Sunday, February 19, 2006

asian girls volume 0

I'vebeen reading “Women Poets of China”, compiled and translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung. It’s mostly classical, alternately dull, stirring and piquant stuff, but now and then you get the most unsettling work. And I’m not talking about Wu Zhao’s Qing dynasty lesbian poems to courtesans, which was why I borrowed the damn thing in the first place. I’m talking about odd unclassifiables like this:

*To the tune “Washing Silk in the Stream”*
-He Shuangqing, 18th century

The warm rain falls unfeeling
Like scattered silk threads.
The farm boy puts a flower behind his ear
As he carries the new grain
From his field to the threshing floor.
I got up early to water the field
But he was angry with me
For being too early.
I cooked millet for him
Over a smoky fire
But he was angry because it was too late.
My tender bottom is sore all day long.

*10 Things you didn’t know about women’s poetry in China!!!!*

  1. The official Complete Collection of Tang Shi lists out of 2200 authors, 190 women poets.
  2. During the Tang dynasty and later, a lot of the best women’s poetry was composed by the courtesans, to be performed for men. The great Tang courtesan-poets include Xue Tao, Kuan Panpan and Su Xiaoxiao (yah, very ah-huay names right?)
  3. Most decent women were thus rather cautious about their ability to write poetry, for fear they would be seen as morally loose – or for rumours that they were writing them to lovers.
  4. Consequently, upon their deaths, they or their surviving relatives tended to burn all the manuscripts in the their possession. Only those given to friends and sympathizers would survive.
  5. Nevertheless, Huang Er, daughter of a Ming court minister and happily married to another great poet, was quite blithe to inscribe verse about catfights e.g. “That insufferable little bitch with her coy tricks!” (To the tune of “The Fall of a Little Wild Goose”) and the “Ten thousand beautiful sensual ways we will make love.” (A Farewell to A Southern Melody).
  6. Women’s poesy only became fashionable, i.e. a plus in matchmaking negotiations, in the Qing dynasty, possibly because of influence from the tough nomadic Manchu women.
  7. Li Qingzhao, the most famous of classical women poets in China, really doesn’t translate so well. I’ll have to look at her originals. But she has written the only women’s mystic-visionary poem on record:

*To the tune “The Honour of a Fisherman”*

-Li Qingzhao, 1084-1151
The heavens join with the clouds.
The great waves merge with the fog.
The Milky Way appears
Turning overhead.
A thousand sails dance.
I am rapt away to the place of the Supreme,
And hear the words of Heaven,
Asking me where I am going.
I answer, “It is a long road, alas,
Far beyond the sunset.”
I try to put it in verse
But my words amaze me.
The huge roc bird is flying
On a ninety thousand mile wind.
O wind, do not stop
Until my little boat has been blown
To the Immortal Islands
In the Eastern Sea.

  1. Empress Wu Zetian, the ruthless concubine who slept and murdered her way into being the only female sovereign in Chinese history, wrote love poetry.
  2. And guess what, the anti-Imperial revolutionary Qiu Jin also wrote poems. In fact, they were used as evidence against her in the Manchu court that executed her by beheading. “Scholars, throw away your brushes!/Secluded women, take up arms!”(A Call to Action)
  3. Cai Wenji, one of the four great beauties of China, is actually acknowledged as China’s first great woman poet. Her “18 Verses Sung to a Tatar Reed Flute” chronicle her pitiful life, from her penurious birth to her sale to a chief of the Huns, a harsh nomadic lifestyle replacing the glory of Han China. At least, that’s up to the first twelve stanzas. By the end, having earned the mercy of her husband and the compassion of the court, granted safe return, as she’s actually entering the gates of Chang-an, she weeps because she misses barbarism.

As for personal favourites, I wuv Tang courtesan Chao Luan-Luan’s formulaic but raunchy examinations of each section of her body, from her red sandalwood mouth, “with teeth like white melon seeds, and lips like pomegranate blossoms” to her breasts, “aroused by spring, soft as cream under the fertilizing mist”. But my utter fave has got to be Chu Shuzhen of 12th century Song Dynasty though. She combines the eroticism of the hos with the longing of the virgins. I especially like the second section of the poem below.

*Spring Joy*

Drafty winds and fine rain
Make a chilly spring.
I drink wine, remembering bygone happiness,
Under the pear blossoms,
Weeping with misery.
Through the scented grasses
And broken mists, we walked
Along the southern bank of the river,
Tears of farewell
Blurring the distant mountains.
Last night I was fulfilled in a dream.
Speechless, we made love
In mist and clouds.
Alas, when I awoke
An old agony returned.
I tossed in my quilt
Angry at my own helplessness.
It is easier to see heaven
Than to see you.

No comments: