A selection of poems by Qiu Jin, in new translation by Yilin Wang
Translator’s note: Qiu Jin (秋瑾) was a Chinese revolutionary, feminist, poet, and essayist who lived from 1875 to 1907. Defying the gender expectations of her time, she acquired a traditional scholarly education as well as learning martial arts, sword-fighting, and horseback riding. As she struggled within an unhappy marriage, she connected with other Chinese feminist activists, pawned her jewels to study abroad in Japan, then returned home to join a revolution against the corrupt Qing Dynasty government and fight for women’s rights. When the uprising failed, she chose to die as a martyr rather than escape. Although Qiu Jin has been widely celebrated as a pioneer in China’s early feminist movement and as a revolutionary, there are still limited translations of her vast body of work in English and some of these date back to the early 20th century. Below are three poems and fragments in new translation (read the original Chinese here).
The first two short poems, written during Qiu’s youth, references The Tale of Zhi Kan, a Chinese opera about the lives of two heroic women warriors, Qin Liangyu and Shen Yunying, who lived in the late Ming dynasty. The next poem, ‘A River of Crimson’, is written according to a popular cipai poetic form. The final poem, ‘Spontaneous Thoughts’, is a response to the Tang dynasty female poet Yu Xuanji’s response to another poem, demonstrating that Qiu’s work can be read as the modern continuation of a long lineage of Chinese women poets tracing back thousands of years. Together, they display themes that Qiu Jin continued to explore throughout her body of work, such as the importance of strong female role models, the subversion of gender expectations, and the difficulty of finding a soulmate. – Yilin Wang
Selections from Eight Poems inspired by The Tale of Zhi Kan
for the legend written by Dong Yibo’s grandfather
The Chieftess knew how to guide the nation’s affairs,
with a general’s talents and elegance beyond this world.
Saber in hand, hair wrapped in cloth, she rode a peach-blossom steed,
truly worthy of being called a luminary of women.
Lavishly fed imperial officials do nothing but take up space;
it falls to women with painted faces to serve their homeland.
O strong marvelous heroines who speak of war,
the monumental equals of bygone Hua Mulan.
A River of Crimson: A Brief Stay in the Glorious Capital
A brief stay in the glorious Capital;
soon, it’s Mid-Autumn Festival again.
Sheltering by the fence, chrysanthemums bloom everywhere,
the autumn air cool and clear, as if freshly cleansed.
War songs from all four directions falter
as I finally break through the siege of encircling foes;
the aftertaste of these past eight years
makes me long wistfully for Zhejiang.
Bitterly forced to behave as a wife with painted brows,
I’m full of disdain!
Not a man in the flesh,
unable to walk among them;
but my heart is stronger,
more fierce than a man’s!
I think of my inner spirit,
stirring often with passion on others’ behalf.
How can narrow, uncultivated minds
comprehend my nature?
A hero at the path’s end
must suffer trials and tribulations.
In the vast, worldly dust, where can I find my soulmate?
My robe is stained with tears!
My heart is stronger, / more fierce than a man’s!”
in the rhyme of Yu Xuanji’s poem following a verse on the three sisters Guang, Wei, and Pou
At the vanity table, I meet two immortal talents with delight.
On the travellers’ road, weeds adrift, until it’s March once more.
Facing the clear mirror, alone and bleak, my Black Bird hair.
Closing the window, I languish away as my jade-green gown loosens.
Ten lines of fine verse I admire, resting my hand on my chest.
A new scroll of poetry, flowing freely from deep within.
Daoyun, her eminence widespread like fragrance, sadly a woman.
Mulan, a free-spirited warrior, didn’t remain a man.
Who can carry on singing the refined notes of ‘White Snow’?
I blush with shame as I stride eagerly towards ‘Bright Spring’.
In the courtyard, lingering, the singsong of warblers.
Old nests remain and await returning swallows’ chirping.
To often toss aside needlework for a love of music.
To always strip off hair ornaments to pay for books.
For a humble reputation in the afterlife, the Leopard hides behind fog.
In the undertaking that lies ahead, pests spew poisonous sand.
Socializing in frivolous ways exhausts all my sentiments.
I have long tasted pungent bitterness on the path of life.
Freshly brewed rice wine, living to the fullest, tipsy under blossoms.
The Yellow Court Classic, an idle search for wisdom among tranquility.
When no one else shares my tune, what is the point of sighing?
To meet a soulmate who knows the same songs, I’d willingly die.
Sorrowfully I gaze towards my hometown, across misty waters.
Sandalwood clappers should stop singing ‘Memories of Jiang’nan.’ ∎