The Three Character Classic(三字经): Girl Power – Brilliantly Gifted Women of Traditional China

Chi Wenjiís (文姬) Return to Chinaî, the third painting of six by Zhang Cuiying. After 12 years of captivity by the Xiongnu, Cao Cao (曹操) sends envoys to escort Wenji back to her homeland. But her children cry and beg her to stay. 
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on whatsapp

By Jade Pearce  | 

The Three Character Classic, or San Zi Jing (三字经), is the best known classic Chinese text for children. Written by Wang Yinglin (1223–1296) during the Song Dynasty, it has been memorised by generations of Chinese, both young and old.

However, after the Cultural Revolution in China, the Three Character Classic was banned and eventually fell into disuse. In this series, we revive and review this great Chinese classic, drawing ancient lessons of wisdom for our modern-day lives.

Much debate exists about the education of women in ancient China. Unlike men, women did not have the opportunity to attend school. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t receive an education.

Young girls were schooled by their mothers in the four womanly virtues: womanly morals, speech, appearance, and skills. Where available, women were taught to read and write by family members. Upper-class women were also taught music, literature, history and other subjects.

When these women became mothers, they would pass on these skills to their children. In fact, great scholars like Ouyang Xiu (欧阳修) and Su Dongpo (苏东坡) were first schooled by their mothers in writing and classical texts.

Well-educated and gifted women were greatly lauded in society. In the classical Chinese novel “Dream of the Red Chamber”, female characters like Lin Daiyu (林黛玉) were exalted for their intelligence and talents in poetry and music.

The Three Character Classic is no exception, highlighting two of China’s most gifted women. Blessed with intelligence and blighted by misfortune, these wonder women led soul-stirring lives to remember.

A Tale of Talent and Tragedy

Cai Wenji (蔡文姬), also known as Cai Yan (蔡琰), was born around 176 A.D. during the Eastern Han Dynasty. She was the daughter of the famous Han scholar Cai Yong (蔡邕).

Cai Wenji (蔡文姬)
Cai Wenji (蔡文姬) was a gifted musician and poetess of the Eastern Han Dynasty.

From young, Wenji showed precocious talent. She was extensively knowledgeable, articulate, and had an exceptional ear for music.

“A Separate Biography of Cai Yan” relays this story of how her father discovered Wenji’s musical talent. When Wenji was six years old, she was in her room listening to her father play the zither in an adjacent room. Just then, one of his zither strings broke.

Wenji called to her father, “The first string broke.” Thinking it was a lucky guess, Cai Yong purposely snapped the fourth string. “Now the fourth string has broken,” she said.

Cai Yong was amazed. Thereafter, he taught his daughter to play the zither, and she became an outstanding musician of her time.

Wenji read voraciously from her father’s library, and she also had a formidable memory. Late in her adult life, at the warlord Cao Cao’s (曹操) request, she famously transcribed from memory 400 books from her father’s collection. These books had been destroyed decades earlier during the war.

Despite her incredible talent, Wenji’s life was one marked by tragedy and tribulation, which are poignantly described in her work “Poem of Sorrow and Anger” and “Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute”. [1]

When Wenji was 16, she married a man named Wei Zhongdao (卫仲道), only for him to die shortly after.





Cai Wenji could distinguish sounds played on a zither. Xie Daoyun could compose verses

They were only girls, yet they were quick and clever. You boys ought to rouse yourselves.

Liu Yan of the Tang dynasty, when only seven years of age, was ranked as an ìinspired child,î and was appointed a Corrector of Texts.

He, although a child, was already in an official post. You young learners strive to bring about a like result. Those who work will also succeed as he did.

A few years later, China fell into chaos as the Eastern Han Dynasty began to crumble. While fleeing the conflict in Luoyang, Wenji was captured by Xiongnu invaders and taken to the North.

There, she was married to the Xiongnu Chieftian Zuoxian, who was very fond of her. Wenji lived among the Xiongnu nomads for 12 years, during which she bore two children.

Despite her many years among the nomads, Wenji never got used to their vastly different way of life—the harsh winters, the diet of mutton, the neverending wars, the wandering life across desolate plains. She bitterly grieved her abduction and the violation of her chastity.

