Yuan Mei’s eulogy for Jin Yi

Mark Borer translated Yuan Mei’s eulogy for Jin Yi. It is contained in Saussy and Chang, pp. 777-781 and reproduced below.

Yuan Mei was a patron to a group of women poets;  and Jin Yi was one of the poets he sponspred.  He wrote this eulogy for her.

There once was a woman from Suzhou named Jin Xianxian. Her given name was Yi. She was delicate and fragile from the time she was born, and she had a heavenly endowed countenance. At a very early age she could already read books and distinguish the four tones. She loved to compose poetry and every time she let fall her brush, it was like a fleet horse prancing along, unable to stop.

At fifteen she married a young man, Chen Zhushi from Suzhou. On their wedding night, the newly wed bride, with a sparkle in her eye and an air of seduction, suddenly sent out a maid with perfumed notepaper to request a poem from the bridegroom before he could be admitted to the bridal chamber. Zhushi was pleasantly surprised, for he was well accustomed to writing poetry. He composed a poem and further requested a poem in return from his bride. From that moment on, the two were a perfect match.

Alongside the bridal trousseau ink was scattered about. In just a few days she had transformed the women’s quarters into a writing studio. Xianxian served her elders respectfully and was careful not to boast about her literary works. Moreover, she did not neglect any of her household duties.

At this time there were many beautiful women in Suzhou, Shen Sanhua (Shen Xiang), Wang Yuzhen and Jiang Bizhu (Jiang Zhu) among them. They could all write poetry and they unanimously chose Xianxian as their “Dean.” One day a group of women met at Tiger Hill outside of Suzhou. As the sun was just setting they sat together beside the Sword Pond, discussing various stories of the states Wu and Yue in the Spring and Autumn period. Thousands of words flew back and forth in their banter. Some of the officials listening in could not understand the conversation. They were truly “gaping in astonishment.” Someone who had seen this gathering sighed and said, “In the Classic of Mountains and Seas it is said that when the Emperor sacrifices, one hundred spirits congregate on atop the stones of the Imperial Altar. Yesterday, when a host of women sat upon the rocks, was that not truly a divine gathering?” Such was the esteem in which these women were held by the villagers.

As for poetry, Xianxian was well read in the masters of the Tang and Song, and was especially fond of my own poetry. When she attained a copy of my Xiaocang shanfang shiji [Lesser Storehouse Mountain Lodge Collection] she stole away and read it for four continuous days and nights. Upon finishing it, she sent me a letter and repeatedly asked to become my student. I could sense her determination.

This spring, when I went to see her, her illness was already quite severe. Someone helped her sit up; she called out “Teacher” and bowed twice. After this visit, I traveled to Xiling, and at the end of the month when I returned, Xianxian had died. Just before her death she had told Zhushi, “Now that I have seen my teacher, the memory of our meeting will last a thousand years. But something still distresses me. I have heard that Mr. Yuan has invited thirteen ladies to meet for poetry talks in the Jiang garden. Nine of them have accepted, but I of all people cannot attend and take all the honors. What a disappointment! I still have some doubts about my writing that I had hoped to go over with him, and now I cannot accomplish that either. That is another disappointment. If you wish to make up for these disappointments of mine, then you must see to it that my teacher has pity enough for me to be willing to inscribe my gravestone. Then, although I die, I shall yet live on.”

I wept when I heard this. Long ago, Su Dongbo [Su Shi] was exiled to Huizhou even though he was already an old man. A daughter of Mr. Wen, the official in charge there, peeked in on his studio, and Dongbo became extraordinarily fond of her. When he returned from his second exile in Hainan, the girl had already passed away. Dongbo could not suppress his emotions and composed a short song-lyric to mourn her. Although I am not Dongbo, what I have learned from Xianxian is one hundred times what he learned from Miss Wen. How then could I refuse to engrave her tombstone?

Some narrow-minded people may say that literature is not appropriate for women. They must not know that the dui trigram of the Book of Changes is called the “Younger Daughter,” and that the Sage glossed it as “Learning Among Friends.” The li trigram is known as the “Middle Daughter” and the Sage glossed this saying, “Brightness illuminates the upright.” As for “Ge tan” [poem 2 of the Book of Odes] and “Juan er”[poem 3], were they not written by women? The narrow view of these hidebound scholars is mistaken indeed.

I have been around for a long time, and whenever I find a woman with talent, I find her to be ill-fated. Those with beauty and talent are still more ill-fated, and those with talent, beauty and a good match are the most ill-fated of all. In Xianxian were combined these three harbingers of misfortune, and yet I wish she could have lived a long life. My three younger sisters were all talented, and all died young. Among my female students, Xu Wenmu’s granddaughter was the most talented, and she also died youngest. The others have suffered either widowhood or poverty. Now Xianxian has died and I know that the heavens are unwilling to grant lasting harmony to an auspicious pair, whose blessings would otherwise equal those of generals, ministers, or men of high station. This is indeed the inalterable principle of the creator. What more can be said?  Of Xianxian’s writings there remain the poems in her Drafts from the Tower of the Slender Reciter collection.

Died at the age of ___ twenty. Buried at  ____ on ____. Her epitaph reads:

In ancient times when Cang Jie created writing,

He relied on the assistance of Nu Wa;

Today a woman of inspired intellect

Must choose a companion to match her mind.

There is the descendant of the ancient King Jin Tian

Who once divined from the Yellow Emperor:

“The ‘wandering marrying maiden’

Shall get in her carriage and travel south.”

She lifted up her pure eyes, letting drift her gaze,

Longing for conjugal happiness in the world of men.

Astride the clouds she descended to earth,

Tying the nuptial sash at Tan village.

She is a fragrance-filled blossom waiting on the wind,

Alive with the brilliant radiance of devotion.

She brought into accord the mysterious rules of prosody,

Like jade chimes, the cry of utmost harmony.

She carved out the feelings in her heart,

Yet again came the stripping away of the hundred wonders.

At the end she sat up slightly but now shall rise no more,

Gone to Nine Doubt Mountain to visit Ying and Huang.

Walking hand-in-hand they tarry there,

The spirits in sorrow: how can they not know

The eternity of the Nine Provinces?

And the waves of tears: Alas!

The only glimpse of her is preserved in the bones of her poetry.

Now bunches of tan-flowers bloom above her,

Two rows of plants keep vigil at her side.

Yuan Mei, Xiaocang shanfang xu wenji, 32/14b


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