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Best Female Chinese Poets: English Translations

complied and edited by Michael R. Burch

This page contains English translations of poems by some of the greatest Chinese poets of all time who were women, including Yau Ywe-Hwa, Li Ching-jau, Tzu Yeh, Huang O and Li Qingzhao.

Li Qingzhao (Li Ching-chao, 1084-1155)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The migrant songbird on the bough wet with dew
tears to my eyes with her melodious trillsó
this fresh downpour rewetting the stains of older spills;
another spring gone, and still no word from you ...

Li Qingzhao (Li Ching-chao, 1084-1155)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

This year with the end of autumn
I find my reflection graying at the temples.
Now that the evening wind is gaining force,
what shall become of the plum blossoms?

Tzu Yeh (a Chinese poetess of the Chin Dynasty)
five short poems translated by Arthur Waley

I will carry my coat and not put on my belt;
With unpainted eyebrows I will stand at the front window.
My tiresome petticoat keeps on flapping about;
If it opens a little, I shall blame the spring wind.

I heard my love was going to Yang-chou
And went with him as far as Ch’u-shan.
For a moment when you held me fast in your outstretched arms
I thought the river stood still and did not flow.

Longing, I watch out the open window,
my sash untied, long sleeves dragging.
This breeze lifts gauze so easily,
if my skirt should open, blame the warm spring wind.

Winter skies are cold and low,
with harsh winds and freezing sleet.
But when we make love beneath our quilt,
we make three summer months of heat.

When she approached you on the street,
you couldn't possibly say no.
But your neglect of me is nothing new.
Hinges soon sag on an empty door:
it won't fit snug like it did before.

Still He Does Not Come
by Yau Ywe-Hwa (T'ang Dynasty)

I have been here a long time,
With silver candles
And sparkling wine,
Walking up to the gate
And back again,
Watching for him
Till it's nearly daylight.

Now the moon has set,
The stars are few,
And still he does not come.

Suddenly wingbeats drum
In the misty willows;
A magpie flies off.

In China the magpie is associated with happiness. In this case the happiness of the poetess is flying away.

Spring In Wu-ling
by Li Ching-jau (Southern Sung Period, 1135 A.D.)

The wind is still,
The earth smells sweet;
The flowers all have fallen here.

As evening comes,
I comb my hair.

His things remain
But he is gone;
So everything's over.

When I try to speak
The tears well up.

I hear that spring's
Still at its height
At Double Creek ...

I think of going to sail
The light skiffs there,
But alas, I fear
The grasshopper-boats
At Double Creek
Could never bear
So great a weight
Of sorrow.

To the tune “Soaring Clouds”
by Huang O (1498-1569)

You held my lotus blossom
In your lips and played with the
Pistil. We took one piece of
Magic rhinoceros horn
And could not sleep all night long.
All night the cock’s gorgeous crest
Stood erect. All night the bee
Clung trembling to the flower
Stamens. Oh my sweet perfumed
Jewel! I will allow only
My lord to possess my sacred
Lotus pond, and every night
You can make blossom in me
Flowers of fire.

To the tune “The Fall of a Little Wild Goose”
by Huang O (1498-1569)

Once upon a time I was
Beautiful and seductive,
Wavering to and fro in
Our orchid-scented bedroom.
You and I 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!

Li Qingzhao (Li Ching-chao, 1084-1155)
by Jiaosheng Wang

Stepping down from the swing,
Languidly she smooths her soft slender hands,
Her flimsy dress wet with light perspiration—
A slim flower trembling with heavy dew.

The lotus has wilted, only a faint perfume remains;
On the bamboo mat there's a touch of autumn chill.
Softly I take off my silk dress
And step on board my orchid skiff alone.
Who is sending me the letter of brocade
From beyond the clouds?
When the wild geese return
The moon will be flooding the West Chamber.
Flowers fall and drift away,
Water glides on,
After their nature.
Our yearning is the sort
Both sides far apart endure——
A melancholy feeling there's no resisting.
As soon as it leaves the eyebrows
It surges up in the breast.

A jumble of parting thoughts,
Yet I hesitate on the verge of utterance
For fear of bitterness.
Of late I've been growing thin,
Not that I overdrink myself,
Nor from lament for the autumn.

Fine mist, thick clouds:
A day of sadness drags on.
The incense in the gilt animal-burner is running out.
Once more the festive day of Double Ninth returns,
And my mesh-curtained bed and jewelled pillows
Are drenched in the chill of midnight.
Beside the east hedge I drink after dusk;
A subtle fragrance fills my sleeves.
Don't say one is not pining away!
When the west wind blows the blinds aside,
I am frailer than the chrysanthemums.

