Gu Taiqing (顾太清1799 – c. 1877) was one of the top-ranked women poets of the Qing Dynasty. She is especially known for her ci poetry and for her sequel to the novel Honglou meng (Dream of the Red Chamber) – Honglou meng ying紅樓夢影 (Dream Shadows of the Red Chamber).

Gu was descended from Manchu family from the Silin-Gioro 西林觉罗 clan. There had been some debate as to whether or not she was of Manchu descent. It had been claimed that she was born into a banner family named Gu and took on Manchu identity after her marriage to Yihui 奕会 (1799-1838), a Manchu prince. Other scholars claim that the confusion about her identity is an attempt to obscure her family’s descent from E-er-tai, a Manchu grand secretary disgraced (and forced to commit suicide) during one of Qianlong’s literary inquisitions.

Her marriage to Yihui seems to have been a happy one, despite the fact that she had the status of concubine rather than primary princess consort (Yihui’s princess consort was Lady Hešeri). She had five children—three sons and two daughters. Yihui also had children with his primary wife, who died early. Gu’s life was thrown into turmoil when her husband died in 1838. Yihui’s family forced her and her children out of their Beijing home. The reasons for their hostility are unclear, but a rumored affair between Gu Taiqing and Gong Zichen may have been part of the story. During this period of poverty she may have sustained her family by selling jewelry and artwork.

After the death of her husband, Gu’s circle of female friends, including the Xu sisters Yunlin and Yunjiang and Shen Shanbao, who was her sworn sister, became even more important to her, both emotionally and as a source of creative inspiration

One scholar estimates that there are as many as 1,163 surviving poems written by Gu.

Examples in translation:

Human life is an endless struggle—
The post-horse and plow-ox.
On the brows of the Daoist sadness never grows:
Quietly holding a book of immortality, seated by the window,
What else is there to seek?

Prospects disappear, far, far away,
Months and years are hard to detain.
In a hundred years’ time everyone will be a pat of mud,
So arrange a firm and safe place in your own mind
And let the boat float with the stream.

Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty,
I Pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles

It seems these poets have nothing
up their ample sleeves
they turn over so many cards so early,
telling us before the first line
whether it is wet or dry,
night or day, the season the man is standing in,
even how much he has had to drink.

Maybe it is autumn and he is looking at a sparrow.
Maybe it is snowing on a town with a beautiful name.

“Viewing Peonies at the Temple of Good Fortune
on a Cloudy Afternoon” is one of Su Tung Po’s.
“Dipping Water from the River and Simmering Tea”
is another one, or just
“On a Boat, Awake at Night.”

And Lu Yu takes the simple rice cake with
“In a Boat on a Summer Evening
I Heard the Cry of a Waterbird,
It Was Very Sad and Seemed to be Saying
My Woman Is Cruel—Moved, I Wrote This Poem.”

There is no iron turnstile to push against here
as with headings like “Vortex on a String,”
“The Horn of Neurosis,” or whatever.
No confusingly inscribed welcome mat to puzzle over.
Instead, “I Walk Out on a Summer Morning
to the Sound of Birds and a Waterfall”
is a beaded curtain brushing over my shoulders.

And “Ten Days of Spring Rain Have Kept Me Indoors”
is a servant who shows me into the room
where a poet with a thin beard
is sitting on a mat with a jug of wine
whispering something about clouds and cold wind,
about sickness and the loss of friends.

How easy he has made it for me to enter here,
to sit down in a corner;
cross my legs like his, and listen.

–Billy Collins

Dharma

The way the dog trots out the front door
every morning
without a hat or an umbrella,
without any money
or the keys to her doghouse
never fails to fill the saucer of my heart
with milky admiration.

Who provides a finer example
of a life without encumbrance—
Thoreau in his curtainless hut
with a single plate, a single spoon?
Gandhi with his staff and his holy diapers?

Off she goes into the material world
with nothing but her brown coat
and her modest blue collar,
following only her wet nose,
the twin portals of her steady breathing,
followed only by the plume of her tail.

If only she did not shove the cat aside
every morning
and eat all his food
what a model of self-containment she would be,
what a paragon of earthly detachment.
If only she were not so eager
for a rub behind the ears,
so acrobatic in her welcomes,
if only I were not her god.

–Billy Collins

Love after Love

the time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here, Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine.  Give bread.  Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf.

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit.  Feast on your life.

–Derek Walcott

Edited by staff

 

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