Bowing to the moon, Speaking in one voice – the forgotten poets of the Tang Dynasty

Magdalena Wojcik is a PhD student at the China and Inner Asia Department of SOAS, University of London. Her research is focused on the Tang women’s poetry recorded in the early modern Chinese anthologies. Magdalena holds an MA in Sinology and BA in Chinese Modern and Classical from SOAS. Her other research interests include literary concepts of otherness and minority literature, as well as the medieval manuscript cultures.


Thousands of poems surviving from the Tang Dynasty (7th-10th c. AD), considered the golden age of Chinese poetry at large, came to define the canon of Chinese poetry. While women’s poetry remains a fraction of this extensive corpus, three women poets – famous courtesans Li Ye, Xue Tao, and Yi Xuanji – come to define the popular view of the Tang women’s poetry. In my research, I reclaim the voices of the remaining, somewhat forgotten and definitely overlooked three hundred Tang women poets. 

To emphasise their marginalised position, I term them the “Other Poets.” The moniker “the Other” also relates to the concept of “otherness,” developed by Guattari and Deleuze.[i] Minor literature is written in a language of the dominant literature but formed differently due to a necessity that springs from a difference in position.[ii] In this case, the Other Poets, as the subordinates of the dominant patriarchal ideology, they appropriated the literary tradition developed for and by men to express themselves. Thus, their language exists only in the context of the mainstream (male) tradition and has no literary tradition of its own.

To uncover their voice, I have drawn from Robertson’s referring to discursivity, consisting of differences in the “position” of speaking subjects in texts vis-a-vis the use of representational codes, address, interest, or relationship to a dominant political or gender ideology.[iii] The poetic voice became a maker of meaning and opened up alternative subjective positions beyond their social roles and enacted their agency.[iv]

As the ability and will to act purposefully and self-consciously, agency demonstrates how from a position of inferiority within the power relations, the Other Poets negotiated with the social and cultural limitations applied to their writings.[v]

In particular, I am interested in the Other Poets’ engagement of a shared theme of communal rituals. Encompassing a vast collective of the Other Poets from different socio-economic classes, spatial localities, and timelines within the Tang dynasty renders participation in the poetic production the medium of expression of the collective voice and, most importantly, a maker of the community.[vi]

The collective performance of bowing to the moon in the worship of moon goddess Chang E, who, according to the myth, stole the immortality elixir and fled to the moon, incited the imagination of the Other Poets. Enclosed within the inner chambers, they identified with the goddesses’ loneliness and admired her defiance. In turn, in the poetry of the contemporary male poets, Chang E is pitied for her loneliness. Li Bai, one of the most famous Tang poets, wrote: “Chang E perches alone, who is her neighbour?,” while Luo Yin patronised her: “Chang E, the old lady, must feel sad and full of regret,/ She cries, leaning against the green cassia on the moon.”[vii]

Even from a perspective of Xue Tao, a famous Tang woman poet, Chang E is one of the many in the catalogue of mythological figures serving as a prop mysticising the new robes presented to the persona: “In the Palace of Purple Sunlight, I was given the red silks, / The immortal mist is hazy, far away from the sea. / Frost-white hare’s fur so cold, frozen [silk] cocoons so pure.[viii] / Chang E laughs, she points at the Woman Weaver’s bridge.[ix][x]

The Other Poets, on the other hand, drew a sense of empowerment from Chang E. Madame Zhang, an eighth-century gentry woman,[xi] in her poem “Bowing to the Moon,” [xii] which reveals intricacies of the multi-dimensional expression including the play between the gendered vocabularies, spatial connotations and metanarratives. The cassia tree and bow, the attributes of a literati, contrast with dressing room, mirror and painted eyebrows, traditionally associated with a passive feminine persona. Conversely, this time, the ‘masculine’ cassia tree and bow are reclaimed as feminine attributes.

Bowing to the New Moon by Lady Zhang

Bowing to the new moon,

Bowing to the moon outside the hall.

A dark spirit hid deep the cassia tree,

An empty bow neither bent nor strung yet.

Bowing to the new moon,

Bowing to the moon upstairs in the dressing room.

The luan mirror has just settled on a stand,[xiii]

Her moth eyebrows already drawn opposite each other.

Bowing to the moon won’t improve the mood,

The courtyard flowers, the wind and dew cleanse them.

The moon overlooks people growing old,

People gaze at the moon forever full.

Next door, an older woman bows to the moon,

Each bow even sadder until the sound cuts off.

In the past, when bowing to the moon, she flaunted a bright face.

Turning back, she looks at a crowd of women all bowing to the new moon,

And remembers deep in the red boudoir her younger days.

