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The Best Female Chinese Poets: Modern English Translations

Who were the best female Chinese poets? This page contains modern English translations of poems by some of the greatest female Chinese poets, including Sui Hui, Xu Hui, Yau Ywe-Hwa, Tao Qian, Tzu Yeh, Ch’iu Chin, Huang O, Lin Huiyin, Zhai Yongming, Guan Daosheng and Li Qingzhao (aka Li Ching-chao/Li Ching-jau/Li Ch'ing-cha/Li Ch'ing-chao). All dates are AD unless otherwise indicated.

complied by Michael R. Burch

Star Gauge
Sui Hui (c. 351-394 BC)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

So much lost so far away
on that distant rutted road.

That distant rutted road
wounds me to the heart.

Grief coupled with longing,
so much lost so far away.

Grief coupled with longing
wounds me to the heart.

This house without its master;
the bed curtains shimmer, gossamer veils.

The bed curtains shimmer, gossamer veils,
and you are not here.

Such loneliness! My adorned face
lacks the mirror's clarity.

I see by the mirror's clarity
my Lord is not here. Such loneliness!

Sui Hui, also known as Su Hui and Lady Su, appears to be the first female Chinese poet of note. And her "Star Gauge" or "Sphere Map" may be the most impressive poem written in any language to this day, in terms of complexity. "Star Gauge" has been described as a palindrome or "reversible" poem, but it goes far beyond that. According to contemporary sources, the original poem was shuttle-woven on brocade, in a circle, so that it could be read in multiple directions. Due to its shape the poem is also called Xuanji Tu ("Picture of the Turning Sphere"). The poem is now generally placed in a grid or matrix so that the Chinese characters can be read horizontally, vertically and diagonally. The story behind the poem is that Sui Hui's husband, Dou Tao, the governor of Qinzhou, was exiled to the desert. When leaving his wife, Dou swore to remain faithful. However, after arriving at his new post, he took a concubine. Lady Su then composed a circular poem, wove it into a piece of silk embroidery, and sent it to him. Upon receiving the masterwork, he repented. It has been claimed that there are up to 7,940 ways to read the poem. My translation above is just one of many possible readings of a portion of the poem.

Xu Hui (627–650)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Confronting the morning she faces her mirror; 
Her makeup done at last, she paces back and forth awhile.
It would take vast mountains of gold to earn one contemptuous smile,
So why would she answer a man's summons?

Due to the similarities in names, it seems possible that Sui Hui and Xu Hui were the same poet, with some of her poems being discovered later, or that poems written later by other poets were attributed to her.

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

Here nearing autumn's end
I observe my reflection graying at the temples.
Now that the evening wind gathers force,
what shall become of the plum blossoms?

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

The songbird on the bough now wet with dew
tears to my eyes with her melodious trills—
this fresh downpour reminds me of similar spills;
another spring gone, and still no word from you ...

Zhai Yongming (1955-)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The waves manhandle me like a midwife pounding my back relentlessly,
and so the world abuses my body—
accosting me, bewildering me, according me a certain ecstasy ...

Zhai Yongming (1955-)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I am a wild thought, born of the abyss
and—only incidentally—of you. The earth and sky
combine in me—their concubine—they consolidate in my body.

I am an ordinary embryo, encased in pale, watery flesh,
and yet in the sunlight I dazzle and amaze you.

I am the gentlest, the most understanding of women.
Yet I long for winter, the interminable black night, drawn out to my heart's bleakest limit.

When you leave, my pain makes me want to vomit my heart up through my mouth—
to destroy you through love—where's the taboo in that?

The sun rises for the rest of the world, but only for you do I focus the hostile tenderness of my body.
I have my ways.

A chorus of cries rises. The sea screams in my blood but who remembers me?
What is life?

Guan Daosheng (1262-1319)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

You and I share so much desire:
this lovelike a fire—
that ends in a pyre's charred coffin.

