Cai Yan Composes Poetry About Her Capture by Nomads

Cai Yan, a Chinese woman, wrote poems about her capture by the nomadic Xiongnu, her subsequent ransom, and the heartache she felt at leaving two sons behind.

Summary of Event

The story of the life of the Chinese poet Cai Yan (or Cai Wenji, lady of refinement) is the locus of an important moment in both history and literature. Cai Yan’s experience has served until this day as an avatar of narratives about the tensions between cultures and peoples. The daughter of Cai Yong (Ts’ai Yong), an influential Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.) Chinese administrator and poet, Cai Yan was born in Yu of Chenliu. She was well educated and possessed a keen ear for both music and poetry, which she studied formally. She is believed to have used these talents in later life, to record her troubles in poetry and music. Cai Yong found a husband for Cai Yan, but he died after only a few years of marriage. This event was the first of many steps by which the young aristocratic lady became ever more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the world around her. Indeed, she seemed surrounded by threats; the prestige of her family within the Han ruling class was threatened by civil uprisings that would eventually supplant the Han Dynasty, Chinese tradition left little opportunity for a widow to remarry, and her father had no male heirs. When her father, a political prisoner in the wake of the uprising led by Dong Zhou (Tung Chou), died in 192, Cai Yan knew that she had become the last generation of her family. However, her challenges in finding a place in the world were only just beginning. Cai Yan
Cao Cao

In operations against the Han emperor, the Chinese general Dong Zhou had employed a mercenary army of southern Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu) nomads. Many of these soldiers were given general orders to spread terror in the Chinese areas in which they were operating; their raiding parties typically slaughtered men and took women as captives. The Chinese were terrified of these aggressive invaders who seemed totally foreign to them. Unfortunately for Cai Yan, she was one of the women whom the Xiongnu soldiers captured, probably not long after the death of her father. Her captors forced her and many others to march long distances under conditions of constant pain and fear away from China into the northwest territories. The captives were beaten and threatened with death, and none could know who would survive the journey or the day. Once in Xiongnu territory, however, Cai Yan was treated reasonably well. She was given as a bride to Prince Zuoxian of the southern Xiongnu. Although the cultural divide between the Chinese and Xiongnu never allowed Cai Yan to feel a part of the foreign people, Zuoxian was fond of her, and together they had two sons.

Cai Yan raised the boys well; they were the only source of joy for her as she lived in a foreign and inhospitable place far from her home and familiar traditions. She was a Chinese woman, but she was not in China; she was a mother in a Xiongnu household, but she was not a Xiongnu woman. For twelve years, she hoped every day for an opportunity to return home, or at least for news from her people. At last, in 206 c.e., a messenger arrived from the famous general Cao Cao, who would later be the founder of the Wei Dynasty (posthumously styled Wudi, Wei emperor, by his son). Cao Cao had been a close friend of Cai Yan’s father and, out of loyalty, had offered one thousand gold pieces to the Xiongnu in exchange for the return of the late official’s daughter. The offer was accepted, and the messenger prepared horses with which to transport Cai Yan back to her native land.

It was now that Cai Yan faced yet another trial: the separation from her beloved sons. If she returned to China, she would be compelled to leave them behind. The boys clung to her and begged her to stay. She embraced them and hesitated repeatedly in her anguish in choosing between her two families. In the east, her Chinese ancestors called her home, and in the west, her children begged her not to leave. As she rode away to China, she knew that all her days would be filled with regret and longing for her children. She knew also that she would never see them again. Back in China, her home village had fallen into ruin, and she was left without hope once again. Cao Cao, however, was concerned with her fate and had her married to Dong Si (Tung Ssu), who served in Cao Cao’s court. Even so, the reception of Cai Yan in palace society was a cold one. She had been married three times, once to a foreigner; the traditional association of her father’s family with the Han did not work to her advantage under the new imperial power structure; and Dong Si himself was sometimes at odds with Cao Cao. In fact, Cao Cao at one time threatened to execute Dong Si, who was saved only through the intervention of Cai Yan, who asked Cao Cao if he planned to supply her with yet a fourth husband.


Cai Yan came to symbolize the challenges posed by different cultures coming into contact. She was a woman who could not find a single place on earth in which she wholly belonged, and she ended her life an outsider in her own country. However, Cai Yan was also a poet, and all the suffering and complexity of her story become the foundation of some of the world’s most poignant literature. Three lengthy poems are ascribed to her, two of which are called Ben fen shi ( song of grief and resentment), and the last, Hu jia shi ba pai (third century c.e.?; “Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute,” published in English in Women Writers of Traditional China, 1999), is a cycle of eighteen songs written for the “nomad,” or “traverse,” flute, which was the traditional instrument of the Xiongnu. The attribution of the eighteen songs has been called into question in the last century, but whether or not the voice is actually hers, the poem eloquently expresses her story and the complexity of the suffering she endured. Indeed, the story of Cai Yan would inspire many subsequent writers, who created poetry, drama, and art.

Further Reading

  • Chang, Kang-i Sun, and Haun Saussy, eds. Women Writers of Traditional China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999. A fine anthology of verse in translations, this volume also provides an excellent and readable introduction to the history of women’s writing in China. Bibliography and index.
  • Frankel, Hans H. “Cai Yan and the Poems Attributed to Her.” Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews 5 (1983): 133-56. A seminal paper on the current thought about the authenticity of the Cai Yan poems.
  • Levy, Dore J. “Transforming Archetypes in Chinese Poetry and Painting.” Asia Major 6, no. 2 (1993): 147-68. A brief look at some of the artistic impact of Cai Yan’s work.
  • Rouzer, Paul F. Articulated Ladies: Gender and the Male Community in Early Chinese Texts. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard-Yenching Institute, 2002. Provides literary context for Cai Yan’s poems. Bibliography and index.

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