Cai Yong

From New World Encyclopedia
Portrait of Cai Yong in Sancai Tuhui
Chinese: 蔡邕
Pinyin: Cài Yōng
Wade-Giles: Ts'ai Yung
Zi: Bojie (伯喈)

Cai Yong (132 – 192) was a Chinese scholar of the Eastern Han Dynasty. He was well-versed in calligraphy, music, mathematics, and astronomy. He lived and worked during the tumultuous times near the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty. Throughout his political career, he was an advocate of restoring Confucian ceremonial rites, and was often critical of the eunuchs who dominated the Han court. This attitude incurred the eunuchs’ resentment and frequently placed Cai Yong in danger. Concerned that political factions might try to alter the Confucian classics to support their views, Cai Yong and a group of scholars petitioned to have the Five Classics engraved in stone. The result was the Xiping Stone Classics (熹平石經), completed in 183, which set the canon for future generations of scholars. Cai Yong’s works include the compilation of Dongguan Hanji (東觀漢記), Duduan (獨斷; on ceremonial rites), Cai Yong bencao (蔡邕本草; on pharmacology), Nü Xun (女訓; advice for women), Qin Cao (琴操; on playing the guqin), and Zhuan shi (篆勢; on the aspects of the traditional seal script).

Due to the turmoil in China in the decade after his death, much of Cai Yong’s work has been lost. However, Cai Yong had apparently entrusted the bulk of his library to his protégé Wang Can, and it is through his collection that Cai Yong's work can be found in compilations like the Book of Later Han. One of his daughters was the famous musician and poet Cai Wenji.


Early life

Cai Yong was born in 132 C.E. into a substantial local family in Chenliu (陳留, modern Qi County, Kaifeng, Henan), which had a reputation of not having their territory divided for three generations. When his father Cai Leng died, Cai Yong lived with his uncle Cai Zhi while taking great care of his own mother during her last three years. When she died, Cai Yong became known for his arrangement of his mother's tomb. After that, Cai Yong studied composition, mathematics, astronomy, pitch-pipes, and music under Hu Guang (胡廣), one of the highest ranking officials in the Han court.

Service under Emperor Ling

In the early 160s, Cai Yong was recommended to the Emperor Huan of Han (132–168) by the senior eunuchs for his skill on the drums and the guqin (a plucked, sven-strong zither). On his way to the capital, Cai Yong feigned illness in order to return home to study in seclusion. Ten years later, in the early 170s, Cai Yong went to serve Qiao Xuan, a powerful duke from the Southlands, as a clerk, and Qiao Xuan greatly admired his abilities. Afterwards, Cai Yong served as a county magistrate and then a Counselor in the capital, in charge of editing and collating the texts in the library. Known for his literary skills, he was constantly commissioned to write eulogies, memorial inscriptions, histories and speeches. Cai Yong befriended Cao Cao, had a good reputation and was generally held in high esteem. He recognized the abilities of the young Wang Can, who later advised Liu Cong to surrender to Cao Cao. Once, when the adolescent Wang Can visited Cai Yong’s residence, the high-ranking observed his deference to Wang Can and asked why Cai Yong respected such a young, meek individual. Cai Yong merely said, “He is a young man with the highest gifts.”[1]

In 175, concerned that certain political factions might try to alter the Confucian classics to support their views, Cai Yong and a group of scholars petitioned to have the Five Classics engraved in stone. Emperor Ling (156–189) approved, and the result was the Xiping Stone Classics (熹平石經), completed in 183, which set the canon for future generations of scholars. Throughout his political career, he was a advocate of restoring Confucian ceremonial rites, and was often critical of the eunuchs' influence in politics. He was successful, through his memorials, in persuading the emperor to participate in a ritual in the winter of 177, but his attacks on the eunuchs were not so successful.

