Stone Telling

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When Flowers Bloom, When Flowers Fall:

How Women Influenced Chinese Poetry During the Tang Dynasty

by Emily Jiang

My love of poetry transcends the English language.  When I was three years old, I learned my first poem and could recite it by heart in Mandarin Chinese.  Written over a thousand years ago by Li Bai, one of China's most famous poets, my first memorized poem had a simple form.  It consisted of only four lines, each line containing five syllables, with a total of twenty syllables for the entire poem.  When I was ten years old, I memorized Robert Frost's "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," and I remember thinking how inefficient American poetry was, as one relatively short poem had over one hundred words—too many words—to achieve what it needed to achieve.  I remember much preferring the elegant efficiency of Chinese poems, especially those composed during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 A.D.).

One of China's most revered poets known for his lyrical style, Li Bai lived during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 A.D.), an era known for many great poets, including Wei Wang, whose masterful quatrains reveal his Buddhist aesthetic and training as a landscape painter, and Tu Fu, whose longer poems reflect his concern with history and Confucian beliefs.  For almost 300 years, the rulers of the Tang Dynasty actively encouraged the cultivation of new poetry, since every Tang emperor was an accomplished poet and governed laws to popularize the creation of poetry throughout China.  The most influential act was the expansion of the civil service examinations, one of which required the scholars to compose original poetry.  Thus, every single Chinese official needed to master not only the history of Chinese poetry but also its basic craft.  As a result, the educated classes were constantly practicing the composition of poetry in a more casual, social context, different from the more established metaphorically lyrical style.  Close friends and lovers wrote poems to each other in lieu of letters, often when they missed each other or parted ways.  In addition to writing poems as a group activity at parties, poets also composed poems contemplating specific locales or everyday objects.  As a result, during the Tang Dynasty, around 2,200 poets created almost 50,000 poems, though only a fraction of them can be found intact today.

The official portrait of Empress Wu Zetian

Of the approximately 2,200 Tang poets, many of them were women, including China's only female emperor, Empress Wu Zetian, who founded her own short-lived dynasty (Zhou).  The formal reign of Empress Wu lasted for fifteen years (690 A.D. to 705 A.D) and is technically a brief interruption of the Tang Dynasty.  However, in reality, during the forty-five years prior to her own ascension to emperor, Empress Wu was a ruling force behind the Tang throne as first the emperor's wife and later the emperors' mother.  Because of Empress Wu, the requirements for passing the civil service exam were modified to include the composition of poetry.  The true motivations behind this change are unknown, yet after reading a little about her life and reign, my guess is that Empress Wu wanted to populate her government with intellectually-inclined scholars, men who belonged to a lower class, men without ties to the great aristocratic families who had been in power before her, men whom she could cultivate and influence.  What is notable is the fact that the High Tang Period (712 A.D. to 755 A.D.), often considered the apex of the golden age of Chinese poetry, began within eight years after the end of Empress Wu's dynasty.  It seems the work of the great poets of the High Tang Period is a long-lived legacy of China's first and only female emperor.

While Empress Wu had laid a strong foundation cultivating the growth of the creation of poetry, the works of female poets overall were not popular until the Mid-to-Late Tang Period (mid-700s A.D. to 907 A.D.), several generations after Empress Wu's reign.  At this time, women enjoyed more freedom than women of the following dynasties, especially those who were educated and of the upper class.  For instance, foot binding, a custom for highborn girls to show status and beauty, was not common in the Tang era, though it would grow in practice during the Song Dynasty.  Also, most of the upper class women of the Tang Dynasty were not only literate, but often well-educated and certainly qualified to compose poetry.  Yet despite a certain physical and intellectual freedom available during this time, educated women still had limited choice among the following roles:  wife/concubine, courtesan, or nun.  By the Late Tang Period, the courtesans had grown in power and prestige through the performance of their original poetry for audiences consisting of government officials and male poets, who were more enamored of romance because of the social practice of poetry exchange.  Thus, courtesans who were also accomplished poets often had their pick of lovers.  Other women who typically experienced more autonomy in their day-to-day lives were nuns, specifically Taoist nuns, whose limited social obligations gave them more time to write poems.

Given how much personal freedom was granted those roles compared to wives/concubines, it may or may not be a surprise that two of China's most famous female poets were courtesans-turned-nuns.

