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A Selection from Jade Mirror

Michael Farman

A selection from Jade Mirror, a new anthology of poetry by women of China, edited by Michael Farman. This anthology covers a time span of over two millennia and features eleven women poets, some well known and some lesser known, plus some ancient anonymous women’s verses. In some cases two of our contributors present translations from the same poet, an intriguing opportunity to compare methods of rendering Chinese poetry in contemporary English.

The translators

  • Michael Farman: Retired engineer, long fascinated by Chinese poetry.
  • Grace S. Fong:  Professor of Chinese Literature in the Department of East Asian Studies, McGill University.
  • Emily Goedde:  Ph.D candidate in the Department of  Comparative Literature, University of Michigan,
  • Jeanne Larsen:  Author and Professor of Creative Writing at Hollins University.
  • Geoffrey Waters: Banker and translator who died in 2007, leaving many fine unfinished or unpublished translations.

 

From the Book of Odes (c600 BCE)

Translated by Michael Farman
China’s most ancient surviving poetry collection. The section known as “Airs of the States” includes folk poems in which anonymous women’s voices can be heard.

Cicadas

How cicadas chattered,
how katydids were jumping!
I couldn’t find my man
and how my heart is aching!
If only I could see him,
if only I could be with him
my heart would be at rest.

Climbing that southern hill,
I went to gather bracken.
I couldn’t find my man
and how my heart is grieving!
If only I could see him,
if only I could be with him
my heart would now be singing.

Climbing that southern hill,
I went to gather ferns.
I couldn’t find my man
and how my heart is shattered!
If only I could see him,
if only I could be with him
my heart would be at peace.

Gathering the Beggarweed

Gathering the beggarweed
among the meadows of the Mei,
what man is on my mind?
That handsome eldest son of Jiang!
Make a date in Sanzhong,
meet me in Shanguan
and say goodbye on the banks of the Qi.

Gathering the barleycorn
along the north side of the Mei,
what man is on my mind?
That handsome eldest son of Yi!
Make a date in Sanzhong,
meet me in Shanguan
and say goodbye on the banks of the Qi.

Gathering the turnip-rape
along the east side of the Mei,
what man is on my mind?
That handsome eldest son of Yong!
Make a date in Sanzhong,
meet me in Shanguan
and say goodbye on the banks of the Qi.

Lamb’s Wool Coat

Carefree in your lamb’s wool coat,
formal in your fox fur,
how could I not be smitten?
Oh, the agony!

Idle in your lamb’s wool coat,
festive in your fox fur,
how could I not be smitten?
Oh, the torment!

Shining in your lamb’s wool coat,
splendid as the sunrise,
how could I not be smitten?
Oh, the suffering!

Shangguan Wan’er (664-710)

Translated by Jeanne Larsen

Shanguan’s literary skill earned her a prominent position at the court of the notorious Tang Dynasty Empress Wu. She later became a consort to the Empress’s son Zhongzong. Despite her many official engagements, she found time to write poetry and enthusiastically promote literary activities. In the conspiracy that followed Zhonzong’s death, Shanguan was beheaded, but the succeeding emperor collected and published her poetry.

From Twenty-Five Poems upon Traveling to the Changning Princess’s Floating Wine Cup Pond

#5

branches, twigs    thick-thriving, lush:
design & substance    well refined
in company    of hillside groves
moon-trees, pines    shall grace, stand guard

#13
leaning on    her hiking stick
she looks at summits    gone
sunrise-red    her steps
precarious    walks
down    on the frost-touched
trail.    what    she wants
is to take off after
a stillness     of unplumbed
hills    her path     to follow
the cove-creek’s    curves
to lose her    way.
in time she awakes    to ease
of spirit    of mind    in one
flash sees    fog    sees clouds
all drop away.    don’t think
her strange     the woman
who scrawls this
on a tree    it’s only
what comes     of being
in this mountain-deep
place    of rest.

#14

clutching at creepers    calling for
The One Gone Far
then stretched out under    moon
trees    yes    that’s right
for this mountain-deep    mood.
there    on the creek
watch what    looks    like trees.
within    the wind
make out those    sounds
a sound    of pines.

