(This introduction is a greatly abridged version of a longer write-up on Asymptote.)
The Tang Dynasty poetess Yu Xuanji lived roughly between the years 844 and 868 in the capital city of of Chang’an (present-day Xi’an). She was executed in her early to mid-twenties for the murder of one of her maids. One volume of Yu’s poems was supposedly published in her lifetime, but this has been lost. The poems we do have with us today, and which I have translated here, are taken from the massive 1703 anthology Complete Tang Poems. It is likely she wrote more, but this is all we have.
Yu’s poems are fascinating in their lyric intensity even as they give us a view into her short, tumultous life. Yu Xuanji managed to fill multiple roles outside of the traditional social order: first as courtesan, then as abandoned concubine, and finally as Daoist nun. It is her time as a courtesan we have to thank for her poetry: “respectable” women of the period had no need to be literate and were often deliberately kept uneducated, while courtesans needed to keep their guests entertained with every tool at their disposal. Poetry was simply one of many means to this end.
Around the age of sixteen, Yu became a concubine to Censor Li Yi. Marriage was one of the few ways by which a woman of the pleasure district could leave it, and courtesans therefore often tried to attract men who would make honest women of them. Yu Xuanji seems to have genuinely loved and cared for Li Yi; unfortunately for her, concubinage was not the same thing as marriage, and Li Yi eventually abandoned Yu while travelling in the south of China.
Dejected and penniless, Yu lived alone in the mountains for a while before returning to Chang’an, where she eventually entered a Daoist convent. She does seem to have embraced religious ideals for a while; Daoist temples, however, were widely seen as hotbeds of moral laxity, and Daoist clergy were not above using sex as a technique for physical cultivation and the pursuit of immortality.
As a woman living beyond the pale of the traditional social order, Yu’s reputation in China has historically been that of a specimen of wayward womanhood. The earliest extant biography we have of Yu Xuanji — by her contemporary Huangfu Mei — is dedicated to a sensationalized tale of the circumstances leading to Yu’s execution for murder, and seems to have been deliberately designed to shock and scandalize its audience. We have no way of knowing whether the events it recounts are true. But we can say for sure that Yu Xuanji was a woman who did not fit in with the morals and standards of her time; she was a woman who sought to approach the life of the body, the spirit, and the mind on her own terms. She paid the price for it, and left behind a small body of work which seems surprisingly vivid and sorrowful to us today. Although it is work which deserves to be read on its own merits, its author’s life and circumstances make it doubly fascinating.
The Complete Poems of Yu Xuanji
A poem for the willows by the river
Jade green stretches by the river’s barren banks;
misty clouds dance themselves into distant mansions.
Reflections unfold upon the autumn river;
flowers fall on the heads of fishermen.
Old roots hide the haunts of fishes;
branches bend to moor visiting boats.
The night sighs and sighs with wind and rain,
and unsettling dreams only deepen my gloom.
Sent to a neighbour girl
I block the shame of daylight with a silken sleeve,
too listless to get dressed this melancholy spring.
It’s easy to come by a pearl without price;
what’s hard is to find a lover with a heart.
Hidden teardrops fall on my pillow,
my heart breaks secretly among the flowers—
but still I can peep at Song Yu;
why then regret Wang Chang?
To Guo Xiang
From dawn to dusk I’m drunk and singing,
lovesick with every new spring.
There’s a messenger with letters in the rain;
there’s a broken-hearted girl by the window.
Rolling up beaded blinds, I see mountains;
each sorrow’s renewed like the grass.
Since last we parted, at your feasts
how often has the rafter dust fallen?
To the Perfect Master
Rosy clouds cut into clothing,
fragrant incense from embroidered veils:
the flowers and leaves of the lotus are __,
the __ cloak of the landscape is thin.
Halt your steps—hear the orioles singing,
open the cage—let the crane fly free.
Sleep in spring in the high hall!
Wake to the heavy dusk rain.
To Grand Secretary Liu
The Eight Ministries control the valiant troops;
songs and carols fill the road anew.
On the River Fen, third-month rains;
on the Jin River, a hundred-flower spring.
Prisons and jails have been locked up empty;
weapons of war are now covered in dust.
Scholars and monks watch Midnight perform;
visiting guests get drunk on scarlet mats.
The brush and inkstone move at ease in your hand;
poems and letters sit surrounding you.
Even those of minor talent are well cared for;
they are men who may dine on fish.
As the states of Wu and Yue piled plot upon plot,
the silk-washing goddess offered ease;
a pair of laughing dimples turned the prince’s head,
and a hundred thousand soldiers let fall their shining spears.
