Women as Cultural Emissaries

Consider Women as Captives


Women have long been considered valued commodities, whether taken as war prisoners or as booty taken in raids. In their new environment, female captives often were placed in households - set to the onerous, time consuming tasks of food preparation, cloth making, child rearing, and possibly child bearing. Although on the lowest social rung of the household, female captives brought their past history and culture with them, often expressed through their folk tales, religious beliefs, songs, food preferences, artistic creations, naming of their children, and so forth. In these ways, legions of unknown women influenced the culture of their conquering enemies.

A starting point for exploring this topic might be the famous poem/song, “Eighteen Refrains to a Barbarian Flute,” written about an event which may have happened in Han Dynasty China in the 3rd century. It tells the tale of Lady Wenji, daughter of a scholar, who was abducted from her home during a Tartar raiding party, and taken “far away to Heaven’s edge” to the dust, desolation and “barbarian” life of the nomad. She was married to a military commander, had two sons by him, and, after twelve years, was found and ransomed by her Chinese relatives. Upon returning to China, she was forced to leave her sons. “Sorrow for my boys dims the sun for me. If we had wings we could fly away together.” Once home, memories of the sons she lost and, by now, warmer thoughts of the lands she once hated, blunted her joy.

Told and retold throughout the centuries, by the Tang dynasty the story was so popular women and children memorized it and sang it. During the Song period, an amazing scroll with calligraphy illustrated the event. In the 1950s, the tale was written as an opera.

Why the enduring popularity of this story?

  • Wenji’s negative descriptions of nomadic life of enemies that threatened the Han Chinese, affirms for them the superiority of their civilization over those beyond their borders.
  • Wenji’s sacrifice to leave her sons and return to her Chinese family solidifies the Confucian concept of loyalty to ancestral family and state.
  • The poignancy of the fate of abducted and enslaved women touches a cord within the hearts of many women.
  • Revelations of Wenji’s accommodations to her nomadic way, influenced surely by the love her husband gave her, echoes the experiences of some enslaved women. Though perhaps never freed, many did have children, and, over time, merged aspects of their heritage with that of their new one.

Literature like “Eighteen Refrains” is a valuable way to find stories of women who have been kidnapped for servitude, or captured to become brides. Think of the women of Troy - what happened to them when they were dispersed to other lands? Or, the tale of Scheherazad, the Sabine women, the Spanish-American and North American tales of capture by Indians during raids, the enslaved Chinese prostitutes who were taken to the American west in the 19th century.

To link past with present, find current statistics on the numbers of women kidnapped or lured under false pretenses for service in the global sex trade. Although some women seek this work, 75% thought they were going abroad for other jobs, work against their will, or only to find themselves confined with no means of escape. The colorfully illustrated resource, “The Penguin Atlas of Women in the World,” provides a world map documenting global flows of sex trafficking, estimates of women trafficked from specific regions, and an essay on the problem.

The Abduction of Wenji
Scroll, Metropolitan Museum of Art

“My unfortunate life is now at sword’point,
Alas, a helpless woman carried away into the alien’s dust.”


1)  Robert Rorex & Wen Fong, The Story of Lady Wen Chi, Fourteenth-Century Handscroll, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1974.

2)  Sarah Hughes & Brady Hughes, Women in World History, Readings from History, Vol. 1, Prehistory to 1500, Vol. 11, 1500 - (See “Women as Pawns”)

3)  Joni Seager, The Penguin Atlas of Women in the World, 2003.

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