Xue Tao (c768-831)
Translated by Jeanne Larsen.
A courtesan and hostess to senior officials, Xue later in life became a Daoist nun. She was a friend of several famous Tang Dynasty poets and  exchanged poems with them. It is clear that they regarded her as a literary equal, and her poetry was widely admired. About one hundred poems of her total output have survived.

On Beyond-the-Clouds Temple

I have heard of the moss
at Beyond-the-Clouds:

where winds blow high,
where sun is near,
it’s free of the finest dust.

When level cloudbanks splash
their dye
on the Lotus Wall,

it seems to wait for a poet
and for the jewel moon.

Homethoughts

At the foot of Mothbrow Mountain,
the river:
glossy, slick.

It grieves me
that our two hearts match
and yet your boat’s not moored.

When will a slip of sail
leave the Brocade City’s banks,

as we sing together
to the sound of oars
and set out
in midstream?

 

Yu Xuanji (844-c871)

Translated by Geoffrey Waters
Details of Yu’s life are fragmentary, but it seems she began as a courtesan in the entertainment district of the capital, soon became concubine to a scholar-official and, like Xue Tao, later became a Daoist nun. During this latter period she befriended famous poets such as Wen Tingyun and Li Ying. She died in her late twenties. Fourty-nine of her poems have survived.

I Was Expecting a Friend, But He Was Held Up by Rain and Didn’t Come

Wasted faith in fish and geese,
The welcome feast laid out in vain.

My locked gate traps the moonlight.
I raise the screen to watch approaching rain.

A near spring laps stone steps.
Far waves caress the shore.

Thoughts of home, fall sadness;
I sing our song again.

Selling Ruined Peonies

Sigh in the wind fall flowers, petals dance,
Their secret fragrance fades; it’s yet another spring.

Too costly, no one bought them;
Too sweet for butterflies.

If these red blooms had flourished in a palace,
Would they now be stained by dew and dust?

If they grew now in a forbidden garden,
Princes would covet what they could not buy.

Regretful Thoughts

Fallen leaves scattered by evening rain;
Singing and strumming red strings alone.

Stay unmoved by heartless friends;
Stand firm, cast suffering to the waves.

Outside the gate pass carriages of the gentry.
On my pillow, Daoist books lie tumbled.

Dressed in cotton comes a guest  of cloud.
Clear water, blue hills: those days are gone.

To the Scholar Ren, Who Endowed the Zifu Temple

The hermit made a sacred place;
pilgrims stop to see.

Donors’ names on a dusty wall.
No name yet for the lotus hall.

Dig a pool, the water rises.
Open a path, green grass returns.

One hundred feet of gold, the turret burns:
Bright eye above the river.

Emotions at the End of Spring, Sent to a Friend

Orioles chattering ruin my dream.
Carelessly I brush away the tears.

New moon, thin through dark bamboos;
Evening mist thick above the quiet river.

Nesting swallows carry mud.
Bees fly home with fragrant harvest.

Sad solitude, thoughts that never end;
Sing no more of pines with drooping branches.

 

Yu Xuanji

Translated by Jeanne Larsen

For Zian, Across the Han River

north of the river,
south of the river,
I look long. despair.

thinking of you.
no, obsessed with you. and
reciting poems. but why?

duck and drake
lie warm together
on sandy shoals.

through tangerine groves,
lovebirds, purple,
fly at their ease.

muffled by mists,
voices in song
and hidden away.
the ferry dock,
its colors drained,
submerged in moony light.

feeling fills me:
only yards away
or call it, ten thousand miles.

and then, then I hear,
from house after house
old love-songs’ rhythmic sounds.
Farewell Poem

it was–how
many?–nights’ sweet
satisfaction in Flute Duet Tower.

a lover like a mountain
god, who all
at once, took off.

asleep, then
awake: never to speak
of where the clouds went.

one lamp burning
low. fluttering, this
wild moth.

