Hayden's Ferry Review

For Three Sisters: Translation


Translators’ Note:

Yu Xuanji (approximately 844-869) was a Tang dynasty poet and Daoist priestess. Once a concubine of government official Li Yi, she was banished from the household by Li’s wife. No longer confined by domesticity, Yu found greater intellectual freedom as a courtesan and priestess. Her collection of poems, Fragments of a Northern Dreamland, was lost during the Tang dynasty. The 49 pieces that remain today come from a Song anthology that features poems written by, among others, foreigners and ghosts. Yu represents a unique female voice in classical Chinese poetry. Unlike many of her contemporaries who appealed to male readers by narrating lovesickness or yearning, Yu’s main poetic themes were freedom in nature, kinship with other women, and concerns around gender inequality. While she did write verses about love as well, her epistolary poem, “Advice to a Neighbor Girl,” and her occasion poem, “On a Visit to Chung Chen Taoist Temple I See In The South Hall The List of Successful Candidates in the Imperial Examinations” express both intimacy with the anxieties of girlhood and regret for the constrictions of womanhood. “For Three Sisters,” the longest of Yu’s remaining poems, expands on these concerns. Her reflection on gender inequality can be seen when she introduces the three sisters as “celestials at the Jade Springs,/ punished for returning to the mortal realm/that they were not blessed to be men.” According to Chinese scholars, this is one of the first Chinese poems that laments over the social position of women and that responds directly to another poem. In 869, Yu was executed after being accused of murdering a female disciple or servant.


For Three Sisters — Guang, Wei, and Pou —Who were orphaned young but grew to be beautiful and talented poets, yet received no recognition. My friend from the capitol brings me their poem.[1] Reading their words, I write another poem in response.

 By Yu XuanJi

Translated by Diana Xin and HongJuan Liu

I’ve long heard that young people
are skilled and beautiful in the South,
but today I learned of three sisters
who live in the East.
In their boudoir they read the parrot fu[2]
and embroider phoenix wings
into silk robes for their trousseaus.
Outside their window, a vast ocean of green
and a courtyard full of red flowers,
rising one above another.
They pour one cup of wine after the next,
losing count of the sips.                                                                  

I fear they were celestials at the Jade Springs[3]
punished for returning to this mortal realm,
that they were not blessed to be men.
If WenJi[4] is embarrassed to compare herself
to these three, and XiShi[5] is left speechless,
then I am even more ashamed before their talent.
On stage, they sing a bright-tuned melody,
stroking gently the strings of their zithers.
The chords strike deep, deep and somber.
Their voices, soft and shy, echo in the ear.
As they brush back strands of silken hair,
the moon reflects in their white hairpins.[6]

A young beauty is pure like dewdrops
that cling to the needles of a pine tree
hidden on the mountainside.
A mature beauty is elegant like a willow,
branches trailing the night sky as clouds
rise behind in a net of gauze curtain.
They cannot be grasped by this world of dust.
If only the rain could make remembrance
grow longer,[7] we would not fear the allure
of the flute.[8] The anxious mother scolds
her daughters’ whispered sighs, but she cannot
stop Pan Lang[9] from attending their dreams.

My spirit breaks underneath
the innocence of their phrases.
I clutch their words in my hands
and long to see their faces.
Who knows the fate
of these beautiful creatures?
I raise my eyes to search the sky.
The clouds drift north.
The clouds drift south.

[1] Guang, Wei, and Pou wrote a lian-wen shi, a poem in which each person wrote alternating lines, that described the traditional activities of upper-class women in the Tang Dynasty. Because of their father’s death, they were considered orphans. The surname of the sisters has been lost. 

[2] The Parrot Fu was written by Mi Heng (approx.173-198) in the Han dynasty. An allegorical prose poem, it describes a parrot’s desire for freedom and acceptance in society.

[3] The Jade Springs is the mythological home of the heavenly empress.

[4] WenJi is a famous female literary artist from the Han dynasty.

[5] XiShi is considered the most excessive of the four great beauties in Chinese history. From the Yue Kingdom, she was sent as a spy to the Wu Kingdom during the Warring States Period.

[6] Both the moon and also hairpins of white jade were symbolic of female purity.

[7] Reference to a myth about Emperor Chu, who visited Mt. Wu in 3 B.C. and dreamed of a beautiful celestial of the mountain. After the two consummated their love, she told him that she would express her longing for him by making it rain. The next day brought showers, and Emperor Chu yearned for this lover whenever it rained until the end of his days.

[8] Reference to a Qin dynasty myth in which a woman skilled in playing the bamboo flute brought her instrument into the mountains and heard another reed played in response. That night, she dreamed of the young musician and begged her father to seek him out. The two were brought together and married.

[9] Pan Lang is a reference to Pan Yue, a man from the Jin Dynasty who was famed for his handsomeness. He represents the ideal lover.

Original Text