More than a thousand years before American poet Mary Oliver enveloped us in the sensuality of “Wild Geese,” the poet-priestesses – compared to demi-goddesses – of China flew with their own wild geese, their visceral words of yesteryear to us carrying in their minds, wants, desires and pains. Their words also remind us that humans are still humans, regardless of time and culture, as their ancient words remain as relevant today as anything written this morning.
On December 13, 2022, Shambhala Publications published Yin Mountain: the immortal poetry of three Taoist womentranslated by Rebecca Nie and Peter Levitt.
Yin Mountain offers translations of three Taoist poets from the Tang dynasty, a period often hailed as the "golden age" of classical Chinese poetry. While names like Du Fu, Li Bo (Li Bai), Wang Wei, and Hanshan are familiar in translated poetry of this era, the contributions of female poets, especially those deeply rooted in Daoist principles, remain largely unexplored. The poetry of Li Ye, Xue Tao, and Yu Xuanji, influenced by Taoism, naturalism, mysticism, love, and everyday life experiences, weaves simple yet poignant language with vivid imagery. Their work reflects devotion to Taoist spiritual practices and draws on myths, legends, and goddess culture prevalent in Tang China.
This book, with the words of these poets dancing so elegantly through time – their real words and thoughts written 1 years ago – also highlights the unique societal challenges faced by these women, juxtaposing their renowned talent with the constraints of a male-dominated society. During the Tang Dynasty, changes took place in societal norms and gender roles. While some Taoist priestesses enjoyed significant freedoms and celebrated femininity, many women faced numerous restrictions. Through their verse, these poets express courageous independence, tackling themes ranging from spirituality and nature to personal emotions and societal limitations, resonating with modern readers despite temporal and cultural distance.
Rebecca Nie and Peter Levitt not only introduce us to these three poets, they breathe new life into them, allowing them to speak to us for the first time in the English-speaking West.
In brief, the poets in question are:
Li Ye (c. 732-84 CE), who was a talented Taoist priestess and poet from Zhejiang province. Recognized for her talent from a young age, she became known for her calligraphy, poetry and music as an adult. Emperor Dezong honored her by inviting her to teach the royal family, but tragedy struck when she was captured during a rebellion and forced to write propaganda. Despite his execution, Li Ye's legacy lives on through his poetry.
Xue Tao (c. 770–832 CE) was a famous poet of the Tang dynasty, with her courtesan-poet archetype fascinating Confucian men of the time and later. Raised in Chengdu, she demonstrated exceptional poetic talent from an early age. Her entry into the courtesan caste remains unclear, but she achieved fame and financial success, entertaining wealthy clients and having romantic relationships with influential figures. In his later years, Xue Tao retired to his country home, devoting himself to art and spirituality.
Yu Xuanji (843-68 CE) led a remarkable but tragically brief life. Married to Li Zi'an, she navigated the complexities of their relationship and societal expectations. A forced (but probably welcome) separation led her to become a Taoist priestess, where her freedom and poetic talent captivated literary circles. Accused of murder, Yu Xuanji was tried (controversially) and defamed. His legacy lives on, inspiring literature, films and music.
Early Tang dynasty Taoism embraced alchemy, mysticism, and rituals, some with erotic elements, drawing on a rich goddess mythology. The Western Queen Mother, a central figure, granted elixirs and taught transcendental practices. Princess Yao, a beloved goddess, symbolized passion and erotic adventures. Tang Taoism featured other goddesses, such as the moon goddess Chang-eh, the star goddess Weaver Maiden, and the sun goddess Xi He. Ordinary people might connect with these deities by chance or through Taoist practices such as qigong, fasting, meditation and the use of alchemical elixirs. Mortal women, like Princess Nongyu, could achieve goddess status through dedicated Taoist practice.
Unfortunately, the feminine expression of the Dao has been wiped out by changes in the religious and social landscape, and much of the original Dao has been repressed.
Poems dance with words. They sing. These are movements that speak, words that transcend language. Many people today fail to appreciate poetry, forgetting that a well-crafted song or rap requires as much linguistic skill as any poem written by Chaucer. A word can play beyond one meaning. Thus, a few words can instantly transport us emotionally, temporally and geographically.
It is for this reason that nuances are often lost in translation, especially in poetry, and even more so with linguistic differences such as between English and Chinese, especially Chinese from over A millenium.
Each sound in the Chinese language imparts its own meaning, so there is a huge amount of overlap for very few words. This is something that the translators of these poems have not only respected, but also carefully crafted in and with the English words. They fully admit to some liberties in describing their process, but they were absolutely right in this approach, because poetry is also about how you feel, not just how the poem is formed. I read these poems and I certainly felt them.
But we were in good hands with our translators, for whom this project was a labor of love. Peter Levitt, renowned poet, translator and author, recipient of the Lannan Foundation Poetry Prize and is the directing teacher of the Salt Spring Zen Circle in British Columbia. Rebecca Nie, a Chinese-American Zen master, artist and scholar, Buddhist chaplain affiliated with Stanford University and founder of the Mahavajra Seon Shrine, began writing Chinese poetry at age nine, studied Chu chant at 10 years old and, at 15, had memorized key passages from the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi. She continued her studies in classical Chinese literature and Eastern spirituality while studying English in Canada and the United States, graduating with honors from the University of Toronto and Stanford University.
The book, as elegant as the poetry itself, adheres to a natural format, introducing each poet with informative but friendly explanations and expanded notes at the end of the book. The poems are presented in English and Chinese and organize their contributions by themes such as sensuality, relationships and correspondences. There is, however, one exception: a poet who shares the unique challenges faced by women in ancient China. These introductions not only detail technical details or liberties that the translators may have encountered and offer insight into the poet's likely intentions, but also serve as portals to cultural and historical context, enriching our understanding and providing essential points of reference. for the poems that follow.
I side with everyone whose criticisms appear in the first pages of the book. It’s beautiful, insightful, transporting and poignant. Wise and lamenting. These were real women with real lives, not just words on a page, and the book is as much a porthole through which their feelings could be ours today. We are reminded of the humanity of our past not as an academic history lesson, but as a shared experience of being human.
Thank you Rebecca and Peter.