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     Volume 4 Issue 23 | December 3, 2004 |

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Book Review

Too beautiful to live

Zoë Green

You might think she was unlucky; others might think it was Yu Xuanji's fate to be orphaned so young, to be sold as a concubine to a man who would later betray her, to spend her latter days as a courtesan and die at 26 on the executioner's block. That her story is fascinating is undeniable and Justin Hill's narrative brings the tale of China's most famous female poet vividly to life.

Yu is born to a soldier and his concubine in the 9th century in the twilight years of the Tang dynasty. Her father is lost in the marshlands and her mother, crippled by poverty, sells her only daughter into marriage at six. Unable to deal with the guilt, her mother commits suicide and her daughter's new inlaws are forced to sell Yu on to avoid shame.

She is adopted by a kindly but childless scholar and his wife and, for a while, all is well. Her name is changed from Little Hope to Little Joy and her emerging beauty is the talk of all the town. Unfortunately, her beauty and her wilfulness are ultimately her downfall.

She catches the eye of an eminent minister, Li, who buys her as his concubine. Again, for a short while, all is well; they find themselves in love and he treats her better than he might a wife. Together, they have poetry battles and he finds her natural gift with poetry endearing, if occasionally embarrassing in company. However, when they visit Li's mother, Yu finds herself near Li's official wife and things begin to go awry.

It becomes a bitter tale of suspicion, jealousy and petty revenge. Yu makes the unprecedented move of attempting to divorce her husband but is shut up in a Taoist monastery; she flees and seduces a renowned poet and friend of her husband. Her exploits grow increasingly wild and her fame as a poet increasingly touted. She is an exceptional woman in exceptional times but, despite the freedoms that women briefly enjoyed, nothing can save her from the law when she is found guilty of murder.

Intriguing though Yu's story is, this is also the story of minister Li, who proves to be an equally mysterious and unusual man for his day. Hill's narrative leaves the impression that theirs is a love story gone terribly wrong and, as in real life, nobody ever understands why.

Despite the remoteness of the material, Hill manages to give a contemporary feel to the text and his translations of Yu's poems, which were preserved for their curiosity value, have a freshness that belies their age.

Justin Hill has a keen eye for detail and both when describing the humble and the elevated, his language, like Yu's, is elegantly understated and refreshing. A former voluntary aid worker in China and Eritrea, his knowledge of Chinese history, tradition and etiquette is intricate without becoming tedious and the novel is extraordinarily well crafted.

This article was first published in the Guardian


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