A Few Notes at the End of Spring

shabby house at a small street’s end.
not much company.
a long-ago lover stays with me
in my dreams.

perfumes blow in: silken clothes
at someone’s party. the wind
carries songs from a fancy house.
I don’t know where.

the main road’s close. drumbeats roared,
marching through my morning sleep.
garden’s quiet–till magpies’
luk-luk-luk!
disturbs this spring tristesse.

how could I keep chasing after
human things?
my life’s a boat
that slipped its mooring,
more miles ago than I can count.

Li Qingzhao (1084 – c1150)

Translated by Michael Farman
China’s most celebrated woman poet, Li came from a privileged family of intellectuals. Her chosen poetic form was the song lyric, hitherto a male province; she outshone the men in the refinement and precision of their expression. Her life was shattered when the Jurchen invaded in 1126 when ,the Emperor’s court was forced to move south and her husband died. It is rumoured that she made second unhappy marriage.

To the Tune: Butterflies Flirting with Flowers

A long weary night,
a few bright thoughts.
Futile dreams of Changan:
a vision of the Changan road,
joy in Spring’s arousal;
gleam of moonlight-kindled blossoms.

Carelessly scattered cups and dishes,
fine wine, pungent plums,
someone to embrace.

Drunk now, with tears not smiles,
I pity us, grown old like Spring.

To the Tune: Lone Wild Goose

Rising at dawn
from cane bed with paper screens –
so many words,
no fine thoughts.
Fragrance gone
from the jade burner:
cold companion to my liquid mood.

His flute would sound
three times over
the “song of broken blossoms”
charged with spring emotions.

Light wind, scattered rain,
patters on the ground.
A sudden downfall
weeps a thousand tears.

The flute player’s gone,
the jade tower’s empty,
who is there soothe a wounded spirit?

Once a branch is broken,
in this world or heaven
not a soul can mend it.

To the Tune: Sands of the Washing Stream (Extended Version)

Cassia Flowers

Crush you into countless scraps of gold,
cut your jasper leaves
seam after seam,
your spirit
like that of noble Yan Fu
shines through still.

How coarse
those heavy sprays of plum,
lilacs tangled into bitter knots.

Your sweet odor
shows no mercy,
piercing this sad heart
with distant dreams.

Zhu Shuzhen

Translated by Emily Goedde
So few facts are known about Zhu that it has even been debated whether she really existed. The dates of her birth and death are not known, but it is assumed from the evidence of her poetry that she was roughly contemporary with Li Qingzhao. A collected volume of 300 poems in her name entitled heartbreak was published in 1182. Anthologists have often taken their cue from this tile and usually feature a handful of her most lachrymose song lyrics. Emily Goedde has done us a great service by translating a substantial number of her regulated verses that reveal a much more versatile and spirited poet.

Sitting alone

I roll up the curtains
wait for the bright moon
Rest my hand on the railing
and face the west wind
Night air
submerged in autumn color
Jewelled river
immersed in the deep blue void
Down in the grass
crickets sing
From the other side of the sky
geese call
So much has
happened
With whom
can I share tonight?

Gazing into the distance on the evening of an autumn day

In dense mist it’s difficult to make out
hills of a different district
They resemble a flock of gulls
bathing on a far sandbank
A speck
of travellers’ sail sways
Where rows of clouds and the red sun
play with the brilliant cold

Composing in the moonlight on a snowy night

An entire tree of plum blossoms
between the snow and the moon
Pure petals, moonwhite moon
and snow glow cold
Inside, outside
clear and pure
We serve wine, sing poems
and let inspiration rise without end

Immanent snow

Silent winter sparrows
fill bamboo thickets
Frozen clouds curtain the sky
snow about to fall
The north wind gives
no one special favors
Plum branches hold
their blossoms tight

Self-reproof

Women who dabble in literature
are certainly reproachable
I can’t stand
“singing about the moon and humming about breezes”
“Wearing through iron ink-stones”
is not my business
Breaking golden needles in embroidery
now that’s an accomplishment