Fan Li, successful, became a recluse;
Wu Xu died for his advice. His country was wiped out.
And yet, today, by the long river at Zhuji,
there’s nothing but a green hill named Zhu Luo.
Selling wilted peonies
Facing the wind, she raises a sigh as the petals fall and fall;
fragrant thoughts all sink and vanish with yet another spring.
No one asks about them because their price is high,
though even butterflies can’t match the sweetness of their fragrance.
These red petals should have grown in the palace,
jade leaves tainted by the dust of the road—
if only they were moved into the imperial gardens,
young nobles would regret having no means to buy!
Thanking Scholar Li for his gift of a bamboo mat
The precious mat is newly spread in my kingfisher-green chamber,
a deep, clear river of jade turning at right angles.
Yet surely it must share the feelings of the cloudlike fan,
facing the silver bed together, fearing an early autumn.
A love letter (To Li Zi’an)
Eating ice, chewing bark, wishes unfulfilled;
Jin River, Hu Pass—only in my dreams.
Although I’d split the mirror, I fear the magpie’s flight;
although I’d play the qin, I resent the flying geese.
By the well, paulownia leaves sing of autumn rain;
beneath the window, silver lamps are darkened by dawn breeze.
Where in all the world may one ask after a letter?
My lines are cast all day, but the green river remains empty.
Hands full of herbs, I weep at slanting sunbeams,
hearing that the husband next door has returned.
The day we parted, southern geese had just begun to fly north;
this morning, northern geese are flying south again.
Spring comes, autumn goes, lovesickness remains;
autumn goes, spring comes; letters remain scarce.
My vermilion doors are barred, and no one comes.
Only the sound of fulling-stones passes my bed curtains.
Spring feelings (to Zi’an)
The mountain paths are steep and sheer, the stones are dangerous,
but the journey doesn’t grieve me; I grieve from lovesickness.
Ice melts in distant streams—I miss your clear voice;
snowy, distant mountain peaks—I think of your jade form.
Don’t listen to street songs or get drunk with wine in spring;
cease to entertain idle guests. Don’t long for chess at night.
Our union will endure as the rocks and pines;
we’re paired wings, joined lapels; we can bear delay.
Though it’s sad to walk alone on the last day of winter,
we’ll finally meet again when the moon is full.
Parted now, what may I send as a gift?
Fallen tears glittering on a poem.
Firm, round, clean, smooth, the ball’s a shooting star;
crescent-sticks are struggling to strike without pause.
When there’s no obstruction, they flick the ball about;
when the way is blocked, they keep it in the hook.
Don’t be afraid to bend and turn; keep the ball at hand;
fear only lest you miss a shot at your opponent’s goal.
Send it through the arch at last! Bring this to an end;
I hope your struggle wins you the very first prize.
Feelings at the end of spring (sent to a friend)
The voices of orioles wake me from sad dreams;
light makeup hides the tear-stains on my face.
The bamboo grove is shadowy in the moon’s faint light;
the River lies silent beneath the night’s thick mist.
Swallows are wet-beaked from carrying mud;
bees are sweet-whiskered from gathering pollen.
I alone am pitiful, in my endless longing.
I’ll sing no more of pines with laden limbs.
To Wen Feiqing on a winter’s night
In bitter longing I sought poems to recite beneath the lamp,
sleepless through the long nights, fearing a cold quilt.
Leaves strewn across the courtyard lamented when winds rose;
through gauze window curtains I grieved at the setting moon.
Thoughts scattered and released, at last I found fulfillment:
through the emptiness of rise and fall, I saw True Mind.
Now roosting in seclusion, away from paulownias,
an evening sparrow twitters, simply circling the grove.
In response to Li Ying’s poem “Returning from fishing on a summer’s day”
Though we live on the same lane,
we haven’t met all year;
now clear words urge your old girlfriend
to pluck a new cassia twig.
But the Way’s nature is like frozen snow;
the Zen heart laughs at delicate silks.
My steps have mounted to the vastness of heaven
where no roads cross the misty waves.
Written using the rhyme-words of my new neighbour to the west, and humbly asking him to share some wine
A poem arrives; I chant it a hundred times,
fresh feelings making each word sound golden.
Already, looking west, I feel like climbing the wall;
I gaze into the distance, but my heart won’t turn to stone.
The Star Festival draws near, but in the distance I see nothing;
my dreams of the south are broken; I’ve stopped tuning the qin.
Thoughts of home increase as the cold season approaches.
Good wine on a quiet night shouldn’t be poured alone.
With a friend, using the same rhyme-words
What could dispel the gloom of staying in an inn?
Opening a red letter, I see silver strokes.
