Jeanne Larsen

Translating Flowers That Don’t Have Names: The Poems of Lady Pistilstamens in Tenth-Century China

FOR YEARS, I heard mention of the poems of Lady Huarui — I was always asking about poetry by Chinese women, but back then, I didn’t get many helpful an­swers. Her very name struck me: “hua” means “flower/s,” and “rui” is a nifty word for the reproductive bits (the stamens and the pistils, filaments with their pollen-bearing anthers, the stigma, style, and ovary) at a blossom’s center. Most Chinese characters aren’t picture-writing, of course, or even “ideograms,” but the written signifier for this “rui” also had the symbol for “plantlife,” combined with three small signs for “heart.” So, Madame Flowerheart, I thought. Mistress Core-of-EfflorescenceDame BlossompartsThe Consort of Blooming Fertility.

Perhaps, I mused, a bit too flowery? Actually, the word “rui” serves as botanical lingo, nothing fancy. Meanwhile, my teachers encouraged my discouragement with this Lady Huarui (one in the early seventies, when I dived into Tang poems before I knew much modern Mandarin, one in the late eighties): diligent, educated women hemmed in by the conflicting messages given smart girls in mid/late twentieth-century Taiwan. “Well, those poems,” they said — “not worth studying…a little, you know, a little out of line, a little over the top.”

That meant: a little frivolous, a little sexy, or so I guessed. This did not kill my interest, dear reader, but there are so very many fine poems in the spare and supple language called literary Chinese, and I was (still am) so slow. I followed my smart, kind, dedicated teachers’ lead, and they gave me other good things.

Then I had a substitute. A little younger. Maybe she was put off by the allusion-laden poems of Tang dynasty court women — like the brilliant Shangguan Wan’er and strong-minded Empress Wu — I had been working on so intensively that summer? Or, just ready to take me onto her own turf? At any rate, for that week’s daily lessons, I (slow, slow, but sometimes fairly diligent myself) read a few of the 157 palace lyrics ascribed in the commodious eighteenth century Complete Tang Poems to “Lady Pistilstamens.” I loved them, even though the young tutor evaded my questions about possible double-entendres here and there. Later, for sheer pleasure, I read more.

But it turns out this poet was several people, not all of them female. The title “Lady Pistilstamens,” a pretty appellation for a royal consort, was evidently given to two tenth-century poets, each married to a different local ruler during the turbulent decades surrounding the fall of the great Tang dynasty. One is known to us as the Exemplary Consort Xu of Shu (c. 883-926). She was the younger of a pair of talented sisters, born to the impoverished Xu family and taken into the household of Wang Jian (847-918), a bandit-turned-general who emerged as military governor, and then independent ruler, of Shu (west-central Sichuan) as the Tang empire collapsed. A sequence of pilgrimage poems by the Exemplary Consort and her sister survived separately — quite different in tone and style.

The better-known Lady Pistilstamens has long been said to be a consort of Meng Chang (919-965), monarch of a successor state in the same region called the Later Shu. This woman’s surname is variously recorded as Xu or (earlier) Fei. Her existence has been questioned, but it seems reasonable that if someone wrote lyrics resembling those of the first king’s consort, her own royal husband might have granted her the flowery title as a claim to equal glories for his court. In any event, in 965, when the Meng family’s two-generation kingdom fell to the expanding Song empire, this Lady Pistilstamens (along with the royal library, poetry manuscripts and all) was reportedly taken away to the Song imperial palace as spoils of war. In addition to the 157 quatrains mentioned above, one and a half poems in the ci form attributed to this woman now exist. But for these too, actual authorship is uncertain.

Perhaps each woman wrote some of the thirty-two poems unearthed in the eleventh century (in two manuscripts) from what was left of the archives transported from the Shu capital. The finder states that another fifty or so had been lost. Some of the rest of the 157 may be later recoveries; some are spurious. In fact, some palace lyrics now credited to Lady Pistilstamens were written a century earlier by a popular male poet, Wang Jian. (The coincidence of names, the mid-Tang poet’s and the first Shu consort’s husband’s, suggests theories about writerly motives and wandering attributions.) Important too is that harem ladies’ personal names, like those of many female poets of Tang-era China, were not meant to be sullied by public use, and now are gone.

