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Nonfiction

Dear Qiu Jin: “To Meet a Kindred Spirit Who Cherishes the Same Songs”

Yilin Wang’s selected translations of five modern Chinese poets, The Lantern and the Night Moths, is out today from Invisible Publishing. Below, we present Wang’s lyric essay and translator's note from the collection, which discusses the queer and feminist themes in the work of poet Qiu Jin.
Two unlit lantern holders sit on a lake in blue dusk light.
An autumn evening at West Lake in Hangzhou, China. Photo credit: Jeff Chenqinyi, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Moonlight seeps into this tall pavilion.    
     The melancholy of longing, here and elsewhere.

The autumn moon is a common motif within Chinese poetry, shining often upon geographies of homesickness and longing. In your poem, “Púsāmán: To a Female Friend,” written over a hundred and twenty years ago, the moon casts its light on a different kind of yearning—the search for a zhīyīn 知音. Literally “the one who can truly understand your songs,” a zhīyīn is a close friend, a kindred spirit, a queerplatonic soulmate who shares your deepest ideals. If I had lived in the same era as you, amidst the tumultuous sociopolitical changes of the late Qīng dynasty, the backdrop against which your feminist views emerged, might we have crossed paths and even become each other’s zhīyīn?

But more than a century has passed since your death, and I live here in Vancouver, an ocean’s distance away from your final resting place by the West Lake in Hángzhōu. The only thing I can do is to glance up at the moon that we still share, bright and wistful as ever. As I read and savor the melody of your words, I wait alone in this room for your voice to rise from among the pages, slowly, to cross time and distance, until it’s as if we’re sitting side by side, meeting for the first time, chatting spiritedly late into the night.

***

To converse on matters lingering within one’s heart,     
     imparted on the floral letter-papers of Huànhuā Brook.

May I share the story of how I first encountered your work? I was searching for a new Chinese feminist poet to translate, in order to push back against the systemic, ongoing erasure of feminist writers within both Sinophone and Anglophone publishing, when a friend suggested, in a serendipitous yet perhaps also fated conversation, what about Qiu Jin’s poetry? Of course I was familiar with your name, well aware of your reputation as a Chinese feminist revolutionary. But I had no idea that you were also a poet, let alone that in the thirty-one years of your life, you left behind over two hundred poems, nearly all of which were only published posthumously.

Please translate Qiu Jin’s words, the friend urged. Over the years, she had lovingly acquired a number of edited collections of your poetry, which were out of print and especially difficult to find in North America. Generously she offered to pass them along to me. And soon, a thick package holding three of your books arrived at my door. I accepted the package gently, and felt the weight of your words in my hands.

***

To often abandon needlework for a love of rhyming dictionaries.
     To always strip off hair ornaments to pay for books.

What was it like for you as a young woman growing up near the end of the Qīng dynasty? You were privileged enough to be born into a literati-official’s family, able to access books that most girls could only dream of, yet still expected to write only about “feminine” topics, in the subtle and reserved styles befitting “proper etiquette.”

It’s clear from even your earliest poems, however, that you rebelled fiercely against the traditions of women’s poetry, in particular the “guīyuàn” 闺怨 genre, which the scholar Yan Haiping has eloquently translated as “boudoir sorrows.”1 The genre always features a female speaker, her voice full of melancholy, rendered passive by the dual “boudoir” of cloistered chambers and gender roles. Unable to visit a male lover or husband who is far away, she pines, endlessly, through day and night.

Did you realize, as I also did while reading classical guīyuàn poetry, that despite its supposed focus on women’s sorrows, it was actually popularized by many male poets of the Táng dynasty (including Li Bai 李白, Du Fu 杜甫, and others), who co-opted the female speaker’s struggles for their own purposes? Her pain about the lack of male attention became a mirror for the male author’s frustrations about the lack of imperial favor. Her bitterness about a man’s absence served as a way for him to offer thinly veiled critiques of wars in the borderlands.

Pushing against the fraught history and conventions of this genre and against a society where a woman’s life was often defined by her patrilineal ties and by heteronormative expectations of marriage, your poems reclaim the voice, body, and heartache of the woman in the boudoir. She transforms into a rebel. A free-spirited poet who casts aside needlework to flip through books. A daring heroine who travels far beyond the confines of her home to pursue her own ambitions. Repeatedly she expresses her longings on her own terms, not for romantic love, but for a zhīyīn.

