Isle of Lesbos: Poetry : Historical : Wu Tsao

 

Wu Tsao
19th Century

Wu Tsao was born sometime around 1800; her year of birth and death are uncertain. She was the daughter of a merchant and married a merchant herself. Her experiences with these men were not positive and she sought out the company of women, as friends and as lovers. She wrote erotic poems to courtesans, creating unashamed lyric passages full of the sweetness of yearning.

She was China's great lesbian poet, and she was popular while she lived, her songs sung throughout China. Her poetry dealt with a variety of topics, unlike other women poets of her time. This versatility, combined with casual style and personal tone, probably contributed to her popularity.

Later in life, Wu Tsao moved to seclusion and became a Taoist priestess.

In regards to Wu Tsao, Kenneth Rexroth writes "She is one of the great Lesbian poets of all time, perhaps not as great as Sappho, but certainly greater than any modern ones." According to Rexroth, Wu Tsao is usually regarded as the third woman poet of China, after Li Ch'ing-chao and Chu Shu-chên, and with Ne-lan Hsin-tê as one of the two leading tz'u poets of the Ching (Manchu) Dynasty.

Given the quality of Wu Tsao's work and her history, it is disturbing to find that her name rarely appears in Western profiles of poets, and she is not included in literary discussions of the lesbian poetic tradition.

Editor's note: Finding information on Wu Tsao has proved severely challenging; Kenneth Rexroth (who translated her work) provided the only resources on this poet. Library searches have so far proven fruitless. If you know of any other sources of information on Wu Tsao, please write me with details.

Biography by Alix North

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Selected Works

For the Courtesan Ch'ing Lin

On your slender body
Your jade and coral girdle ornaments chime
Like those of a celestial companion
Come from the Green Jade City of Heaven.
One smile from you when we meet,
And I become speechless and forget every word.
For too long you have gathered flowers,
And leaned against the bamboos,
Your green sleeves growing cold,
In your deserted valley:
I can visualize you all alone,
A girl harboring her cryptic thoughts.

You glow like a perfumed lamp
In the gathering shadows.
We play wine games
And recite each other's poems.
Then you sing `Remembering South of the River'
With its heart breaking verses. Then
We paint each other's beautiful eyebrows.
I want to possess you completely -
Your jade body
And your promised heart.
It is Spring.
Vast mists cover the Five Lakes.
My dear, let me buy a red painted boat
And carry you away.

-Translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung

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Bitter rain in my courtyard
In the decline of Autumn,
I only have vague poetic feelings
That I cannot bring together.
They diffuse into the dark clouds
And the red leaves.
After the yellow sunset
The cold moon rises
Out of the gloomy mist.
I will not let down the blinds
Of spotted bamboo from their silver hook.
Tonight my dreams will follow the wind,
Suffering the cold,
To the jasper tower of your beautiful flesh.

-Translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung

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I have closed the double doors.
In what corner of the heavens is she?
A horizontal flute
Beyond the red walls
Blown as gently as the breeze
Blows the willow floss.
In the lingering glow of the sunset
The roosting crows ignore my melancholy.
Once again I languidly get out of bed.
After I have burned incense,
I loiter on the jeweled staircase.
I regret the wasted years,
Sick, afraid of the cold, afraid of the heat,
While the beautiful days went by.
Suddenly it is the Autumn Feast of the Dead.
Constantly disturbed by the changing weather,
I lose track of the flowing light
That washes us away.
Who moved the turning bridges
On my inlaid psaltery?
I realize--
Of the twenty five strings
Twenty one are gone.

-Translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung

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Where to Read More...

Kenneth Rexroth & Lin Chung, Women Poets of China (New York: New Directions, 1972, 1982)

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