“Willow, Wine, Mirror, Moon: Women’s Poems from Tang China”
Translated with an Introduction by Jeanne Larsen
Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, Ltd., 2005

Many people believe that classical Chinese poetry reached its apogee during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), and there are countless collections of Tang poetry, both in the original Chinese and in foreign languages. One of the translators who has done extensive work on Tang poetry is Jeanne Larsen. Also a poet and novelist, Larsen has devoted much of her career to bringing the lives and poetry of Chinese women to English-speaking audiences. She is best known for her three historical novels set in dynastic times and her collection of the poetry of the Tang courtesan Xue Tao, “The Brocade River Poems.” Her latest effort is “Willow, Wine, Mirror, Moon: Women’s Poems from Tang China.”

Going back to dynastic times, a number of literary commentators in China have lamented the scarcity of surviving works by women poets. These women lived in a society where social expectations and poor access to education made it difficult for them to write at all, and we may be pleasantly surprised to find that many works are available to us, in spite of historical and cultural obstacles. Larsen’s book gathers together some 109 poems representing 44 poets from different walks of life — from women of the court to prosperous members of the bourgeoisie to courtesans and women in religious life. The works express different points of view, from the erotic double entendres of Li Xunxian, to the ruminations on mortality of Yu Xuanji.

Tang poetry is notable both for its imagery and for its highly regulated prosody. Larsen’s fairly free translations at times take the reader a bit far afield from the formality and dense rhyme schemes of the originals. She is most successful when her versions reflect the original form to some extent. Her rendering of these lines from a poem by Yu Xuanji, where individual lines appear as short (usually 2-3 line) stanzas, is a good example. It gives the reader a sense of the progression of the original piece:

roots mature
fish slip
like desires into their nooks

limbs reach low
entangling travelers’ boats

Other poems are translated more experimentally, with words sometimes spaced widely across the page. These can be confusing and difficult to read, since at times the spacing leads the reader’s eye to the wrong word.

In general the translations are readable and evocative — Larsen is a poet, after all. Some of Larsen’s literal renderings are a bit off-putting, such as “Lady Pistilstamens,” or “hisface flowers.” The latter is meant to highlight the pun on the name for “hibiscus” (furong) with “man’s face” (also furong), but this information would have been better left as an addition to Larsen’s detailed endnotes.

All in all, this collection is an informative introduction to the poetry of the women of Tang China, and general readers and beginning students of Chinese will get the most pleasure and benefit from it.

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