***

Solemnly I gaze ahead—who is this before me?    
     The bones of a vigilante–hero from a past life, resentful of this body.

As you broke through and shattered the “boudoir sorrows” tradition, you turned instead to writing poems that evoke a long lineage of cross-dressing heroines from history, such as Hua Mulan, Mu Guiying, or Qin Liangyu. When I translated your poem “Inscription on My Tiny Portrait (in Men’s Clothes),” I found myself asking what it would be like to inhabit your body. The poem was inscribed on the back of a photo that showed you cross-dressing in a traditional gown commonly worn by men in the late Qīng dynasty. You posed sternly, unsmiling, as you stared straight into the camera.2

When you wrote this poem, how did it feel to carry the bones of a past self within you? When you expressed your resentment toward your body, were you describing what’s now commonly known as dysphoria? As you imagined your past and future selves meeting, did you find solace in the collapse of that binary and in the gender fluidity that emerged? As a genderqueer femme, I find strength in your poems about gender and cross-dressing, and I wish that I could join you in sweeping the world’s troubles away.

***

Sun and moon without light. Sky and earth in darkness.
     Who can lift up this drowning world of women?

More than a century after you died in a failed uprising against the Qīng government, your name now appears frequently in history books, and you are held up as a celebrated revolutionary. But when I ask other Sino diaspora poets, literary translators, and graduates from Chinese literature programs if they have read your poetry, whether in Chinese or in translation, the majority of them tell me that no, they have not. This answer comes as no surprise. Many literary history textbooks in China still gloss over your poetic contributions, especially the works touching on feminism, gender inequality, and cross-dressing. While some of your poems have been translated into English by Sinologists, their translations are nearly always intended for an academic readership. Instead, I approach your work as a queer femme and poet-translator of the diaspora.

I can almost hear you sighing with frustration as I explain that the poetry written by racialized writers of marginalized genders—that’s to say, cis and trans women, trans men, nonbinary folks, and anyone who is questioning—are triply underrepresented in English translation, simultaneously along the axes of language, race, and gender. Only roughly three percent of the books published in the United States each year are translations into English, a phenomenon that has been dubbed the “Three Percent Problem.”3 Furthermore, the vast majority of the works chosen for translation are written by white Europeans. And out of all the English translations of Sinophone poetry books published from 2008–2022, only twenty-six percent are written by women poets and twenty-six percent translated by women translators (based on data gathered by Publishers Weekly’s Translation Database, which unfortunately only records gender identity in a binary and incomplete way).4

***

When no one else shares my tune, what is the point of sighing?
     To meet a kindred spirit who cherishes the same songs, I’d willingly die.

Late on a Saturday night, the moon was once again shining brightly outside my window as I translated your poetry. I took a break to browse the web, and stumbled across a Facebook post about your work being featured in the British Museum’s “China’s Hidden Century” exhibition. Intrigued, I investigated further, and was shocked to discover images and videos that showed the exhibition was using my previously published translations of your poetry, including the complete text of “A River of Crimson: A Brief Stay in the Glorious Capital.” The museum had never contacted me for permission, yet had been using my translations prominently in multiple formats in their ticketed exhibition for over a month, without credit or compensation. I was utterly stunned.

Years ago, I began translating your poetry with the hopes that it could help your work reach a wider Anglophone audience, so you would have more zhīyīn. Now I was caught in a long, exhausting, and seemingly endless public battle to defend our words, both your poetry and my translations. To ensure that they were not displayed insensitively, with incorrect line breaks, or erased from the exhibition entirely, but treated with the respect they deserve as works of art. As the anniversary of your death came and passed on July 15, I couldn’t help but dwell on the fact that I was now the same age as you were when you courageously took a stand and died for your beliefs. I longed to bring a bouquet of chrysanthemums, your favorite flowers, to your gravesite by the West Lake. All I could do, however, was keep speaking out for both of us.