“Of all beings that live and breathe, none can be as bitter as I. … Their customs different, their minds unlike, how can I survive among them?” she laments in “Eighteen Songs”.

Many years later, the powerful warlord Cao Cao learned of Cai Wenji’s plight. As a good friend of her father, he offered the Xiongnu a hefty ransom for her return.

Fearful of offending Cao Cao, a regretful Zuoxian allowed Wenji to return to China. This is the source of the famous historical event “Wenji Returns to Her Homeland”, which has been immortalised in numerous paintings through the ages.

One can hardly imagine Wenji’s emotions at the time — while she rejoiced to finally return home, her heart broke as she had to leave her children:

“My nomad children wail till they lose their voices—alas! Who could have known

That while we still lived there would come a time that would separate us like death?

My longing for my children makes the sun lose its light,

Where can I find wings to carry me back to you?” [1]

After returning to China, Wenji married again to Dong Si, a local official. Dong Si loved his wife, but misfortune soon struck again. Dong Si offended Cao Cao and was sentenced to death.

To save her husband, Wenji knelt before Cao Cao and challenged her husband’s sentence. “Can you provide me with another husband?” she asked. Moved, Cao Cao acquitted Dong Si.

Through her gift in prose, Cai Wenji poignantly relays the pain and sorrow of her life story, moving generations with her heartrending words: “Bitter am I, angry my spirit, flooding to the great void. The length and breadth of the universe cannot contain this feeling!”

The Fearless ‘ Genius of Verse’

While Cai Wenji’s life was characterised by bitter resignation, her contemporary Xie Daoyun chose to face her life with pluck and determination. A gifted female scholar of the Eastern Jin Dynasty, Xie Daoyun excelled at poetry and debate, and was just as courageous as she was intelligent.

Xie Daoyun (谢道韫) was born around 376 A.D. to the noble Xie clan. She was the daughter of General Xie Yi, and the favourite niece of Prime Minister Xie An.

From a young age, Daoyun frequently competed against her brothers and cousins in conversation bouts, and she often bested them all.

One wintery night, Xie An challenged them to compose a line on snow. “The flurries of a great snowfall — what do they resemble?”

His nephew, Xie Lang, immediately said, “Scattering salt in the air is rather like it.”

The 14-year-old Daoyun countered in rhythm, “More like willow catskins lifted in the breeze.”

Her poetic rejoinder made Xie An laugh in delight, and with time she became known as the “Genius of Verse”.

Daoyun later married Wang Ningzhi, the son of renowned Chinese calligrapher Wang Xizhi. While she was a gracious and dutiful wife, Daoyun did not bury her literary talents. She once engaged in a debate with Wang Xizhi and his fellow scholars, and within an hour she had left them speechless with respect.

Like Cai Wenji, Xie Daoyun’s life was battered by war. When her husband was administrator of Guiji, the rebel Sun En instigated a revolt. Her husband and children were captured and beheaded by the rebels at the city gates.

In response, Daoyun armed herself and her servants with knives and swords. They charged to the city gates, killing several rebels before they were caught. When Sun En threatened to kill Daoyun’s grandson, she fearlessly asked them to kill her first. Her words moved Sun En, who decided to spare them.

Daoyun was now tragically widowed and childless, but she carried on living with dignity and purpose. She continued to write poems, eulogies, and essays, which held renown even after her time. She was frequently visited by scholars and officials, who sought her wise counsel.

While most of Xie Daoyun’s and Cai Wenji’s writings have been lost, their stories continue to inspire generations. As the Three Character Classic points out, they outperformed many of their male counterparts in intellect, talent, and character.

Despite their gender and circumstances, these gifted women achieved exactly what the Three Character Classic exhorts its young readers to do:

“Learn while young, and when grown up apply what you have learnt; influencing the sovereign above; benefiting the people below.

“Make a name for yourselves, and glorify your father and mother, shed lustre on your ancestors, enrich your posterity.”

[1] Sun Chang, Kang-I, Haun Saussy, and Charles Yim-tze Kwong. ìCai Yan.î Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism.

Subscribe for Newsletter

Scroll to Top