Coming back late from a trip to the lake

I’m in love
with the scenery of the West Lake
Mountain peaks
carry the evening sun
Returning birds
flutter in bamboo dew
Falling fruit
echoes by the celery pond
Leaves rest
in the quiet of the breeze
Fish swim
in the cool of water’s depths
A pavilion
half-lit, a moonlit scene
Lotus mist
inflames us with its perfume

Peach blossoms in full bloom west of my window

All this was sown
by Master Liu’s hand
Since Master Liu’s been gone
how many times they’ve bloomed
The sun, lord of the east,
will look after them
But heartless butterflies
don’t visit any more

Ye Xiaoluan (1616-1632)

Translated by Grace Fong
Ye Xiaoluan was born at a time when women’s education was actively encouraged. She came from a family of scholar-officials; her talent shone among the many members of the family who were accomplished poets. She died suddenly at the tender age of 16, just before she was due to enter an arranged marriage. Her father compiled her poetry as a posthumous collection: Fragrance Returning to Life.

Excursion to West Lake, 1628

Willow catkins fly past the embankment
A sweep of dark green hills at dusk
Music and song carried away with the painted oars
Lingering on — the cool color of water.

On the Double Ninth, a Recent Composition

Wind and rain on the Double Ninth
Climbing up I mount the steps of a storied tower
Leaves of a courtyard pawlonia hasten to drop in the cold
Chrysanthemums by the hedge are thoroughly startled by autumn
Like Tao Qian with his flask of wine
I can’t dispel the sadness of a thousand ages
Filling the sky — disordered reflections of clouds
And time flows away with the sound of wild geese.

 

Shen Cai

Translated by Grace Fong
Concubine to a wealthy scholar-official at the age of thirteen, Shen was befriended and tutored by his principal wife. Her life was relatively comfortable and sheltered. She produced a collection of uninhibited poetry and prose entitled The Collection of the Spring Rain Tower. Poems on the subject of bound feet and tobacco are highly unusual.

To the Melody Gazing South of the River: Composed Playfully on Bound Feet (two lyrics)

I
How ridiculous! ?To bend the long jade bows
So tightly bound they grow an underside like a crab
Spread those delicate toes in a row — oh uglier than ginger root t?hat flavor are they? I ask you, young lover

II
Girl on the lake —
Her white feet envied by the fish
Crisp and smooth like scallops, shells just cast off
Delicate as lotus shoots, tips first pulled out
After all they are prettier in comparison.

Playful Poem on Springtime Hills

Beyond the tips of apricot trees two jade-white peaks
With a band of thin clouds across and layered green mist
If you want to see the whole body of the delicate hills
Ask Third Master to untie the breast covers

I Laugh at Myself Smoking Tobacco

Could I be a beautiful immortal banished to earth?
But my stomach is not filled with elixirs and ambrosia
Yet I don’t desire to eat cooked food
But would sup on a stick of tobacco

Lu Bicheng (1883-1943)

Translated by Grace Fong

Born into a family of scholar-officials during the decline of the Qing Dynasty, Lü Bicheng was taught literary skills by her parents. She was influenced by Western ideas and became an assistant editor for the progressive Chinese newspaper Dagongbao. Her concern for women’s education later led her to become principal of the first government-funded girls’ school, the Beiyang Women’s Public School. A wealthy single woman, she travelled widely to Europe and America. When the Second World War began she could not return to China, so she spent her last years in a Buddhist establishment in Hong Kong.

To the Melody A River Full of Red

Stirred by Feelings

Dark has been our country–
I rejoice in the ray of dawn shooting up in the distance.
Who will sing loudly of women’s rights?
Joan of Arc.
Eight thousand feet of snow-capped waves, saddened by a sea of evil
I look at East Asia in the stormy tide of the twentieth century.
If you hear mad words and weeping coming from my boudoir,
Don’t be surprised.

Isolated and confined,
Like the eternity of night.
Fettered and bound,
With no end in sight.
Don’t you see me knocking on Heaven’s door?
It’s hard to unleash my angry feelings.
Far and wide I summon the departed souls to no avail,
I have no way to let splash the hot blood in my chest.
Alas, a frog at the bottom of a well, my wish always denied,
Emotions provoked in vain.

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