Sorrow of Departure
by Li Ch'ing-Chao (1084-1151)

Lotus incense fades, a red stain
on shimmering curtains.
Autumn returns.
Gently I release my silk dress
and float, nude, alone
on the orchid boat.
Who can take a letter beyond the clouds?
Only the wild geese reply,
writing their enigmatic ideograms
on the darkening sky,
under the full moon
now flooding the west chamber.
Flowers, after their kind, flutter
and scatter.
after its nature,
having been divided, at last
reassembles itself at the lowest place.
Creatures of the same species
long for each other,
but you and I
remain far apart
and I have grown wise in the ways of a broken heart.
Nothing can make sorrow dissolve
or vanish.
One moment it banishes
all gladness from my eyes;
the next, it weighs heavy on my heart.

A Song of Departure
by Li Ch'ing-Chao (1084-1151)

Warm rain and a gentle breeze
Have just arrived
And driven away the winter chill.
Moist as the willows,
Blithe as the plum blossoms,
I feel Spring's spirit renewing.
But who will imbibe with me
The joys of wine and poetry?

Tears muddy my rouge,
My hairpins are too heavy.
I put on my new quilted robe
Sewn through with bright golden thread
And throw myself upon a pile of pillows,
Disheveling my hair.

Alone, all I can embrace is my sorrow,
Which seem infinite.
I know good dreams are beyond me,
so I stay up past midnight
trimming the lamp’s smoking wick.

To the tune “Everlasting Joy”
by Li Ch'ing-Chao (1084-1151)

The sun sets, molten gold.
The evening clouds form a jade disk.
Where is he?
A dense white mist envelops the willows.
A sad flute plays “Falling Plum Blossoms.”
How many Spring days remain?
This Feast of Lanterns should be joyful.
The weather is calm and lovely.
But who can say
If it may
be followed by wind and rain?
A friend sends her perfumed carriage
And high-bred horses to fetch me.
I decline the invitation of
My old poetry and wine companion.
I remember the happy days in the since-abandoned capital.
We took our ease in the women’s quarters.
The Feast of Lanterns was elaborately celebrated —
Golden pendants, emerald hairpins, brocaded girdles,
New sashes: we competed
To be the most fashionably dressed.
Now I am withering away:
thinning hair, graying temples.
I am embarrassed to go out this evening
Among girls in the flower of their youth.
I prefer to stay beyond the curtains,
listening to gossip and laughter
I can no longer share.

Autumn Love
by Li Ch'ing-Chao (1084-1151)

Search! Search! Seek! Seek!
Cold! Cold! Clear! Clear!
Misery! Misery! Pain on pain!
Hot flashes! Shivers of fear!

Stabs of remorse! Sudden agonies!
Here tonight, I can find no release.
I drink two cups and maybe three bowls
of crystalline wine,
and yet I can’t find
the strength to stand
against a gust of wind:
no peace.

Wild geese soar high overhead;
their keenings wrench at my heart.
They were good friends in the olden days;
now golden chrysanthemums litter my hearth,
piled here on the floor:
all dry, faded, dead.
This season I could no longer bear
to abide them. Alone, in silence I fled,
to gaze out my window,
where I watched the gathering shadows.

Fine rain sifts through the wu-t’ung trees,
And drips, drop by drop, through the dusk.
What can I ever do now?
How can I drive off this word —

A Letter To Lady T’ao Ch’iu
by Ch’iu Chin (1879?-1907)

Alone with my shadow,
I confide secrets to her
And draw strange symbols in the air,
like Yin Hao.
It is not sickness, nor wine,
Nor sorrow for the departed,
Like Li Ch’ing-Chao,
that cause an empire of broken-hearted
anxieties to arise in my heart.
There is no one I can confide in here;
Who can understand me?
My hopes and dreams are greater
Than those of the men who surround me,
But the chance of our survival grows less and less.
What good is a hero's heart
Inside this feminine dress?
My fate proceeds according to some perilous plan.
I ask Heaven:
Did the heroines of the past
Perish like this?

New Corn
by Tao Qian (372-427)

Fleeting—the years, beyond recollection.
Solemn—the stillness of this lovely morning.
I will clothe myself in spring garb
And visit the slopes of the hill to the east
Where a mist hovers over the mountain-stream ...
Hovers for a moment, then scatters.
There a wind comes, blowing from the south,
That rustles the fields of new corn.

In Chinese poetry the south signifies death, so a southern wind rustling ears of new corn might be like an aged poet writing poems for children.

Drinking Wine
Tao Qian (372-427)

I built my hut by a thoroughfare
Yet never hear the sound of horse or coach.
How can this be?
A distant heart creates a wilderness around it.
I pluck chrysanthemums beneath the eastern hedge,
Then gaze a long time at the distant hills.
The mountain air is fresh at dusk.
The birds return, two by two.
In such things there lies a profound meaning,
But when I try to express it, words immediately fail me.

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