Sister Poets

In China they were called cainü.

HUMANITIES, July/August 2010, Volume 31, Number 4

One evening in the mid nineteenth century in a large house in southeastern China, a young girl excitedly looked over the poem she had just finished. Its title was “Red Plum.” She ran to show it to her father, who, in response, took up his brush and wrote a poem of his own. He then showed both poems to the child’s mother, who was in bed. The mother arose and wrote yet another poem, which was brought to the room of her brother, whose family was one of three residing in this spacious abode. After receiving his sister’s poem, the brother took up a brush as well, added his own version, and sent the papers on to yet another sister. “At dawn,” writes Susan Mann in The Talented Women of the Zhang Family, “they were still up writing poems to each other while the maid ran back and forth and the house rang with laughter.”

The city was Changzhou—home to many scholars and remarkable for the unusually learned women to be found among its leading families. The Zhangs were a celebrated example. One particularly gifted generation boasted four talented daughters, three of whom became published poets and the fourth a noted calligrapher.

Artists are not often associated with domestic serenity, which makes literary families such curious cells of inspiration and psychology. Take the Brontës, whose literary talents developed in private amidst the hothouse conditions of youth and siblinghood. In contrast, the Zhang sisters and their offspring benefited from an elaborate social network characterized by guixiu or genteel women. In this wider society, literary production was both feminine adornment and high art. Home workshops published poetry under proprietary imprints such as Pale Chrysanthemum Studio or Green Scholar Tree Studio, two names associated with the Zhangs’ “publishing house.” Young girls were raised on word puzzles and rhyming games.

The four sisters of the Zhang family, in order of their birth, were Qieying, Guanying, Lunying, and Wanying. The eldest and the youngest siblings were brothers. The first, Juesun, died, still a young man, in 1803, possibly the result of medical incompetence, spurring his father to take up medical studies as a “literati physician.” The youngest, Yuesun, was eventual editor of his sisters’ work and husband of another talented woman, Bao Mengyi.

Wang Caipin, a noted prodigy of the next generation and the young girl who set off a torrent of verse with her “Red Plum,” was born in 1839, among the next generation of Zhang family cainü or “talented woman”—a direct translation of the Chinese term. In later poems she commented on the effects of the devastating Taiping Rebellion, the defining, calamitous fourteen-year uprising that claimed twenty million lives, including twenty thousand in Changzhou. In her poem “Moved by Events,” whose title echoes that of a poem written a generation earlier by her aunt, she poses a series of blunt, ironic questions (e.g., “Whose dead bodies, wrapped in horsehide, are pledged to die for our country?”) about the origins and rapid spread of the rebellion, building to a sly, circumspect accusation of the country’s failed leadership: “Since ancient times, good governance has rested upon agriculture and sericulture.” In paraphrase: From food and silk came peace.

ink on silk drawing, view of multiple rooms of a house
Photo caption


Keeping up with the Zhangs: Poetry and art were family enterprises for the cainü.

Linking Verse across Adjoining Rooms by Hong Zhang, 2005, ink and color on silk, 1 ft. X 7 ft.

Wang Caipin’s poetry was an anomaly even among cainü. Mann emphasizes the trouble she had reconciling “her conviction that she was talented . . . with her fate as a young woman.” Imagining her way into Caipin’s experiences, the author dramatizes the irony of the female poet’s existence in a society dominated by the learning and talents of men: “Truly, . . . this is what they mean when they talk about how poetry can compromise a woman’s moral convictions. Her feelings for her mother and her celebration of her mother’s wifely devotion had all vanished. She was in love with her art. She had never felt so amoral.”

