Outside her remarkable poems, we know very little about Yu Xuanji. Her surname, Yu, which means "fish," is unusual. Her given name, Xuanji (Hsuan-chi in Wade-Giles romanization), means something like "dark secret" or "mysterious luck." She was born around 844 and died around 871, at the age of twenty-eight. One source describes her life and work this way: 
A woman of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), from Chang'an; byname `Youwei;' second byname `Huilan.' She was fond of study and had some talent. She became a lesser wife of the official Li Yi [Li Zian]. The love between them decayed, and Xuanji became a Daoist [Taoist] nun in the Xian Yi Temple. Because a novice died from a beating administered by Xuanji for disciplinary reasons, Xuanji herself was condemned and executed. She left one book of poems. (Gwoyeu Tsyrdean [A Dictionary of the National Language]) 

Her bynames, or "courtesy names" (which are like nicknames, but more formal), mean, in the first case, "young and tiny" or "young and profound," and, in the second case, "orchid." The name of the temple she went to suggests something like "All Suitable" or "Just As It Should Be." 
        Western role names like "nun" and "concubine" (lesser wife) and courtesan" (since a number of the poems suggest that she led this life as well) are clumsy ways at best of denoting social roles and relationships that were very different from the ones we know. They fail to characterize a life that we are more likely to glimpse, if we manage it at all, by turning to the remarkable poems she left, forty-nine in number. These poems reflect her relations with men--relations that are certainly more complex and interesting than any reduction of them to sex and commercial transaction would suggest--and they also show her exploring the Daoist ideals of meditation, solitude, and contemplation of nature. Behind them stands a person who escapes stereotypes, a gifted writer who explores the limited options available to her, material and spiritual, with vigor and imagination. 
        We owe the survival of these poems to the ancient Chinese anthologists' urge to be complete. To their comprehensive period anthologies of what they thought counted most--the poems of men who were also government officials of varying degrees of importance--they couldn't resist adding curiosities: poems by ghosts, poems by monks, priests, and foreigners, even poems by women "and others whose efforts," as The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature notes, "might provide amusement." 
        So it was that Yu Xuanji's forty-nine poems survived. The story of her "murder" and "execution" was recounted some twelve years after her death, and it is told, the same source notes, "in such dramatic detail that its historical accuracy becomes suspect." The Little Tablet from Three Rivers, source of the tale, sounds a little like the contemporary equivalent of a tabloid. What the truth of this story is, we can never know. Anyone who has seen the recent Chinese film Raise the Red Lantern will have some idea of how the intrigues, betrayals, oppressions, and frustrations to which women were subjected in that culture could lead quite plausibly either to a false accusation or to an act of revenge. It is very difficult to reconcile the person behind these poems with a beating that resulted in a death, but it is not impossible, given human nature. What seems equally likely is that the story is apocryphal, or that Yu Xuanji was falsely accused. 
        We think of women as having been consistently oppressed in ancient China, subjected to rules of modesty and behavior that kept them uneducated, restricted to the household, and unable to think of themselves as gifted individuals-artists, philosophers, composers, or the like. That is far too monolithic a conception of the social and psychological reality. Rhythms of conservatism and liberality have characterized Chinese life as much as they have any other  culture. The notorious practice of foot binding, for example, did not become widespread until considerably later, in the Song Dynasty (96o-1279). In that same era, however, there were many regions in which it was common for daughters to inherit property, making generalizations about the restrictions and freedoms women suffered and enjoyed quite difficult. 
        Whether women were educated depended partly on their family and class. In a family of means, all it took was a tolerant and encouraging male or two for this to happen. Whether women were sequestered at home was mostly a class issue, too. Peasant women, for example, were not subject to the same rules and restraints, and women who lived in marginal communities--which would define both the Daoist "nuns" among whom Yu Xuanji lived and the courtesans, who usually had their own districts and domiciles, along with a degree of social freedom that came at the cost of respectability--could take more initiative concerning their own lives and behavior. 
        In fact, the Tang Dynasty happens to have been a time when women had greater freedom of choice and social mobility than was the case both earlier and later. This had partly to do with the character and lineage of the ruling Li family, and partly to do with the widespread interest in Daoism, which had become the official state religion. Daoist philosophy has always emphasized equality of being--that is why it merged well with Buddhism--and thus acted as a counterweight to Confucianism, whose rules of behavior and decorum were used to keep women tightly restricted to their households, minimally educated, and in contact mostly with just their own immediate families. 
        What is striking about Yu Xuanji, then, is that in her short and sad life she tried at least three of the available roles by which women could hope to experiment with accomplishments normally associated with male pursuits. She was a concubine in a family where her literary talents were admired and encouraged; she was a Daoist "nun" in a community where concentration on spiritual and intellectual issues was part of the way of life; and she was, apparently, a courtesan, which meant she could associate with well-to-do men, many of them highly educated and powerful, who might well appreciate her spirit and literary accomplishments as much as her personal attractiveness. We are not sure of the order and duration of these roles, but we can see from her poems that each role gave her a valuable perspective on life, and that no one of them could suffice by itself to make her the poet she became. If the sequence was from a wife to a nun/courtesan, as seems likely, even that was fortuitous: first grounding her in the literary tradition she would practice, and then freeing her to move around in her world, meeting male writers and cultivating her mind and her social talents. 
