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

地上霜 Frost on the Ground



——李白 《静夜思》

Before my bed, moonlight on the ground,
Silver shines that I first thought to be frost.
My head lifts, as I gaze at the moon,
My head lowers, as I start missing home.

<Thoughts on a Silent Night> by LiBai

My own translation (unless otherwise noted). More details of the poem see here.

Today is April 23th, 2020, in Gregorian Calendar.

In lunar calendar, it is 庚子年 四月 初一, the 1st day of the Fourth Month, in the year of ‘Gēng zi’.

When was the last time that you saw a full moon?

By lunar calendar, full moons are always on the Fifteenth (“十五”) of the lunar month. Today, I am going to write about my latest meeting with the full moon two weeks ago.

Like most modern Chinese people, I do not pay attention very often to what day it is in Lunar calendar (except for near Lunar New Year). Therefore, I did not know it was a “十五” until I climbed in bed and turned off the light.

There it was. Soft silvery light that simmered through the curtain and spread on the ground in front of my bed. It looked just like frost.

If I have never heard of the poem 《静夜思》<Thoughts on a Silent Night>, this would have meant nothing. Believe me, however, that few Chinese would see this ‘frost on the ground’ without thinking of home.

“But surely”, you might wonder, “not all Chinese people have read this particular poem?” (Especially given that the poem was written in 726 AD — that is, 1300 years ago)

Indeed, 《静夜思》has transcended its original category of classical poetry into the realm of idiom and cultural imprint. This short twenty-character verse truly attest to the Chinese expression of “家喻户晓”, which means : “Known by all families and households.” This is a poem that walked out of the boundary of elite’s written books into the mouths and minds of generations of civilians. With its simple language (any preschool Chinese children today may understand and recite it by hearing) and straight-forward theme, 《静夜思》is the incontestable representative of the relationship between full moon and nostalgia in Chinese culture.

The moon, especially the full moon, is an omnipresent symbol for home, family and nostalgia in Chinese culture. To fully understand that, let us examine from the perspectives of Time and Space.


Recall the last two lines of 《静夜思》<Thoughts on a Silent Night>:

My head lifts, as I gaze at the moon,
My head lowers, as I start missing home. 

What crossed the poet’s mind as he lifts then lowers his head? No one can tell for sure except for Li Bai himself. However, I can share with you my thoughts as I looked through the curtain at the moon that night two weeks ago.

“Is my family watching this beautiful, bright moon right now?” — Nope, they are in a different time zone.

Obviously, those in 8th century Tang Dynasty were not aware of time difference. In the poem 《望月怀远》<Watching the Moon and Missing Afar> , the poet writes:


"As the moon rises on the sea, all places under the sky share this same moment."

–张九龄 Zhang JiuLing

‘All places under the sky’– all of one’s loved ones, no matter where they are.

Despite the fact that the Earth is round and time difference exists, the temporal universality of the full moon persists. One knows that his/her family could be watching the same full moon and missing them at the same time (or within a few hours), regardless of their separation in distance. This is as close to telepathy as it gets for those living in the 8th century without Zoom.

“The moon turns full again, it’s been a month since I last saw a full moon.”

Notice the recursion here? The last time I saw the full moon, I missed my family and wished to return, and here I am, a month later, still away from home with the same old nostalgia. As it waxes and wanes, the moon is a ruthless reminder of the passage of time.

Speaking of this, let us return briefly to the Lunar Calendar. As the name suggests, the Lunar Calendar is based on the phases of the moon. The new moon is always on the 1st (“初一”) and the full moon always on the 15th (“十五”). Looking at the shape of the moon, one can easily track the approximate date within a month in the Lunar Calendar.

Given the use the Lunar Calendar, it is not hard to understand the significance of the moon in traditional Chinese culture. The moon is an intrinsic chronological symbol and a foundation for most major festivals. For instance: (we will mention and elaborate on each of these festivals in later posts)

  • New Year (春节): 1st of the First Month (First new moon)
  • Lantern Festival (上元节): 15th of the First Month (First full moon)
  • Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节): 15th of the Eighth Month (the largest full moon)

To sum up, moon is a symbol of nostalgia/homesickness in Chinese culture for its significance as “the shared moment” and “the passage of time”.

Now you may ask: what is so special about the Full Moon? Why is the full moon more significant than other moon phases in the context of nostalgia?

For that, we move on to the perspective of…



“I ought not to hold a grudge against the moon,
but why is it always full when we part?"

— 苏轼 Su Shi

This is a quote from 《水调歌头 · 明月几时有》, <To the tune of Shuǐ Diào Gē Tóu>, arguably second most popular moon poetry ( right after <Thoughts on a Silent Night>).

The line sounds a bit out-of-no-where? Bear with me, there are quite a few stories to unpack here.

First, the poet seems to be blaming the moon: ‘Why do you turn full when I part with my family/friends?’ What’s so wrong about the moon turning Full?

