the green window: women poets of Ming-Qing China

January 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

In the howling wind, I often heard noises of killing and plunder;
Smelling the stench of blood, I felt more worried and afraid.
Thousands of words cannot describe what I’ve suffered;
Facing each other, we cried with tears like rain and dew.

–Cai Runshi (1612-1694), from “While I Dwelled in Poverty in the Mountains, My Younger Sister Liansu Came By to Visit Me and Talked About the Difficulties of Wandering as Refugees” (presented in Women’s Poetry of Late Imperial China: Transforming the Inner Chambers, Xiaorong Li, 2012)

This excerpt from a longer poem (see below) comes from Xiaorong Li’s Women’s Poetry of Late Imperial China: Transforming the Inner Chambers (University of Washington Press, 2012). I was fortunate to work with Xiaorong (we met through the McGill Centre for Teaching and Writing on Women, introduced by Professor Grace Fong), helping to copyedit several chapters of her dissertation when we were both grad students in Montreal, and it’s been a real pleasure to revisit this book, chapter 4 in particular: “Inside Out: The Gui in Times of Chaos.”

Xiaorong studies throughout her book the gui, or “inner chambers”, as both literal space or retreat for women poets of this time, and also trope or imaginative space from which their writing emerged. She traces the various adaptations and new interpretations of the gui that these writers effected: 1. replication of the more standard male literary models (where male poets ventriloquized women of the boudoir); 2. the gui recreated by women poets as a distinct feminine and homosocial textual space, a “de-eroticized place of work, leisure, and companionship with other women” (14); 3. as a site of subversion and resistance (“their poetry articulated their resentment and bitterness about their plight as women cloistered in the gui” p.15); and 4. as a site of witness, where the gui functions as “inconsequential, a ‘small window’ that frames their perspective on broader historical changes, a shrunken space that they examine from a great distance” (p.15). The “green window” or lüchuang (the title of this blog post) is a reference to the most popular term used to identify the gui in an influential anthology of boudoir poems (the tenth century Anthology of Poems Written among the Flowers); the green window was a “green-gauze screen,” synecdoche for the boudoir.

Chapter 4 concentrates on the gui as site of witness, considering poets who encountered in their lives war and chaos, and how this was inscribed in their poetry. Xiaorong writes: “Women in the late Ming [1368-1644] and Qing [1644-1912] were not the first to witness tragic historical changes, but it was the first time that ‘a large number of women poets began to bear witness to war atrocities, apparently through a conscious process of emulation and creation.'” (p.115)

Cai Runshi (1612-1694) was the wife of Huang Daozhou (a Ming loyalist who was executed by Qing troops in 1646). Cai Runshi herself lost not only her husband but also sons and home at ths time. Here is a longer excerpt from Cai Runshi’s poem, “While I Dwelled in Poverty…”:

We learned embroidery from Madam Yao of Chang’an
In our spare time we both studied the art of poetry.
We shared desk and ink at Wuling’s Plum Blossom Pavilion;
Holding hands, we explored all the paths to the Peach Blossom Spring.
How happy our life was, and how miserable it is now!
After the calamity, we’ve suffered more misfortunes as refugees;
I lost two sons on Heyang’s post station road
And collapsed in snow in the valley of Mount Huaimeng.
Running into an old servant, I was able to survive;
Three months in an old shabby temple, I grieved at my homelessness.
In the howling wind, I often heard noises of killing and plunder;
Smelling the stench of blood, I felt more worried and afraid.
Thousands of words cannot describe what I’ve suffered;
Facing each other, we cried with tears like rain and dew.
–pp.120-121, in Women’s Poetry of Late Imperial China

While acknowledging that such women writers were in constant negotiation with historical, canonical, predominantly masculine textual practices, Xiaorong also points out in her introduction to this book that these women’s poems also offer glimpses of their literary agency as they struggled to record subjective, social, and cultural experiences as humans placed by virtue of their gender within the confines of the gui: 

“When she had the opportunity to wield the brush, a woman, consciously or unconsciously, had to make a difficult yet compelling choice: how to present herself to the intended or possible reader (even if she was writing to herself). Due to the belief that ‘poetry expresses one’s intent’ (shi yan zhi), a prevalent cultural assumption about the poetic genre in Chinese literary history, a poem was presumed to be a record of historical experiences and an expression of the author’s intent. It was supposed to be read in relation to the poet. In other words, a woman’s poetry was perceived as a self-representation within her historical context; she was responsible for the meaning of the text that bore her name.” (p.13)

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