Cai Yan (蔡琰 c. 178 – post 206; or c. 170–215; or died c. 249), courtesy name Wenji (文姬), was a poet and musician 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.


Cai Yan was the daughter of Cai Yong, who was pretty much THE scholar of the Later Han. In the 170s and 180s, he was like some kind of superstar among the Han elite. People came from thousands of miles away to meet him. they’d walk on hot coals to get him to write a poem or eulogy about them. He was so incredibly prestigious and respected that even though his actual title in the Han court was pretty low, he often spoke with the emperor personally. He was also a political firebrand who campaigned against corruption in the court, and he was simply so respected that his enemies couldn’t do much to stop him. His contributions to the literature, poetry, and academics of the Han are pretty much without equal.

Cai Yong’s enemies eventually managed to get him banished to Kuaiji, where he lived in exile for more than a decade. Cai Yan was very young during this time but followed her father into exile, along with the rest of her family. She and her father were always very close and he carefully nurtured her talent. She had a remarkable intellect even as child and was skilled in poetry, music, and debate.

Cai yong was eventually forced out of his exile by Dong Zhuo. When he took control of the government in 189, he sought out people who had been driven out by the eunuchs and corrupt officials and offered them lofty positions, hoping that this would make his regime seem more respectable and legitimate. Since Cai Yong was one of the most respected people in China, Dong ZHuo wanted him to become one of his advisers. Cai Yong knew exactly what kind of man Dong Zhuo was and initially refused to serve him. But Dong Zhuo – being Dong Zhuo – held Cai Yong’s family as hostages and demanded his service. So Cai Yong reluctantly became one of Dong Zhuo’s advisers.

Near the end of Dong Zhuo’s reign, in 192, Cai Yan married a man named Wei Zhongdao. However, he died shortly after this marriage. Given the insanity in the capital in that year (Dong Zhuo’s assassination, Li Jue and Friends capturing the city, etc.), it was probably a violent death. Only 15 at this time (or possibly 18), Cai Yan returned to her family’s home rather than remain as a widow. Tragically, her father was executed that same year. Some people accused him of being one of Dong Zhuo’s supporters, so he was killed when Dong Zhuo was assassinated.

In 194 or 195, Cai Yan’s life got a whole lot worse. The Xiongnu tribes had been raiding central China during those years (since the only people strong enough to stop them weren’t interested in doing so), plundering villages and abducting people to use as slaves. Tragically, Cai Yan encountered one of these wandering bands

After being abducted by the Xiongnu, Cai Yan became the unwilling “concubine” of one of their noblemen, the Worhty King of the Left Her existence as a Xiongnu slave was terrible, and Cai Yan was forced to give birth to two children by the King of the Left. She was taken off to Xiongnu lands and isolated from everything she had ever known and loved.

Cai Yan was kept as a Xiongnu slave for about 12 years. Salvation came to her unexpectedly around 206. Cao Cao had been a friend and admirer of Cai Yong, and when he learned about Cai Yan’s captivity (around 206) he purchased her freedom from the Xiongnu.

Cai Yan’s life may have been difficult when she returned to China, but Cao Cao moved heaven and earth to make things easier for her. Under ordinary circumstances, she would probably have had difficulty finding a husband, but Cao Cao acted as her family in this matter and arranged for her to marry a man named Dong Si, one of his officers.

At some point in the future, Dong Si committed a crime and was going to be sentenced to death. Cai Yan, unwilling to lose her husband, came to Cao Cao personally and begged him to spare Dong Si. Though Cao Cao usually upheld the law strictly, he was also a merciful man and agreed to spare Dong Si’s life so that Cai Yan would not suffer further heartbreak.

As you probably know, Cao Cao was an extremely talented poet and a patron of the arts. He always regretted that Cai Yong’s masterpieces had been destroyed after his death. But Cai Yan had an excellent memory and had memorized over 400 poems and essays her father had written. She and Cao Cao worked together to reconstruct Cai Yong’s lost work and they contributed heavily to the poetry of the time.

Cai Yan was a very skilled poet in her own right and wrote her own share of songs and poems, though most of them are no longer extant. Her poems, as one might imagine, are very sad and sorrowful. She is praised as one of China’s most talented poets and is remembered for the hardship she endured and survived.

Nothing more is recorded about Cai Yan’s life after this time. If she outlived Cao Cao, she was probably treated well by subsequent rulers. Cao Pi always respected scholars, and Cao Rui was particularly compassionate. Her niece, Yang Huiyu, became the wife of Sima Shi, so if she lived that long she certainly would have been in the good graces of the Sima family. All in all, her life was peaceful once she was rescued from the Xiongnu.

Cai Yan, of course, had no involvement with the military, but she was certainly a noteworthy intellectual and scholar of the times, and I can understand adding her to Dynasty Warriors. Her story does leave a lot of potential for growth, and I’d really like to see Koei capitalize on that. I can understand why the gloss over or ignore the darker parts of her life – Dynasty Warriors is more like a Saturday morning cartoon than a gritty historical drama, after all.

All in all, I think she was a fine woman to add to the cast, and I wish Koei would get some use out of her. There are lots of ways she could be more involved in the story and lots of relationships that she could grow to have. If they made more use of her, I’d like her a lot more – or I’d be able to complain about whatever flaws she has. As it is, though, she’s just not around enough to have any real opinion on.

A Story In Dynasty Warriors

The following is an excerpt from the “Poem of Sorrow and Anger” in five-character form (五言):

《悲憤詩》 Poem of Sorrow and Anger
處所多霜雪,胡風春夏起。 My dwelling is often covered by frost and snow,
The foreign winds bring again spring and summer;
翩翩吹我衣,蕭蕭入我耳。 They gently blow into my robes,
And chillingly shrill into my ear;
感時念父母,哀嘆無窮已。 Emotions stirred, I think of my parents,
Whilst I draw a long sigh of endless sorrows.
有客從外來,聞之常歡喜。 Whenever guests visit from afar,
I would often make joy of their tidings;
迎問其消息,輒復非鄉里。 I lost no time in throwing eager questions,
Only to find that the guests were not from my home town.

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