Guan Daosheng (1262-1319)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

You and I shared a love that burned like fire:
two lumps of clay in the shape of Desire
molded into twin figures. We two.
Me and you.

In life we slept 'neath a single quilt,
so in death, why guilt?
Let the skeptics go scoffing.
It's best to share a single coffin.

Tzŭ-Yeh (or Tzu Yeh) was a courtesan of the Jin dynasty era (c. 400 BC) known as Lady Night or Lady Midnight. Her poems were pinyin "midnight songs." Tzŭ-Yeh was apparently a "sing-song" girl, perhaps similar to a geisha trained to entertain men with music and poetry. She has also been called a "wine shop girl" and even a professional concubine! Whoever she was, it seems likely that Rihaku (Li-Po) was influenced by the lovely, touching (and often very sexy) poems of the "sing-song" girl. Centuries later, Arthur Waley was one of her translators and admirers. Waley and Ezra Pound knew each other, and it seems likely that they got together to compare notes at Pound's soirees, since Pound was also an admirer and translator of Chinese poetry. Pound's most famous translation is his take on Li-Po's "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter." If the ancient "sing-song" girl influenced Li-Po and Pound, she was thus an influence―perhaps an important influence―on English Modernism. The first Tzŭ-Yeh poem below makes me think that she was, indeed, a direct influence on Li-Po and Ezra Pound.―Michael R. Burch

Tzu Yeh (circa 400 BC)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I heard my love was going to Yang-chou
So I accompanied him as far as Ch'u-shan.
For just a moment as you held me in your arms
I thought the swirling river ceased flowing and time stood still.

Tzu Yeh (circa 400 BC)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Will I ever hike up my dress for you again?
Will my pillow ever caress your arresting face?

Tzu Yeh (circa 400 BC)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Night descends ...
I let my silken hair spill down my shoulders as I part my thighs over my lover.
Tell me, is there any part of me not worthy of being loved?

Tzu Yeh (circa 400 BC)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I will wear my robe loose, not bothering with a belt;
I will stand with my unpainted face at the reckless window.
If my petticoat insists on fluttering about, shamelessly,
I'll blame it on the unruly wind!

Tzu Yeh (circa 400 BC)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

When he returns to my embrace,
I’ll make him feel what no one has ever felt before:
Me absorbing him like water
Poured into a wet clay jar.

Tzu Yeh (circa 400 BC)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Bare branches tremble in a sudden breeze.
Night deepens.
My lover loves me, and I am pleased that my body's beauty pleases him.

Tzu Yeh (circa 400 BC)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Do you not see
that we
are like the branches of a single tree?

Tzu Yeh (circa 400 BC)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I could not sleep with the full moon haunting my bed!
I thought I heardhere, there, everywhere 
disembodied voices calling my name!
Helplessly I cried "Yes!" to the phantom air!

Tzu Yeh (circa 400 BC)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I have brought my pillow to the windowsill
so come play with me, tease me, as in the past ...
Or, with so much resentment and so few kisses,
how much longer can love last?

Tzu Yeh (circa 400 BC)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

When she approached you on the bustling street, how could you say no?
But your disdain for me is nothing new.
Squeaking hinges grow silent on an unused door
where nobody enters anymore. 

Tzu Yeh (circa 400 BC)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I remain constant as the Northern Star
while you rush about like the fickle sun:
rising in the East, drooping in the West.

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.

The Day after the Rain
Lin Huiyin (1904-1955)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I love the day after the rain
and the green expanses of the meadow!
My heart is endlessly rising with wind,
gusting with wind ...
away the new-mown grasses and the fallen leaves ...
away the clouds like smoke ...
vanishing like smoke ...

Still He Does Not Come
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
Li Ching-jau (Southern Sung Period, c. 1135)

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 of “Soaring Clouds”
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 of “The Fall of a Little Wild Goose”
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)
translated 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
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
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 of “Everlasting Joy”
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
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
Ch’iu Chin (c. 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
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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