A statue of the poet Xue Tao
modified from a photograph by Gisling

One of the most popular and prolific female poets of the Tang Dynasty, Xue Tao (768 A.D. to 831 A.D.) wrote over four hundred and fifty poems during her lifetime, and her poetry was collected in a volume called The Brocade River Collection.  However, less than ninety of her poems have survived.  The daughter of a minor Chinese official, Xue was born in the capital of Xian and grew up in the Sihuan province, where she was registered as a courtesan and entertainer.  As a courtesan, Xue attracted many admirers through her poetry.  She became the hostess for Wei Gao, a local military governor, and as a result she mingled with many famous military men and poets, for whom she wrote many poems.  When Wei died, he left Xue an inheritance that gave her financial freedom for the rest of her life.  She chose the life of a Taoist nun, living her life in seclusion and writing poetry.

Yu Xuanji (855 A.D. to 871 A.D.), another prominent female poet during the Tang Dynasty, was born thirteen years after the death of Xue.  Not much is known about Yu's childhood, though it is believed she grew up in Chang'an, the capital of China during the Tang Dynasty.  Yu married a minor official for three years, then became a courtesan for a few more years before joining a Taoist nunnery, where she lived the rest of her life.  Unlike her predecessor Xue, who lived peacefully for sixty-three years, Yu was executed when she was twenty-seven years old; her crime was reportedly beating a maid to death.  While she lived, Yu wrote almost one hundred poems that were collected in a volume called Fragments of a Northern Dreamland.  Of these hundred poems, forty-nine have survived.

Because Xue and Yu had similar life experiences as well-educated and popular courtesans, accomplished poets, and retiring nuns, their poetry does reflect similar concerns and conflicts.  However, their language and perspectives approaching their concerns differ greatly.  Xue, the more popular poet, has a more formal, lyrical style, often with a greater concern for more generalized human experiences.  In contrast, Yu's poetry is more overt and direct in language, providing sharp details in an intensely autobiographical manner.  I will now briefly compare my translations of a few of Xue Tao's poems with my translations of Yu Xuanji's poetry.


Poets often wrote an entire poem focusing on a specific object, and almost every Tang poet wrote at least one poem devoted to the moon.  Often the poems will reflect on the emotional state of the speaker, sleepless in the middle of the night, confronting a loneliness that is revealed by the light of the moon.  I find it fascinating that both Xue and Yu do not emphasize loneliness but connection.



        Moon by Xue Tao

        A small shape of a hook,
        follows a fan of the Han.
        The shadow of the moon is round,
        which all of humankind can see.

In "Moon," Xue begins with moon imagery and ends with a statement contemplating the relationship of the moon with humankind, which is reinforced by the absence of a first person narrator.



        The Yiinwu Pavilion by Yu Xuanji

        Spring flowers, autumn moon,
        can be written into poems.

        During the day, during the night,
        I become immortal.

        Empty wrapper ensures my beaded curtain
        will never come down.

        I move my bed–I sleep
        facing the mountain.

In "The Yiinwu Pavilion," which also begins with an abstract image of a moon, Yu narrows her focus inwards until in the end there is only the connection between speaker and the mountain.  This motion is a stark contrast to expanding outwards to encompass all of humankind, as Xue does in "Moon."


During the Tang Dynasty, the idea of romance blossomed among the educated upper class with growth of the social custom of poetry exchange.  Sometimes the poet omitted the name of the person addressed, but at the time it was more customary for a poet to specify a person by name, typically in the title, giving each poem a charged, intimate feel.  Since male poets were typically travelers leaving behind their loved ones, they often wrote poems centered around how much they missed the women they left behind.  In these poems, Xue and Yu are the women who were left behind.  In these poems, the centers are their longing, their unfulfilled desires, their concerns as women.





        Spring Gazing by Xue Tao

        Flowers bloom, we cannot enjoy them at the same time,
        Flowers fall, we cannot be sad at the same time.
        I want to ask you will we miss each other,
        when flowers bloom, when flowers fall.

        Inside the grass, we know each other's heart,
        In the future, we will be like friends.
        The melancholy of spring is fading,
        But the spring bird still sings a sad song.

        The wind and the flower daily grow old,
        The wedding date is still far away.
        We will not be the ones with the same heart,
        The emptiness becomes the grass, becomes the same heart.

The juxtaposition of contradictory images serves to illustrate the emotional turmoil the speaker is experiencing regarding the separation from her beloved.  The statement "flowers bloom" signifies a beginning, specifically that of spring, while "flowers fall" brings the connotation of the end of spring.  This poem is really a series of small poems, but thematically the content flows so well together that often they are grouped together and treated as one.  Of all of Xue's poems, this one seems to be the most popular in English translation, and I would like to note that some translations of this poem do not include a first person speaker, which further supports the emphasis on abstraction and the universality of the human condition that is characteristic of Xue's poetic voice.



