Zuo Fen (左芬; c. 255–300) was a Chinese woman poet of the Western Jin dynasty.
Zuo Fen was born in Linzi prefecture to a family of Confucian scholars. Her mother died young, but her father, Zuo Yong, became an imperial official in charge of the imperial archives. She got a good literary education and often played word games with her brother, Zuo Si, who would become a famous writer as well.
In 272 she went to the palace and became a concubine of Emperor Wu of Jin. There she wrote the Rhapsody of Thoughts on Separation, in which she expressed frustration at being separated from her family and the rest of the world. Her expression of dissatisfaction with life at the palace, which was rare, did not make her lose favour and she was raised to the highest rank of noble concubine.
The emperor regularly commanded writings from her, but she was often ill and did not play a political role at court. When Empress Yang Yan died, she wrote a song of mourning in her honour.
Zuo Fen Reflects on the Idea of Living as a Recluse
In the hot, dry summer days my maid Mei-Lim and I have sought a temporary retreat in the pine forests above Lingzhi. Carried in a litter up the mountain paths we are left in a commodious hut, its open walls making those simple pleasures of drinking, eating and sleeping more acute, intense. For a few precious days I rest and meditate, breathe the mountain air and the resinous scents of the trees. I escape the daily commerce of the court and belong to a world that for the rest of the year I have to imagine, the world of the recluse. To gain the status of the recluse, open to my male counterparts, is forbidden to women of the court. I am woman first, a poet and calligrapher second. My brother, should he so wish, could present a petition to revoke his position as a man of letters, an official commentator on the affairs of state. But he is not so inclined. He has already achieved notoriety and influence through his writing on the social conditions of town and city. He revels in a world of chatter, gossip and intrigue; he appears to fear the wilderness life.
I must be thankful that my own life is maintained on the periphery. I am physically distant from the hub of daily ceremonial. I only participate at my Lord’s express command. I regularly feign illness and fatigue to avoid petty conflict and difficulty. Yet I receive commissions I cannot waver: to honour a departed official; to celebrate a son’s birth to the Second Wife; to fulfil in verse my Lord’s curious need to know about the intimate sorrows of his young concubines, their loneliness and heartache.
Occasionally a Rhapsody is requested for an important visitor. The Emperor Wu is proud to present as welcome gifts such poetic creations executed in fine calligraphy, and from a woman of his court. Surely a sign of enlightment and progress he boasts! Yet in these creations my observations are parochial: early morning frost on the cabbage leaves in my garden; the sound of geese on their late afternoon flight to Star Lake; the disposition of the heavens on an Autumn night. I live by the Tao of Lao-Tzu, perceiving the whole world from my doorstep.
But I long for the reclusive life, to leave this court for my family’s estate in the valley my peasant mother lived as a child. At fourteen she was chosen to sustain the Emperor’s annual wish for young girls to be groomed for concubinage. Like her daughter she is tall, though not as plain as I; she put her past behind her and conceded her adolescence to the training required by the court. At twenty she was recommended to my father, the court archivist, as second wife. When she first met this quiet, dedicated man on the day before her marriage she closed her eyes in blessing. My father taught her the arts of the library and schooled her well. From her I have received keen eyes of jade green and a prestigious memory, a memory developed she said from my father’s joy of reading to her in their private hours, and before she could read herself. Each morning he would examine her to discover what she had remembered of the text read the night before. When I was a little child she would quote to me the Confucian texts on which she had been orally schooled, and she then would tell me of her childhood home. She primed my imagination and my poetic world with descriptions of a domestic rural life.
Sometimes in the arms of my Lord I have freely rhapsodized in chusi metre these delicate word paintings of my mother’s home. She would say ‘We will walk now to the ruined tower beside the lake. Listen to the carolling birds. As the sparse clouds move across the sky the warm sun strokes the winter grass. Across the deep lake the forests are empty. Now we are climbing the narrow steps to the platform from which you and I will look towards the sun setting in the west. See the shadows are lengthening and the air becomes colder. The blackbird’s solitary song heralds the evening. Look, an owl glides silently beneath us.’
