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Translator's Note: Lamenting Widow

by Marilyn Chin

I have been researching Chinese women poets for inspiration for many years. The task, however, has been disappointing. Given the patriarchal stronghold on poetry, very few women poets had the opportunity to publish their work. Only recently did I make a breakthrough by opening up my inquiry into the expanse of the Chinese empire. I rediscovered poets from Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The poet-scholars of these countries wrote poetry in classical Chinese for centuries before they started writing in their own national vernacular.

When I came across Ho Xuan Huong's lyrics, I immediately recognized the structure of the Chinese quatrain—four-lined and eight-lined poems; seven-character lines; parallelism; reduplication of characters for sonic emphasis or refrain; set internal and external rhyme and tonal patterns. I recognized the well-worn symbols—the ripe fruit and the dumpling representing the woman's body. After the initial gloss of the text, though, I was happy to find the variations: the vocabulary that was very "un-Chinese"; strange binomes and word combinations; characters that appeared archaic or nonsensical but actually sounded out the transliteral Vietnamese vernacular. Indeed, I came to understand that I was reading not Classical Chinese in its pure form, but Nôm, a Chinese-Vietnamese fusion.

Ho Xuan Huong's father was a scholar and her mother was a high-ranking concubine. She herself became a concubine in the service of two minor officials. All women in the oppressive Confucian family structure were of marginal status, but it was this oppression that caused her to write fervently about women's issues. Her poems railed against polygamy, lampooned the profligate generals and Buddhist clergy alike. She employed brilliant wit and blatant double entendre, taking the erotic poem to great heights. One could read her as a modern feminist poet by interpreting her poems through psychoanalytic symbolism in which female bodily fluids serve as arsenal against the patriarchy.


This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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