        To these changes of fortune and situation, then, we owe our sense of the range of her poetry, emotionally and experientially. Missing her husband, flirting with other writers and with lovers, and pondering spiritual truths and accomplishments--these are her poetic stock-in-trade, and their variety gives her poetry a scope and interest it might have lacked had her social options been more limited by a life lived on the terms of a single role. 
        The variety did not lead, however, to literary fame or full entry to the select circle of top literary talents, even though she knew and corresponded with some of them. Subsequent readers and commentators have not quite known what to make of a writer who had such a short life, such diverse social roles, and whose "career" was crowned with the accusation of blood guilt. The best-known anthology of Tang Dynasty poems, the one that has become a standard "Golden Treasury" of that period, includes work by women poets--more orthodox figures, it should be noted--but not by Yu Xuanji. To the drawback of her gender and her truncated career, we can add the problem of her shifting identity. 
        All this would seem to suggest that a dominant melancholy surrounds her person and her poems. Yet poets, as cases as diverse as those of Emily Dickinson and Dante Alighieri demonstrate, often thrive on disadvantages and setbacks. The odd thing is that reading Yu Xuanji's poems does not tend to underline the pathos and poignancy of her life; on the contrary, it tends to contradict such responses. What surfaces again and again is a vivid sensibility, expressing itself by full and playful participation in a rich poetic tradition. The complexity and concentration of these poems remind us that Yu Xuanji benefited enormously from coming of age in one of the richest literary periods any culture has ever known. The bonds of convention and artificial diction that had haracterized earlier poetry had been thoroughly broken by her seventh-century predecessors, and the directness, realism, and complex tonality that characterize the great achievement of Tang Dynasty poetry were hers for the taking. No one could refuse her this inspiring heritage on the basis of gender or social position. It belonged to any talented writer who cared to take it up. 
        Many of the poems, to be sure, dwell on absence, longing, and loss, as do lyric poems in any culture and period. But their original handling of theme, their inspired sense of detail, their exuberant rightness of tone and form, all counterbalance the painful subject matter with exquisite formal and aesthetic pleasure. Whether this sleight-of-hand fully compensates the poet is not the question: the reader's gift is the distillation of experience, still potent after eleven centuries. In that distillation, the resilience and dignity of the human spirit are held in a kind of suspension. The pain and pleasure mingle, not canceling each other out but simply coexisting. Two truths are told at once--that life is streaked with sorrow and loss, and that existence is a miraculous gift to the responsive spirit. 
        Chinese poetry, despite the comparative liberations of the Tang era, is nothing if not conventional. It is far less anxious than the poetry of our own time about achieving originality, and vast tracts of it, virtually indistinguishable, now lie unconsulted in those huge anthologies. Where it survives and our interest is piqued, its special pleasures are those of seeing what can be done with yet another variation on some very familiar theme: the letter of apology or invitation, the reconciliation of turbulent feelings within a tranquil or majestic landscape, the visit to a special place or person, the commemoration of a season's passing, the standard complaints about bad weather, solitude, and separation. It may well be that Yu Xuanji, from her marginal situations and her more oblique relation to what was mainly a pastime of highly educated males, was able to work her variations on these familiar themes with greater flexibility and originality. This would give her something in common with unorthodox careers like those of Li Bai (Li Po) and Li He (Li Ho), poets whose existence outside the government bureaucracy marked them as nonconformists and enhanced their ability to vary norms and depart from conventions. 
        Indeed, while there are times when she naturally complains about the hardship of combining poetic talent and womanhood, there are also times when Yu Xuanji seems to sense what we might call the advantage of her disadvantages. She is able to adopt a more teasing and playful stance toward other poets, her male friends, and lovers, because of her odd relation to them as both a fellow writer and an object of desire. Her womanhood disables her from certain kinds of fame, position, and company, but it also affords her the opportunity for the lyric transformation of pain into pleasure, loss into consolation. 
        A closer consideration of her choices of subject is informative because she often writes in response to a specific incident or situation, an occasion. We can think of classical Chinese poetry as occasional--written for and in response to a specific occasion--in at least four typical ways: (1) the address to a specific person, usually in the form of a letter; (2) the commemoration of a visit to a special place; (3) the marking of a particular event, such as a death, a victory, or an anniversary; and 4) the portrait of a specific (and also often typical) individual. Yu Xuanji's ease with each of these categories is clear in, respectively, "Love Letter to Li Zian" (p. 10), "The Zifu Temple" (p. 28), "Joining Somebody's Mourning" (p. 42), and "Tribute to a Master Alchemist" (p. 4). These categories of occasional poem are by no means mutually exclusive--a letter may commemorate a visit or a death, for example--but they help to show us the patterns of composition that Yu Xuanji practiced. 