My Lord will then quote from Hsieh Ling-yun,.
‘I meet sky, unable to soar among clouds,
face a lake, call those depths beyond me.’
And I will match this quotation, as he will expect.
‘Too simple-minded to perfect Integrity,
and too feeble to plough fields in seclusion.’
He will then gaze into my eyes in wonder that this obscure poem rests in my memory and that I will decode the minimal grammar of these early characters with such poetry. His characters: Sky – Bird – Cloud – Lake – Depth. My characters: Fool – Truth – Child – Winter field – Isolation.
Our combined invention seems to take him out of his Emperor-self. He is for a while the poet-scholar-sage he imagines he would like to be, and I his foot-sore companion following his wilderness journey. And then we turn our attention to our bodies, and I surprise him with my admonitions to gentleness, to patience, to arousing my pleasure. After such poetry he is all pleasure, sensitive to the slightest touch, and I have my pleasure in knowing I can control this powerful man with words and the stroke of my fingertips rather than by delicate youthful beauty or the guile and perverse ingenuity of an erotic act. He is still learning to recognise the nature and particularness of my desires. I am not as his other women: who confuse pleasure with pain.
Thoughts of my mother. Without my dear father, dead ten years, she is a boat without a rudder sailing on a distant lake. She greets each day as a gift she must honour with good humour despite the pain of her limbs, the difficulty of walking, of sitting, of eating, even talking. Such is the hurt that governs her ageing. She has always understood that my position has forbidden marriage and children, though the latter might be a possibility I have not wished it and made it known to my Lord that it must not be. My mother remains in limbo, neither son or daughter seeking to further her lineage, she has returned to her sister’s home in the distant village of her birth, a thatched house of twenty rooms,
‘Elms and willows shading the eaves at the back,
and, in front, peach and plum spread wide.
Villages lost across mist-haze distances,
Kitchen smoke drifting wide-open country,
Dogs bark deep among the back roads out here
And cockerels crow from mulberry treetops.
My esteemed colleague T’ao Ch’ien made this poetry. After a distinguished career in government service he returned to the life of a recluse-farmer on his family farm. Living alone in a three-roomed hut he lives out his life as a recluse and has endured considerable poverty. One poem I know tells of him begging for food. His world is fields-and-gardens in contrast to Hsieh Ling-yin who is rivers-and-mountains. Ch’ien’s commitment to the recluse life has brought forth words that confront death and the reality of human experience without delusion.
‘At home here in what lasts, I wait out life.’
Thus my mother waits out her life, frail, crumbling more with each turning year.
To live beyond the need to organise daily commitments due to others, to step out into my garden and only consider the dew glistening on the loropetalum. My mind is forever full of what is to be done, what must be completed, what has to be said to this visitor who will today come to my court at the Wu hour. Only at my desk does this incessant chattering in the mind cease, as I move my brush to shape a character, or as the needle enters the cloth, all is stilled, the world retreats; there is the inner silence I crave.
I long to see with my own eyes those scenes my mother painted for me with her words. I only know them in my mind’s eye having travelled so little these past fifteen years. I look out from this still dark room onto my small garden to see the morning gathering its light above the rooftops. My camellia bush is in flower though a thin frost covers the garden stones.
And so I must imagine how it might be, how I might live the recluse life. How much can I jettison? These fine clothes, this silken nightgown beneath the furs I wrap myself in against the early morning air. My maid is sleeping. Who will make my tea? Minister to me when I take to my bed? What would become of my cat, my books, the choice-haired brushes? Like T’ao Ch’ien could I leave the court wearing a single robe and with one bag over my shoulders? Could I walk for ten days into the mountains? I would disguise myself as a man perhaps. I am tall for a woman, and though my body flows in broad curves there are ways this might be assuaged, enough perhaps to survive unmolested on the road.
