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Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism.

Byline: Subterranean Blue Poetry

Title of Book: Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism

Editors: Kang-i Sun Chang and Haun Saussy

Publisher: Stanford University Press

Date of Publication: 1999

Pages: 891

"I hear her heart beating loud as thunder
Saw the stars crashing . . . "
- from China Girl by David Bowie

Women Writers of Traditional China is a compilation of all women Chinois Poets of note from Ancient Times to 1911. This book is a gem of classical Chinois nature poetry, a fascinating presentation that gives insights into the lives of women Poets from past lifetimes, a snapshot of a particular day in the life and times. The anthology is the work of many hands, including consulting editors and volunteer translators, the book includes the names and dates of the Poets, their poems and a biography with criticism. The biography, gives an idea of the life of the Poet and places their poems in context, as if answering questions about the nature of the poetry written and giving glimpses into the Chinois society at that time. The Poets and their Poetry is organized according to the ancient dynasties of China, beginning with “From Ancient Times to the Six Dynasties (222 – 589)” through the “Tang (618 – 907) and Five Dynasties (907 – 60)”, “Song Dynasty (960 -1279)”, “Yuan Dynasty (1264 – 1368), “Ming Dynasty (1368 -1644) and ending with the “Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911)”.

The translations are good and capture the essence of beauty and elegance. Women Poets had a place in Chinois history, they were noted and celebrated in Chinois literature. The poetry reflected the situation of the woman Poet giving “rebukes, protests, appeals”, poetry being the traditional form of protest in China. “Palace and court life, as well as the protocols of the entertainment quarters, created opportunities for the composition of poetry and rewarded women for learning and wit.” Women from all walks of life, “loyalists, revolutionaries, hermits, concubines, matrons, painters, serving maids, historians, courtesans, farmwives, disappointed lovers, honored grandmothers” bringing their beauty and concerns of the day through their writing. Some wrote out of isolation, some were recruited by friends and family, they wrote about family and personal matters in a world run by a patriarchy. Often, the beginning Poet would allude to the themes and life of an earlier Poet, entering into sympathy with the Old Ones keeping alive the tradition and creating socialibility. In Chinese the poetry is rhymed and there are different forms:

shi - “compositions with a stable line-length, regularly occurring rhymes, and a stanza or couplet ordering”.

fu- composition of any length, “descriptive content and irregular prosody set it apart from song and closer to prose”.

ci- “originally a song form, with lines of unequal length.”

qu- aria.

lianju- ”one person starts a chain of verse others complete” at social occasions.

gongti shi – or palace-style verse evolved from court socialibility

     yongwu shi - “poem in praise of an object” which may be a riddle

     gui yuan - “boudoir lament”: “expressions of distress by neglected, offended, or simply unhappy women

     yongwu shi - “poems in praise of history” and moments from the Poet’s life.

Acceptable forms of poetry include “hymns, elegies, letter-poems, poems of farewell, and jokes.”

The poetry itself is classical in presentation, centering on nature imagery, the weather, emotional and actual, sometimes telling a story. The essence is of deep beauty, elegant and sublime, often portraying a certain synchronicity with events in the natural world. Often profound and enigmatic, in the original Chinois language this poetry may have been similar to Western pastoral poetry, in English translation it is a more elaborate form of Haiku. Often only a few poems of a particular Poet are in existence, a catolog of 1,000 poems or more sometimes lost. Mechanical printing on paper developed from ink rubbings during the Tang Dynasty, before the 8th Century but national Archives were not incepted until around 1930 as in most countries.

“Xue Tao (768-ca. 832)

Probably one of the most famous courtesan poets in Chinese literary history, Xue Tao was a native of Chang’an (now Xi’an). In her youth she migrated with her father to the state of Shu (the modern Sichun province) and became a “song-courtesan” (geji) at sixteen, after his death. Since Xue was reputed to be able to write poems and parallel couplets when she was merely eight or nine years old, her literary talents were greatly prized. A wide circle of literati became her friends, correspondants, patrons, and suitors, including such well-known poets as Yuan Zhen, Bo Juyi, Niu Sengru, Du Mu, and Liu Yuxi, with all of whom Xue often exchanged poems.”

Xue Tao was also gifted at calligraphy and was known for writing poems on crimson dyed stationary. When she was 38 years old, Wu Yuanheng, the Governor of Shu recommended to the Tang emperor that she be appointed to the Palace Library as “Lady Collator of Books”. This position was usually reserved for men of great literary ability as it involved work on the imperial diary. She was officially addressed as “jiaoshu” and this became a reference for courtesan.

A failed love affair with Yuan Zhen, serving as the Investigating Censor, (after their affair he was demoted and exiled from Shu) Xue Tao remained single until she died, living by herself at Huanhuaxi. A collected book of her poetry is named “Jinjiang ji” (The River Jin collection), she is considered prolific with 89 poems preserved in the Quan Tang shi.

“V. A Swallow Separated From the Nest

In and out through crimson gates,

  it cannot bear to leave them,

The owner always doted on

  its captivating trills.

Some mud fell from its beak and soiled

  his pillow of coral,

And no more can it pile its nest

  up among the rafters.

VI. A Pearl Separated From The Palm

Glistening thing, bright and round,

  radiant throughout,

Its clear light seemingly reflects

  palaces of crystal.

But due to just a single speck,

  it’s ruined by a flaw,

And no more can it pass the night

  in the owner’s palm.”

“Zhang Yaotiao (9th century)

Zhang Yaotiao came as a refugee to live in Chengdu (in modern Sichuan province) and there became a courtesan. Her official hometown, where her family would have been enrolled in the government registry, is unknown. He works were highly regarded by poets of her day, at least in part because, like Xue Tao, she went beyond the tones and attitudes generally expected of courtesan-poets."

“Spring Thoughts (Two Poems)


Out in the dooryard: plum trees,

  willows, bright,

    too bright, with spring.

Closed up in the depths

  of the women’s rooms,

    I stitch

      a dancer’s dress.

This pair of swallows – unaware

  how my heart, my belly,

    twist -

On purpose, on

  purpose, fly right up close -

    beaks filled with clay

      for their nest.


This phoenix tree beside the well:

  I moved it here myself.

During the night, flowers

  opened, up

    on the farthest


If I hadn’t planted it

  deep in the compound,

    near the women’s rooms,

Spring would pass

  the household gate

    and I -

      how would I know?”

The deeply introspective and detailed nature imagery gives an essence of sorrow at the paradigm of existence, a very elegant, classical protest of the feminine condition which was honoured by the patriarchy. A beautiful write that is a noted influence on the New Age Republic of Poetry. Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism, edited by Kang-i Sun Chang and Haun Saussy, published by Stanford University Press.

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Genre: Poetry, New Age, Women's Literature

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