The Han Dynasty was a time of great development in China. 206 BC-226 AD was a 400 year period in which roads and canals were expanded, the Great Wall was extended, paper was invented, the scholar class was instituted as a way to train and select government workers, and the territory was increased through the execution of many wars. With the ratio of women to men so unbalanced due to the Han’s building projects which cost many lives and with the many wars they fought, men at all levels of society were taking many wives and concubines. It was one tenet of the Confucian structure of the Han Dynasty that each and every female was subordinate to a male, be it her father, brother, husband, or uncle. Any female alive would have a male master. Females in Confucius theory were considered as property, to be laborers for their male masters.
Though an exact date is not certain, between 174 and 178 AD Cai Yan was born in present-day Qi District, Henan Province to the renowned literary, mathematics, astronomy, and history scholar, Cai Yong (133-192) who was also a gifted musician and calligrapher.
The family was a fairly well to do family, and even though it was not a customary practice to educate girls, the more wealthy families tended to educate their daughters. This was very fortunate for Cai Yan, who was very bright and learned her subjects with speed and efficiency. She also had an ear for music, making her the consummate Renaissance person much like her father.
The legend of Cai Yan’s astute abilities in music begins with her father playing the gu qin in another room. Although Cai Yan was only six years old, when the string broke she came into the room and pronounced to her father that he had broken the second string. Cai Yong had no way of knowing if Cai Yan had merely guessed correctly at which string was broken on the zither-like seven-stringed instrument or if she really had that precise of an ear for music. To find out for sure, he broke another string and Cai Yan correctly told him that it was the fourth string. Finding that his daughter could judge pitch and tone quality perfectly, Cai Yong encouraged her to pursue her musical interests.
When Cai Yan was 16 years old she married, but her husband died within two years and they had no children. She moved back home, where she found that her father had passed away while in prison, where he had been sent for offending an official. The Xiongnu (the Huns) began to invade parts of Northern China, kidnapping slaves and stealing valuables. Cai Yan was taken captive and married to a tribal chief in modern day Inner Mongolia. She gave birth to two children while married to the chief.
Cai Yan was not only an adept musician, calligrapher, and historian; she was also an accomplished poet. Away from her Han home as a captor of the Huns for twelve years, she wrote poetry to express her longings. One such poem, “Indignant Grief,” or “Poem of Affliction,” shows this ability:
Frost and snow covered the ground all over,
The wind howls even in the summer,
With a puff it blows up my fur,
The rustling sound came to my ear,
Missing my parents, endless sighs I heave,
Hearing visitors come, great delight filled me,
But none sees how disappointed I feel,
Knowing he wasn’t from my home.
The last emperor of the Han Dynasty, Cao Cao, realized that the great work of Cai Yong, The Xu Han Shu (The History of the Later Han Dynasty), needed to be completed. In order for this history to be written, Cao Cao needed Cai Yan’s help, for committed to her memory were hundreds of her father’s books and she was a great historian in her own right. This story is written down in “Xu Han Shu”:
Cao Cao asked her: “I have heard, Madam, that in your home there used to be a great many books: do you still remember them?” Cai Yan replied: “The books bequeathed by my late father totaled some four thousand juan, but they have been scattered and ruined, none are left. Those that I can recite from memory number only a little more than four hundred.” Cao Cao then said: “I will now order ten clerks to go to your residence, Madam, to write them down.” Cai Yan said: “I have heard that propriety requires men and women to be separate, without handing things to each other. I beg to be given paper and brushes so that I can write them down, either in standard script or in cursive script, as you may command.” Subsequently she wrote out the texts and presented them, and no words were missing or incorrect. *
Cao Cao ransomed Cai Yan back from the Xiongnu with much gold and jade, but Cai Yan’s children were not allowed to come with her, as the tribe insisted that the children stay with their father. The act of leaving her children behind caused Cai Yan tremendous grief and sorrow which she laments in her poem, “Poem of Affliction”:
Desolute, I faced my orphan shadow;
Grief and anger swelled in my entrails,
I climbed a hill to look off into the distance,
And my spirit seemed suddenly to fly from me;
Cai Yan married a third time when she rejoined her people, then she set to work in the Imperial library rewriting her father’s articles, or books, which had been either lost or destroyed during the preceding wars. Through the terrible heartache of having an “orphan shadow,” Cai Yan was able to reproduce 400 pieces of her father’s work in beautiful calligraphy.
Being a historian and poet in her own right, Cai Yan put her own work to paper as well, though only three such pieces survive today and only one of those poems is agreed upon by present-day historians as rightly being attributed to her; “Poem of Affliction” is a narrative poem of 108 lines with five characters on each line. It is a poem which shows all these centuries later a lady of great courage and tenacity as she faced terrible hardships and yet through the pain was able to accomplish the enormous deed of setting her people’s history down for future generations.
The fame of Cai Yan’s musical, literary, and artistic ability was passed along from generation to generation in Chinese lore, as demonstrated by a series of poems by Liu Shang, a Tang Dynasty poet and by musicians of that same dynasty. In Liu Shang’s Cai Yan poems, he writes Cai Yan’s story in first person, but signs the poem with his own name. Though historians have often written and spoken of not only Cai Yan’s immorality in marrying a barbarian, but also her shame in failing her first husband by not achieving her duty of bearing him a son, the triumph of her spirit still holds true. Perhaps it is because she was forced against her will to marry the barbarian, perhaps it was because her first husband died so soon after being wed, whatever the case, Cai Yan was soon endowed with the courtesy name of Cai Wenji, which is translated as “Lady of Literary Refinement.”
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Frankel, Hans H. Cai Yan and the Poems Attributed to Her,Frankel, Hans H. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), vol. 5, no. 1/2, 1983, pp. 133–156. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/495671. Accessed 19 June 2020.
Peterson, Barbara Bennett, Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century, Routledge; 2015
Xiao, Lily Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Antiquity Through… 1600 B.C.E… Rutledge, 2007
Women in World History
*Hou Han Shu 84.2801
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