        The largest number of her "occasional" poems constitute addresses to individuals, amounting to almost half of her small canon. I count two letters to women friends, five to her husband, Li Yi (Li Zian), and some fourteen, the largest group, to men who are, in various degrees, friends, fellow writers, and lovers (or potential lovers). When she writes to her husband, it is always to say how much she longs to be with him, and misses him. Her response to their separation is consistent and strong, and the authenticity of her emotion is unmistakable, suggesting that he was indeed the great love of her life. She thus places herself among the sorrowful, separated wives whose situations, sympathetically represented by male poets, make for some of the most moving poems in the classical Chinese tradition. Such women had even, from time to time, been given a voice by the male poets who contemplated them-Li Bai's (Li Po's) "The River Merchant's Wife, A Letter," is the most famous such example. Here, though, is a woman giving her own voice to the poem of lament and absence. She can do so in her own person, and she can do so for others. That she can write about such women with exactitude and power--"Boudoir Resentment," "Early Autumn"--is scarcely surprising, given her own circumstances. 
        At the same time, Yu Xuanji is clearly not content with the simple role of the inconsolable wife, shut up at home and grieving for her husband's absence. The poems addressed to men testify to a rich emotional life, scarcely centered on a single individual. They tease, they commend, they revel in the remembered and anticipated pleasures of feasting, exchanging poems, meeting and parting, and making love. Addressed to a gallery of very different individuals, and with varying degrees of intimacy, they characterize and commemorate affairs and friendships, they flirt, they are tartly aware of distraction and fickleness, and they show warm admiration and affection where such emotions seem warranted. 
        The formal variety should be noted too. Many of the poets of this period find a favorite form--eight five-character lines, for example--and stick to it for every poem. Within this context, Yu Xuanji exhibits a certain restlessness. Her favorite choice is eight seven-character lines (used seventeen times), followed closely by eight five-character lines (twelve examples) and four seven character lines (eleven examples). Then comes a scattering of unusual choices, used just once or twice--twelve five-character lines, twelve seven character lines, eight six-character lines (all used twice), and poems of sixteen five-character lines and twenty-four seven-character lines (one each). The match of form to subject does not feel predictable. The four-line poems feel terse, of course, and the longer poems expansive, but both are used for the full range ofher interest and attention. 
        We do not, as mentioned earlier, know the chronology to all this variety. Did Yu Xuanji turn from longing for her husband to consolation with other men? Did she move from multiple relationships into a concentration on one? Were all these experiences and emotions coterminous rather than sequential? And how much does literary convention dictate details and emotions that we are tempted to ascribe to biography and subjective emotion? There are no firm answers to such questions, but the ways in which they circulate around the poems help characterize the rich emotional world they convey.
        Less tied to specific events or people are those poems that meditate on landscape, existence, human nature, and the poet's conflicting and resolving emotions. Her next largest category of poems, after those composed as letters, can be characterized as meditations centered on places. They combine, as so often in classical Chinese poetry, a prospect of scenery and history, time and space, with introspection and an urge to arrive at some kind of philosophical overview. I count some sixteen or seventeen poems that seem to belong to this category. They vary considerably in length and scope, in focus and tone, but quite often they conclude with a sense of the mixed quality of human life, its interpenetrating spheres of joy and sorrow, love and loss. The poems in this group, quite naturally, introduce us to the Daoist values the poet explored and embraced: a joyous understanding of the panorama of existence, in all its relativity and mystery, and a peace of mind achieved through meditation and enlarged perspectives, accepting what cannot be changed.  Again, the human wisdom of these poems, as in "Living in the Mountains in the Summer," and "Curing Yourself When Lovesick," while it relies on received ideas of the time, feels remarkably authoritative in a writer so youthful.  One feels that there were times when Yu Xuanji was able to come successfully to terms with her world, in all its intricacy and instability, and that she prized those moments for the way they could inform her poems and her life, in equal measures. 
        Chinese poetry works on parallelisms, which differ in significant ways from our concepts of the figurative, such as symbol, metaphor, simile, and metonymy. All these latter terms imply some kind of hierarchy, involving the literal, or "real," and the figurative, usually at one remove from direct experience and always in danger of being dismissed as rhetorical ornamentation. The likenesses, or rhymings, on which Chinese poetry is based--and much modern and postmodern poetry has taken its cues from this insight--dispense with hierarchy and with the literal/figurative distinction. Things are simply presented in a juxtaposed fashion so that our awareness may explore their similarities and differences. The literal and the figurative are always present, in a simultaneous fashion. Thus a mention of "willow" will invoke "parting" because of the custom of giving willow branches as a token of sorrow in farewell. The sexual properties and analogies connected to flowers are never entirely absent from their mention, but they are also never the sole point. In "Selling the Last Peonies," for example, the poet is obviously talking about beautiful young women, but it is just as clear that she is literally talking about her culture's prizing of this flower: 