The 2005 painting Linking Verse across Adjoining Rooms, by Chinese-born Hong Zhang, who resides in the United States, depicts the collective efforts of Zhang siblings. In three panels, the sisters are presented with their spouses, all living harmoniously together and contributing to each other’s work. In Mann’s take, fictional and historical narratives harmoniously cohabit each chapter. The reader moves between the two as easily as the viewer of Hong Zhang’s painting does from room to room. In her preface Mann writes, “Although most of the stories in this book come directly from the Zhang family records, some . . . [are] my own conjecture and invention. Here I have followed a central tenet of Chinese historical writing, which strives to bring to life people from the past with their feelings, words, and deeds intact.” At the end of each fictional account, Mann steps in as historian and uses as her model the Han historian Sima Qian (c. 145 to c. 87 BCE), “who kept his lively historical narratives and his personal judgments separate.”

The key to Mann’s narrative, one might say fictional, method lies in scene-setting, which allows the historian to pull seemingly disparate pieces of fact into a seamless whole. A graceful example comes from the chapter on the sister Qieying, who travels first by boat along the Grand Canal and then overland with her aging mother to a faraway city.

Qieying stood numbly on the deck, watching great barges loaded with imperial grain move slowly past their passenger ship, which constantly had to make way for the larger vessels. . . . Port towns along the way were lined with docks full of vendors’ stalls. More than once she recovered herself and sent a servant to buy local treats and handicrafts to amuse the babies and distract her mother, who, garbed in hemp, reclined belowdecks, mourning.

After reaching the great Canal port at Jining, they left the boat and made their way overland, traveling on the imperial courier routes northeastward through Yanzhou and Tai’an, then skirting the Tai mountains until they arrived at the grand city of Jinan. Clear streams ran down the northern slope of the mountain range, feeding into the moat surrounding the city and pooling to create the famous Daming Lake. From Jinan they planned to take the road to Zhangqiu, where her father was an acting magistrate. . . .

Zhangqiu was a small town compared to Jinan. But it was hardly dull and quiet. On the contrary, the area exploded with energy: construction everywhere, laborers moving in gangs to transport heavy loads of brick and stone, moneylenders’ shops lining the streets, and a new entertainment district catering to the rich travelers arriving in droves each day. Land developers and commercial farmers had remade Zhangqiu into an immense marketplace. . . .

Zhangqiu’s landlords were not inclined to invest in their local communities . . . in fact, many of them were hostile to the central government’s officials and their assiduous tax recording. They were not, however, averse to using the county magistrate’s court to advance their interests.

It was the continual exchange of poems and letters among husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and daughters that helped Mann create the tableau above. Annals, the more traditional source for historians, certainly made mention of the Zhang sisters and their accomplishments, but the literary output of the family often provided personal and subjective views of events.

Winning social regard was far from the only motive for all this poetizing. The Zhang sisters also took brush in hand to express filial love. “Lamp in the Cold,” written by Wang Caipin, inspired by her memory of waking at midnight, hearing her mother working at the loom and realizing her mother’s loneliness, is one example: “A single volume slim and light, cast into deep shadow, / An open lattice leaning back, shedding drops of water, / At midnight, whose shuttle moves urgently across the loom?/ The chilly glow is a heart reaching ten thousand li.”

Another goal was political expression. Qieying, born in 1792, lived through both the Taiping Rebellion and the Opium Wars. Like Wang Caipin after her, Qieying showed literary promise in her youth, working from exercises and imitating masters from dynasties past. In composing a poem about a sword, she followed dictates from her father on writing well. “You have to try to describe the object as completely as possible, but you can’t give a literal description,” he began. “Your description has to be allegorical,” he continued, “so the reader can see the object in a new way.”

“A good poem on an object,” he concluded, “makes the reader understand the object as much more than a material thing.”

As a mature poet, Qieying broke with what she came to see as a hackneyed, feminine style of decorous rhetoric applied to traditional subjects such as mountain scenes. From then on, she took up subjects and styles that had been previously considered outside the purview of women.