Rain on Penglai Mountain makes a thousand peaks seem small;
Xie Valley winds blow a thousand leaves into autumn.
I read each word at daybreak, more precious than jasper;
I chant page after page at night under quilts.
I’ll keep your letter tucked away in a scented chest,
but I’ll take it in hand to recite now and then.
With a new graduate, grieving over the loss of his wife: two poems
Immortals don’t remain long in the world of men;
suddenly you’ll find ten autumns have gone past.
Incense will still be warm beneath mandarin-duck curtains;
conversation won’t cease in the parrot’s cage.
Morning dew dots the flowers like a sorrowful face;
The night wind bends the willows like melancholy eyebrows.
Coloured clouds, once gone, leave no word behind;
Pan Yue is full of love, though his hair grows white.
A sprig of moon cassia blends with grace into the mist;
a thousand river peach trees grow red with drops of rain.
Get drunk with the winecup! Leave these thoughts of loss;
joy and sorrow in the past were as they are today.
Visiting Lofty-Truth Monastery and viewing the names of new graduates at the south tower
Cloudy peaks fill my eyes this clear spring;
Silver strokes spring to life beneath my fingertips.
How I hate this silken gown which obscures my poetry!
Uselessly I envy the names on the list.
Falling leaves fill the evening, mingling with the rain;
I stroke vermilion strings alone, sing a pure song.
I let go my resentment at having no soulmate;
I cultivate my character, leave the bitter sea’s waves.
Wealthy people’s carriages pass outside the dark gate;
piles of Daoist books lie stacked before my pillow.
Commonly clad once, now a traveller of the sky,
at times still I pass green waters, verdant hills.
I sigh—so many sentiments crowd my heart with sorrow,
even as the wind and moon fill the autumn courtyard.
The bedchamber—so close to the watch-drum’s sound.
Night by night before the lamp my hair grows white.
The River holds Wuchang in the crook of its arm.
At Parrot Island—look!—the doors of ten thousand homes.
Spring sleep in a pleasure barge isn’t done by morning.
I dream that I’m a butterfly seeking flowers too.
Misty flowers drift now into Cormorant Harbour,
though the painted barge still skirts Parrot Island.
Drunk we sleep, awake we sing, quite aware of nothing,
till morning surprises us at the Han River’s mouth.
Sent as a gift, upon hearing that Censor Li has returned from fishing
Your summer robe’s been perfumed by endless lotus fields;
from whence have you returned, Master Ruan, with your boat?
How I wish we could match what the partnered mandarin ducks
have for themselves, as they swim paired by your fishing stone.
On Master Ren’s founding of Blessings-Bestowed Temple
The recluse has established a marvellous place
for travellers to rest on their way;
the whitewashed walls are still uninscribed,
the lotus hall still lacks a name.
You dig a pond—a spring emerges;
you open a path—grass grows anew.
The Gold Wheel Pagoda, a hundred feet high,
facing the river, opens eyes to the light.
A fog-shrouded pavilion
Spring flowers and the autumn moon enter into poems;
bright days and clear nights suit immortal hermits.
Idly, once, I raised my blinds—never let them fall;
moved my couch instead to sleep facing the mountains.
Held up by rain on the Double Ninth
The hall’s full of chrysanthemums plucked by the fence;
two lotus blossoms are blooming in the mirror.
I’m at Fallen-Hat Pagoda, held up by wind and rain;
where may I go now to get drunk from cups of gold?
Chrysanthemums—so delicate—are filled with new colours.
Evening mist shrouds the distant lazy hills.
A cool wind is rustling among emerald treetops;
pure notes are passing through vermilion strings.
Here’s a loving wife, lost in her weaving;
her husband marches at the edge of the sky—
wild geese fly. Fish swim.
So too do letters pass on.
Sending a letter to express my feelings
All my anguish passes into these vermilion strings
as I hold my thoughts back, keep my feelings in.
Had I only known the nature of our tryst of wind and rain
I’d never even have bothered to rouse my orchid heart.
The peach and the plum shine so brightly;
I won’t encumber such a statesman’s way.
The pine and the cassia, so green,
long ever for the world’s admiration.
Moonlight falls cleanly on the moss-covered stairs,
deep in the bamboo courtyard there’s the sound of a song—
but I won’t sweep the leaves from the ground before my gate
till someone comes at last who knows my melody.
On a meeting with a friend called off because of rain
The goose and the fish have borne meaningless letters;
the banquet laments our lack of a meeting.
Closing the door to my moonlit cage
I raise the blinds, tattered and threadbare:
nearby springs are singing in their channels,
distant waves brim the river’s banks.