It took nearly two months before a settlement was finally reached. I had to fight against gaslighting and microaggressions, and even fundraise for legal fees. Eventually, your poetry and my translations were restored to the exhibition, this time with permission, reasonable pay, and proper credit. The long overdue resolution wouldn’t have been possible without the help of countless people and communities—racialized folks, fellow writers, editors, translators, readers, academics, museum professionals, asexual and aromantic organizers, and even members of the BTS Army—all of whom rallied to spread the word about the incident and supported us along the way. Articles about our work appeared not only in Anglophone news outlets, but also in Chinese (both Simplified and Traditional), Japanese, Indonesian, French, Italian, Spanish, and German, each an acknowledgement that we had been heard, at long last.

All these voices of encouragement are still with me now as I return to translating your poetry. As the melody of your words rises again from the pages of secondhand books graciously gifted by my friend, I feel as though I’m no longer chatting with someone whom I had just met, but rather a collaborator who I had fought many battles alongside. A long-lost zhīyīn, the one with whom I share the same songs. I hope that your spirit can rest more easily now and in the days to come. Although you might not have met many kindred spirits who truly understood you in your own lifetime, your poetry has now touched new readers in various corners of the world.


1. Yan Haiping, “Qiu Jin and Her Imaginary,” in Chinese Women Writers and the Feminist Imagination, 1905-1948 (London: Routledge, 2006), 33–36.

2. The photo, originally from Qiū Jǐn yánjīu zīliào: wénxiàn jí 秋瑾研究资料:文献 集 (Research Materials on Qiu Jin), eds. Guo Changhai 郭长海, Qiu Jingwu 秋经武, et al. (Yínchuān 银川: Níngxià rénmín chūbǎnshè 宁夏人民出版 社, 2007), is reprinted in Hu Ying, “Figure 3.06,” Burying Autumn (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2016), 151–2.

3. “About,” Three Percent, The University of Rochester, accessed July 30, 2023, http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/about/.

4.“Translation Database,” Publishers Weekly, accessed Oct 16, 2023, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/translation/home/index.html. Copyright (c) PWxyz LLC, Publishers Weekly. Used with permission.

To calculate the percentage of translated Chinese poetry books published from 2008–2022 that were originally written by women poets, I searched the database with the following search criteria: the publication years set as “2008–2022”, the source language as “Chinese,” the genre as “poetry,” and the author’s gender as “female.” This returned twenty-one entries. I then repeated the search with the same criteria, but with the author’s gender left unspecified, which returned a total of eighty-two entries. Dividing twenty-one by eighty-two gave me a number that rounds up to twenty-six percent. I then repeated a similar search process for the gender of translators and calculated the corresponding percentage for women translators.

Excerpted with permission from The Lantern and the Night Moths: Five Modern and Contemporary Chinese Poets, selected and translated by Yilin Wang (Invisible Publishing). 

English

Moonlight seeps into this tall pavilion.    
     The melancholy of longing, here and elsewhere.

The autumn moon is a common motif within Chinese poetry, shining often upon geographies of homesickness and longing. In your poem, “Púsāmán: To a Female Friend,” written over a hundred and twenty years ago, the moon casts its light on a different kind of yearning—the search for a zhīyīn 知音. Literally “the one who can truly understand your songs,” a zhīyīn is a close friend, a kindred spirit, a queerplatonic soulmate who shares your deepest ideals. If I had lived in the same era as you, amidst the tumultuous sociopolitical changes of the late Qīng dynasty, the backdrop against which your feminist views emerged, might we have crossed paths and even become each other’s zhīyīn?

But more than a century has passed since your death, and I live here in Vancouver, an ocean’s distance away from your final resting place by the West Lake in Hángzhōu. The only thing I can do is to glance up at the moon that we still share, bright and wistful as ever. As I read and savor the melody of your words, I wait alone in this room for your voice to rise from among the pages, slowly, to cross time and distance, until it’s as if we’re sitting side by side, meeting for the first time, chatting spiritedly late into the night.

***

To converse on matters lingering within one’s heart,     
     imparted on the floral letter-papers of Huànhuā Brook.

May I share the story of how I first encountered your work? I was searching for a new Chinese feminist poet to translate, in order to push back against the systemic, ongoing erasure of feminist writers within both Sinophone and Anglophone publishing, when a friend suggested, in a serendipitous yet perhaps also fated conversation, what about Qiu Jin’s poetry? Of course I was familiar with your name, well aware of your reputation as a Chinese feminist revolutionary. But I had no idea that you were also a poet, let alone that in the thirty-one years of your life, you left behind over two hundred poems, nearly all of which were only published posthumously.