To add to the muddle, yet a third woman also bore the appellation “Lady Pistilstamens” — a consort to Li Yu, last ruler of the Southern Tang, a kingdom that from 937 to 975 held an area far from Shu, around the lower reaches of that great river, the Chang Jiang. No poem identified as hers survives. Still, the literary reputation of Li’s court supports the possibility that work by this Lady Pistilstamens (and why was she given the title, I wonder) might have eventually been mixed in with the rest.

In any case, the collection we now have is double-edged: male gaze, or multiple women’s voices? Surely both are at work here. These images of womanly aesthetic sensitivity, and of eroticized womanly captivity, are in any case charged with the emotional costs, and richness, of a restricted, luxurious harem life. Although the language is quite accessible compared to that of some Tang poets (a fluid blend of decorative, clever-sexy, colloquial, and piercingly lyrical), it is also unmistakably grounded in China’s earlier tradition of female-persona poems by both men and women. One common translator’s tooth-grinder — the dilemma of whether to English certain poems in first person or third or second —arises now and then, but in general, they’re easier to render than many poems from Tang times. Readers over the centuries have found these lyrics, if not high-minded or worthy of canonical status, then at least moving, or elegant, or refreshing. (Fans of China’s greatest novel, the eighteenth-century Story of the Stone aka Dream of the Red Chamber may notice echoes of these old poems there.) And even those that seem too honeyed for some contemporary U.S. tastes are evocative, and irresistible, to me.

Recent, nicely readable, scholarly translations of a few of the Lady Pistilstamens poems, along with useful comments, may be found in The Red Brush: Writing Women of Imperial China by Wilt Idema and Beata Grant (the name there is “Lady Huarui”) and in Chang & Saussy’s Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism (here, translator Anthony C. Yu refers to the poet as “Huarui furen”). I made my versions before seeing these; but, as always, I am glad to discover other perspectives, and recommend these renditions to anyone who reads mine. With every name we give the multifold center of the rose, it grows a little sweeter, after all. . . . —Roanoke, Virginia, Fall 2005


Lady Pistilstamens


Spring’s first day! An offering:                                                                                                                          these inner garden flowers,                                                                                                      each blossom’s tender pollen-parts                                                                                                                  a fragile dawn-cloud pink.                                                                                                Kneel with them on jade-white steps                                                                                                                studded still with dew—                                                                                                              at once, His Majesty orders, Give them                                                                                                            to that pretty harem girl.


Outside the palace, harem girls,                                                                                                                        so slim around the waist:                                                                                                    when one begins her riding lessons,                                                                                                                she’s nervous, and lovely, and shy.                                                                                            But once astride and on her way,                                                                                                                      ah, then she wants to go—                                                                                                          over and over, she drops the reins,                                                                                                                    and clasps that pommel, and rides!


Deep in the palace, a young girls’ game                                                                                                          next to a jade-white fence:                                                                                                      Spring rushes look like…arrows! and                                                                                                              The duckweed looks like…coins.                                                                                                But don’t you know that in this nook                                                                                                                of fenced-in peonies,                                                                                                              last night someone lost her…hairpin,                                                                                                              all feathery filigree?


The smell of orchid incense, thinning;                                                                                                            the candle’s light burnt down:                                                                                            finished perfuming the royal robes,                                                                                                                  and the nightwatch done — again.                                                                                            Worn out, and back in her own bed,                                                                                                                she sleeps within dark red drapes,                                                                                      her pillow swept by fall’s west wind,                                                                                                                her dreams, by winter’s cold.


Her gown, silk gauze so thin it shows                                                                                                              the skin and flesh beneath,                                                                                                        in empty wooden passageways                                                                                                                          when summer days grow long,                                                                                                  she leans on the railing quite alone                                                                                                                  without one thing to do—                                                                                                        except, where the river wind blows cool,                                                                                                        to read things made of words.


They woke up early, those palace ladies,                                                                                                          called morning greetings, smiled.                                                                                              But they don’t recognize the man                                                                                                                      who’s sweeping the courtyard clean.                                                                                        So, courteously, they give him coins,                                                                                                                and all crowd round to ask:                                                                                                        Life out there, is it still like                                                                                                                                our lives in here — or not?

(Translated from the Chinese by Jeanne Larsen)


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