Represented here are scenes from the life of Lady Wenji (Cai Yan), who was abducted by a horde of marauding barbarians about A.D. 195 and spent twelve years among the Xiongnu, a Mongol tribe, as wife of their chieftain. She bore him two children before she was finally ransomed and returned to China. The Southern Song emperor Gaozong (r. 1127–62) probably ordered the story illustrated as a reminder of the capture of his kinfolk by the Jurched Jin.
In this scroll, the costumes of the nomad invaders are those of the Khitan people, who established the Liao dynasty (907–1125) in northeastern China. To the early Southern Song viewer, Eighteen Songs, which presents a historical drama in contemporary details, did not represent a mere historical romance but a true, pervasive national trauma. The illustrations to the third, fifth, thirteenth, and eighteenth songs in the Metropolitan's scroll—the oldest of five known versions that illustrate all eighteen of the songs—are almost exact copies of four album leaves in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Boston fragments appear to be all that is left of the original twelfth-century scroll. The texts of the songs, composed by Liu Shang (act. ca. 773), are inscribed in the calligraphic style of Emperor Gaozong
Inscription: No artist's inscription, signature, or seal
Other inscriptions accompanying the paintings (89 columns in standard script)
Unidentified artist in the style of the Song emperor Gaozong 宋高宗 (r. 1127–62) except for the first five columns of the first song, undated:
1. The Abduction of Wen-chi The Han house is declining, the barbarians of the four directions have become unfriendly; They raise arms, and wars are incessant. Pity my father and mother who bore and reared me: For witnessing partings and turmoil-this is the moment. At gauze windows, looking into mirrors, I had not experienced the world; I thought that the beaded curtains could shelter me. One day the barbarian cavalry entered China; Suddenly everywhere we met nomads. My unfortunate life is now at sword’s point, Alas, a helpless woman carried away into the aliens’ dust.
Qing emperor Qianlong 清帝乾隆 (r. 1736–95), 5 columns in standard script, dated 1742 [transcribing the missing portions of the first song]:
第一拍 漢室將衰兮四夷不賓，動干戈兮征戰頻。 哀哀父母生育我，見亂離兮當此辰。 紗。。。鏡未經事
乾隆壬戌菊月御筆補書闕文。 [印]： 乾隆宸翰
Unidentified artist in the style of the Song emperor Gaozong 宋高宗 (r. 1127-62), 4 columns in standard script:
牕對鏡未經事，將謂珠簾能蔽身。 一朝虜騎入中國，蒼黃處處逢胡人。 忽將薄命委鋒鏑，可惜紅顏隨虜塵。
2 Departure from China I was taken on horseback to the ends of the earth; Tiring of life, I sought death, but death would not come. The barbarians stink so. How can they be considered human? Their pleasures and angers are like the jackal’s and the wolf’s—how unbearable! We travel to the end of Tien-shan, enduring all the frost and sleet; The customs are rude, the land is desolate – we are near the nomads’ territories. An overcast sky stretches beyond ten thousand miles. Not a single bird is in sight. The cold sands are boundless: One can no longer tell the south from the north.
第二拍 (5 columns in standard script) 馬上將余向絕域，厭生求死死不得。 戎羯腥膻豈似人，豺狼喜怒難姑息。 行盡天山足霜霰，風土蕭條近胡國。 萬里重陰鳥不飛，寒沙莽莽無南北。
3 Encampment in the Desert I am like a prisoner in bonds, I have ten thousand anxieties but no one to confide them to. They can make me work, or they can cut my hair; They can eat my flesh, and they can drink my blood. Knowing this is death, I would suffer anything willingly, But to make me his wife is worse than killing me. Alas, how a pretty face has made me suffer, How I resent it that I am weak and soft like water.
第三拍 (5 columns in standard script) 如羈囚兮在縲紲，憂慮萬端無處說。 使余力兮翦余髮，食余肉兮飲余血。 誠知殺身願如此，以余為妻不如死。 早被蛾眉累此身，空悲弱質柔如水。
4 Longing for Home Mountains and streams a long way away—who can remember them? Where, at the sky’s edge, is my native land? Since my terrifying experience my energy has faded. Gradually, wind and frost have ravaged my countenance. In the night I dream of returning, to and fro; In my half-dreaming state is it possible that some messages may be transmitted? In the vast barbarian sky my cries are not answered, Yet the bright moon is my Han moon, which should recognize me.
第四拍 (5 columns in standard script) 山川路長誰記得，何處天涯是鄉國？ 自從驚怖少精神，不覺風霜損顏色。 夜中歸夢來又去，朦朧豈解傳消息。 漫漫胡天叫不聞，明明漢月應相識。
5 Encampment by a Stream I sleep by water and sit on grass; The wind that blows from China tears my clothing to pieces. I clean my hair with mutton fat, but it is seldom combed. The collar of my lambskin robe is buttoned on the left; The fox lapels and badger sleeves are rank-smelling. By day I wear these clothes, by night I sleep in them. The felt screens are constantly being moved, since there is no fixed abode; How long my days and nights are – they never seem to pass.