Written as the First Opium War was drawing to a close, Qieying’s “Moved by Events” is an outpouring of pent-up feelings brought on by the rapidly changing political landscape. It voices the impotence felt upon the humiliation dealt to the Chinese by the British: “My ears roar with autumn squalls, / My breast fills with distress and indignation.” The fiercely original lyrics continue to build to a crescendo, linking her emotionally to the tumult of the setting: “The flowing current, how can I turn it back! / My eyes search abroad, the wilted grass laden with frost, / Amid desolate smoke, a lone tree, / Shaking, spent, utterly without direction. / The shrieking partridge cries ‘You can’t go on!’ She boldly concludes, ‘What can I do? Swallow my anger forever?’”

The sisters also turned to the purely personal in search of the poetic. After Guanying died young and in a distant city, sisters Qieying and Wanying both responded in verse that was distributed among family members and later published by one of the Zhang family’s imprints. “Events long past come unbidden to my mind,” Qieying wrote. She concludes her lyric with a determination to avoid self-pity: “I dare not complain that the night is long; / Knowing how you suffered so much more.” Wanying’s regulated verse, also in mourning for Guanying, demonstrates the highly allusive nature that characterized all of the sisters’ work. After evoking the grief she still feels a year after Guanying’s death, “Your departed soul drops into my dream,” she follows with the seemingly cryptic line, “A crane fairy flies from the moon’s great column.” The poem concludes with the equally intriguing yet, for the uninitiated reader, equally incomprehensible line, “In a quiet moment I recite your catkin verses.” Author Mann, who is also the translator of these lines, explains in a note that the crane fairy refers to a poem by Tao Qian (365–427), whom the sisters admired, and “catkin verses” is an allusion to a fourth-century poetry contest won by a female poet who compared “falling snowflakes to the flossy seeds of a willow tree.”

Given the erudition required in deciphering some of the verse, who, then, was the audience for the sisters’ work? Mann says that the poems, once published, were not sold commercially in book stalls as were, for example, popular manuals on the mechanics of good letter writing, but were passed along as gifts among other talented women and guixiu. Copies could have been sent to influential women in a kind of public relations effort that served to bolster the Zhang sisters’ literary reputation. When Qieying and Guanying were still young and unmarried, toiling at fine needlework for other women’s dowries, Qieyang was acutely aware that the true cultural exchange among the cainüwas “poetry, not embroidery.”

close up of Chinese characters
Photo caption

Linking Verse across Adjoining Rooms, detail, by Hong Zhang, 2005, ink and color on silk

Near Garden, the house where the Zhang family spent many years in their collective literary efforts of writing, editing, and proofreading each other’s work, was also known for its output of calligraphy, considered to be an art in China on a par with painting, and often seen as an unsuitable vocation for women. It’s not surprising, then, that traveling scholars, literati, and civil servants passing by the Green Scholar Tree Studio took note of Zhang Lunying’s work. Based on rubbings taken from ancient steles, these muscular characters were quickly coming into vogue.

According to an early classic on the writing arts, the Manual of Calligraphy, brushstrokes can be as fine “as a cicada’s wings” or as heavy “as rolling clouds.” Lunying, with arms as slight as cicada’s wings, chose a newer take on the art of calligraphy. It came out of the bold aesthetics of the contemporary calligrapher Deng Shiru: “The open spaces should permit a horse to gallop through; the written areas should be enough to block the wind.” Lunying didn’t begin writing and publishing her own poetry until she was in her thirties, but there, too, as in her calligraphy, hers was a disciplined approach. She strived “to create a moment in which the poet and the natural world were one.”

The fact that talented women in Changzhou could earn an income from their artistic accomplishments was rarely discussed, but Mann uses a family letter to reveal as much: “Lunying is busy day and night turning out hanging scrolls for people who seem to line up outside waiting for them.”

Silences in the historical record as well as in letters and poems, however, speak volumes about women’s lives of the times. Footbinding, for example, a practice that the women soldiers of the Taiping Rebellion eliminated in cities under the movement’s control, was never a subject in talented women’s poetry. The talented Zhang women’s opinions of the custom may have been ambivalent, or the male editors of the women’s volumes may have elected not to include any poems or writings on the matter in the anthologies they published.

