Scholars are agreed that the most significant literary development of the O Chien-an period, which coincided with the collapse of the Eastern Han empire, was the rise of the five word poem to a position of dominance in the field of Chinese poetry. Ts'ao Chih (A.D. 192–232) probably made the greatest individual contribution to the emergence of this verse form. It is my purpose to discuss the way in which he made use of a particular theme, that of the neglected wife, in his five word poetry.
The theme of the neglected wife is a very old one. It is only one variation of what might be called the sexual allegory for the relationship between minister and ruler. As such, its origins can be traced to the earliest Chinese literature. As Hellmut Wilhelm has remarked: “According to the symbolism of the Book of Changes, the official stands to the ruler in the relationship of Yin to Yang. Love affairs are therefore frequently used to symbolize a ruler-official relationship.” Although the love songs in the Shih ching probably originated in folk tradition, the accepted Confucian interpretation made the woman typify the minister and the lover the prince.