Ts’ai Yen and her Poem of afflication

Ts’ai Yen (蔡文姬, late second -early third century), also known as Ts’ai Wen-chi, was a poet and composer. Ts’ai Yen was the daughter of the eminent poet and statesman Ts’ai Yung(133-192), who died in prison after his associate, the frontier general Tung Cho (d.192), rebelled against the central government.

Ts’ai Yen was born shortly before 178 CE, and was married at the age of sixteen according to the East Asian age reckoning (corresponding to the age of 15 in Western reckoning) to Wei Tsongdao in 192 CE. Tsongdao died soon after the wedding, without any offspring.

After the deaths of her father and her first husband, Ts’ai Yen was caught in the upheavals of the Tung Cho Rebellion; in 192 she was captured by a raiding party of barbarian mercenaries, who carried her off to become the wife of a chieftain of the Southern Hsiung-nu. When this chieftain died she was married again, to his son by a previous marriage. Ts’ai Yen bore her husband-in-exile two sons and lived among the Hsiung-nu until about 206, when she was ransomed by Ts’ao Ts’ao (155-220), who had finally succeeded in establishing control over the floundering Han court. Ts’ai Yen was escorted back to China, but was forced to leave her children behind with the nomads. When she returned to the court Ts’ao Ts’ao gave her a fourth husband, the statesman Tung Ssu. Although her clan, of which Ts’ai Yen found herself to be the sole survivor, had been restored to its official status by Ts’ao Ts’ao, the lady was ostracized at court because of her family connections and her multiple marriages, considered shameful by the Chinese aristocracy.

This was not the end of her troubles, as recorded in her biography in the Hou Han Shu, “Biography of the Wife of Tung Ssu” (“Tung Ssu chi chuan”). Eventually Tung Ssu offended Ts’ao Ts’ao and was condemned to death. His wife, fully aware of her notoriety, challenged Ts’ao Ts’ao’s decreee before the court and asked him if he would provide her with yet a fifth husband. Tung Ssu was spared. Ts’ai Yen’s identification as “the wife of Tung Ssu” in her official biography would seem to suggest that this incident definded the historical figure for later generations, but in fact the power of the lady’s plea for her husband rested on the known facts of her long exile and political victimization.

A number of poems have been written to immortalize Cai Wenji’s life story including her own. One of these, was Liu Shang’s (c. AD 770) “Hujia Shiba Pai” (“Eighteen Songs on a Nomad Flute”).

Ts’ai Yen’s biography, compiled between 424 and 445, includes the poem in five-character-line shih meter, “Poem of afflication (“Pei-fen shi”). A second peom, of the same title and subject matter but written in sao meter is also included, but it never enjoyed the popularity of the poem in shih meter.

These are sample lines from her Poem of affliction, describing the suffering on the way to her new home, the cold and and threatening landscape of Southern Hsiong-nu:

So bitterness and pain were mixed as the blows came down.
By day we wailed and cried as we trudged along,
By nigh we grieved and groaned as we sat down.
If we wished to die, we were unable to manage it;
If we wished to live, we were hardly able to do that, either.

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