History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

18 April 2008

Tzu Yeh: Geisha Poet

I’ve never been a student of poetry or even considered myself a fan, but I must admit when a poet manages to convey powerful emotion or evoke the senses with just a few well-placed words, I read with awe and envy.

I recently discovered the works of a poetress named Tsu Ye (Tzu-Yeh Shi), a geisha who lived in 4th century China, Chin dynasty. I think her words resonate with all of us, even though she penned the verse centuries a ago . Tsu Ye writes:

I cannot sleep for the blaze of the full moon.
I thought I heard here and there
a voice calling,
hopelessly I answer 'Yes' to the empty air.

It is night again.
I let down my silken hair over my shoulders and open my thighs over my lover.
'Tell me, is there any part of me that is not lovable?'

I had not fastened my sash over my gown when you asked me to look out the window.
If my skirt fluttered open, blame the spring wind.

The bare branches tremble in the sudden breeze. The twilight deepens.
My lover loves me, and I am proud of my young beauty.

I am the North Pole steady for a thousand years.
Your sun-like heart goes east in the morning and west in the evening.

Your Deceits

I’'m too unschooled to play these games -False starts, excuses, lies,
But you are like free-floating river weeds

Changing with every shift of the Spring wind . . .

Winter skies are cold and low, with harsh winds and freezing sleet.
But when we make love beneath our quilt, we make three summer months of heat.

When she approached you on the street, you couldn't possibly say no.
But your neglectof me is nothing new.

Hinges soon sag on an empty door: it won't fit snug like it did before.

A Smile
In this house on a hill without walls,
the four winds touch our faces.

If they blow open your robe of gauze,
I'll try to hide my smile.

An End to Spring
Your leaving brought an end to spring,
now longing burns like summer's heat.

Will I ever lift my dress for you again?
Will my pillow ever hold your lovely face?

Yes, Tzu Yeh wrote touching, erotic love poems, but did you know Tzu Yeh also wrote the wonderful Ballad of Mulan? I had no idea (admitting my ignorance here).

Tzu Yeh fascinates me. I wonder what she looked like, who she loved, and what events inspired her. I can find almost no details about her life, or even an image, but I am glad her words left us a glimpse of a complex and brilliant woman.

If you know more about her, please post! Do you have an ancient, perhaps obscure but favorite poet you’d like to tell us about?

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Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

WOW! Kathrynn, that poetry is amazing! I had never heard of Tzu Yeh, nor did I know that she wrote "Mulan." (I never saw the Disney movie, either). Considering the historical figures I write about, I have a personal interest in courtesan-poets!

I'm sure a fan of Tzu Yeh's writing, now! Her language (even in translation) is so lush and yet so spare and economical.

You said you'd recently discovered her. I'd be interested to hear how you came across her and her work.

9:03 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I came across her work while I was looking for an article I saw in Archeology Magazine...they found a 4th century epithat written by a young Chinese wife whose husband had recently died...I can't remember the exact words, but her few sentences so revealed the depth of her love---I was amazed.

Determined to find her exact words, I googled "Ancient Chinese Poetry" and as usual, got side tracked.

Tzu Yeh wrote 117 poems and there are a few (very few) books containing her translations.

I told my DH, that's what I want him to get me for our 12 year anniversary this summer. ;-) ... a copy of one of those books!

9:48 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I hope your husband snags that volume for you! After all, it's one of those gifts that keeps on giving. ;)

I think I may read some of the ones you posted, to my relatively new hubby as a "bedtime story"

(we celebrate our first anniversary one month from tomorrow!)

9:57 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Congratulations on your first anniversary, Amanda. I think Tzu Yeh's love poems are the perfect gift.

I am leaving for a writers weekend retreat in a few hours. Tonight, when it's late and I am done with my first three on my next WIP, I plan on sending my husband and good night note from Tzu Yeh. ;-)

10:13 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I love the poems, and I love thinking of the poems as anniversary gifts.

My husband and I will celebrate our 39th this autumn -- though we date our real anniversary as July 4th, 1966. The summer we spent together in psychedlic delirium over Dylan's just released Blonde on Blonde, erotic stupor over the just-translated Story of O, and (forgotten by me until I read your post, Kathrynn), this poem, called "Erat Hora", by Ezra Pound:

"Thank you, whatever comes." And then she turned
And, as the ray of sun on hanging flowers
Fades when the wind hat lifted them aside,
Went swiftly from me. Nay, whatever comes
One hour was sunlit and the most high gods
May not make boast of any better thing
Than to have watched that hour as it passed.

8:38 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Oh wow, Pam, I love Era Horat! and 39 years...huge congrats. ;-)

You and your husband are one of a handful of people I know who have been married that long!

9:57 PM  
Anonymous Mike Farman said...

I have been translating the Tzu Yeh quatrains for some time, and they will be appearing in an anthology soon. We will never know who Tzu Yeh really was, or even whether she really existed. Some scholars think she was invented by male poets. All we know is that about 117 quatrains entitled "Tzu Yeh Songs" appeared in a "Music Bureau" publication in the second half of the 4th Century AD. I'm inclined to think that she was a real person, however, because the poems read like true experience.

Mike Farman.

8:16 AM  
Anonymous Harrison Tao said...

While I applaud and share your interest in Tzu Yeh, please do make one correction in your notes with the poems. She was CHINESE and NOT Japanese, an important distinction to those from either nationality. Therefore, she is (if she existed as one actual person) not a "Geisha", which is a Japanese - and not Chinese - term. That's why every reference to her takes pains to be accurate and refer to her as "wine-shop girl", even when "geisha" would be much shorter. Thank you.

1:17 PM  

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