Gongjin's Campaign Memorials
Gongjin's Campaign Memorials

Cai Yan 蔡琰, was a poet and musician who lived during the Later Han dynasty. Daughter of Cai Yong 蔡邕, she was captured by the Southern Xiongnu for twelve years until Cao Cao 曹操 got her released.

History of the Later Han official biography [translation][]

 Dong Si’s 董祀 wife from Chenliu 陳留 county, was the daughter of Cai Yong. Her given name was Yan 琰, her style name was Wenji 文姬.[1] She was well-read, eloquent and was talented in music.[2] She was married to Wei Zhongdao 衛仲道,[n 1] but they had no children, and when her husband died [Wenji] returned to her family home. During the Xingping 興平 reign years,[n 2] when the land was in chaos, Wenji was abducted by Hu 胡 cavalry. Taken into the harem of the Worthy King of the Left (Zuǒxián wáng 左賢王), one of the leaders of an exiled group in Hedong 河東 commandery [in Sili province], she was kept there for 12 years and bore him two sons. Cao Cao had always been a good friend with Cai Yong, and he tried to save Wenji by giving away his gold jewelry to Xiongnu. He succeeded in rescuing her, and he arranged Wenji to later get remarried to Dong Si.

[1] Latter Biography of Exemplary Women (Liènǚ hòuzhuán 列女後傳) states her given name was Yan, her style name was also Zhaoji 昭姬.[n 3]
[2] Liu Chao’s 劉昭 Biographies of Children (Yòutóng zhuán 幼童傳) states: “When Wenji was nine years old, her father, Cai Yong, played his Qin 琴 (a musical instrument in ancient China) at night and suddenly broke a string. Wenji said, ‘the second string is broken.’ Cai Yong replied, ‘you merely got this right by coincidence.’ So, he deliberately broke another string and asked her again. Wenji replied that it’s the fourth string that’s been broken.”

When Dong Si committed a capital offense, Wenji went to Cao Cao to plea on her husband’s behalf. At this time court ministers, famous scholars, and emissaries from distant places were seated in the hall. Cao Cao told his guests:

Cai Bojie’s[n 4] daughter is outside. Now I will let you see her.

When Cai Yan came forward, she was on foot and had disheveled hair. Kowtowing, she made her plea. Her speach was clear and eloquent, the tone was heart-rending, and everyone present changed expressions. Cao Cao said:

I truly have great sympathy for you, but the documents ordering the execution have already been issued. What can I do?

Cai Yan said:

Your excellency, you have ten thousand horses in your stable, and you have groves of fierce warriors. How can you begrudge one swift horse to save the life of someone who is about to die?

Moved by her words, Cao Cao then pardoned Dong Si. Cao Cao took the opportunity to ask Cai Yan:

I have heard your family used to own many books. Do you still remember them?

Cai Yan said:

My late father gave me some 4.000 juan, but during the turmoil they became lost. There are none left. All I can now recite are 400+ works.

Cao Cao said:

I will give you ten scribes to have them written down.

Cai Yan said:

I have heard that there should be a separation between the sexes, and according to the rites, men and women should not hand anything to each other.[3] I beg to be given paper and brush, and I will write them out, either in regular script or cursive script, as you order.

She then copied them down and sent them. There were no errors or anything missing in the text.

[3] Book of Rites (Lǐjì 禮記) states: “men and women should not hand anything to each other.”


  1. GJCM notes: This man's given name is unknown. Zhongdao 仲道 is his style name.
  2. GJCM notes: the Xingping years were from 194-195. At the time Emperor Xian was Han’s emperor.
  3. GJCM notes: Zhaoji was probably her initial style name, but it was changed to Wenji later, because the name zhao 昭 was the same as the name of the Jin emperor Sima Zhao 司馬昭.
  4. GJCM notes: Bojie 伯喈 is the style name of Cai Yong.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Frankel, Cai Yan and the Poems Attributed to Her, page 1