Poems of Yu Xuanji
Sisters Guang, Wei, and Pou were three young orphans here. They grew into beauty as their work became pure. It was hard to befriend them and I am grateful to my house for wiping away their humiliation. Later, they were guests here when my master arrived from the capital. It was he who thought I should write this poem.
One hears from of old that no beauties come from the South.
But in these times, we have for neighbors three sisters,
Dressing in the pavillion, they read each other poetry.
By the jade windows, they embroider phoenix vests.
This wild garden with its red fragrance, they admire.
Cups of rich strained wine, they savor one by one.
But they can't bear to think of the death of their mother.
And this world still blames them for their mother's sins.
Cultured women have a beauty comparable to any other.
I pity the woman morbidly concerned about her looks.
One tune of gorgeous song, subtle music of the lute,
Four strings lightly played, and each voice a gentle murmur.
Taking the stage in competition, beautiful black hair.
Beneath the moon, playing strongly, white jade hairpins.
Mimicing exactly the drip of dew from pines,
Then spreading over heaven their cherishing of spring.
Gently as the falling rain, their three hearts have matured.
They do not fear the future in these uncertain times.
When "mother" is angry, they answer in sweet voices.
And beautiful young men visit them in their dreams.
They can grasp a clear phrase to break your heart.
Their beauty makes you think even death must be sweet.
Sadness and these fair women are two things separate.
Floating clouds returning north also come back south.
I think this poem shows that Yu Xuanji taught poetry and the lute to three orphans who were in their late teens or early twenties. The poem speaks volumes for Yu Xuanji's pure character. I would even say the last verse shows this poem was written after Yu knew that she was dying. Throughout this final period her poetry always seems high-minded.
About the long title. There is really no distinction in Chinese poetry between titles, notes, and prefaces. The poet goes on about it however long he feels is necessary. This one is more or less a preface. So I wrote it like one and skipped all the capitalizations a title would require. This title should be a real find for anyone in the PRC who has read this poem. They have been wondering what the title actually was because every web site on the mainland thinks the title is too long and replaces the middle two-thirds with an ellipsis. Here's what I think of that: ....
It is possible that the second sentence in the preface could be, "They grew into beauty as their writing became succinct (or clear or...)." You could translate it that way. And Yu Xuanji seems to know them through teaching them basic literacy and poetry. Orphan girls were produced regularly in China. The Tang woman poet, Xue Tao, was the daughter of an official. When he died, no mother showed up. She was orphaned and sold into an establishment which taught women to entertain men. Intelligent girls, like her, became semi-independent entertainers. Dim ones became sex slaves. There is nothing new under the sun.