Cri-de-Coeur of Women in Classical Chinese Poetry: Two Early Masterpieces on Women’s Lives

Cri-de-Coeur of Women in Classical Chinese Poetry: Two Early Masterpieces on Women’s Lives

Ben Wang Summer Course at China Institute, 2020


5 sessions (10 hours)
July 7 – August 4
Tuesday, 6:30 – 8:30pm
Tuition: $250 member/$290 non-member
(plus a $30 non-refundable registration fee)

1. Introduction to To the Bum from the Book of Songs (1,100 to 500 BC)

To the Bum is the first poem/song in Chinese literature which, composed in a confessional style, tells the grievous life of a woman (a wife, or a Common-Law wife?) vigorously pursued, lustfully took, violently abused and callously betrayed by her bum of a man (husband?). It was a song sung in the State of Wei (1115-209 BC), and then collected by Confucius in the Book of Songs.

This poem glows as a biographical, detailed description of a woman’s predicaments and vicissitudes that inspired numerous poems composed in the following centuries, poems about the sad destiny of women fooled, exploited, and violated by their boorish men. The tremendous dramatic force of the central theme is heightened by the cinematic effects over 2,000 years before motion pictures were created, as the poem in a reminiscent mood and its confession-styled narration is poignantly interspersed with depiction of natural elements and surrounding, while the female narrator is telling her regrets and recriminations. Told in 6 parts, the poem brings to mind the French novel Gervaise (mother of Nana) by Emile Zola, a dark and tragic novel depicting the sorrowful and seedy life of how a woman of low social status is abused and violated by men and a society ruled by men.

2. Introduction to Southeast the Peacocks Fly (Eastern Han: 25-221AD)

Written by an anonymous poet during the 3rd century, Southeast the Peacocks Fly is the first long narrative (then new) pentasyllabic poem, composed in the style of Ballad (story telling) and has enjoyed its well-deserved popularity thereafter. It merits the fame of being one of the two “Crown Jewels of the Ballads of the Han dynasty ,” along with The Song of Grief.

Southeast the Peacocks Fly tells a tragic love story in the Latter Han dynasty (25-221A.D.). Initially a folk song sung by singing storytellers on the streets, it was later adapted, embellished and expanded into a long written poem in the style of a ballad. As was customary of the time, the title of Southeast the Peacocks Fly was taken from its first line that is alluded both to the peacocks’ being exotic southern birds and the Chinese Daoist divinational view on the blissful direction of southeast where happiness and peace could be attained in this life or the next.

The two protagonists in this ballad of a poem are a young woman named Liu Lanzhi and her husband Jiao Zhongqing, a junior official in the local government. Though deeply in love with each other, the two are torn apart by the personalities, temperaments and circumstances between the wife and her forbidding and harshly demanding mother-in-law. Agonizing over what she has come to see as an increasingly insufferable existence under the hard and unloving older woman, and after some excogitation, Lanzhi asks her husband to have her sent back to her maiden home to avoid further disagreements and ill-feelings.

Lanzhi returns to her maiden home and waits hopefully for a possible reunion with her beloved husband, but soon has to resort to feigning willingness to remarry the son of the rich and powerful governor to appease her mercilessly insensitive and social-climbing elder brother and not-so-sympathetic mother. On her wedding day the star-crossed Lanzhi and Zhongqing commit a double-suicide and end their lives over their thwarted love.

As a major breakthrough in the style of a ballad, this extraordinary and timeless poem composed nearly 2 thousand years ago has served as a literary model for long narrative and fictional poems composed afterwards, exerting tremendous influence on the memorable works of ballad by the towering Li Bai, Bai Juyi, among other poets, of the Tang (618-907) and novelists ever after.

Southeast the Peacocks Fly is a tale in which love soars beyond death to defy destiny and ultimately triumphs over the strict feudal and social confines in China of yore. Despite the seeming defeat and dark ending of the loving pair, the poem exemplifies as being the very first piece of classical literature, created in the patriarchal society of China nearly 2,000 years ago: A poem that proclaims the inextinguishable force of feminism, as how it is shown in the astonishingly unbending and recalcitrant spirit of the young heroine, who with quiet resolve chooses adamantly her own way of life and death; when she realizes that she’s ultimately lost the slightest hope for happiness, she chooses to take her own life: her final, stifled laughter of triumph over what she sees as an oppressive and unsympathetic society towards women. In death she prevails as an unbent victor who had her final word, after all!

Here the heroine, the feminine force, dictates the fate of her gentle husband, the masculine force, all based on the strength of love, which drives the husband to hang himself after receiving the news of her death. Yin and Yang are playing out their respective roles: the Yin being the dominating element, and the Yang, the subordinate, which is seemingly reversed from common sense. Yet, in truth, Yin, the feminine force, like dawn, stands for birthing of all living things: the force that rules all in life.

As a poetic work, it depicts complex emotions of the star-crossed pair through a vivid and moving description of their loving, but unhappy, marriage set against natural environment surrounding them, such as sounds, shades of light and other natural imageries. The visceral are seldom used so effectively in ancient classical Chinese literature to stand in for the matter of the heart of the leading characters. The blending of its ever modern dual theme and the surpassing poetic writing technique has inspired deep emotions and sympathy in the readers and has been passionately eulogized by generations of the Chinese over the centuries. (By Ben Wang)



Ben Wang: Senior Lecturer in Language and Humanities at China Institute, Co-Chair of Renwen Society of China Institute, retired Instructor of Chinese at the United Nations Language Program.  A published writer on classical Chinese poetry and others, Ben Wang is an award winning translator both from Chinese into English and vice versa; He taught Chinese and translation at Columbia University, New York University, Pace University and City University of New York between 1969 and 1991.

Ben Wang teaches and lectures on the Chinese language, calligraphy, and classical Chinese literature, including the Book of Songs, the Songs of the South; Han, Tang and Song poetry; Yuan and Ming poetic dramas; Story of the Stone of the Qing; classical Kunqu Drama and Beijing Opera; Literati Painting. Ben Wang’s lectures on and translations of Kunqu dramas have been reviewed and acclaimed three times in the New York Times by the Times’ music and drama critic James Oestreich as “magnificent,” “captivating,” and “colorful.”

Since 1989, Ben Wang has lectured (extensively on the above-mentioned subjects)at Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Barnard, Williams, U.C. Berkeley, New York University, Bates, Colby, Hamilton, Middlebury, Rutgers, Seton Hall, St. Mary’s College in California, the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, United Nations, Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Seattle Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts of Boston, ABC Nightline, the BBC, among other academic and cultural institutions.

Latest publications in English:

  1. Forlorn in the Rain: Translation and Annotation of Selected Classical Chinese Poetry and Others; Published by Foreign Languages Publishing Bureau, Beijing, China: Oct. 2018

  1. A series of 4 books on the Forbidden City in Beijing, China:
    1. We All Live in the Forbidden City
    2. This Is the Greatest Place!
    3. Bowls of Happiness
    4. What Was It Like, Mr. Emperor?

    (Published by China Institute and Released by Tuttle Publishing; 2014, 2015, the series has garnered 9 US book awards, as of September 2016.)

  1. Laughter and Tears: Libretti from Highlight Scenes of 26 Classical Poetic Kunqu Dramas; Published by Foreign Languages Publishing Bureau, Beijing, China: 2009.

(January 2019)

6:30 PM - 8:30 PM
Instructor: Ben Wang