Be they wandering drunks, stately mandarins, or navel-gazing monks, Chinese poets have long been presented as a men’s club, and little wonder. Up until the last hair’s width on China’s timeline, literate women were rarer than hen’s teeth, and education for women seen as at best a risky indulgence. Exceptions abound over such a long span of years, of course. Taoist priestesses, daughters of radically-minded officials, and even high-class courtesans learned not only to write, but to write poetry, the latter for greater reputation among their cultivated clientele. Following, a two-thousand year range of verse by remarkable and talented Chinese women.
Lady Ho (circa 300 BCE)
When the Duke of Sung arrested former retainer Han Pin and forced Lady Ho to marry him, she wrote this poem and then hung herself.
Song of Magpies
There are magpies on the South hill.
You set your net on the North hill.
The magpies soar free.
What good is your net?
When a pair of magpies fly together
They do not envy the pair of phoenixes.
My lord I am a common person –
I do not envy the Duke of Sung.
Cai Yen (162 – 239 CE)
The daughter of writer Cai Yi, himself a friend of the legendary Cao Cao, Cai Yen is considered the first great Chinese woman poet. Far from leading a scholastic life, she was captured by a Hun chieftain, to whom she bore two sons, before Cao Cao ransomed her and married her to one of his officers.
From 18 Verses Sung to a Tatar Reed Whistle
I was born in a time of peace,
But later the mandate of Heaven
Was withdrawn from the Han Dynasty.
Heaven was pitiless.
It sent down confusion and separation.
Earth was pitiless.
It brought me to birth in such a time.
War was everywhere. Every road was dangerous.
Soldiers and civilians everywhere
Fleeing death and suffering.
Smoke and dust clouds obscured the land
Overrun by the ruthless Tatar bands.
Our people lost their will power and integrity.
I can never learn the ways of the barbarians.
I am daily subject to violence and insult.
I sing one stanza to my lute and a Tatar horn.
But no one knows my agony and grief.
Yu Suanqi (mid-ninth century CE)
Born in the Tang capital, Chang An, Yu Suanqi became the concubine of an official, Li Yi. His jealous wife tortured her and drove her from the house. She became a wandering Taoist priestess who nonetheless took many lovers, including poets Wen Feiqing and Li Cun. She was executed after being accused of murdering her maid.
On a Visit to Chung Chen Temple I See in the South Hall a List of Successful Candidates in the Imperial Examinations
Cloud capped peaks fill the eyes
In the Spring sunshine.
Their names are written in beautiful characters
And posted in order of merit.
How I hate this silk dress
That conceals a poet.
I lift my head and read their names
In powerless envy.
*the imperial examinations were never, with a few exceptions, open to women
Qu Shuchen (early twelfth century CE)
Although considered a rival to contemporaneous poet Li Qingchao, Qu Shuchen left few clues to her story, only that her father was a Zhejiang official, and that she was a friend of the Lady Wei.
My jade body, like my gold hairpins,
Is still as lovely as it was that evening
When for the first time,
You turned me away from the lamplight
And unfastened the belt
Of my embroidered skirt.
Now our quilts and pillows are cold,
And the incense of that evening has long faded.
Behind the closed doors of the deep courtyard
Spring is silent and lonely.
Flowers fall with the rain, all the long night.
Agony mingles with my dreams
And makes me still more helpless
Huang O (1498-1569 CE)
The daughter of a high-ranking Ming court official, Huang O lived in a time when erotic novels and bawdy plays enjoyed both public and government approval. Nonetheless, poetry with an erotic bent was the province only of men, courtesans, and Huang O.
The Fall of a Little Wild Goose
Once upon a time I was
Beautiful and seductive,
Wavering to and fro in
Our orchid scented bedroom.
You and me together tangled
In our incense filled gauze
Bed curtains. I trembled,
Held in your hands. You carried
Me in your heart wherever
You went. Suddenly
A bullet struck down the female
Mandarin duck. The music
Of the jade zither was forgotten.
The phoenixes were driven apart.
I sit alone in a room
Filled with Spring, and you are off,
Making love with someone else,
Happy as two fish in the water.
That insufferable little bitch
With her coy tricks!
She’d better not forget –
This old witch can still
Make a furious scene!
Qiu Qin (1879 – 1907 CE)
After the birth of her children Qiu in left her family, went to Japan to study, and there joined Sun Yatsen’s revolutionary party, soon rising to its leadership. When the Manchu government arrested her, her poems were used as evidence of treason, and she was beheaded.
A Call to Action
Without warning their nest
Has become dangerous to the swallows.
Our homeland, grown old, suffers
Under heavy burdens –
From the East the constant threat of invasion,
From the West, threats of devious plotting.
Scholars, throw away your brushes!
Secluded women, take up arms!
Only heroes can save us this time.
Together we can hold back
The flooding waves.
Cheng Lin (1945 -)
Born in Chongqing but raised in Taiwan, Cheng Lin emigrated to the United States in 1967, where she completed a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin.
The Fall of Moon Lady
Before the landing of Apollo X
Girl in the moon, are you sorry
You stole the herb of immortality,
And night after night have to
Watch over the distant emerald sea
And the boundless jeweled sky?
It’s the tragedy of us gods
Capable of foreseeing the future.
Tomorrow, shining with metallic pride,
They will arrive to take over my home.
Tomorrow, I will hear from the trial of 4000 years:
Life detention is my sentence.
Don’t you see thousands of dead souls
Whirled in black fumes
Hastily coming to mourn over my fate?
As hastily as those long-ceased stars
That bent forward with their gleaming eyes
To stare at my ascension.
Tomorrow I will sink into darkness
Like a wing-broken china bird
Falling toward midnight.