After sticking to some fairly familiar names for numbers ten, nine, and eight in the countdown, I thought I would take a slight turn towards the obscure. This poet is certainly deserving of this spot. However, prior to researching this series of blog posts, I had never heard of her. But I'm certainly glad her name popped up in my search for the greatest female poets in history, because not only are her poems magnificent, but her back-story is inspirational as well.
Qiu Jin (1875-1907) lived during the Qing Dynasty in China. She spoke out against injustices such as the binding of females' feet and other traditions such as arranged marriages and restrictions on education of girls and women. She founded a revolutionary literary journal and worked to organize revolutionary activities. Arrested while serving as principal of a girls' boarding school, Qiu was subsequently tortured and beheaded. Her memory and legend live on in Chinese history as a valiant martyr who helped inspire China's revolution in 1911.
Qiu's poems are powerful, especially when read within the context of her life. Here's one entitled: "On Request For a Poem:"
Do not tell me women
are not the stuff of heroes,
I alone rode over the East Sea's
winds for ten thousand leagues.
My poetic thoughts ever expand,
like a sail between ocean and heaven.
I dreamed of your three islands,
all gems, all dazzling with moonlight.
I grieve to think of the bronze camels,
guardians of China, lost in thorns.
Ashamed, I have done nothing
not one victory to my name.
I simply make my war horse sweat.
Grieving over my native land
hurts my heart. So tell me:
how can I spend these days here?
A guest enjoying your spring winds?
Not only does the message of her poetry resonate, but the imagery does as well. They combine in a powerful way. For example, here are some excerpts:
“Our skulls pile up in mounds;
our blood billows in cresting waves
and the ghosts of all the millions massacred
"Unbinding my feet, I washed away
a thousand years of poison.
My heart fired with excitement, I awoke
one hundred slumbering flower-spirits
But pity my shagreen handkerchief
Half stained with tears
and half with blood."
Or imagine yourself as an oppressed female in China (then or now) reading something like "Crimson Flooding Into the River:"
Just a short stay at the Capital
But it is already the mid autumn festival
Chrysanthemums infect the landscape
Fall is making its mark
The infernal isolation has become unbearable here
All eight years of it make me long for my home
It is the bitter guile of them forcing us women into femininity
We cannot win!
Despite our ability, men hold the highest rank
But while our hearts are pure, those of men are rank
My insides are afire in anger at such an outrage
How could vile men claim to know who I am?
Heroism is borne out of this kind of torment
To think that so putrid a society can provide no camaraderie
Brings me to tears!
OR do the same with this poem, written by Qiu apparently after having her picture taken, dressed in a man's costume:
Who is this person, staring at me so sternly?
The martial bones I bring from a former existence regret
the flesh that covers them.
Once life is over, the body itself will be seen to have
been an illusion,
And the world that has not yet emerged--that will be real.
You and I should have got together long ago and
shared our feelings;
Looking out across these times, our spirits garner
Someday, when you see my friends from the old days,
Tell them I've scrubbed off all that old dirt.
I will say that Qiu Jin's poems aren't exactly easy to find on the 'net. I had to spend some time googling to find just the right ones. But if you enjoy her work and want to expose your students or yourself to a not-very-well-known female Asian poet, the search is time well spent. And, if you're feeling especially ambitious, get a hold of "Autumn Gem," a documentary about the life of "China's first feminist."
Stay tuned for #6 in the countdown--it is coming soon! I'm running out of days in the month and I need to pick up the pace.