第五拍 (5 columns in standard script) 水頭宿兮草頭坐，風吹漢地衣裳破。 羊脂沐髮長不梳，羔子皮裘領仍左。 狐襟貉袖腥復膻，晝披行兮夜披臥。 氈帳時移無定居，日月長兮不可過。
6 The Constellation of the Dipper I resent it that spring is so short here; In the nomad land there are few flowers or willows. Who knows if heaven and earth have not been turned upside down? Here we see the Great Dipper in the south. Since our names, sounds, and signals are wholly different, All day and all year I keep my mouth closed. “Yes” and “no” and accepting and giving things away all depend on finger gestures; For expressing our feelings, speech has become less useful than the hand.
第六拍 (5 columns in standard script) 怪得春光不來久，胡中風土無花柳。 天翻地覆誰得知，如今正南看北斗。 姓名音信兩不通，終日經年常閉口。 是非取與在指撝，言語傳情不如手 。
7 Concert on the Steppe Their men and women both carry bows and arrows; Their border ponies and native sheep lie about in frost and sleet. How can there be freedom for me to take a single step in any direction? Neither living stealthily nor begging for an early death can be my true wish. I listen to the pi-li of Ch’iu-tzu in sadness; The p’i-p’a of Sui-yeh makes mournful sounds in the deep of the night. Through the cloudless night the moon rises high in the sky; Oh, but I must see my home town again!
第七拍 (5 columns in standard script) 男兒婦人帶弓箭，塞馬蕃羊臥霜霰。 寸步東西豈自由，偷生乞死非情願。 龜資茲篳篥愁中聽，碎葉琵琶夜深怨。 竟夕無雲月上天，故鄉應得重相見。
8 Dawn I remember the past, when I was an attractive but spoiled child at home. From afar was obtained a rare bird, which I tamed. Now, lost and abandoned, I think of my old home; I regret that I did not release my bird to the forest. The north wind whistles and the cold sun sets; The lonely river of stars hangs above, until dawn comes again in the nomad sky. Day and night I think of returning, but I cannot return; My sorrowful heart, I think, must be like that bird in its cage.
第八拍 (5 columns in standard script) 憶昔私家恣嬌小，遠取珍禽學馴擾。 如今淪棄念故鄉，悔不當初放林表。 朔風蕭蕭寒日暮，星河寥落胡天曉。 旦夕思歸不得歸，愁中想似籠中鳥。
9 Writing Home In the past, when Su Wu was questioned by the Khan, It is said that the migrating geese knew how to carry a message. Imitating Su Wu, I prick blood to write a letter; In this letter I write a thousand and ten thousand grievances. But the bearded barbarian youths are excellent horsemen; They bend their bows and shoot flying birds, far and near. Now the geese of the frontier are afraid of people; How can I have my heart heard from these ends of the earth?
第九拍 (5 columns in standard script) 當日蘇武單于問，道是賓鴻解傳信。 學他刺血寫得書，書上千重萬重恨。 髯胡少年能走馬，彎弓射飛無遠近。 遂令邊雁轉怕人，絕域何由達方寸。
10 A Child Is Born How I am grieved by the indignities I have suffered, and revolted by rank smells; How I despise the nomad land and hate the nomad sky! When I became pregnant with a barbarian child, I wanted to kill myself, Yet once I bore it, I found the love of mother and child. His looks are strange, and his speech is different, yet my hate turns into love; Deep inside, I feel the tug of my heartstring. Morning and evening he is with me: How can I not pity that which my womb has borne and my hand nurtured?
第十拍 (5 columns in standard script) 恨凌辱兮惡腥膻，憎胡地兮怨胡天。 生得胡兒欲棄捐，及生母子情宛然。 貌殊語異憎還愛，心中不覺常相牽。 朝朝暮暮在眼前，親生手養寧不憐。
11 Watcing Geese Fly South Days come and months go by, time hurries along; By the movement of the year-star, it is now almost twelve years. Winter or summer, we lie in frost and sleet; When the water freezes and the grass wither I mark another year. In China we have a cyclical calendar to mark the full and new moon, But in these far-off lands the sun, moon, and stars only hang meaninglessly in the sky. Many times the migratory geese come and go; I am brokenhearted as the moon wanes and again grows full.
第十一拍 (5 columns in standard script) 日來月往相催遷，迢迢星歲欲周天。 無冬無夏臥霜霰，水凍草枯為一年。 漢家甲子有正朔，絕域三光空自懸。 幾回鴻雁來又去，腸斷蟾蜍虧復圓。
12 Messengers Arrive A broken bottle dropped into a well is lost forever. With no hope in sight, I have given up all thought of returning. How could have I known that an envoy would come from afar, asking names? The Han speech, pleasing to the ear, brings happy news. How many times had my soul wandered home in my dreams? Each time after I awoke my sorrow was deeper still. Now that I am faced with what I dreamt, Grief comes after joy; my emotions become unbearable.
