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Su Hui’s Star Gauge

David Hinton

T’ao Ch’ien (365-427 C.E.) and Hsieh Ling-yün (385-433 C.E.) are the first major poets in the mainstream Chinese poetic tradition. Remarkably, given the misogynistic structures governing the culture, they preceded by Su Hui, a female poet whose work is so singular that it stands almost outside the tradition. Su is the earliest major female figure that survives in the written tradition. She is said to have created thousands of literary compositions, but as was typical for women poets in ancient China, they were virtually all lost. Only her Star Gauge (Hsüan-chi Tu: literally “armillary-sphere map”) survived. Star Gauge was never included in the canon of great Chinese poetry, no doubt because its creator and its concerns were female, and its form so bizarre. In fact, the text was effectively lost for several centuries, and was only recently reconstructed. Though the poem itself was generally neglected, the story of its composition is legendary, appearing over the centuries in poems, novels and plays. Su Hui was married to a major government official, and they were happy together for a time. But then her husband took a concubine and, though it was quite normal for such men to have “second wives,” Su Hui was furious. Soon thereafter, he was transferred to a post far away. Su Hui refused to go with him and his lover, so he left with the other woman and broke off all communication with Su Hui. In her grief, Su Hui composed Star Gauge to express her love and to call her husband back. When he read the poem, Su Hui’s husband sent the concubine away and rejoined Su Hui, their love deeper than ever. The pleasures and disappointments of romance dominated women’s poetry in the folk tradition, beginning with the Shih Ching, and it continued to be the realm allowed women poets in China’s sexist literary culture. This was a reflection of the place women occupied in the intellectual culture, that of wives and companions to males who controlled the culture as intellectuals and government officials. Indeed, from within the dominant male literary sphere, women’s poetry always remained a kind of “folk-poetry” that was both outside of and inferior to the mainstream tradition. Although her subject matter was not new, nothing in the tradition before or after suggests such a possibility as Su Hui’s altogether unique and extraordinary treatment of that subject matter.

Chinese can be read in any direction. . . This fact gave rise to a genre in Chinese poetry of “reversible poems” (hui-wen shih), poems that can be read forward (from top right reading down) or in reverse. Su Hui’s text is the grandest example of this genre.

The text she composed depends upon the fact that, unlike Western languages, Chinese can be read in any direction, not only because of the nature of Chinese characters, but also because characters can operate as any part of speech, depending on context. This fact gave rise to a genre in Chinese poetry of “reversible poems” (hui-wen shih), poems that can be read forward (from top right reading down) or in reverse. Su Hui’s text is the grandest example of this genre. It is a grid of 29 characters by 29 characters, which goes far beyond the simple “reversible” poem, for it allows readings in all directions: horizontal, vertical and diagonal. Star Gauge was originally embroidered in five colors, thereby mapping out the poem’s complex structure. The colors divide the poem into a number of regions, each of which has a set of rules that tell us how to read the text in that region. Compounding this formal complexity is the fact that the text itself is often very ambiguous, making it difficult to decipher a particular meaning from a line. Indeed, Su Hui was proud of the difficulty presented by this immense composition, proud that the poem was all but incomprehensible— and in this complexity is an assertion of her own worth and nobility against the male-dominated social and literary structures that were so oppressive to women. Hence, the poem itself defies the reductive legend of its composition: it is clear that the poem is much more than a woman’s plea for her husband’s return. It is a complex philosophical statement, as well as an assertion of her own dignity and even superiority to the men who dominated her world. Star Gauge reads like a vast collage, lines juxtaposed almost randomly, a compositional strategy that would not reappear, even in conventional poetic format, until Li Shang-yin 500 years later, and not in the West until the 20th century. The poem is especially striking and original in that it is not only a literary text, but a piece of visual art as well, a visual object constructed of text, which is another strategy that has only recently been explored in the West. In this case, the visual object is the very image of obsession. Below is a facsimile of the lost original:

The red section is made up of 7-character segments, all of which can be read in either direction. This is the armature of the poem, the structural feature that relates the poem to the armillary-sphere (the hsüan-chi of the poem’s title), a fairly recent and still exciting invention in Su Hui’s time. An instrument used to gauge the movements of the stars, the armillary sphere is made up of a number of concentric rings of metal, and these rings correspond to the important meridians of the celestial sphere. The meridians of the poem’s armature correspond to these rings of the armillary-sphere. The 7-character segments of the armature can be read in any order, so long as the reader follows the 7-character quatrain form. That is, at the end of each 7-character segment, which corresponds to a poetic line, you encounter a junction of meridians and can choose which direction to go. You can begin anywhere, and the poem ends after four lines have been chosen. This generates 2848 possible poems. Here is another remarkable and very contemporary feature of this poem: the reader creates each poem by choosing where to go at the different junctions. This feature continues in the other color-regions, the text-blocks in the squares within the red armature that make up the interior of the poem. Each color-region is read according to slightly different patterns. The top right corner in blue, for example, is made up of 3-character lines, and the poem length is either 6 or 12 lines. How it is read is limited only by the requirement that applies to all areas of the poem: the second line of every couplet must rhyme. Rhyme words are placed in this 6-character by 6-character grid so that the readings are all completely strange: it is rare to read the interior in the traditional Chinese fashion, from the top right reading down. For instance, one of the translations reads from top left horizontally to the right, then drops down a line and reads horizontally to the left, and continues snaking down the grid to end at the bottom right. Another possibility is the exact reverse of that reading. Indeed, this is how Su Hui herself described the text: “… it lingers aimlessly, twisting and turning . . . .” There are at least 34 possible poems in this one text block. And the entire poem has something over 3000 poems! It is this awesome formal structure itself that is the poem’s most immediate and complex statement. The poem opens a kind of meditative space in which thoughts appear out of emptiness and disappear back into that emptiness, and it produces the feel of profound psychological depths by its very form: many thoughts/poems coexisting simultaneously, blurring together as the mind follows its obsessions through their repeating variations.Indeed, this may in the end be the poem’s primary subject matter: obsession. In Taoist cosmology, this relentless transformation reflects the bedrock Taoist principle that change is the fundamental law ruling the cosmos. The source of all change is a pregnant emptiness (wu: see Introduction p. xx f.) from which all things appear and into which they disappear, and this too is present in the poem: at the center of the poem’s grid is the character hsin, meaning both “heart” and “mind,” which was apparently left out of many reproductions of the text because, in Taoist and Buddhist thought, hsin is most fundamentally empty. Hsin also denotes Polaris. The seat of emotions is therefore also the pole star around which the stars move. By placing our inner psychology within the space of the sky, the poem enacts a different account of the human interior. In this account, the human heart/mind is an integral part of the starry universe, its complex and finally unfathomable movements of thought and feeling swirling through the grand movements of the stars. A printable translation of Star Gauge, with its similtaneity and graphic layout, is available in color at: http://us.macmillan.com/classicalchinesepoetry/DavidHinton.
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