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:
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])
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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:
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 . . .
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
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.
if you wait till they're transplanted
to the Imperial Gardens
then you, young lords, will find
you have no means to buy them.
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.
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.
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
Oberlin, Ohio July 1997
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