第十二拍 (5 columns in standard script) 破瓶落井空永沉，故鄉望斷無歸心。 寧知遠使問姓音，漢語泠泠傳好音。 夢魂幾度到鄉國，覺後翻成哀怨深。 如今果是夢中事，喜過悲來情不任。
13 The Farewell My child pulls at my clothes, one on either side; I cannot take them with me, but in leaving them behind, how I shall miss them! To return home and to depart in sorrow – my emotions are mixed. Now I must abandon my children in order to return home. Across ten thousand miles of mountains and rivers, I shall arrive at our border stations. Once having turned away, forever there shall be no news from my children. With tear-stained face I turn toward the setting sun; All day long I have stood there, looking to the south and then to the north.
第十三拍 (5 columns in standard script) 童稚牽衣雙在側，將來不可留又憶。 還鄉惜別兩難分，寧棄胡兒歸舊國。 山川萬里復邊戍，背面無由得消息。 淚痕滿面對殘陽，終日依依向南北。
14 The Return Journey Begins Do not think that the nomad children cause me shame; Anyone would speak of his or her children with love. The ten fingers of the two hands are of different lengths, Yet the pain of one cut off is the same as for any other. Upon my return, I shall be reunited with my kinsmen, Then this part of my life will be as remote as the dead are from the living. The southern wind blows across ten thousand miles to stir my heart; My heart will follow the wind and cross the Liao River.
第十四拍 (5 columns in standard script) 莫以胡兒可羞恥，恩情亦各言其子。 手中十指有長短，截之痛惜皆相似。 還鄉豈不見親族，念此飄零隔生死。 南風萬里吹我心，心亦隨風渡遼水。
15 The Nomad Husband Turns Back I sigh that my feelings are undefined: I was grieved then by coming away, and now I hate returning; I no longer understand such emotions of worry and sorrow, And I feel only a sharp knife stabbing at my heart. Sorrow mixed with joy is not a happy feeling. My thoughts are at cross-purposes. I keep asking myself this: Unless it was fate that preordained such a marriage, How could I have become bound to my enemy in love and trust?
第十五拍 (5 columns in standard script) 歎息襟懷無定分，當時怨來歸又恨。 不知愁怨情若何，似有鋒鋩擾方寸。 悲歡並行情未快，心意相尤自相問。 不緣生得天屬親，豈向仇讎結恩信 。
16 The Journey Continues On my way here I noticed only the vast blue sky. In the days of my return I realized how distant is the nomads’ land. In the overcast sky it is difficult to know where the sun sets, But the direction in which the geese fly must be the south. Looking in all directions, across the flat sands, one easily gets confused, So we follow the geese, near and far away. Long before the end of the journey no more horse tracks can be seen. No other humans are in sight, only the yellow grass of the steppes.
第十六拍 (5 columns in standard script) 去時只覺天蒼蒼，歸日始知胡地長。 重陰白日落何處？秋鴈所向應南方。 平沙四顧自迷惑，遠近悠悠隨鴈行。 征途未盡馬跡盡，不見行人邊草黃。
17 A Chinese City in View We traversed thousands of miles under the nomads’ sky, Seeing only yellow sands and white clouds rising. The horses are starving; they race across the snow to feed on grass roots. The men are thirsty; they break through the ice in order to drink the rung water. At Yen-shan we begin to see bonfires and the garrison; The sound of military drums tells us that we are hearing the forts of China. We rally and make our way, assured that the Emperor’s land lies ahead. Life lies ahead, and I have escaped death among the nomads.
第十七拍 (5 columns in standard script) 行盡胡天千萬里，唯見黃沙白雲起。 馬饑跑雪銜草根，人渴敲冰飲流水。 燕山髣髴辨烽戍，鼙鼓如聞漢家壘。 努力前程是帝鄉，生前免向胡中死。
18 Wen-chi Returns Home I return home and see my kin; The fields and gardens are half wild, but the spring grass is green. Bright candles are lit again from ashes and ruins; Cool spring water cleanses a jade that had sunk in the mire. As I hold towel and comb, I rediscover the good rituals and etiquettes; Touching the ch’in again enables me to live or die without regret. From going out through the pass to my return was twelve years; Now all my sorrows are told in this Song of the Nomad Flute.
第十八拍 (5 columns in standard script) 歸來故鄉見親族，田園半蕪春草綠。 明燭重然煨燼灰，寒泉更洗沉泥玉。 載持巾櫛禮儀好，一弄絲桐生死足。 出入關山十二年，哀情盡在胡笳曲。
 The eighteen songs are translated by Robert A. Rorex and Wen Fong in their Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute: The Story of Lady Wen-chi: A Fourteen-century Handscroll in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1974, n.p.
C. C. Wang Family , New York (by 1949–1973; sold to MMA)