who can afford these peonies? 
their price is much too high 

their arrogant aroma 
even intimidates butterflies 

flowers so deeply red 
they must have been grown in a palace 

leaves so darkly green 
dust scarcely dares to settle there . . .

This is a rendering of four lines, treating each line as a free-verse couplet stanza in English. Each line/couplet is paired with its neighbor, and then the pairings are paired, so that the principle of juxtaposition spreads outward. First there is the implied link of peonies to desirable women, then the idea that high prices for them correspond to a perfume too strong even for butterflies, an insight that is next compared to the correlation/contrast of the blossoms' red color and the concentrated green of the leaves. Intensity of beauty and of being, almost to excess, is the organizing principle throughout.  Meanwhile, the way of characterizing the color ("grown in a palace") glances back ward to the idea of expensiveness and forward to the poem's teasing conclusion: 
if you wait till they're transplanted 
to the Imperial Gardens 

then you, young lords, will find 
you have no means to buy them.

We had "young lords of longing" at one point, but decided that the point was already well made in the rest of the poem. The poem's procedure is quite typical: the reader is invited to explore a number of parallels and possibilities without feeling too heavily constrained by the poem's "point" or "message." It is possible to simply admire the peonies, in their extravagance and beauty, and it is possible to feel that flowers that intimidate butterflies may tend dangerously toward the counterproductive. Creative response is required of us, and to read such an open and subtly constructed text is to explore and interpret for ourselves. The teasing tone, the wistful recognition that beauty of any kind is expensive, rare, and ephemeral, the complicit sympathy coupled with the note of mockery: all these are typical of Yu Xuanji's poetic voice and afforded by the principles of juxtaposition and parallelism that are integral parts of the poetic tradition within which she writes. 
        Besides parallelism, which presents an ever-interesting challenge to the translator, Chinese poems from the Tang offer a particular obstacle to successful rendering: their use of allusions-to other poems, to famous incidents and names from history and folklore, and to geography that is charged with associations built up by poetry, religious worship, and popular lore. The principle of parallelism is at work here too. Why not mention some famous character or incident while exploring parallels and letting the play of association establish a field of meaning for the reader to occupy? The problem, of course, for Western readers, is an absence of the cultural context that makes the allusions meaningful. 
        The answer, in some cases, is to detour around them. In others, a form of substitution may be effective. In addition, we have provided notes to the poems. They identify some of the more obscure allusions and thus clarify the places where we decided to keep proper names or culture-specific references. If to be a good reader of Chinese poetry requires creativity on a reader's part, it also requires a willingness to learn gradually about the civilization that produced such remarkable work. 
       I came to this project with a love for Chinese poetry and the experience of translating it that is chiefly represented in my collection, Five Tang Poets. The project began as a collaboration with Tang Tao, a former Oberlin student, but she withdrew early on, and my partner in the enterprise became my friend and colleague, Jiann I. Lin, Oberlin's East Asian Librarian. His knowledge of the tradition and his patience in retrieving obscurities have been indispensable. He also provided the entire input of traditional Chinese characters, using a computer program to select characters that would be faithful to the classical texts. 
        As far as we know, no one has attempted to bring all of Yu Xuanji's poems together in English. Kenneth Rexroth included four of her poems in his Women Poets of China (1972). Other anthologies represent her even more briefly, if at all. There is an odd kind of biography, now forgotten. In 1936, Genevieve Wimsatt published a curious little volume, Selling Wilted Peonies, an attempt, necessarily conjectural and fictional, at reconstructing the poet's life. This "biography" contains versions of many of the poems; to say that they lack distinction as poems in English is to put the matter charitably: Nevertheless, Wimsatt's book, which was published by Columbia University Press, represents an early attempt to recognize this poet's importance. 

Oberlin, Ohio July 1997 
David Young


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