Poems of Xu Hui
Poetic Essay on "In the North, There is a Beautiful Woman"
Up to now, she has been independent.
Simply being herself, she enchants the whole city.
Her arched eyebrows show her deep feelings.
Her face has the bloom of peach blossoms.
Golden bracelets are musical on her wrists and
Jade anklets ring with her sinuous steps.
Her slender waist, a treasure wrapped in silks.
Her red blouse, an achievement beautifully woven.
One knows that all eyes are upon her and
Think of nothing but her softly dancing waist.
Hmm. The emperor has a new girlfriend. This reads like a work poem. Xu Hui was probably ordered to write a poem in honor of New Girlfriend which would be read out to flatter New Girlfriend on some public occasion. This is the life of an emperor: hot and cold running women on tap and professional poets on call to do your flattery. You can even tell the girl that you wrote it yourself. Who's going to call you on it?
That said, let's talk about some things which are probably not true about Xu Hui. It is said that she could talk by the fifth month of her life. She studied the Analects and the Book of Songs by the age of four. By eight, she was composing essays like the above. Wasn't she amazing? No, she probably wasn't. As far as I know, all female poets in the imperial household are said to have been prodigies. I suspect it was more a case of the fathers training the daughters for years to prepare them for imperial servitude. Daughters were truly not valued in the way sons were. And it would not be a stretch to say that some men would assume that if the emperor were boning their daughter then he would perhaps toss them a bone as well -- to mix my bone metaphors.
Other things that come down to us are also probably untrue. When someone like Emperor Gaozong posthumously honors someone like Xu Hui, he probably pumps her resume up a little. If she isn't careful and leaves any juicy gossip behind, then later neo-Confucian scholars will brand her as a slut, literally. Add to this, as the Chinese put it, "an error for every three copyists," and the documents themselves become suspect. And then there are our current scholars. The Chinese one who wrote the section on Xu Hui in A Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women tells us that Xu Hui mastered the Analects and the Book of Songs by age four. Then she immediately tells us that the Book of Songs is the same book as Mao's Songs. Yes, the ancient Book of Songs, written before there was anything in the West except dirt, is the same as the 20th century collection of Mao Zedong's poems. (I resist the urge to go on a complete and total rant.) Moving on, I will mention that the current state of western scholarship with its broken peer-review system means that any scholarship on ancient China written after World War Two needs serious scrutiny before you can safely cite it.
What then is true about Xu Hui? The basic historical outline is probably mostly true. And then the poems, any undetectable copyist's errors excepted, are true of her. To my mind, the poems contain the most truth about the poet. We can take the truths of the poems and try to use what else is known about her to build a model of her life which, like my timeline for Xu Hui, tells us what "at least" is true.