Cai Wenji

Cai Wenji

Cai Yan
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

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 the Jin dynasty'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.


  • Life 1
  • Legacy 2
  • Literary and artistic tributes 3
  • Modern tributes 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • References 7


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.[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 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.[3]

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.[3] 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.[4] 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 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.

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.[5]

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.[6]

Literary and artistic tributes

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 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,[7] as well as renderings in traditional Beijing opera.[8]

Modern tributes

Guo Moruo wrote a play on her life in 1959.[9] In 1976, a crater on Mercury was named Ts'ai Wen-chi after Cai Wenji, citing her as "Chinese poet and composer".[10] In 1994, a crater on Venus was named Caiwenji after Cai Wenji, citing her as "Chinese poet".[11]

Cai Wenji appears as a playable character in Koei's Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce 2[12] 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.

See also


  1. ^ de Crespigny, Rafe (2007). A biographical dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms (23–220 AD). Brill. p. 29.  
  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. 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.
  4. ^ A large number of modern historians, including   .)
  5. ^   (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.)
  6. ^ Fan Ye et al (420-479). Quote: "操因问曰:“闻夫人家先多坟籍,犹能忆识之不?”文姬曰:“昔亡父赐书四千许卷,流离涂炭,罔有存者。今所诵忆,裁四百余篇耳。”...于是缮书送之,文无遗误。" (So 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.")
  7. ^ See references in curator's notes from Taipei National Palace Museum [3]. According to NPM, earliest surviving pieces were from the Southern Song dynasty; this article [4] points out one piece in the Jilin Provincial Museum identified as dating from the Jurchen Jin dynasty, which coexisted with the Southern Song dynasty.
  8. ^ Cai Wenji Returns to Her Homeland《文姬归汉》, Traditional Beijing opera repertoire, retrieved 2015-01-14 
  9. ^   Collected in Guo Moruo 1987, pp3-95
  10. ^ "Ts'ai Wen-chi". USGS. 1976. Retrieved 2015-01-19. . See also List of craters on Mercury
  11. ^ "Caiwenji". USGS. 1994. Retrieved 2015-01-19.  See also List of craters on Venus.
  12. ^ Famitsu scan from the week beginning 18th Jan 2010