Comprehensive Officer Biography
Translated & Authored by
Place of Birth: Chen Liu, Xi Province (Presently Qixian in Henan Province)
Lifespan: AD 177 – 250 (73 years)
Titles: Xiong Nu Concubine, Lady Poetess
Family: Cai Yong (father), Wei Zhongdao (first husband), Ce Xian (second husband), Dong Si (third husband)
Cai Yan, better known as the poetess Cai Wenji, was the only daughter of the Han Minister and writer Cai Yong (蔡邕) (1). When the Han Dynasty came to an end, Cai Yong argued with the Court Eunuchs about the future of the Han. Emperor Ling was not impressed with Cai Yong’s warnings, and forced him to retire to his house near Tong Gate (outside of Chang An).
Cai Yong’s only child and daughter Cai Yan, was first married to Wei Zhongdao. However, when the Xiong Nu tribe attacked Chang An, Cai Yan was taken away by the Left Crown Prince (左贤王) Ce Xian. She spent many years in the Northlands that are now Mongolia, and lived a miserable life as concubine.
Cao Cao, an old friend of Cai Yong, pitied the old man, because his only child was taken away. He sent a thousand pieces of gold and jade to the Xiong Nu to bargain for Cai Yan’s return (2). Because her first husband had already passed away, she was given away in marriage to Dong Si, a subordinate and friend of Cao Cao.
Cai Yan was talented at poetry, analytical writing and music. She often read the books that her father wrote about politics and studied calligraphy with him (3). During her stay in the Xiong Nu camps, she composed her famous work, “the Eighteen Lamentation”. Other poems followed after her return. Most of them were about the tragedies of her life, and the people around her, as well as the dire state of the Empire at that time. She died of old age around the AD 250 She appeared on a 5 Yuan (Chinese currency) coin, in that picture she is holding a zither, which symbolises her musical talents.
(1) Some sources suggest that Cai Yan was adopted by Cai Yong because his wife could not bear any children. Cai Yong himself was 42 when Cai Yan was born, so it is still possible that she is his ligitimate child. Since there is no information on his wife, however, I cannot be sure. <return>
(2) The return of Cai Yan to her homeland was depicted on a remarkable painting from the Jin Dynasty called “Cai Wenji Returns to Her Homeland” (文姬归汉图). The painting was presumably made by a Han official called Zhang Yu. Presently, it can be seen in the Museum of Art in Jilin Province. <return>
(3) During the Han Dynasty, not many women would have the priveledge of learning how to read and write. Generally only daughters of high officials and nobles would be taught in private schools. Cai Yong was a master calligrapher, and because he had no sons, it was natural for him to pass it on to his daughter. Because of this, Cai Yan is one of the few female poets whose work has been retained from that era. <return>
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Sources: Zhang Yu and “Cai Yan returns to her Homeland” By Sun Lijun and Ji Li
China the Beautiful: Classical Chinese Poetry - Cai Yan and the Eighteen Lamentations