Homesick and sad, this autumn traveller
unhappily chants her five-character poems.
Visiting Master Zhao and not finding him
Where might you be, with your immortal companions?
Only your servant is home;
you’ve left herbs cooking on the warm brazier,
tea leaves brewing in the next courtyard.
The painted walls start to fade in the lamplight,
your flagstaff’s shadow begins to slant—
again and again I look around,
but beyond the wall, only flowers.
Expressing my feelings
At leisure at last, free from care, alone I wander this landscape
where the moon shines through scattered clouds over the river;
there’s a boat, ropes undone, adrift on the sea.
On the qin I play a tune of Xiaoliang Temple;
I chant poems about Yuliang Tower.
Bamboo groves make worthy companions,
and stone slabs will do for friends;
swallows and sparrows are good enough for me;
my heart doesn’t long for silver and gold.
My cup is filled with spring wine;
quietly the window gazes on the moonlit night.
I tread on stepping stones clear in the pure water;
my hairpin, drawn out, glistens in the stream.
I lie in bed with books strewn everywhere,
rising at times, half-drunk, to brush my hair.
Sent to Feiqing
By the stone steps, a confusion of crickets;
out in the courtyard, misty dewdrenched branches.
Music from the house next door echoes in the moonlight;
Hills seen from the room above shimmer in the distance.
A cool breeze softly strokes the precious bamboo mat;
the jadelike qin pours forth sorrow.
It seems that you, sir, are too lazy to write letters;
lesser things, I guess, will have to soothe these autumn feelings.
Passing by Ezhou
Willows brush the orchid oars; flowers load down limbs;
boats pass slowly in the dusk beneath Stone City’s wall.
Qu Yuan’s grave is there on Broken-Tablet Peak;
there’s a prefect’s flag flying on Distant-Flame Mountain.
The white snow’s high tune tells of ancient temples;
sunlit spring’s song is taking on new words.
Mochou’s ghost has gone to pursue purer rivers.
Travellers fill the space she left with ten thousand poems.
In summer, living in the mountains
I’ve moved to this dwelling fit for immortals,
artless flower blossoms blooming everywhere.
Before the hall, clothes hang on a forked tree;
I sit by the spring, drifting winecups along.
Corridor rails fade into deep bamboo paths;
silken gowns lie draped over clumsy stacks of books.
Lazing in a pleasure boat, I sing to the bright moon,
trusting to the gentle breeze to blow me back again.
Scribbled in a moment at the end of spring
A deep lane, a poor door; few companions now;
handsome lovers stay with me only in my dreams.
The scent of a perfumed gown!—oh, who is celebrating?—
Songs, carried on the wind!—from whose chamber now?
Drumbeats in the street nearby cut short my morning sleep;
magpies in the garden interrupt my springtime sorrows.
How can I keep following these affairs of the world,
drifting for a thousand miles like an untethered boat?
Elegy written on someone’s behalf
A young peach calls to mind her face and jadelike posture;
willow branches in the breeze retrace her moth-eyebrows.
The pearl is back in the dragon’s cave—who can see it now?
The phoenix is gone, though the mirror remains—who now will hear it sing?
Sad dreams from now on will fill the misty, rainy nights;
how inexpressible the bitterness of these lonely hours!
The sun sets on the western hills, there’s moonlight in the east,
but these thoughts of sorrow go on, never coming to an end.
Rhyming with someone else’s poem
Without a friend, how endlessly the Nine Streets go on;
I’ve been out from dawn to dusk pawning my embroidered gowns.
My box mirror’s darkened, my curls are disheveled;
the incense burner’s warm, but the scent of musk is thin.
How lovingly, kind sir, you left your springtime poem,
though thoughtlessly I closed my doors to the day.
Don’t be displeased at having to ride here in your carriage twice;
willows and plum blossoms, after all, are fragrant now.
Sent across the Han River to Zi’an
Sadly I gaze south and north of the river,
singing of lovesickness in vain;
mandarin ducks sit warm on the sandbank,
lovebirds fly lazy in the tangerine grove.
The sound of singing is lost in the mist,
the crossing lies sunken in moonlight—
but whether it’s a few feet or a thousand miles,
desolate, I listen to families fulling.
Red peaches everywhere the colour of spring;
jade willows by every house gleam in the moonlight.
A freshly made-up woman waits upstairs for nightfall;
another sits lonely in her room, filled with love.
Beneath the moon, fish are playing among the lotuses;
from a distant rainbow, the sound of sparrows chirping.
Human life—a dream of joy and sorrow mingled;
why is it that, gaining one, the other also comes?
