For the interview with Tony in Winter 2000
For more of Tony's translations from the Chinese
Poetry selection from Readymades by Tony Barnstone in Fall 2001.
XUE TAO (768-831)
Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping
Xue Tao was well-respected as a poet during the Tang Dynasty, when she lived. She was born either in the Tang capital Zhangan or later on when her father, a minor government official, was posted to Chengdu in present-day Sichuan province. A story about her childhood, perhaps apocryphal, suggests that she was able to write complex poems by the age of seven or eight. She may have gained some literary education from her father, but he died before she had come to marriageable age and she ended up being a very successful courtesan (one of the few paths for women in Tang Dynasty China in which conversation and artistic talent were encouraged). After Wei Gao, the military governor, became her literary patron, her reputation was widespread. She seems to have had an affair with another famous literary figure, Yuan Zhen. Late in life she went to live in seclusion and put on the habit of a Taoist churchwoman. More than one hundred of her poems survive. She is often considered (with Yu Xuanji) to be one of the two finest female poets of the Tang Dynasty.
Sending Old Poems to Yuan Zhen
Everyone writes poems in their own manner
but only I know delicacy of wind and light,
and when writing of flowers in moonlight, lean towards the
Of a willow in rainy dawn I write how twigs hang down.
They say green jade should stay hidden deep,
but I write candidly on red-lined paper.
I'm old now but can't stop writing
so I open myself to you as if I were a good man.
A Spring in Autumn
Behind a ribbon of evening mist, a chill sky distills,
and a melody of far waterfalls like ten silk strings
comes to my pillow to tug my feelings,
keeping me awake in sorrow past midnight.
Flowers bloom but we can't share them.
Flowers fall and we can't share our sadness.
If you need to find when I miss you most:
when the flowers bloom and when they fall.
I pull a blade of grass and tie a heart-shape knot
to send to the one who understands my music.
Spring sorrow is at the breaking point.
Again spring birds murmur sad songs.
Wind, flowers, and the day is aging.
No one knows when we'll be together.
If I can't tie my heart to my man's,
it's useless to keep tying heart-shaped knots.
Unbearable when flowers fill the branches,
when two people miss each other.
Tears streak my morning mirror like jade chopsticks.
Does the spring wind know that?
In February, light, fine willow catkins
play with people's clothes in spring breeze;
they are heartless creatures,
flying south one moment, then north again.
Washed clean by dew, cicada songs go far
and like windblown leaves piling up
each cicada's cry blends into the next.
Yet each lives on its own branch.
Its spirit leans like a thin hook
or opens round like a Han-loom fan,
slender shadow whose nature is to be full,
seen everywhere in the human world.