Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute: The Story of Lady Wenji, Unidentified Artist Chinese, early 15th century, after Song Academy painter, Handscroll; ink, color, and gold on silk, China

宋 佚名 胡笳十八拍 文姬歸漢圖 卷
Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute: The Story of Lady Wenji

Unidentified Artist Chinese, early 15th century, after Song Academy painter
Ming dynasty (1368–1644)
early 15th century
Handscroll; ink, color, and gold on silk
Image: 11 1/4 in. × 39 ft. 3 in. (28.6 × 1196.3 cm)
Overall with mounting: 11 1/2 in. × 50 ft. 8 1/16 in. (29.2 × 1544.5 cm)
Credit Line:
Ex coll.: C. C. Wang Family, Gift of The Dillon Fund, 1973
Accession Number:
Not on view
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[1] (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]:


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:


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)

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)

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)

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)

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)
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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)
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)

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)

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)


1. Qing emperor Qianlong 清帝乾隆 (r. 1736–95), 14 columns in semi-cursive script, dated 1766; 2 seals:

丙戌暮春月御題。 [印]:比德、朗潤

2. Zhang Daqian 張大千 (1899–1983), 2 columns in semi-cursive script, dated 1948; 2 seals:

戊子九月十二日季遷道兄擕此重寳枉過甌湘舘,驚心洞目,諤咍不置,平生墨緣,得未曾有,因書卷尾。時同觀者祖韓、秋君兄妹。蜀郡張大千爰記。 [印]: 張爰、大千

Collectors' seals

Jia Sidao 賈似道 (1213–1275), spurious

Mu Ying 沐英 (1345–1392), posthumous seals

Mu Lin 沐璘 (died ca. 1457; Mu Ying's great-grandson)
沐璘廷章(33 times)

Geng Zhaozhong 耿昭忠 (1640–1687) and descendants
漢水耿會侯書畫之章 (twice)
宜爾子孫 (4 times)
珍祕 (twice)
琴書堂 (thrice)
真賞 (twice)

Geng Jiazuo 耿嘉祚 (active late 17th–early 18th c.)
耿會侯鋻定書畫之章 (14 times)
會侯珍藏 (thrice)

Qing emperor Qianlong 清帝乾隆 (r. 1736–95)

Qing emperor Jiaqing 清帝嘉慶 (r. 1796–1820)

Qing emperor Xuantong 清帝宣統 (r. 1909–11)

Wang Jiqian 王季遷 (C.C. Wang, 1907–2003)

錢氏合縫 (thrice)

[1] 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.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Song and Yuan Paintings: Exhibition of Newly Acquired Chinese Paintings," November 1, 1973–January 20, 1974.

London. British Museum. "Song and Yuan Paintings," November 7, 1975–January 4, 1976.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Text and Image: The Interaction of Painting, Poetry, and Calligraphy," January 23, 1999–August 16, 1999.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Artist as Collector: Masterpieces of Chinese Painting from the C.C.Wang Family Collection," September 2, 1999–January 9, 2000.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "A Millennium of Chinese Painting: Masterpieces from the Permanent Collection," September 8, 2001–January 13, 2002.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Chinese Painting, Masterpieces from the Permanent Collection," August 28, 2004–February 20, 2005.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Journeys: Mapping the Earth and Mind in Chinese Art," February 10, 2007–August 26, 2007.