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Lyrical Voices of Women in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century China – Yuemin He

The late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Chinese society and its changing socio-cultural attitudes towards women’s literacy and female public presence in print media created a hybrid dynamic site of bargaining for learned women, where new cultural opportunities met old challenges of gendered social performance expectations. This era marked a turning point for women appearing in public, both physically and textually, and women’s music received unprecedented attention from the wider public. Here are my selections of three translated lyrics chosen from song collections of the time.

 

 

A courtesan’s musical self-portraits

Learning to Sing and Dance by Ma Xianglan (late 16th century)[i]

Listen! the music that lingers around the rafters does not fade. Listen! Even this beautiful sound relaxes every muscle, every bone.

Ribbons float in the air, jade waist ornaments bob up and down, and crimson skirts swirl, light and dark, like the dew on the lotus flower.

The head should be wrapped in red brocade, dazzling the eyes of guests and capturing their hearts.

This piece showcases a scene of music entertainment. Music and dance are not merely subjects of lyrics – they are the symbols that signify courtesans’ identity as entertainers. The performance of the song is also a vivid reflection of the professional life of Ma within the space of the pleasure houses and salons.

Late imperial Chinese courtesans’ songs bear more social needs than mere self-expression and entertainment. Music was a significant part of the courtesans’ trade, writing and performing music is also a method of favour-exchanging. Courtesans’ arias, if not written specifically as a token or gift for exchange, also functioned as a vehicle for constructing a scene of seduction and self-performance. Through the mediums of art, music and advanced literacy, these professional women could navigate the power relations of gender to emerge into the world of male elites and overcome the boundaries between private and public spheres.

 

Song from a rebel’s daughter

Romantic Song on Lantern Festival by Li Cuiwei (late 17th century)[ii]

The lanterns are bright as day, The crowds like ants, Have come to celebrate the Lantern Festival.

While lanterns paint sky and earth, The music of the crowd resounds. What is this special day?

Our meeting is curious; We speak in whispers, And quiet laughter.

Though we linger in the shadows, My face must not give me away.

I die for love of you, Whose beauty would bring down a city.

After an age of longing, Our hearts soar together today.

From a present-day reader’s perspective, hardly anyone would relate such lyrics that are brimming with festive spirit and a cheerful disposition to an imperial crisis. The song depicts a scene of rendezvous of two lovers meeting secretly while scared of incurring other people’s disapproval. The father of this piece’s author was the leader of the peasant rebellion force who headed the revolution that brought the Ming Empire to its knee, and is seen to be the catalyst leading to the eventual collapse of the dynasty in 1644. The female figure portrayed in the lyrics is open to the readers’ interpretation – she could be the author, or an imaginative lyrical embodiment of herself. With the dynastic change around the corner, Li Cuiwei’s whereabouts was not clearly documented in later historical writing. Hence, this piece could be her swan song.

A gentlewoman’s daily disposition

Ode to Weaving Girl by Shen Huiduan (late 17th century)[iii]

Sitting in front of the loom, the hard-working maid weaving a brocade.

She stops weaving and picks up her needle, she sows and embroiders the curtain. Busy as a silkworm, she swiftly reels off raw silk from cocoons.

like wasps buzzing among willow catkins floating in the air, the draft of her rapid movement cools her sweat-soaked clothes.

(my good sister) How busy! Compared to my half-day of playing on the swing, until I see the circle of haze surrounding the moon.

Written in a playful manner, this piece is ingenuously presented in the lyrical style of an ‘ode on objects’ – a challenging yet much-favoured form by the contemporary Chinese literati. The song itself not only reveals the author’s identity and social standings, but also reflects Ming lives and gives the reader a glimpse into Ming gentlewomen’s daily pleasures.

In the first half of the song, the ‘weaving girl’ is portrayed through the woman’s actions of weaving and the sound of the spinning machines. The second half of the song, in which it musically modulates to the tune ‘My Good Sister’, is also matched with a change in its lyrical tone into a banter that narrates gentlewomanly leisure. By making such a twist, the leisure life of the author herself enhances the liveliness of portraying the ‘object’ of the song and makes a sharp contrast between herself and the hardworking weaving maid. For gentlewomen such as Shen Huiduan, who was socio-culturally excluded from ‘worldly affairs’ preserved for men and inhabits the opposite moral world of dazzling pleasure salons of courtesans, songwriting is a medium that channels her daily sentiment and observation of domestic surroundings.

Whether the lyrics translated above were written in a biographical nature or as a musical/textual embodiment, it leads us to the fact that women did pick up their brushes and pour their feelings and creativities into songwriting, no matter how rigid the conduct codes the Neo-Confucian literati imposed on women in dabbling to the field of song and musical drama composition. This historically disenfranchised group of female songwriters consists of women from all walks of life – apart from a rebel’s daughter, we see courtesan who mastered such art as their bargaining chip, and gentlewomen whose lyrics get us a glimpse of the nonchalant upper-class lifestyles. Despite the absence of female-composed music extant in the form of notated sources, the presence of women’s lyrical voices provides a glance into the realities of historical, gendered, and musical late imperial China.

Images of Lady Gan Qing and the Ling page are taken from wikicommons.

Further Reading

Yuemin He, ‘Materiality, editorship and canonisation in Wang Duanshu’s Collection of Elegance (1667)’, in Mathias, R. (Ed.). (2021). The Routledge Handbook of Women’s Work in Music (1st ed.). Routledge. pp.377-387. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429201080-38

Biography

Yuemin He is a music historian of early modern China. She specialises in the history of music print culture, gender and music fashioning of performance-related texts. Her doctorate thesis (Newcastle, 2020) centres on a cultural materialist reading of the Chinese seventeenth-century female authored, edited, and published songbook Collection of Elegance (1667). Alongside being an independent researcher, Yuemin is now a K-12 music teacher by profession and currently works in Beijing.

[i] Hu Wenhuan ed. Qunyin lei xuan (Selection of Numerous Sounds), vol. 18, late Ming printed edition, digitalised facsimile, seq. 35.

[ii] Wang Duanshu ed., ‘Ya ji’ (Collection of Elegance), digitalised facsimile in Ming yuan shi wei chu bian (Classical Poetry of Notable Women) Qing yin tang (Clear Sound Hall) 1667, Ming-Qing Women’s Writing Database, at https://digital.library.mcgill.ca/mingqing/english/index.php. 38.7a, 38.7b.

[iii] Shen Zijin ed. Nan ci xin pu (A New Formulary of Southern Aria, c. 1659), facsimile in Wang Qiugui ed., Shanben xiqu congkan (Collections of Rare Editions of Opera and Songs), series 3, 670.