Women and the Moon: Isolation, sorrow, and longing from the Palace to the Boudoir

A beauty like the moon, when concealed behind clouds at dusk,
becomes more beautiful still.

《三部乐·美人如月》宋·苏轼 Su Shi [Song Dynasty]

Flowering Plum in Moonlight and Snow by Liu Shiru (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art collections)

For thousands of years humans have been fascinated by the moon, by its brightness and shade, by the way it waxes and wanes, and the way moonlight casts soft shadows in its wake. Although in recent years scientific discoveries and space exploration has demystified much of the satellite’s mystique, it is undeniable that the moon has been an object of literary and artistic intrigue for much of human history. As a literary symbol, the moon is often associated with femininity, serving as a manichean opposite to the masculine brilliance of the sun. Indeed the Western canon contains no shortage of works comparing beautiful women to the moon, or sketching their silhouettes against the romantic glow of a moonlit night. The feminine moon symbolises the emotional, often the tragic. It accompanies Queen Dido as she walks in the underworld, it chases Thisbe as she evades the lioness. Such associations are also present in classical Chinese poetry, in which the moon often accompanies women, and evokes isolation, desolation, longing, and sorrow. 

As in the West, some of the most famous literary instances of the moon were penned by men about male subjects. Nevertheless the symbol appears also in many stories about women — classical Chinese poetry is not short of its own slender silhouettes set against the moon. Some of these works were even written by women poets, who tell stories of shared feminine plights through (semi)autobiographical writing. Much like how Sappho and Dickinson wrote about “her silver face” (or “her perfect face”), women poets of ancient China seemed keenly aware of their implicit connection with the feminine celestial body. 

The following sections tell the stories of the Chinese moon goddess, imperial court ladies, and the most notable poetess in Chinese literary history. The world has changed much since the times in which these poets lived, yet through their lines perhaps we may be able to feel what they felt when looking at the moon in all its eternal ephemerality.

The Woman on the Moon 

The Moon Goddess Chang E by Unidentified Artist (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art collections)

The tale of Chang E (嫦娥), the Chinese goddess of the moon, is quite different to the Greek Artemis or the Roman Diana. Beyond more superficial features like Change E being associated with the rabbit rather than deer, the Chinese goddess is far less powerful and autonomous than her Western counterparts. In Greco-Roman mythology, the moon goddess is associated with the hunt and chastity, and drawing her wrath like Actaeon did might result in being turned into a stag and a gruesome death. Chang E on the other hand, did not have such powers.

Chang E should regret stealing that elixir,
Jade-green seas and bright blue skies, she laments night upon night.

《嫦娥》唐·李商隐 Li Shangyin [Tang Dynasty]

In one common version of the legend, Chang E was the wife of Houyi, the heroic archer who shot down the nine extra suns that appeared in the sky, causing strife for the people. For his good deed the hero was awarded the elixir of immortality, which he chose not to consume. Some versions of the story suggest Change E drank the elixir out of greed, others out of necessity when Houyi’s apprentice attempted to steal the potion. In nearly all iterations of the story, however, the poor woman is unexpectedly lifted from the mortal world and consigned to the chambers of the Guanghan Palace (广寒宫) on the moon for all eternity. This is likely why the poet Li Shangyin speaks of the goddess’ “regret” — she may have reaped the benefits of immortality, but she is also forever separated from her husband, and may only look longingly at earthly pleasures from her isolated palace. Though this poem possibly contains the most renowned lines about the goddess, many critics argue that Li Shangyin is employing the plight of the goddess allegorically, and is rather lamenting his own destitute. The expression of negative emotions by male poets through a female poetic persona is not uncommon in Chinese poetry. So much so that entire academic volumes have been written about this very practice. 

Beyond these lines by Li Shangyin, both Chang E and her palace are often evoked in poetry to express emotions of regret and loneliness. Indeed, for the family oriented Chinese, Chang E’s moon palace, no matter how beautiful and eternal, could not compare to the company of loved ones and the warmth of the mortal world.

In those lofty palaces, which year is it tonight?
To there I want to return, drifting in the wind,
Yet I fear those crystal towers and jade arcades,
Are too high and frosty.
How shall dancing with my clear shadow, alone,
Mimic mortal joys?

《水调歌头·明月几时有》宋·苏轼 Su Shi [Song Dynasty]

The Moon Beyond the Walls

Certainly, Chang E was not the only woman longing for the mortal joys beyond the walls of her palace. Since the practice of concubinage is common in every imperial Chinese dynasty, thousands of women were trapped inside the imperial palaces, with their sole purpose being to serve the emperor. Yet many of these women did not even have the chance to meet the emperor, let alone indulge in his affection.  From this loneliness and disappointment the genre of the “palace lament” (宫怨) poems, which focussed on the lives and longings of palace women, were born. Since the moon symbolises both reunion with family, which was a near impossible luxury for palace women, and loneliness, it was a common image in these poems. 