Such dreams! My Lord would see me returned within hours and send a servant to remain at my gate thereafter. I will compose a rhapsody about a concubine of standing, who has even occupied the purple chamber, but now seeks to relinquish her privileged life, who coverts the uncertainty of nature, who would endure pain and privation in a hut on some distant mountain, who will sleep on a mat on its earth floor. Perhaps this will excite my Lord, light a fire in his imagination. As though in preparation for this task I remove my furs, I loose the knot of my silk gown. Naked, I reach for an old under shift letting it fall around my still-slender body and imagine myself tying the lacings myself in the open air, imagine making my toilet alone as the sun appears from behind a distant mountain on a new day. My mind occupies itself with the tiny detail of living thus: bare feet on cold earth, a walk to nearby stream, the gathering of berries and mountain herbs, the making of fire, the washing of my few clothes, imagining. Imagining. To live alone will see every moment filled with the tasks of keeping alive. I will become in tune with my surroundings. I will take only what I need and rely on no one. Dreaming will end and reality will be the slug on my mat, the bone-chilling incessant mists of winter, the thorn in the foot, the wild winds of autumn. My hands will become stained and rough, my long limbs tanned and scratched, my delicate complexion freckled and wind-pocked, my hair tied roughly back. I will become an animal foraging on a dank hillside. Such thoughts fill me with deep longing and a coital desire to be tzu-jan – with what surrounds me, ablaze with bodily self.
It is not thought the custom of a woman to hold such desires. We are creatures of order and comfort. We do not live on the edge of things, but crave security and well-being. We learn to endure the privations of being at the behest of others. Husbands, children, lovers, our relatives take our bodies to them as places of comfort, rest and desire. We work at maintaining an ordered flow of existence. Whatever our station, mistress or servant we compliment, we keep things in order, whether that is the common hearth or the accounts of our husband’s court. Now my rhapsody begins:
A Rhapsody on a woman wishing to live as a recluse
As a lady of my Emperor’s court I am bound in service.
My court is not my own, I have the barest of means.
My rooms are full of gifts I am forced barter for bread.
Though the artefacts of my hands and mind
Are valued and widely renown,
Their commissioning is an expectation of my station,
With no direct reward attached.
To dress appropriately for my Lord’s convocations and assemblies
I am forced to negotiate with chamberlains and treasurers.
A bolt of silk, gold thread, the services of a needlewoman
Require formal entreaties and may lie dormant for weeks
Before acknowledgement and release.
I was chosen for my literary skills, my prestigious memory,
Not for my bodily beauty, though I have been called
‘Lady of the most gracious movement’ and
My speaking voice has clarity and is capable of many colours.
I sing, but plainly and without passion
Lest I interfere with the truth of music’s message.
Since I was a child in my father’s library
I have sought out the works of those whose words
Paint visions of a world that as a woman
I may never see, the world of the wilderness,
Of rivers and mountains,
Of fields and gardens.
Yet I am denied by my sex and my station
To experience passing amongst these wonders
Except as contrived imitations in the palace gardens.
Each day I struggle to tease from the small corner
Of my enclosed eye-space some enrichment
Some elemental thing to colour meaning:
To extend the bounds of my home
Across the walls of this palace
Into the world beyond.
I have let it be known that I welcome interviews
With officials from distant courts to hear of their journeying,
To gather word images if only at second-hand.
Only yesterday an emissary recounted
His travels to Stone Lake in the far South-West,
Beyond the gorges of the Yang-tze.
With his eyes I have seen the mountains of Suchan:
With his ears I have heard the oars crackling
Like shattering jade in the freezing water.
Images and sounds from a thousand miles
Of travel are extract from this man’s memory.
Such a sharing of experience leaves me
Excited but dismayed: that I shall never
Visit this vast expanse of water and hear
Its wild cranes sing from their floating nests
In the summer moonlight.
I seek to disappear into a distant landscape
Where the self and its constructions of the world may
Dissolve away until nothing remains but the no-mind.
My thoughts are full of the practicalities of journeying
Of an imagined location, that lonely place
Where I may be at one with myself.
Where I may delight in the everyday Way,
Myself among mist and vine, rock and cave.
Not this lady of many parts and purposes whose poems must
Speak of lives, sorrow and joy, pleasure and pain
Set amongst personal conflict and intrigue
That in containing these things, bring order to disorder;
Salve the conscience, bathe hurt, soothe sleight.