Zhuo Wenjun (卓文君; fl. 2nd century BC) was a Chinese poet of the Western Han dynasty. As a young widow, she eloped with the poet Sima Xiangru. The poem Baitou Yin (白頭吟, Song of White Hairs) which complains at the inconstancy of male love, is attributed to her.

Zhuo Wenjun: A woman of great courage and wisdom

REGARDLESS of a wide belief stating that mediocrity was a virtue for women in ancient China, there were quite a number of talented women who wowed the public with their poetry, music, painting and chess skills.

Zhuo Wenjun, the daughter of an iron tycoon in Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 25), is one of the best-known tales. Her story was recorded in both “Shi Ji” (Historical Records) by Sima Qian in the Western Han Dynasty and “Han Shu” (The Book of Former Han) by Ban Gu in Eastern Han Dynasty. She is still widely quoted today as an example of a brave and clever woman chasing love and protecting her marriage.

Born into a wealthy family, in Linqiong of Sichuan Province, Zhuo was well-educated and especially good at poetry and music. She was married at 16, but returned to her parents’ home a few years later after her husband died. That was when she met her true love.

Sima Xiangru, a famous writer, was invited to the Zhuos for a gathering during his stay in Chengdu of Sichuan Province. He sang “Feng Qiu Huang” (a male phoenix is pursuing a female phoenix) while playing his guqin, while delivering his admiration to Zhuo.

Hearing the beautiful music, Zhuo peeked through the door crack and was deeply attracted to Sima’s charm and talent. Consequently, Zhuo secretly ran away with Sima at midnight.

Angry at her behavior, Zhuo’s father claimed that he would no longer support her. Undeterred, Zhuo didn’t give in to the threat, despite them being poor. She went back to Linqiong again with her husband and started a wine shop after selling all their properties.

Embarrassed about his daughter selling wine in the market, Zhuo’s father offered her money and servants. However, Zhuo’s marriage was again challenged after Sima’s talent got appreciated by the Wu Emperor of Han Dynasty.

Offered official rank at the capital, Sima gradually drifted apart from his wife back in Chengdu, and planned getting a concubine.

He wrote a 13-character letter to Zhuo, hinting about his change of mind. In great sadness, Zhuo replied with a long poem, delivering her thoughts and emotions.

Astonished by the poem, Sima became nostalgic for their love and felt ashamed of his intention to get a concubine. They got back together and lived through old age.

Though the story of Sima and Zhuo is still widely quoted today as an example of happy couples, it is undeniable that their marriage had been through a series of crisis.

And it was Zhuo who saved it from time to time.

She made the firm decision about chasing her love regardless of her parents’ disapproval. She cleverly started a wine shop to alter their difficult financial condition. When Sima turned his back on Zhuo, instead of simply tolerating his behavior, she won her husband’s love back with her sincere poetry.

The most popular poems by Zhuo includes “Bai tou Yin” (Chant about Old Age), “Juebie Shu” (Farewell Letter) and “Yuanlang Shi” (Blaming Husband Poem).

Yet there are scholars who doubt whether the poems were really written by Zhuo.

By Zhang Qian


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