As we depart,
there is nothing to say
beneath the silent moon
reflects the way we truly feel.
From here on,
we will long for each other
like the moon
floating between clouds,
beyond the water,
until it reaches
the Celestial Palace.
The above poem, by Li Ye (c. 732–784 CE), a poet and Daoist priest, is one of many, many gems in Yin Mountain: The Immortal Poetry of Three Daoist Women, a collection of poems by three female poets recently translated from the Chinese by Peter Levitt and Rebecca Nie. The project is not only remarkable for its artistic merit but also for the political, historical, and spiritual revelations it unfolds for the reader. The collection introduces the English-speaking world to the lives and poems of three Tang dynasty women, Li Ye, Xue Tao (758–832 CE), and Yu Xuanji (843–868 CE). Li Ye and Yu Xuanji were Daoist priestesses, and Xue Tao was a courtesan who, in her later years, retired to lead an eremitic life dedicated to poetry and Daoist practice.
The Tang dynasty has long been regarded as the golden age of classical Chinese poetry, and while its male poets are well-known, the names of its accomplished women poets, such as these three, are hardly known at all. Fascinatingly, all three women, as Levitt and Nie told me when we spoke, are representatives of the Daoist goddess culture of the time. They explained how priestesses were seen as embodiments of goddesses and women as embodiments of sacred Daoist principles like primordial Yin. Gender-specific women’s neidan (internal energy cultivation) was widely embraced, one-third of Daoist clergy were female, and female Daoists were exalted as healers and caretakers of divine revelations. However, patriarchal elites considered the goddess culture a threat to their power and actively tried to supplant it and devalue the work of women. In presenting their poems, Levitt and Nie are both lifting up the voices of women disempowered by patriarchy and helping to renew awareness of the Daoist goddess culture of the past.
Levitt and Nie are both recognized Zen masters, being lineage holders of the Shunryu Suzuki lineage and Korean Jogye Order, respectively. Levitt is a published poet and has worked as a translator and editor of works by Thich Nhat Hanh, Dogen Zenji, and Han Shan, and Nie is an award-winning new media artist. Together, they bring considerable erudition, artistic capability, sensitivity, and their own spiritual practices to bear on this work, and it shows.
Levitt had previously translated some poems of Li Qingzhao (1084–1155), who is widely considered one of ancient China’s greatest poets, male or female, which sparked a desire to translate the works of more women. He then reached out to Nie to ask if she would be interested in helping to translate more female Chinese poets. Once Nie discovered the three poets of Yin Mountain, the two delved deeper into these women’s lives and realized they had made a significant discovery that needed to be shared with the world. All three translated poets were practitioners of Daoism, and two of them were Daoist priestesses, who at this time in Chinese history, were considered living demigoddesses. Their poetry weaves together allusions to Chinese literature and history, Daoist philosophy, and aspects of the Daoist goddess culture they lived in.
Tragically, two of the three poets were executed. A “poetic hero among women,” according to Nie, Li Ye was a Daoist priestess famed for her calligraphy, poetry, music, love affairs (Daoist priestesses were not celibate), and friendships with male poets. Invited to be a teacher at court, she was kidnapped by rebels and then, after order was restored, defamed and executed falsely as a collaborator. Later, Confucian intellectuals demonized her as a model of toxic femininity, portraying her sexuality as promiscuous and manipulative.
Yu Xuanji, born to a family of commoners, was unhappily married to an elite man as his second, or lesser, wife. By the age of 17, she had been cast off and was living apart from her husband in a convent as a Daoist priestess. Xuanji had multiple lovers and was viewed as an embodiment of divinity, both facts she amplified in her own poetry. Sadly, Xuanji was executed at the young age of 25 for allegedly murdering her maid, a charge she was likely innocent of and which typically was not a capital crime. One poem by Yu Xuanji poignantly expresses her rage at the growing exclusion of women from serious artistic recognition. She rails against seeing the brutal restrictions of society and the publicly posted lists of honored male poets:
Cloud peaks fill my eyes, banishing the light of spring—
Clear, brutal hooks form beneath their fingers!
I hate that my poems lie beneath my woman’s robes—
I lift my head in vain and envy the names of the honorees.
“These female poets were tolerated as long as they were ‘good,’” Levitt told me, “but when they soared away beyond what the culture could tolerate, they were punished, as is described in the poem ‘Hawks Soar Away.’” This poem describes the aftermath of the dissolution of a love affair between Xuanji and Yuan Zhen, a literary giant and government minister. In it, Xuanji compares herself to a pet perched on Yuan Zhen’s arm, an image that was traditionally seen as a self-humiliating expression of regret. Levitt and Nie, however, argue that the poem is more of a protest than an admission of remorse:
With my talon spears and bell-like eyes,
my capturing of hares is praised by all,
but since I soared above the blue clouds for no reason,
you no longer let me perch on your arm.
Our third poet, Xue Tao, was one of the most celebrated of the Tang dynasty and lived into her 80s, perhaps because she was able to make her home far from the halls of power. The subject of an opera and historical monuments, she designed an artisanal paper that is still used today. In her later years, she retired to a hermitage where she focused on poetry and internal cultivation:
I moved my immortal quarters to this place,
where shrubs blossom everywhere without being sown.
Spreading out my garments on the yard’s small tree,
I sit above the fresh spring and float cups of wine.
From my balcony railings, there’s a hidden path through deep bamboo. Fine woven silks embrace my messy pile of books.
Freely, I ride a painted boat and sing to the shining moon,
trusting the light breeze will circle me back around.
Through their translations, Levitt and Nie have excavated the voices of women whom the patriarchal culture of the time, and historians since, tried to bury. As a Chinese American woman artist, Nie felt that exploring these three poets was a process of mutual liberation. “Working on this volume has helped me to overcome a sense of distance from my own heritage as a woman working in the West,” she shared. “Working on the poems of these women has helped me to find a sense of liberation and healing for myself. By sharing this work, I hope to extend my hand to my sisters all over the globe, including those in the Asian cultural sphere where the liberation from patriarchy is just beginning, but where there is hope.”
Levitt and Nie are now working on a new collection of classical poems by Chinese Chan masters, which they assured me would contain many women.
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