Xue Tao (薛涛, courtesy name Hongdu (洪度/宏度) was a Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty. She was one of the most famous women poets of Tang poetry, along with Yu Xuanji and Li Ye.
Xue Tao was the daughter of a minor government official in Chang’an, which was the Chinese capital during the Tang Dynasty. Her father, Xue Yun (薛郧) was transferred to Chengdu, when she was still little, or possibly before her birth. Her father died while she was young, but it’s possible that she had some literary education from him; her adult career also offered her the opportunity to learn from practicing poets.
Since the girl’s mother did not return to Chang’an, it is possible that they were too poor to do so. Xue was registered with the guild of courtesans and entertainers in Chengdu and in time became well known for her wit and her poetic talent.
Her poetry attracted the attention of Wei Gao, the military governor of Xichuan Circuit (西川, headquartered in modern Chengdu, Sichuan) and she was made his official hostess. In this position she met poets like Yuan Zhen, to whom she was said to have become close; at the very least, this story indicates the charisma of both figures. Certainly, she exchanged poems with Yuan and many other well-known writers of the day, and continued as hostess after Wei’s death.
In later years, Xue was able to live independently in a site outside the city associated with the great poet of an earlier generation, Du Fu. Some sources record that she supported herself as a maker of artisanal paper used for writing poems. A contemporary wrote that she took on the garments of a Daoist adept, signaling a relatively autonomous status within Tang society.
Xue Tao (758?-832) was born in Sichuan Province to Xue Yun, an official from Chang’an, and his wife Madam Fei. Xue Tao was composing poems by the age of eight. The child prodigy was also an excellent calligrapher and had extraordinary musical talent. When Xue Yun passed away, 14 year old Xue Tao and her mother were left without support and stranded far from their original home in Chang’an. For more than a year, Xue Tao worked as a poet-courtesan, gaining fame with her outstanding talent and beauty. Wei Gao, the military governor of Sichuan, invited her to compose poems at the governor’s mansion. Impressed with Xue Tao’s talent, he recruited her into the music department of the governor’s office. During the Tang Dynasty, the women of the music departments of local governments were officially courtesans who may sometimes be called upon to provide personal services for officials although their primary duty is the performance of the arts. Wei Gao officially recommended her for a government position of jiaoshu – printing press corrector. The imperial government denied his recommendation but from then on, people called her Lady Jiaoshu.
After 5 years in the music department, Xue Tao had accumulated enough resources to redeem herself from bondage. Once free, she launched her new career – paper-making. Xue Tao Paper was made using unique ingredients. In appearance and texture it was very different from the traditional, practical Chinese paper. Xue Tao was an accomplished calligrapher and invented this pinkish, finely-patterned paper paper with the needs of the literati in mind. The arrival of Xue Tao Paper revolutionized the Chinese paper industry. It is said that Xue Tao’s paper had a greater impact on Chinese society than the much admired poems she left for posterity. Xue Tao also left a number of other inventions.
However, Xue Tao is still much more famous as a poet than as an inventor. It was said, that when a poet composed a new poem, the first person s/he wants to show it to is the Emperor, and the second person s/he wants to show it to is Xue Tao. Xue Tao was the preeminent poet of her generation. The ten succeeding military governors of Sichuan after Wei Gao all made it a point to visit Xue Tao and pay their respects. Many of the literary giants of the time, such as Bai Juyi, Du Mu, Linghu Chu and Niu Sengru, came to compose poetry and music with her.
Xue Tao eventually retreated from the world of literary entertainment to live her last 20 years in seclusion. She died at a ripe old age, never having married. Even though Xue Tao spent the last 20 or so years of her life out of public view, she remained an important public figure. Duan Wenchang, the military governor of Jiannan, personally wrote her tomb inscription: “The Tomb of Xue Tao, Lady Jiaoshu of Sichuan.” To commemorate Xue Tao, the people of the Tang Dynasty built Wangjiang Tower (Tower for Viewing the River) beside her tomb in Chengdu. People of succeeding dynasties added more monuments to Xue Tao, in the vicinity of Wangjiang Tower, including Poem Reading Tower, House of the Five Cloud Fairies and Fragant Spring Pavilion. The Wangjiang Tower area remains a popular tourist destination to this day.
Poems by XUE TAO (768-831)
Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping
Xue Tao was well-respected as a poet during the Tang Dynasty, when she lived. She was born either in the Tang capital Zhangan or later on when her father, a minor government official, was posted to Chengdu in present-day Sichuan province. A story about her childhood, perhaps apocryphal, suggests that she was able to write complex poems by the age of seven or eight. She may have gained some literary education from her father, but he died before she had come to marriageable age and she ended up being a very successful courtesan (one of the few paths for women in Tang Dynasty China in which conversation and artistic talent were encouraged). After Wei Gao, the military governor, became her literary patron, her reputation was widespread. She seems to have had an affair with another famous literary figure, Yuan Zhen. Late in life she went to live in seclusion and put on the habit of a Taoist churchwoman. More than one hundred of her poems survive. She is often considered (with Yu Xuanji) to be one of the two finest female poets of the Tang Dynasty.
Sending Old Poems to Yuan Zhen
Everyone writes poems in their own manner
but only I know delicacy of wind and light,
and when writing of flowers in moonlight, lean towards the
Of a willow in rainy dawn I write how twigs hang down.
They say green jade should stay hidden deep,
but I write candidly on red-lined paper.
I’m old now but can’t stop writing
so I open myself to you as if I were a good man.
A Spring in Autumn
Behind a ribbon of evening mist, a chill sky distills,
and a melody of far waterfalls like ten silk strings
comes to my pillow to tug my feelings,
keeping me awake in sorrow past midnight.
Flowers bloom but we can’t share them.
Flowers fall and we can’t share our sadness.
If you need to find when I miss you most:
when the flowers bloom and when they fall.
I pull a blade of grass and tie a heart-shape knot
to send to the one who understands my music.
Spring sorrow is at the breaking point.
Again spring birds murmur sad songs.
Wind, flowers, and the day is aging.
No one knows when we’ll be together.
If I can’t tie my heart to my man’s,
it’s useless to keep tying heart-shaped knots.
Unbearable when flowers fill the branches,
when two people miss each other.
Tears streak my morning mirror like jade chopsticks.
Does the spring wind know that?
In February, light, fine willow catkins
play with people’s clothes in spring breeze;
they are heartless creatures,
flying south one moment, then north again.
Washed clean by dew, cicada songs go far
and like windblown leaves piling up
each cicada’s cry blends into the next.
Yet each lives on its own branch.
Its spirit leans like a thin hook
or opens round like a Han-loom fan,
slender shadow whose nature is to be full,
seen everywhere in the human world.