Sister influence, moreover, was a strong phenomenon among the elite families in Changzhou, and the women of those families learned early on how to articulate complicated family problems and seek resolutions to difficult circumstances arising out of married sisters living in the same household.

Changzhou—one of several cities in a golden triangle of female learning—was known as a place where daughters were prized as much or more than sons, and there was no stigma for either the groom’s or bride’s relations if a family welcomed a daughter’s new husband into their home. “Married in” sons-in-law, in the case of the Zhang family and many others, eased difficulties of finding an heir to continue the family line, for one thing, but the practice also kept favorite daughters at home and created strong sibling bonds that helped sustain the families during financial difficulties.

One female member of the household who did not indulge a creative spirit was Miss Fa. She came from a renowned medical family in Changzhou, and arrangements had been made during her puberty years for her to marry the eldest Zhang son, Juesun, who died some years before the marriage while under the care of Miss Fa’s father. Juesun’s father, Zhang Qi, told people, “My son was killed by a mediocre physician.” In spite of this lingering resentment, Miss Fa, who never married, chose the path of a virtuous woman and entered the Zhang household a decade after Juesun’s death as an unmarried daughter-in-law. She never shared in the literary output of the household, choosing to live and eat very simply and keeping to herself, mostly praying and burning incense. She was entitled, though, to make demands on the younger daughter-in-law, Bao Mengyi, who submitted to “her raw emotional tensions” and probably was aware that Miss Fa was mentally ill. But it was their mother, Tang Yaoqing, who saw both the compassion and wisdom in placing an altar in Miss Fa’s quarters. The virtuous “widow” lived many years in this way, her reputation untarnished, but her soul, apparently, unnourished by the constant flow of learning and creativity surrounding her in Near Garden.

The women of the Zhang family found themselves dealing with many other problems as well. Financial straits were a fact of life, with their father, Zhang Qi, away for many years at a time and sending home little or no money. With the women from one family helping the women of another family, however, savings from dowries often solved problems that arose over expenses for proper burials and memorials for honored family members. Aside from travel to bury loved ones, journeys were sometimes made to distant cities where male members of the family, like Qi, had taken temporary civil service positions in hopes of one day attaining the jinshi degree, which would enable them to qualify for the most prestigious civil service jobs, usually in Beijing.

After much travel from Changzhou to provincial cities where her father was posted, Qieying arrived in Beijing in the 1830s to be with her husband. Forced to abandon the capital at one point during the Taiping Rebellion, she became a refugee herself, fleeing along the dusty roads of northern China with thousands of others. Her long life of work and learning was not as genteel as the term guixiu would imply, nor was the life of her niece, Wang Caipin. The little girl who showed early promise as a poet, due to child-rearing and travel to distant cities, had a sporadic literary career.

During the Taiping Rebellion she was widowed and the rest of the Zhang family was scattered during the difficult years afterward. Rather than enter a home for widows, she entered the house of a minor official as a governess.

The talented women of the Zhang family used art to record and comment on the social unrest of their times, and remained dedicated artists even as their fortunes reversed. Poetry and art also provided them solace during mourning, financial difficulties, and old age. Wang Caipin, poor and isolated, wrote until the end of her life. Perhaps her only friend was her employer’s concubine, for whom she composed lyrics. After the poet’s death, the grateful functionary edited her verse for publication. Working earnestly, he eliminated poems he judged to have been written too hastily and penned an appreciative preface.

By the end of the nineteenth century, cainü were giving way to modern times. The phenomenon died out completely by the early twentieth century. We need not lament for the cainü themselves. The delight that ran through Wang Caipin’s life from childhood to old age came not from pursuing dreams of gold but from the love of learning, reading, and composing—the makings of a inner life with its own rich hues and rewards.