Xue Tao: the Urge to Make Poems

March 29, 2007
Editor: wocm


Xue Tao: the Urge to Make Poems

"The Urge to Make Poems: Everyone's Got It. But I Alone...Grasp Rich Subtleties of Scenes."

Xue Tao (768-831) was well-respected as a poet during the Tang Dynasty, when she lived. Xue Tao was the daughter of a minor government official in Xian, the capital of Tang dynasty China. She was born either in the Tang capital Zhangan or later on when her father in present-day Sichuan Province. When Xue Tao was a child, her father was transferred to Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan province; by the time she was in her mid-teens, her father had died. Since her mother did not return to her home in Xian, scholars have assumed that she was too poor to do so. At any rate, Xue Tao was registered in Chengdu's guild of courtesans and entertainers.

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).

In part because of her skill at poetry and calligraphy, she became the favorite concubine of Wei Gao, the military governor of the province. He made her his official hostess; his successors apparently kept her in this position. As such, she came to know the prominent figures of her day, including the major poets Bo Juyi and Yuan Zhen. She and Yuan Zhen became close friends (perhaps lovers).

After Wei Gao, the military governor, became her literary patron, her reputation was widespread. When Wei Gao died in 805, he left Xue Tao provided for, so she was able to live independently for the 25 years before her death. She continued to write poetry and remained a respected literary figure. 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.

Some 450 poems by Xue Tao were gathered in "The Brocade River Collection" that survived until the 1300s. Nowadays 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 dark.

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.

Spring Gazing


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?

Willow Catkins

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.

Hearing Cicadas

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.

(Source: www.thedrunkenboat.com/ home.infionline.net)


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