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Book Review: Yin Mountain: The Immortal Poetry of Three Daoist Women

More than a thousand years before American poet Mary Oliver enveloped us in the sensuality of “Wild Geese,” the priestess poets—likened to demigoddesses—of China flew with their own untamed geese, their visceral words of yesteryear transporting us into their minds, wants, desires, and pains. Their words also remind us that humans are still humans, regardless of time and culture, as their ancient words remain as relevant today as anything written this morning.

On 13 December 2022, Shambhala Publications released Yin Mountain: The Immortal Poetry of Three Daoist Women, translated by Rebecca Nie and Peter Levitt.

From goodreads.com

Yin Mountain offers translations of three female Daoist poets from the Tang dynasty, a period often hailed as the “golden age” of classical Chinese poetry. While names like Du Fu, Li Bo (Li Bai), Wang Wei, and Hanshan are familiar in translated poetry from this era, the contributions of female poets, particularly those deeply rooted in Daoist principles, remain largely unexplored. The poetry of Li Ye, Xue Tao, and Yu Xuanji, influenced by Daoism, naturalism, mysticism, love, and everyday life experiences, weaves plain yet poignant language with vivid imagery. Their work reflects devotion to Daoist spiritual practices and draws on myths, legends, and goddess culture prevalent in Tang China. 

This book, with the words of these poets dancing so elegantly across time—their actual words and thoughts written down 1,300 years ago—also highlights the unique societal challenges faced by these women, juxtaposing their recognized talent within the constraints of a male-dominated society. During the Tang dynasty, there were shifts in societal norms and gender roles. While some Daoist priestesses enjoyed significant freedoms and celebrated femininity, many women faced many restrictions. Through their verse, these poets express courageous independence, addressing themes ranging from spirituality and nature to personal emotions and societal limitations, resonating with modern readers despite the temporal and cultural distance.

Rebecca Nie and Peter Levitt do more than merely introduce us to these three poets, they breathe life back into them, allowing them to speak to us in the anglophone West for the first time.

Briefly, the poets in question are:

Li Ye (c. 732–84 CE), who was a gifted Daoist priestess and poet from Zhejiang Province. Recognized for her talent at a young age, she became known for her calligraphy, poetry, and music as an adult. Emperor Dezong honored her by inviting her to teach the royals, but tragedy struck when she was captured during a rebellion and forced to write propaganda. Despite her execution, Li Ye’s legacy has endured through her poetry.

Xue Tao (c. 770–832 CE) was a celebrated poet of the Tang dynasty, with her courtesan-poet archetype fascinating Confucian men of the time and later. Raised in Chengdu, she demonstrated exceptional poetic talent from a young age. Her entry into the courtesan caste remains unclear, but she achieved fame and financial success, entertaining wealthy patrons and having romantic involvements with influential figures. In her later years, Xue Tao retired to her country home, dedicating herself to art and spirituality.

Yu Xuanji (843–68 CE) led a remarkable yet tragically brief life. Married to Li Zi’an, she navigated the complexities of their relationship and societal expectations. A forced (but probably welcomed) separation led her to become a Daoist priestess, where her freedom and poetic talent captivated literary circles. Accused of murder, Yu Xuanji faced (a controversial) trial and subsequent defamation. Her legacy endures, inspiring literature, films, and music.

Early Tang dynasty Daoism embraced alchemy, mysticism, and rituals, some with erotic elements, drawing from a rich goddess mythology. The Western Queen Mother, a central figure, bestowed elixirs and taught transcendental practices. Princess Yao, a beloved goddess, symbolized erotic passion and affairs. Tang Daoism featured other goddesses, such as Moon Goddess Chang-eh, Star Goddess Weaver Maiden, and Sun Goddess Xi He. Ordinary people could connect with these deities through serendipity or Daoist practices such as qigong, fasting, meditation, and the use of alchemical elixirs. Mortal women, such as Princess Nongyu, could attain goddess status through dedicated Daoist practice.

Sadly, the feminine expression of the Dao was quashed by shifts in the religious and social landscape, and much of the original Dao was repressed.

Poems dance with words. They sing. They are movements that speak, words that transcend language. There are many people today who do not appreciate poetry, forgetting that a well-crafted song or rap requires as much linguistic skill as any poem penned by Chaucer. One word can play beyond one meaning. As such, a few words can instantly transport us emotionally, temporally, and geographically.

It is for this reason that nuances are often lost in translation, particularly in poetry, and even more so with such linguistic differences as between English and Chinese—especially Chinese from over a millennium ago. 

Each sound in the Chinese language imparts its own meaning, so there is a tremendous amount of layerage to very few words. This is something the translators of these poems have not only respected but diligently crafted into and with the English words. They fully admit to some liberties when describing their process, but they were absolutely correct in this approach, because poetry is also about how you feel, not only how the poem is formed. I read these poems and I certainly felt them.   

But then, we were in safe hands with our translators, for whom this project was a labor of love. Peter Levitt, an acclaimed poet, translator, and author, received the Lannan Foundation Award in Poetry, and is the guiding teacher of the Salt Spring Zen Circle in British Columbia. Rebecca Nie, a Chinese American Zen master, artist, and scholar, who serves as the Buddhist Chaplain-Affiliate at Stanford University and founder of the Mahavajra Seon Sanctuary, began writing Chinese poetry at nine, studied the Song of Chu at 10, and by 15 had memorized key passages from the Dao De Jing and the Zhuangzi. She continued her education in classical Chinese literature and Eastern spirituality while studying English in Canada and the United States, graduating with honors from the University of Toronto and Stanford University.

The book, as elegant as the poetry itself, adheres to a natural format, introducing each poet with informative yet friendly explanations, and expanded notes at the end of the book. The poems are presented in both English and Chinese, and categorize their contributions into themes such as sensuality, relationships, and correspondences. There is, however, one exception with a poet who shares the unique challenges faced by women in ancient China. These introductions not only detail any technicalities or liberties the translators may have faced and offer insights into the poet’s likely intentions, but also act as portals into the cultural and historical backdrop, enriching our comprehension and providing essential reference points for the ensuing poems.

I am with all those whose reviews appear in the first few pages of the book. It is beautiful, insightful, transporting, and poignant. Wise and lamenting. They were real women with real lives, not merely words on a page, and the book is as much a porthole through which their sentiments could be ours today. We are reminded of the humanity of our past not as an academic history lesson, but as a shared experience of being human.

Thank you Rebecca and Peter. 

References

Nie, Rebecca and Peter Levitt (trans). 2022. Yin Mountain: The Immortal Poetry of Three Daoist Women. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications.

See more

Peter Levitt And Rebecca Nie | Yin Mountain (Shambhala Publications)

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