Poems of Yu Xuanji
For the Girl Next Door
(Written to send to Official Li Yi)
Embarassed in the sunlight, you hide your fine sleeves.
Grieved in the springtime, you listlessly make up your face.
It is easy to search for the priceless gift
But hard to have the heart of a man.
On your pillow, you hide your falling tears.
Amid the flowers, you are dulled by a broken heart.
In yourself, you can spy the precious jewel.
Why must you be sad over what is honorable and good?
This appears to be a parting poem sent back to her husband after she has left him, around 863. I say "left him" because becoming a Daoist nun is becoming a home-leaving person (出家人). Yu Xuanji is said to have been a Daoist nun and in this poem she seems, to me, that she expresses herself in a Daoist way. She appears to have wanted something higher than fine clothes, makeup, a man's heart. She frames this as a letter to herself from a near observer. But the second verse could also be about the sadness of her husband at her leaving. Imagine being a man in love with a talented woman who leaves you to be a nun, knowing that what you had to offer her was not what she valued in her heart, knowing that she even loves you. I think they are sad together. So we have quite a sophisticated poem where, through eyes outside her own life, she explains herself and acknowledges a mutual sadness.
Of course, one could presuppose that she was the one cast off as a wife or concubine. That she sought refuge as a Daoist nun. That women are dependent and inferior. And so on. But I don't think her choice of words or the arc of her life will bear this out. When someone produces enduring art, they are extraordinary. It is a false mind that seeks to turn them ordinary again.
Let's create what I call a least-true timeline for Yu Xuanji. Least-true means that her points on the timeline have some measure of truth but could be universally wrong. They won't be though, as you will see by the end of her translations. The value of this is that it let's us map references to the world in her poetry into some relation with this timeline. How much this works depends on what she puts in her poetry. It was fruitful with Li Ye and Xu Hui. And we have over twice as many poems total for Yu Xuanji.
812: Poet Wen Tingyun (courtesy name: Fei Qing) born. Yu wrote poems to him later.
839: Earliest suggested date for Yu Xuanji's birth. But no reason given for it that I can find.
844: Yu Xuanji born by now. Emperor Wuzong reunites kingdom by defeating the last of the rebellious circuit governors.
846: Wuzong dies of cinnabar poisoning. His idiot uncle is chosen by the eunuchs to be emperor. Emperor Xuanzong II turns out to be no one's idiot.
848: Xuanzong begins reconquest of revolted Tufan region (Gansu, Ningxia, some of Sichuan).
851: Tufan reconquered.
859: Xuanzong dies of cinnabar poisoning. Xuanzong's oldest son, Yizong, ascends the throne. Nanzhao's king Qiulong revolts and declares himself ruler of the new kingdom, Dali. Yizong responds in force.
860: Yu Xuanji marries at 16 to imperial official Li Yi (courtesy name: Zi An). Wen Tingyun is 48. Dali war continues. Yizong descends into drunkeness, debauchery, extravagance, and Buddhist piety.
863: Yu Xuanji single again. She is 19. She takes Daoist orders.
865: Yizong's bad judgment leads to mutiny of Xichuan officers who then join Qiulong.
868: Yu Xuanji will have finished studying under her master (Ti? Guo Xiang?) by now. Mutiny of Xusi circuit (Jiangsu, Guangxi) against the throne.
869: Mutiny in Xusi put down. Dali invades Dingbian and Xichuan.
870: Wen Tingyun dies, age 58. Yu is 26. Some scholars have her dead by now.
871: Yu Xuanji publishes her collected works, now lost, Fragments of a NorthernDreamland. We don't know when she did this. But it can't be later than this.
872: Yu Xuanji dies by now, age 28. No data points to her living beyond this date.
That's all we have: some accurate historical guide points and Yu's birth, death and marriage dates which are all sketchy. (Further dates have been added from what is learned in the poems.) The only data beyond what we have here is stinky bad data taken from the National Enquirer equivalent of the Song dynasty. Everyone, scholars and amateurs, agree the data is bad. Everyone uses it. Scholars footnote it into published papers. Sad, sad, sad. Even sadder are the plethora of authors and translators who absurdly embellish the bad data. There are even two or three bad novels out there based on her "life's story," which in truth consists of three sketchy dates. Oh, your god....
For the record, I use the stinky bad data for her single-again date. She has to be single again sometime after 860 and she's dead by 872. This date of 863 gives her only nine years to accomplish the rest of her life. So in a least-true sense, it's a reasonable choice. Not another mite of bad data will be used in these pages.