the 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.


Cai was born shortly before 178[citation needed] in 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.[2] 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 chieftain Liu Bao (the "Wise Prince of the Left") and bore him two sons. 12 years later, the warlord Cao Cao, who rose to power and took control of the Han central government, paid a heavy ransom in the name of Cai's father. Cai was released and 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 only one remaining of her clan and he needed her to placate the spirits of her ancestors.[3]

Cai married again, this time to Dong Si (董祀), a government official. However, Dong Si committed a capital crime later, and 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[3] and he pardoned Dong Si.

Cai's father, Cai Yong, was an established writer, but his works were lost in the ravages of war. At Cao Cao's request, Cai was able to recite from memory up to 400 out of 4,000 of her father's lost works. 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 collection of poems by female poets, 1772

Cai, like her father, 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 was parallel to 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.

Below is an excerpt of 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 endless sorrows.


Whenever guests visit from afar,
I would often make joy of their tidings;


I lost no time in throwing eager questions,
Only to find that the guests were not from my home town.


A portrait, Cai Wenji Returns to Her Homeland (文姬歸漢圖), dating from the 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 was the subject of the painting Cai Wenji Returns to Her Homeland (文姬歸漢圖) by Zhang Yu, which is now stored in the Long Corridor in the Summer Palace in Beijing. The modern writer Guo Moruo wrote a play on her life, and there also exists a Beijing opera rendition. A crater on Venus was also named after her.

Modern references[edit]

Cai Wenji appears as a playable character in Koei's Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce 2[4] 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 present as a playable character in Warriors Orochi 3.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ de Crespigny, Rafe (2007). A biographical dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms (23–220 AD). Brill. p. 29. ISBN 978-90-04-15605-0. 
  2. ^ Hans H. Frankel, "Cai Yan and the Poems Attributed to Her". Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews, Vol. 5, No. 1/2 (Jul 1983), pp. 133-156
  3. ^ a b Chang, Saussy and Kwong, p. 22
  4. ^ Famitsu scan from the week beginning 18th Jan 2010


  • Fan, Ye. Book of the Later Han, Volume 84, Biography of Cai Yan.
  • 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.