Primary Sources Connect Women to the Silk Road


Primary Source #13

14th Century Scroll Painting of Lady Wenji

Two Chinese Travelers/ Two Fates

Taken from a fourteenth century scroll, which used poems written
in 733 during the Tang dynasty called “Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute.”

Traditional poems, which were most often sung, tell the stories of two Chinese women - one from the Han period, the other from the Tang - who both were forced to travel west to live among peoples foreign to themselves. They are stories of divided loyalties and affections by women who traveled beyond their homelands, sometimes against their will.

While the following song/poems express sadness over lost, and fears of the unknown, the reasons each lady had for leaving her homeland and the fate of their lives in their new lands was strikingly different.

Song Poem: Story of Lady Wenji (195 CE)

The story of the capture of Wenji (or Ts’ai Yen), the daughter of a prominent Han dynasty statesman, by nomadic marauders in about 195 CE has been told and retold throughout the centuries. In the twelve years spent in exile, Wenji was forced to marry the nomadic chief and bore him two sons. Eventually, she was found, ransomed, and taken back to China. The legend’s popularity in part comes from descriptions of Wenji’s emotions at the time of her separation from her homeland and family, and the harrowing pain she experienced when she had to leave her children behind when she was found, ransomed, and forced to return to China.

The following excerpts from this account is thought to be in her own words, told through two laments in her Han biography. Some of the early illustrations of the poems show her with her qin, a musical instrument of high status, to emphasize Wenji’s refined upbringing and her loneliness among those so beyond the bounds of her Han culture.

“I was born in a time of peace,
But later the mandate of Heaven
Was withdrawn from the Han Dynasty.

Heaven was pitiless.
It sent down confusion and separation....
Overrun by the ruthless Tatar bands.
Our people lost their will and power and integrity.
I can never learn the ways of the barbarians.
I am daily subject to violence and insult.
I sang one stanza to my lute and a Tatar horn.
But no one knows my agony and grief.

A Tatar chief forced me to become his wife,
And took me far away to Heaven’s edge.
Ten thousand clouds and mountains bar my road home,
And whirlwinds of dust and sand blow for a thousand miles.”

Over time, Wenji seems to have adjusted to her new life, particularly after the birth of her two sons:

“My nomad husband was fond of me, and we had two sons.
I nurtured them, I brought them up, I can feel no shame for this,
I felt for them, pitied them, born in the far frontier.”

Later, upon being found and ransomed, she describes the scene of having to leave her sons when she is now forced to return to her home:

“I never believed that in my broken life
The day would come when suddenly I could return home.
I embrace and caress my Tatar sons.
Tears wet our clothes.
An envoy from the Han Court has come to bring me back...

Who can measure the grief of my sons?
They thought I would live and die with them.
Now it is I who must depart.
Sorrow for my boys dims the sun for me.
If we had wings we could fly away together.
I cannot move my feet,
For each step is a step away from them.
My soul is overwhelmed.
As their figures vanish in the distance
Only my love remains.”

Excerpt from “Poem of Affliction.” Kenneth Rexroth and Lang Clung translation

Song of Welcome for Wencheng

In 640 C.E., the emissaries of Songtsan Gambo, one of Tibet’s most powerful rulers, arrived at the border of China to escort the Tang Dynasty Princess Wenching to Tibet. There, a year later, she married King Gambo, the thirty-third ruler of the Tubo Dynasty. Through the centuries, this event and Wenching’s influence was, and is, celebrated in both Tibet and China.

In Tibetan culture, songs are sung on joyous occasions, from the celebration of a wedding to an important political event. In the case of Wenching, her travel from China to Tibet follows the route of an old southern Silk Road between the two empires. The following song and accompanying dance is performed in a section of this road. They claim it was first performed by the nobles and ladies of Tibet to welcome the Chinese princess to her new home.

Don't be afraid of crossing the prairie
A hundred horses are waiting for you.
Don't be afraid to climb over the snow
A hundred docile yaks are waiting for you.
Don't be afraid to ford the deep river
A hundred horse head boats are waiting for you.

From: Barbara Bennett Peterson, “Dutiful Daughters: Seven Moral Exemplars in Chinese History,” World History Connected, vol. 1, no. 2.

Dramatic interpretations of stories about women traveling from their homelands continue today. In 2008, a dramatization of the Princess Wenching tale was created using a mixture of Tibetan and Peking operas. The part of Tibetan opera was performed by Tibetan actors/actresses while the Peking opera was carried out by artists from the Chinese National Peking Opera Theater.

From Tibet and Chinese 2008 opera showing
Princess Wenching arriving in Tibet for her marriage.

Web Link

Find fuller information on Wenching and her influence in Tibet at:
“The Marriage of Wenching (625-680 C.E.): Connecting Tang China and Tubo Tibet

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Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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