Cai Yan
畫麗珠萃秀 Gathering Gems of Beauty (漢蔡文姬) 2.jpg
A portrait of Cai Wenji in the album Gathering Gems of Beauty (畫麗珠萃秀)
Bornc. 170 or 178
Diedc. 215 or 249
Other names
OccupationComposer, poet, writer
Childrenat least two sons

Cai Yan (c. 178 – post 206; or c. 170–215; or died c. 249),[1] courtesy name Wenji, was a Chinese composer, poet, and writer who lived during the late Eastern Han dynasty of China. 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.[2]


Cai Yan was the daughter of Cai Yong, a famous Eastern Han dynasty scholar from Yu County (圉縣), Chenliu Commandery [zh] (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.[3] 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 (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.[4]

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.[4] He pardoned Dong Si.

Later in her life, she wrote two poems describing her turbulent years.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Cai Yan briefly appears in chapter 71 of the novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a historical novel of 14th century which romanticizes previous events and during the Three Kingdoms period of China.

Cao Cao was on a march to battle with Liu Bei during the Hanzhong Campaign when he passed by Cai Yan's residence.

Cao Cao came to the gates with a few attendants. Upon hearing who the guest was, Cai Yan hurriedly raced to meet them, and after Cao Cao took a seat in the household, he noticed a tablet which contained mix-matched eight words that he couldn't interpret. Cai Yan pointed out that her father wrote it after hearing a specific tale. Yang Xiu, one of the men whom Cao Cao brought along, declared he knew the riddle on the tablet.

Cao Cao and his subordinates later left the house and Yang Xiu mentioned what the eight words meant using wordplay.


An illustration of Cai Wenji from a Qing dynasty collection of poems by female poets, 1772
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.[citation needed] 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.[5] The other two poems, both named "Poem of Sorrow and Anger" (悲憤詩), were known to be written by her.[citation needed]

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.[6]

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.[7]

Literary and artistic tributes

Left: Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute- The Story of Lady Wenji" a Ming dynasty painting in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art depicting the return of Cai Wenji from the Xiongnu. Right: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,[8] as well as renderings in traditional Beijing opera.[citation needed]

In popular culture

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 and Warriors Orochi 4. Her fighting style relies on casting energy balls and shock waves by strumming her harp.

See also


  1. ^ Knechtges, David R. "Cai Yan 蔡琰". Brill Online Chinese Reference Library. Retrieved 30 April 2018.
  2. ^ de Crespigny (2007), pp. 28–29.
  3. ^ 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
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ A large number of modern historians, including Hu Shih, disputed the traditional attribution, the earliest survival of which was by the 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. Quote: "《十八拍》的讨论,备列了各类史料,虽然分歧仍然存在,但从学术研究的角度看,这样详尽地摆出史料,实事求是地进行分析,各抒己见地讨论是极为有益的,为进一步澄清《胡笳十八拍》的问题打下了良好的基础。" ((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), 蔡琰和《胡笳十八拍》的作者 [Cai Yan and the Author of Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute], 卢兴基编《建国以来古代文学问题讨论举要》 [Summaries of Debates since 1949 about Ancient Literature, Lu Xingji comp.] (in Chinese), Qilu Publishing House, archived from the original on 2015-01-15, retrieved 2015-01-14.)
  6. ^ Wei, Zheng (636). Book of Sui. Collections (in Chinese). Vol. 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.)
  7. ^ 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.")
  8. ^ See references in curator's notes from Taipei National Palace Museum [1]. According to NPM, earliest surviving pieces were from the Southern Song dynasty.
  9. ^ Guo, Moruo (1959). 《蔡文姬》 (in Chinese). Beijing: Antiquities Publishing House. 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