        Spring Thoughts Sent Affectionately to Zian by Yu Xuanji

        Mountain road, slanted and steep,
        dangerous stone stairs.

        I won't worry too much about walking.
        I walk thinking of you.

        Ice already melted in the distant stream
        reminds me of your brilliant style.

        Snow melting faraway in the cold mountains
        reminds me of your fine body.

        Don't listen to common songs
        or indulge in the sickness of spring drink.

        Don't let people come
        to play chess at night.

        Like a pine tree our promise
        in front of stone is always there.

        Flying with another bird
        is too late.

        Although I hate to walk alone
        during winter days,

        in the end, we will come to meet each other
        when the moon is round.

        When we say goodbye,
        what's my parting gift?

        Broken tears dripping
        in the spring light.

Unlike Xue's "Spring Gazing", which speaks to an unknown, unnamed person, Yu's poem is a direct address to the poet Zian, for whom she obviously feels a great passion.  While Xue creates a metaphor using empty grass symbolizing her longing, Yu cuts to the core with direct language, for instance: "Snow melting faraway in the cold mountains reminds me of your fine body."  Finally, both poems use repetitive sentence structures, yet Xue's is again more metaphorical:  "when flowers bloom, when flowers fall" which is in contrast to Yu's straightforward and commanding repetition:  "Don't listen to common songs or indulge in the sickness of spring drink. // Don't let people come to play chess at night."


Often Chinese poets set an entire poem in a particular location to evoke a specific memory.  The poem acts as a commemoration tool, and its language reveals emotion or a story.



        West Cliff by Xue Tao

        Standing at the fence,
        I remember the one who rode whales.

        Raising my wine against the wind,
        I wave my hand.

        Small rain brings noise,
        and a horse stops.

        When the sun sets,
        the cicadas cry.

Apparently, scholars are a bit puzzled as to the precise place alluded to by the title "West Cliff," as there are many locations that have a west cliff.  There is also some speculation as to the precise person, the whale rider, referenced in this poem.  The uncertainty of place and person is a direct result of Xue's tendency to express through more universal images.  The intimacy of memory expressed at the beginning broadens to the metaphor of the horizon near the end of the poem.  The poet leaves the reader with a sense of melancholy, with the cicadas echoing this heavy emotional weight.



        Looking around Chongzhen Temple's South Pavilion and Seeing the New List of Names
        of Those Who Passed the Civil Service Exam
by Yu Xuanji

        The clouds at the top of the mountain
        look like spring without rain.

        I look up at the board, at the list of names
        written under the arrow.

        I hate myself, my pretty clothes
        that cover my poems.

        Raising my head, I read with envy
        the names of those who passed the examination.

Again the movement of Yu's poem is the reverse of Xue's.  The latter poem begins with the speaker and ends in landscape, while Yu's poem begins with landscape and ends with the speaker.  I found this poem to be one of Yu's most powerful, as it directly deals with her struggle with her gender roles, symbolized by her "pretty clothes."

Though women in the Tang Dynasty enjoyed more freedom than most Chinese women of other dynasties, women poets like Yu Xuanji keenly felt the restrictions imposed on them based on their sex.  When women like Xue and Yu composed their own poems, their art was often the only way they could express their own desires, whether it be longing for the company of a beloved or contemplation of the limitations of their roles as women.  Whether their focus is on the abstraction of metaphorical imagery or the sharpness of autobiographical details, the voices of Xue Tao and Yu Xuanji and other female poets contribute their perspectives as women to the social dialogue of Chinese poetry.  In my opinion, their poems are the true treasures of the Tang Dynasty.

Translation Notes:

Each poem in this article is translated from Chinese to English by C. L. Jiang & Emily Jiang.  The Chinese versions are arranged in a Western style, so the words are arranged in rows to be read from left to right.

Further Readings

An Anthology of Chinese Literature, edited and translated by Stephen Owen. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Readings of Chinese Poet Xue Tao, a Thesis Presented by Lu Yu. University of Massachusetts Amherst., 2010.

The Clouds Float North: The Complete Poems of Yu Xuan Ji. University of Virginia, 2001.

Emily Jiang has a B.A. in English from Rice University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary's College of California, where she studied fiction writing and the craft of poetry and managed to miss all the classes specializing in the creation of nonfiction. The first poem she ever memorized was a Chinese poem by Li Bai. In addition to Stone Telling, her poetry has been published at Strange Horizons and Goblin Fruit and is forthcoming at Weird Tales.

C. L. Jiang has a PhD in Electrical Engineering from CalTech and a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from National Taiwan University. In his spare time, he enjoys Chinese calligraphy, and he solves physics problems for fun.