Similar devices, themes, and vocabulary are also found in “For Madame Lu” by ninth-century courtesan Chang Hao.[xiv] Zhang and Hao use the physical changes of flowers and the moon as reflective of the personae’s ageing. The patriarchal pressure contextualising women as sexual objects conditioned their anxiety over the fading looks. Ageing and loss of youthful looks contrast with Chang E’s immortal beauty, thus emphasising the tragic fate of the mortal women.

For Madame Lu by Chang Hao

A beautiful woman admiring her own looks,

She worries that they will wither like the fragrant flowers.

At sunset, she walks out of the painted hall,

Below the stairs, she bows to the new moon.

Bowing to the moon, she makes a wish,

Others, how can they know?

Coming back, she descends into the jade hall,

She begins to notice the trace of tears falling.

In “For Madame Lu,” we witness the persona admiring her own beauty as if subjected to the male gaze. Tung argues that it is an unconscious projection.[xv] However, to me, it cannot be incidental given the extensive use in both poems. It resembles a nested frame story structure of a poetic mise-en-abyme. As Dällenbach phrases it, the effect of mise-en-abyme has a quality of self-reflexivity and is designed to “bring out the meaning and the form of the work.”[xvi] As a repetition of interconnected images of worshipping the moon in “Bowing to the New Moon” performed by the persona, an older woman, and a crowd of anonymous women, mise-en-abyme allows her to transcend the boundaries of a singular perspective and amplify her voice.

In the same way as these poets, Zhang, a gentry woman, and Hao, a courtesan, transcend the social classes sending a message in one voice. Through the discursive process of thematisation, the thematic connections across poems of the Other Tang women became the makers of their collective voice. 

Mapping the Other Tang women’s collective voice in this manner is only possible when the poetry, especially the treatment of the shared themes, becomes the ground for community making. Incorporating the communal ritual of bowing to the moon allows the personae to insert themselves into a broader community of women, who, like them, are performers of the rituals. This is a community-building exercise and an attempt at identity construction, an identity surpassing physical isolation. Here, the communal activities and performances signify more than literary tropes. They become a nexus of universal experiences enacted by the poetic voices of the Other Poets experienced in a patriarchal society.

[i] Especially Deleuze, The Deleuze Reader, 149-150, and Delueze and Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, 16-27.

[ii] Robertson, “Literary Authorship,” 382.

[iii] Robertson, “Voicing the Feminine,” 68.

[iv] Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure,” 58.

[v] Fong, Herself an Author, 5.

[vi] Luo, Literati Storytelling, 3.

[vii] Quan Tangshi 179 and 658.

[viii] The moon hare was Chang E’s companion.

[ix] Woman Weaver Star refers to the legend of the forbidden love between the Woman Weaver and Cowherd, banished to live on the opposite sides of the Milky Way.

[x] Quan Tangshi 802.

[xi] My assumption is based on the biographical information available on her husband Ji Zhongfu, although there are no historical references dedicated to Lady Zhang directly. Ji Zhongfu (d. ca. 788) was a poet, Daoist priest and later a scholar-official. Jiu Tangshu 163.4272.

[xii] Quan Tangshi 799.

[xiii] Refers to a mirror with a mythical luan bird typically carved into the back.

[xiv] See Tangshi jishi 79 for her short biography. “Bowing to the Moon”  is located in Quan Tangshi 802.

[xv] Tung, Fables for Patriarchs, 186.

[xvi] Dällenbach, The Mirror in the Text, 8.


Bibliography

Dällenbach, Lucien. The Mirror in the Text. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Deleuze, Gilles. The Deleuze Reader.  New York and Oxford: Columbia University Press, 1993.

—————, and Félix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Fong, Grace S. Herself an Author: Gender, Agency, and Writing in Late Imperial China. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2016.

Ji Yougong 計有功, ed. Tangshi jishi 唐詩紀事 (Anecdotes of the Tang Poetry). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1965.

Liu Xu 劉昫. Jiu Tang shu 舊唐書 (The Old Book of Tang). Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1936.

Luo, Manling. Literati Storytelling in Late Medieval China. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2015.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 6–18.

Peng Dingqiu 彭定求 et al., eds. Quan Tangshi 全唐詩 (Complete Tang Poems). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1960.

Robertson, Maureen. “Literary Authorship by Late Imperial Governing-Class Chinese Women and the Emergence of a ‘Minor Literature.’”  In The Inner Quarters and Beyond. Women Writers from Ming through Qing, edited by Grace S. Fong an Ellen Widmer, 375-386. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2010.

—————. “Voicing the Feminine: Constructions of the Gendered Subject in Lyric Poetry by Women of Medieval and Late Imperial China.” Late Imperial China 13, no. 1 (1992): 63–110.

Tung, Jowen R. Fables for Patriarchs: Gender Politics in Tang Discourse. Lanham, MD and Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000.


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