Tuesday, April 28, 2015



     Huang Xiumei, also known as Huang E (1498-1569), one of the most noted female poets of the Ming dynasty era in China, might not have even been remembered in the 21st century if her life had been happier.  But because all but about six years of her long married life were spent separated from her husband, who was in permanent exile far away, we know of her through the poems she wrote to accompany her letters to him.
     Xiumei was a highly intelligent daughter of a high-ranking government official, and was given the equivalent of a man's education in her family home in central Sichuan.  In 1519, she married Yang Shen, the son of another prosperous Sichuan family and a rising intellectual; the two shared a strong love of poetry.  All was apparently good for them until 1524, when Yang Shen took part in a rebellion against the current emperor.  He and the other rebels were beaten as punishment, and he was then exiled to Yunnan in the far southeast of the country (just north of present-day Laos) and was never pardoned; for the 35 remaining years of his life, other than for brief periods, the couple remained far apart, exchanging letters and poems across the distance.  Xiumei lived with her husband's family.  To quote from WOMEN WRITERS OF TRADITIONAL CHINA, edited by Kang-I Sun Chang: "Huang Xiumei became the central figure in the Yang family household, responsible for running the estate, rearing the children and grandchildren (none of them her own), and providing for their education and general well-being.  While Yang, lionized as a literary giant in Yunnan, lived a relatively free if frustrated life embellished by a number of romantic encounters, she lived the proper and constrained life of an upper-class lady, seeing to her husband's financial needs and those of the entire Yang clan with hard work and devotion."  Wait - who is the spouse who was banished into exile?
     And this is the part I find so interesting.  Evidently at one point, Xiumei lived with her husband for three years in Yunnan.  Judging from their poems, the two of them loved each other.  So why didn't she just stay with him there?  Maybe it was because the emperor imposed a three-year time limit, although to me that seems unlikely; no one seemed to interfere with Yang's celebrity lifestyle in any other way.  Maybe either Yang himself, or his family back home, decided that Xiumei was indispensable to them and refused to let her go.  I imagine her as not only feeling beholden to the Yangs for her upkeep, but also as being a classic alpha dog, taking over the running of the household because she couldn't help herself, even if it hurt her own interests.  But I also think there was a third possibility.  Maybe she was the lady who protested too much.  Despite all her poems of longing and loneliness, maybe she stayed with the Yangs because that was exactly where she wanted to be - running the show, making the decisions, not subordinate to a husband.  She outlived Yang Shen by ten years.
     But I digress.  Xiumei isn't known for her lifestyle, like some 16th-century Kardashian; she's known for her poetry, a bit of which I will share.  Controversy surrounds her poems; some scholars attribute most or all of "her" poems to Yang Shen, claiming that he for some reason assumed her persona and gave her credit for poems he himself wrote - although it's not clear why he would have done that.  In any event, here are a few of the most famous poems attributed to Xiumei, in their English translations (I confess that my Chinese is a little rusty, in the sense that I've never spoken or understood a word of it):

1.  I remember when we were together: shared pillow, same coverlet,
     Together we drove out all sadness, together expelled all ills.
     Jade-green sleeves, richly carved saddles,
     Through cold and ice, to far streams and distant peaks.
     But that good time of joy was not to endure;
     This blighted marriage has now worn my spirit thin.
     I sigh long sighs, sunk deep in gloomy thought -
     No need to pursue those old promises.
     The mood for billing and cooing has long since been swept away,
     So don't bring up again that old line about "one quarter-hour being worth
     A thousand pieces of gold."

2.  Incessant rain brings on light chill.
     I see luxuriant bloom on all the trees now battered;
     My eyes are filled with muddy roads ascending to the immortals;
     How many layers of peaks in the clouds?
     How many bends in the rivers?
     To the edge of the heavens as far as I can see,
     And my heart breaks in vain.
     It is so hard to send a letter,
     The heartless migrating geese will not fly all the way to Yunnan.

No, Xiumei, the geese will not fly all the way to Yunnan... and neither did you.



  1. This is so interesting, Susan! I enjoyed learning about her life and reading her poems.

    Happy X-Day!

    1. Thanks, Yvonne! I've been learning so much from your posts about productivity!

  2. Very intriguing. Separation was the driver for her poetry, wonder what her poetry would have been like if she had led a normal married life?

    1. It's just one of those unanswerable "what if?" questions that sparks writers of historical fiction! Other kinds of fiction, too, for that matter.

  3. Strange she didn't want to stay with him.

    1. Isn't it? They seem to have invented the bicoastal marriage! Thanks for visiting, Alex, and congratulations on another fun and successful A to Z Challenge!

  4. interesting to hear of another female poet..she does sound like a strong woman

    zannierose A-Z

    1. Thanks, Zannie! Yes, she was an interesting one to write about. I don't know about you, but I'm already going through A to Z withdrawal.

  5. it reads more like fiction than fact, incidentally, Habba Khatoon ( 1554-1609) a famous female poet of Kashmir was also separated from her husband and she wrote beautiful and mournful poetry.

  6. Wow! Thanks so much for this bit of knowledge! I hadn't come across her name in any of my A to Z research. Going to go look her up! Thank you for your visits and comments throughout the Challenge. We made it!!