In Chinese, a full moon is usually called in two ways : “满月” or “圆月”. As you may have guessed, “月” is the character for ‘moon’. In the first case, “满” as a character stands for the combined idea of ‘full’, ‘bountiful’, and ‘satisfying’. In the second case, “圆” as a character signifies the shape ’round’ at face value. However, in the context of “圆月” as the full moon, people often associate “圆” with the expression “团圆“, which refers to a full family reunion (think about round table dinner!). Going back to the quote, we can see that the character used here to describe full moon is “圆”. The picture below illustrates a common cultural image for the character in this context:

Family Reunion under Full Moon, picture from so.photophoto.cn for non-commercial use.

Thus, the full moon, with its spacial trait of perfect roundness and completeness, is a symbol of family reunion without any member missing.

In this quote, however, the full moon only bothers the poet by reminding him of his loneliness after parting with his family. The poet questions the moon as if believing the moon to be consciously mocking him with its fullness. Deeper down, one can almost hear the poet’s frustration at Fate: “Why set us apart when the moon indicates reunion month after month?”

Fortunately, the poet managed to resolve his ‘grudge’ towards the moon at the end of this poem, when he wrote:


"I only wish we live long, safe and sound,
Sharing the same moon, though miles apart."

This is the canonical example of the moon transcending spatial difference in Chinese literature. The poet eventually comes to terms with the inevitable partings in life, and finds consolation in the longevity and spatial universality of the moon.

Even today, with all the modern knowledge of celestial bodies I grew up with, this idea still struck me with awe from time to time. Whoever we are, wherever we are on Earth, are we not just men, looking at the same moon?

Closing Note

In this post, we looked at the relationship between moon and homesickness/nostalgia in Chinese poetry, especially the full moon as a symbol of family reunion. An ever-present element throughout our analysis is the idea of universality as the anchor of connection. As a prominent celestial body, the moon embodies both temporal and spatial universality — it is shared across distance as both a visual object and a calendarial indicator.

In ancient times, there were not even photographs, and communication by letters took months (if ever) to deliver. The moon — and poems about it — carry the unchanging care, love, and faith that connects men amid the uncertainties and unknowns.


Some of my personal thoughts on poetry & life experience based on 《静夜思》<Thoughts on a Silent Night>.

月上柳梢头 The Moon Rises above the Willow

Word of Caution: This post is a bit more personal than most of my other ones.

Just yesterday, I was telling a friend that I don’t often get nostalgic or sentimental.

–Well, if it wasn’t for the moon.

Koson, “Willow and the Moon,” from the book “Japanese Ghost Paintings: The Sanyutei Encho Collection at Zensho-an

In the past two weeks it’s been getting really warm here in California. Tonight, it feels like a typical summer night in May or June in Beijing. Out of coincidence, I discovered my old uniform t-shirt from my middle school. Upon invitation from the cool breeze outside, I went for a jog.

The air smells like baked grass seeds after a day of intense sunshine, I find this a universal “smell of summer”. Five years ago, it smelled just like this.

To be precise, the baked-grass smell plus the faint fragrance of roses around the playground in my middle school in Beijing. That was in May and June 2015, the two months before I left abroad, the two months when I voluntarily stayed at school for evening study sessions every day.

We would jog on the 400m track every evening during the 8:00–8:30pm study break. One time as we passed the south-west corner of the playground, I saw the full moon rise above the trees, floating beside the golden clock on the red brick teaching building. I remember, right there, right then, I thought of these lines:

去年元夜时 ,花市灯如昼。
Last year at the Lantern Festival,
On the flower fair, lanterns bright as day.

As the moon rises above the willow,
There we met in dusk’s faded glow.

— 欧阳修 《生查子》<To the Tune of Shēng Zhā Zǐ> , by OuYang Xiu

As mentioned in the post <Frost on the Ground>, the Lantern Festival is on the 15th of the first month in Lunar Calendar, or the first full moon of the year.

In ancient times, this is the only day when unmarried young people — women especially — are implicitly allowed to step out of their houses to join the celebration of releasing lanterns for good fortune (or attending a clandestine rendezvous under the full moon). If that is not enough deprivation of individual freedom, the young people back then had no say on their marriages and mostly end up marrying a total stranger chosen by their parents. Even without family feuds, most young couples would still find themselves in a Romeo & Juliette scenario and few ends up happily ever after.

I am very sorry, but there is a second half to this poem.

This year at the Lantern Festival,
The moon and lanterns remain here still.
Where we met last year, I stand alone;
My tears flood, my sleeves soaked.

— 欧阳修 《生查子》<To the Tune of Shēng Zhā Zǐ> , by OuYang Xiu

It is not full moon today. Here I stand on this grass field. I can smell baked-grass-seed, this smell of California spring/summer that you must have grown so familiar with. Here I stand under this starry night, under this sky that has watched you stand here alone in the past four years.

Men may sorrow, rejoice, part, reunion;
Moon may brighten, dim, wax, and wane;
Ever changing, never as planned.

— 苏轼 《水调歌头》<To the Tune of Shuǐ Diào Gē Tóu , by Su Shi

I suppose it is as it is.

Moon in Water by Unidentified Artist of 13th century (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art collections)
Flower in Mirror by Chen HongShou (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art collections)