At the time when Cai Yong was Court Counselor, the government of the Han dynasty began to crumble because of corruption. In the autumn of 178, the scholars were asked for advice on recent ill omens. As the Emperor walked through the palace, a rushing whirlwind had arisen in the corner of the hall, and a monstrous black serpent had floated down from the rooftops and onto the Emperor’s throne. Although the creature vanished, a storm soon followed, lasting till midnight and battering the Imperial Court. Two years later, an earthquake shook the capital and a giant tsunami swept over the coasts of China. Ten years passed and the Emperor changed the reign title to “Radiant Harmony,” but more calamities ensued. Hens began to crow, a part of the magnificent Yuan Mountains collapsed, a rainbow appeared in the Dragon Chamber and a long, murky cloud flew into the Hall of Virtue. Emperor Ling issued a proclamation asking his staff to explain these supernatural omens. Cai Yong replied, “Falling rainbows and changes of fowls’ sexes are brought about by the interference of empresses and eunuchs in state affairs.” The Emperor sighed deeply after reading this statement, and the head eunuch at the time observed the Emperor’s dissatisfaction.

Soon after this incident, the eunuchs accused Cai Yong and his uncle Cai Zhi of magical practices and extortion. Cai Yong was thrown into prison and condemned to death, but this punishment was commuted to that of having his hair pulled out, coupled with banishment to Gansu in the northern frontiers. He reached (Wu Yuan) 五原 in Inner Mongolia; but nine months later, Cai Yong warned the Emperor that his works on the dynastic history and classics were at risk from enemy raids, and he was pardoned and allowed to come back to the capital. However, he offended the sibling of an influential eunuch during a farewell banquet before his return, which put his position in the capital at risk. Cai Yong fled south to the Wu (吳) and Guiji (會稽) commanderies and stayed there for twelve years.[1]

Service under Dong Zhuo

In 189, after the capital fell into chaos following the death of Emperor Ling and a bloody clash between the powerful eunuch faction and the court officials, the powerful warlord Dong Zhuo (董卓d. May 22, 192) seized control of Luoyang. Dong Zhuo subsequently deposed the rightful heir to the throne and installed the puppet Emperor Xian. Dong Zhuo then called Cai Yong back to the court.

At first Cai Yong was unwilling, but when Dong Zhuo enforced his demand with the threat, "I can eliminate whole clans," Cai Yong had no choice but to comply. Under Dong Zhuo, Cai Yong was made a General of the Household, and put in charge of revising rituals for Dong Zhuo's new government. Despite Dong Zhuo's admiration of Cai Yong as a scholar and musician, Cai Yong worried about Dong Zhuo's unpredictable temper and considered returning home, but was persuaded that he was too well known to escape. He had just been made Marquis when, in 192, Dong Zhuo was killed in a plot led by Wang Yun. Cai Yong was put into prison and sentenced to death for allegedly expressing grief at Dong Zhuo's death.

Cai Yong and other government officials pleaded with Wang Yun to allow him to finish his work on the history of Han, but Wang Yun refused, saying:

In ancient times, Emperor Wu failed to kill Sima Qian, and so allowed him to write a book of slander which was passed down to later times. Particularly at this time, as the fortunes of the Emperor are in decline and there are war-horses in the suburbs, we cannot allow a treacherous minister to hold his brush among the attendants to a young emperor. It offers no advantage to the sage virtue of the ruler, and it will cause our party to suffer contempt and abuse.

It was said that Wang Yun eventually regretted this decision, but Cai Yong had already died in prison. After his death, pictures were set up in his honor, and commemorative eulogies were composed throughout his home county of Chenliu and the Yan province. Not long after, Dong Zhuo's former subjects led a coup, in which Wang Yun along with most of his family were executed.

Cai Yong was a hard drinker and consumed a large amount of wine daily, earning for himself the nickname of the "Drunken Dragon." He was an excellent musician, on one occasion fashioning a qin out of a half-burnt firebrand, on another a flute out of a bamboo lance-handle.[2]


Due to the turmoil in China in the decade after his death, much of his work has been lost. However, Cai Yong had apparently entrusted the bulk of his library to his protégé Wang Can, (王粲), a politician, scholar and poet during the late Eastern Han Dynasty and it is through his collection that Cai Yong's work can be found in compilations like the Book of Later Han. Few items of his work survive today.