Please translate Qiu Jin’s words, the friend urged. Over the years, she had lovingly acquired a number of edited collections of your poetry, which were out of print and especially difficult to find in North America. Generously she offered to pass them along to me. And soon, a thick package holding three of your books arrived at my door. I accepted the package gently, and felt the weight of your words in my hands.

***

To often abandon needlework for a love of rhyming dictionaries.
     To always strip off hair ornaments to pay for books.

What was it like for you as a young woman growing up near the end of the Qīng dynasty? You were privileged enough to be born into a literati-official’s family, able to access books that most girls could only dream of, yet still expected to write only about “feminine” topics, in the subtle and reserved styles befitting “proper etiquette.”

It’s clear from even your earliest poems, however, that you rebelled fiercely against the traditions of women’s poetry, in particular the “guīyuàn” 闺怨 genre, which the scholar Yan Haiping has eloquently translated as “boudoir sorrows.”1 The genre always features a female speaker, her voice full of melancholy, rendered passive by the dual “boudoir” of cloistered chambers and gender roles. Unable to visit a male lover or husband who is far away, she pines, endlessly, through day and night.

Did you realize, as I also did while reading classical guīyuàn poetry, that despite its supposed focus on women’s sorrows, it was actually popularized by many male poets of the Táng dynasty (including Li Bai 李白, Du Fu 杜甫, and others), who co-opted the female speaker’s struggles for their own purposes? Her pain about the lack of male attention became a mirror for the male author’s frustrations about the lack of imperial favor. Her bitterness about a man’s absence served as a way for him to offer thinly veiled critiques of wars in the borderlands.

Pushing against the fraught history and conventions of this genre and against a society where a woman’s life was often defined by her patrilineal ties and by heteronormative expectations of marriage, your poems reclaim the voice, body, and heartache of the woman in the boudoir. She transforms into a rebel. A free-spirited poet who casts aside needlework to flip through books. A daring heroine who travels far beyond the confines of her home to pursue her own ambitions. Repeatedly she expresses her longings on her own terms, not for romantic love, but for a zhīyīn.

***

Solemnly I gaze ahead—who is this before me?    
     The bones of a vigilante–hero from a past life, resentful of this body.

As you broke through and shattered the “boudoir sorrows” tradition, you turned instead to writing poems that evoke a long lineage of cross-dressing heroines from history, such as Hua Mulan, Mu Guiying, or Qin Liangyu. When I translated your poem “Inscription on My Tiny Portrait (in Men’s Clothes),” I found myself asking what it would be like to inhabit your body. The poem was inscribed on the back of a photo that showed you cross-dressing in a traditional gown commonly worn by men in the late Qīng dynasty. You posed sternly, unsmiling, as you stared straight into the camera.2

When you wrote this poem, how did it feel to carry the bones of a past self within you? When you expressed your resentment toward your body, were you describing what’s now commonly known as dysphoria? As you imagined your past and future selves meeting, did you find solace in the collapse of that binary and in the gender fluidity that emerged? As a genderqueer femme, I find strength in your poems about gender and cross-dressing, and I wish that I could join you in sweeping the world’s troubles away.

***

Sun and moon without light. Sky and earth in darkness.
     Who can lift up this drowning world of women?

More than a century after you died in a failed uprising against the Qīng government, your name now appears frequently in history books, and you are held up as a celebrated revolutionary. But when I ask other Sino diaspora poets, literary translators, and graduates from Chinese literature programs if they have read your poetry, whether in Chinese or in translation, the majority of them tell me that no, they have not. This answer comes as no surprise. Many literary history textbooks in China still gloss over your poetic contributions, especially the works touching on feminism, gender inequality, and cross-dressing. While some of your poems have been translated into English by Sinologists, their translations are nearly always intended for an academic readership. Instead, I approach your work as a queer femme and poet-translator of the diaspora.

I can almost hear you sighing with frustration as I explain that the poetry written by racialized writers of marginalized genders—that’s to say, cis and trans women, trans men, nonbinary folks, and anyone who is questioning—are triply underrepresented in English translation, simultaneously along the axes of language, race, and gender. Only roughly three percent of the books published in the United States each year are translations into English, a phenomenon that has been dubbed the “Three Percent Problem.”3 Furthermore, the vast majority of the works chosen for translation are written by white Europeans. And out of all the English translations of Sinophone poetry books published from 2008–2022, only twenty-six percent are written by women poets and twenty-six percent translated by women translators (based on data gathered by Publishers Weekly’s Translation Database, which unfortunately only records gender identity in a binary and incomplete way).4

***

When no one else shares my tune, what is the point of sighing?
     To meet a kindred spirit who cherishes the same songs, I’d willingly die.

