A Visit to Chongzhen Temple and South Tower

The complete title is: A visit to Chongzhen Temple and South Tower, seeing the first postings and new positions. The unusually long title explains the frustration of a female poet denied the opportunity to take the imperial examination like her male compatriots.

The mountain peaks have clouds on every side, while my eyes are clear like spring,
Each and every graceful silver script is the start of something new.
How I hate this silken dress that covers up my poems,
As I raise my head to gaze at the middle of the names.

A visit to Chongzhen’s Temple, South Tower, seeing the first postings and new positions, Yu Xuanji, ca. 868


游崇真观南楼,睹新及第题名处, 魚玄機

Yúnfēng mǎnmù fàngchūn qíng,
Lìlì yíngōu zhǐ xià shēng.
Zìhèn luóyī yǎn shījù,
Jǔtóu kōng xiàn bǎng zhōng míng.

Yóu Chóngzhēn Guān Nánlóu, Yu Xuanji

Note. The Zhongnan Mountains, considered the birthplaces of Taoism, are ten miles south of Chang’an. Yu Xuanji was a female poet of the late Tang dynasty. After a brief marriage to a Chinese official, she became a courtesan and Daoist nun, noted for her poetry. She was executed by decapitation at the age of 28.

Jinshi, the Imperial Examination

At its height of glory, Chang’an was the most populous and civilized city in the world. To its city gates came scholars from all over China, to study and take the Jinshi, the Imperial Examination, that was the key to a civil service career. Like modern universities today, the names of those who passed the difficult examination was posted for all to see. On average, 30 men might pass, in some years, none.

Notes on Translation

Yu’s Chinese is obviously more succinct and poetic than my translation. The first line Yúnfēng mǎnmù fàngchūn qíng, combines the concepts of cloudy mountain peaks and eyes as clear as spring. Mǎnmù implies being closed in on all sides, which explains Yu’s feeling of being excluded from taking the jinshi. Yíngōu, second verse, refers to the silver script of the calligrapher identifying the successful candidates by name.

The last line — You’d understand too if you had taken an examination and seen the postings that did not include your name. One scans from top to bottom, and bottom to top, eyes resting in disappointment on the middle name. Zhōng míng, 中名, middle name, sounding like the Zhongnan mountains Yu looks to for consolation, but Dao like, seeing none, feeling everything.

Yúnfēng mǎnmù, the mountain peaks have clouds on every side

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