As jade stairs breeds white dew,
The long night soaks silk hose.
Setting the crystal blinds,
Gazing the autumn moon.

《玉阶怨》唐·李白 Li Bai [Tang Dynasty]

In this famous palace lament, some would say the most famous, Li Bai tells a story through images and mood, rather than explicit diegesis. Due to the customary absence of pronouns, not even the subject is defined, so one can only assume that this verse is about a palace woman from the symbol of “jade stairs”, often a synecdoche for an imperial palace. There is no indication of time either, except the implicit suggestion that enough time has passed for the dew to soak the woman’s silk hosiery. The melancholic mood is thus equally subtle, as it can only be derived from the woman’s enduring insomnia and the symbol of the moon. Perhaps the moon, hanging far beyond the confines of the palace walls, reminds the woman of her long lost family, or the life she could have had. 

Spring Morning at the Palace of the Han Emperors by Unidentified Artist (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art collections)

Although Li Bai was a man, the tradition of the palace lament was, according to some sources, started by a woman — Ban Jieyu (班婕妤), or Lady Ban of the Han dynasty. Hailing from a family of scholar-officials, Lady Ban was well educated and, upon entering the imperial palace, courted the affection of Han emperor Cheng. Her good fortunes ended when the emperor turned his passion towards the Zhao sisters, who plotted against her, resulting in her self-banishment to take care of the emperor’s aging mother. In her most famous work, the “Rhapsody of Self-Commiseration” (《自悼赋》), she laments that “dust has covered once ornate halls and moss now masks the jade stairs” (华殿尘兮玉阶菭), coining the jade stairs symbol employed later by Li Bai and many others. For Lady Ban and many other women trapped in the imperial palace, living without the emperor’s love was a deeply agonising experience.

Fashioned into a fan of “coupled bliss”,
Round like the bright, rounded moon.

《怨歌行》汉·班婕妤 Ban Jieyu [Han Dynasty]

Unsurprisingly, Lady Ban also employed the moon as a symbol in describing her abandonment and resultant resentment. In her other famous work, the “Song of Resentment” (《怨歌行》), she compares herself to a round fan, which, though much beloved by its owner in the summer, is abandoned by autumn. In this case the roundness of the fan, much like the roundness of the moon, symbolises togetherness and joy. Thus the symbol is employed ironically, that is to say, no matter how round the fan or moon may be, joy eludes those palace ladies abandoned by the emperor. 

It may seem slightly paradoxical that a symbol as traditionally auspicious as the moon is employed so readily in poems describing anguish and disillusionment. Yet it is this very paradox that heightens emotional and dramatic tension in creative expressions — a rose on Juliet’s balcony in the second act may symbolise innocent love and euphoria, a rose on the young lovers’ grave in the final scene would signify the opposite. The moon in Chinese poetry is much like the rose in this example, it serves as a magnifying glass, enhancing whatever emotion that dominates the context.

Epilogue: Clair de Lune

Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d'extase les jets d'eau,
Les grands jets d'eau sveltes parmi les marbres.

With the sad and beautiful moonlight,
Which sets the birds in the trees dreaming,
And makes the fountains sob with ecstasy,
The slender water streams among the marble statues.

“Clair de lune (Moonlight)” by Paul Verlaine,
translated by Norman R. Shapiro

Sometimes the symbolic power of the moon can be evoked without any explicit references to its form. Clair de lune, with its silvery sheen and romantic softness, often conjures a subtly melancholic mood with a dreamy texture.

Who sends a gilded letter, through clouds, hither?
When those wild geese remigrate,
And the moonlight floods the west chamber.

《一剪梅·红藕香残玉簟秋》宋·李清照 Li Qingzhao [Song Dynasty]

In describing her longing for her travelling husband, the poet Li Qingzhao sketches an image of a moon-filled chamber, perhaps her boudoir, still and silent as time passes and migrating wild geese return home. The image is no doubt emotionally charged, as it is clear the persona is yearning for a word from her husband, but receiving none. Such delicate emotions are to translate, as it is impossible to convey the significance of all the rich symbols — clouds, gilded letters, migratory geese, the moon, and the west chamber, without losing the concision and linguistic elegance of the original. Fortunately, the human brain is capable of understanding art through various, at times synesthetic means. As such, maybe the best “translation” of the feeling evoked by “the moonlight floods the west chamber” is Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”.

Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy, played by Martin Jones

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