His contributions include:

  • The editing of the Xiping Stone Classics
  • The compilation of Dongguan Hanji (東觀漢記)
  • Duduan (獨斷) on ceremonial
  • Cai Yong bencao (蔡邕本草) on pharmacology
  • Nü Xun (女訓), advice for women
  • Qin Cao (琴操) on playing the guqin
  • Zhuan shi (篆勢) on the aspects of the traditional seal script

Cai Wenji: Cai Yong's daughter

Illustration of Cai Wenji from a Qing Dynasty collection of poems by female poets, 1772

Cai Wenji (Chinese: 蔡文姬; pinyin: Cài Wénjī; b. 177), also known as Cai Yan, the daughter of Cai Yong, was also a famous Han Dynasty poet and composer. Her courtesy name was originally Zhaoji, but it was changed to Wenji during the Jin Dynasty to avoid a naming conflict with Sima Zhao.

Cai Wenji was married at the age of fifteen to a Wei Zhongdao (衛仲道) in 192, who died shortly after without any offspring.[3] In 195, the chaos after Chancellor Dong Zhuo's death brought Xiongnu nomads into the Chinese capital and Cai Wenji was taken as prisoner to the northerlands. During her captivity, she became the wife of the Xiongnu chieftain Liu Bao (the "Wise King of the Left"),[4] and bore him two sons. It was not until twelve years later that Cao Cao, the new Chancellor of Han, ransomed her for a great sum in the name of her father. When Cai Wenji returned to her homeland, she left her children behind in the frontier.

She married again, this time to a government official named Dong Si (董祀). However, Dong Si committed a crime punishable by death, and Cai Wenji went to Cao Cao to plea for her husband's acquittal. At the time, Cao Cao was having a banquet to entertain guests, who were stirred by Cai Wenji's distressed appearance and behavior. Touched by such an emotional plea, Cao Cao pardoned Dong Si.

Cai Yong’s works had been lost in the ravages of war. At Cao Cao's request, Cai Wenji was able to recite from memory up to four hundred out of four thousand of her father's lost works. Later in her life, she wrote two poems describing her turbulent years. Her year of death is unknown.Like her father, Cai Wenji was an established calligrapher of her time, and her works were often praised along with her father's. Her poems were noted for their sorrowful tone, parallel to her hard life. The famous guqin piece Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute is traditionally attributed to her, although the authorship is a perennial issue for scholarly debate. The other two poems, both named "Poem of Sorrow and Anger" (悲憤詩), were known to be by her own hand.

Below is an excerpt of the "Poem of Sorrow and Anger" in five-character form (五言):


Poem of Sorrow and Anger


My dwelling is often covered by frost and snow,
The foreign winds bring again spring and summer;


They gently blow into my robes,
And chillingly shrill into my ear;


Emotions stirred, I think of my parents,
Whilst I draw a long sigh of endless sorrows.


Whenever guests visit from afar,
I would often make joy of their tidings;


I lost no time in throwing eager questions,
Only to find that the guests were not from my home town.

Her return from captivity was the subject of the painting Cai Wenji Returns to Her Homeland (文姬歸漢圖) by Zhang Yu, which is now stored in the Long Corridor in the Old Summer Palace. Modern Chinese writer Guo Moruo wrote a play on her life, and there also exists a Beijing opera rendition. A crater on Venus was named CaiWenji, after her.


  • Cai Xi (蔡攜)
  • Cai Leng (蔡棱)
  • Cai Zhi (蔡質)
  • Cai Yan (蔡琰)
  • Daughter, name unknown, married to Yang Dao (羊道)
  • Son, name unknown
  • Cai Xi (蔡襲)
  • Yang Huiyu (羊徽瑜)
  • Yang Hu (羊祜)


  1. 1.0 1.1 SlickSlicer, Cai Yong. Retrieved December 10, 2007.
  2., Cai Yong. Retrieved December 12, 2007.
  3. Hans H. Frankel, Cai Yan and the Poems Attributed to Her, Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews, Vol. 5, No. 1/2 (Jul., 1983), pp. 133-156
  4. Aona, The 5th Dimension: Doorways to the Universe (2004) p.249.

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