Sent to Zi’an while gazing unhappily into the distance at Jiangling
Maple leaves: a thousand—no, ten thousand—branches;
a bridge hides slow sails reflected in the dusk.
Longing for you, my heart is like this western river’s water,
flowing eastward day and night, without ever resting.
Sent to Zi’an
A thousand farewell cups won’t wash away my sorrow;
my heart’s tied in a hundred knots that cannot be undone.
Orchids pass on to their rest; they won’t return till spring.
Willows to the east and west hinder visiting boats.
Meeting, parting—alas for this fickleness of clouds!
True affection ought to be an endless flowing river.
I know that in this flower season it’s hard for us to meet,
but I won’t keep swaying drunk on this jade terrace.
I spent those nights of comfort in the Qin Tower
without ever realising my lover had to go…
Waking now, I don’t ask where the clouds have gone;
round the lamp, now almost spent, a wild moth is circling.
Welcoming Squire Li Jingren
How fortunate today to hear the happy magpie!
I watched the lamp blossom all night long.
I’ve lighted incense, gone out the door to greet Pan Yue;
I don’t envy the cowherd or his weaver maid.
Water fits itself to the vessel that contains it.
Clouds drift artlessly, not thinking of return.
Spring breezes bear sorrow over the Chu river at dusk:
separated from the flock, a lone duck is flying.
Zuo Mingchang, coming from Zezhou to the capital, sends a messenger
I’ve stayed here idle, writing poems through these years of sorrow;
that journey past Wangwu Mountain was a long time ago now.
I chant poems like a thousand tangled peaks to east and west,
like a horse following a stream from the south to the north.
At a banquet one rainy evening we kept each other company;
after parting, now, I climb the stairs alone in the flower season.
Sudden joy: a knock on the door bringing word from you
to this quiet lonely house in its sad little lane.
Xiangru gave up his qin, breaking the vermilion strings;
a pair of swallows break their nest in the white dew of autumn.
Come and visit when you can! Don’t mind this rustic gate;
every spring’s a busy one along the Qujiang river.
Harmonizing with someone else’s rhyme-words
Purple and vermilion clash in the noisy world of men;
left alone, I sing pure songs in the sunlight.
So why have you, good sir, gathered these fine sentiments
and come knocking suddenly at my closed brushwood gate?
White blossoms make me sing, but I’m no Xie Daoyun;
I live deep in a back lane like a fool, like Yen Hui.
There’s no need for all these words of longing and desire.
The place where the pine dwells is first among mountains.
Guang, Wei, and Pou, three sisters orphaned in their youth, wrote a set of incomparable verses after they had grown beautiful. Even the Xie family’s verses on the snow wouldn’t be able to add anything to it. A visitor from the capital showed it to me, and I’ve written this poem based on their rhyme-words.
I’d long heard that little was lovely in the south,
but now I’ve learnt of these three sisters in the east;
together in the dressing-room they read the “Fu on Parrots”;
seated by jade windows they embroider phoenix robes.
Carefully they pick crimson blossoms in the garden,
raising cups of clear green wine one after the other.
Perhaps they were once fairy maidens by the Jade Pond,
sent in punishment to the dusty world—but not as men!
Wenji had beauty, yet endured comparison;
Xishi was wordless, yet I feel more ashamed.
an alluring melody floats faint from their zithers
as they touch the strings lightly, singing softly.
Before the mirror they vie against each other’s silken tresses,
wear jade-white hairpins in competition with the moon.
In the Fairy Cave, dew drips from pine trees;
in the Highest Heaven, mist envelops willows.
But as long as one has a mind for love
there’s no need to fear ignorance of the flute story.
Mama’s scolded them for exchanging words among the flowers
with handsome men who’ve met them a few times in their dreams.
A momentary encounter with their pure verse is heartbreaking;
for a glimpse of their loveliness even death would be sweet.
Gazing sadly, I wonder what will become of them;
the passing clouds drift to the north, to the south.
Breaking willow twigs
Morning after morning I say goodbye,
crying into my gilded hairpin;
the willow twigs have been plucked bare
in the spring breeze and mist.
How I wish West mountain
didn’t have any trees.
Then I’d be spared these tears,
Bearing lighted incense, I mount the Jade Altar,
bearing the tablet of the Gold Palace.
The bright moon shines through a quiet crack.
A fresh breeze blows my short gown open.
The path is lovely with spring, gazing far;
a precious motif, bearing many spring feelings.
All this effort, yet no word.
Scarlet tears fall one after another.
Clouds of unhappy passion struggle in one dream against each other.
The immortals’ faces bloom forever, beyond even the flowers.