Late on a Saturday night, the moon was once again shining brightly outside my window as I translated your poetry. I took a break to browse the web, and stumbled across a Facebook post about your work being featured in the British Museum’s “China’s Hidden Century” exhibition. Intrigued, I investigated further, and was shocked to discover images and videos that showed the exhibition was using my previously published translations of your poetry, including the complete text of “A River of Crimson: A Brief Stay in the Glorious Capital.” The museum had never contacted me for permission, yet had been using my translations prominently in multiple formats in their ticketed exhibition for over a month, without credit or compensation. I was utterly stunned.

Years ago, I began translating your poetry with the hopes that it could help your work reach a wider Anglophone audience, so you would have more zhīyīn. Now I was caught in a long, exhausting, and seemingly endless public battle to defend our words, both your poetry and my translations. To ensure that they were not displayed insensitively, with incorrect line breaks, or erased from the exhibition entirely, but treated with the respect they deserve as works of art. As the anniversary of your death came and passed on July 15, I couldn’t help but dwell on the fact that I was now the same age as you were when you courageously took a stand and died for your beliefs. I longed to bring a bouquet of chrysanthemums, your favorite flowers, to your gravesite by the West Lake. All I could do, however, was keep speaking out for both of us.

It took nearly two months before a settlement was finally reached. I had to fight against gaslighting and microaggressions, and even fundraise for legal fees. Eventually, your poetry and my translations were restored to the exhibition, this time with permission, reasonable pay, and proper credit. The long overdue resolution wouldn’t have been possible without the help of countless people and communities—racialized folks, fellow writers, editors, translators, readers, academics, museum professionals, asexual and aromantic organizers, and even members of the BTS Army—all of whom rallied to spread the word about the incident and supported us along the way. Articles about our work appeared not only in Anglophone news outlets, but also in Chinese (both Simplified and Traditional), Japanese, Indonesian, French, Italian, Spanish, and German, each an acknowledgement that we had been heard, at long last.

All these voices of encouragement are still with me now as I return to translating your poetry. As the melody of your words rises again from the pages of secondhand books graciously gifted by my friend, I feel as though I’m no longer chatting with someone whom I had just met, but rather a collaborator who I had fought many battles alongside. A long-lost zhīyīn, the one with whom I share the same songs. I hope that your spirit can rest more easily now and in the days to come. Although you might not have met many kindred spirits who truly understood you in your own lifetime, your poetry has now touched new readers in various corners of the world.


1. Yan Haiping, “Qiu Jin and Her Imaginary,” in Chinese Women Writers and the Feminist Imagination, 1905-1948 (London: Routledge, 2006), 33–36.

2. The photo, originally from Qiū Jǐn yánjīu zīliào: wénxiàn jí 秋瑾研究资料:文献 集 (Research Materials on Qiu Jin), eds. Guo Changhai 郭长海, Qiu Jingwu 秋经武, et al. (Yínchuān 银川: Níngxià rénmín chūbǎnshè 宁夏人民出版 社, 2007), is reprinted in Hu Ying, “Figure 3.06,” Burying Autumn (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2016), 151–2.

3. “About,” Three Percent, The University of Rochester, accessed July 30, 2023, http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/about/.

4.“Translation Database,” Publishers Weekly, accessed Oct 16, 2023, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/translation/home/index.html. Copyright (c) PWxyz LLC, Publishers Weekly. Used with permission.

To calculate the percentage of translated Chinese poetry books published from 2008–2022 that were originally written by women poets, I searched the database with the following search criteria: the publication years set as “2008–2022”, the source language as “Chinese,” the genre as “poetry,” and the author’s gender as “female.” This returned twenty-one entries. I then repeated the search with the same criteria, but with the author’s gender left unspecified, which returned a total of eighty-two entries. Dividing twenty-one by eighty-two gave me a number that rounds up to twenty-six percent. I then repeated a similar search process for the gender of translators and calculated the corresponding percentage for women translators.

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