The sanitization of a sensual Chinese poem

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From Michael Pratt, a former professor of Spanish, who relocated to Shenzhen to learn more about Chinese poetry, which was his chief motivation for moving to China:

At times, when I discuss Tang shi ("Tang poetry") with Chinese acquaintances, I am struck by their seeming dogmatism about the range of possible interpretations. For example, in a recent conversation about the poem “Jīnlǚ yī 金缕衣” ("The Robe of Golden Thread"), traditionally attributed to Dù Qiūniáng 杜秋娘 ("Autumn Maid Du")*, my Chinese interlocutor was adamant that the speaker’s insistence on the importance of plucking blossoms during one’s qīngshàonián 少年时 ("youth") was entirely high-minded — i.e., that it was a vulgar mistake for me even to suggest that sex or love might number among the pleasures symbolized by those enticing but ephemeral blossoms.

[*VHM: article in Mandarin; in Literary Sinitic; in Norsk bokmål]

Here's the poem:

quàn jūn mò xī jīnlǚ yī,
quàn jūn xī qǔ shàonián shí;
huā kāi kān zhé zhí xū zhé,
mò dài wú huā kōng zhé zhī.


I urge you, milord, not to cherish your robe of golden thread,
Rather, milord, I urge you to cherish the time of your youth;
When the flower is open and pluckable, you simply must pluck it,
Don't wait till there are no flowers, vainly to break branches.
(tr. by VHM)

Michael continues:

While I am aware that Chinese poetry values suggestion over direct statement, I am puzzled by my interlocutor’s insistence that a Chinese poet would never stoop to the vulgarity she imputed to my interpretation. Personally, I don’t find Horace or Ronsard or Waller vulgar at all (though I can understand why a gun-shy high-school teacher might blanch at explaining the line about the lady’s “quaint honor” in Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” to a pack of unruly teenagers). Still, can I truly be completely wrong in assuming that love is one of the pleasures the speaker is urging the young man (“quàn jūn 劝君…”) to enjoy? Is this Tang poem really so far removed from its counterparts in the Western tradition, or — alternately — have my Chinese friends been misled by timorous and narrow-minded pedagogues? What am I missing here?

What do Language Log readers think?  Is Michael's interlocutor being prudish?  Is Michael misinterpreting the poem when he thinks that it has to do with erotic attraction?  I know where I stand on how to read Autumn Maid Du's evocative verse.


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 2:31 am

    Reading in translation, the similarity between "pluckable" / "pluck it" and two similar-sounding words/phrases commencing with "f" would tend to lead the English-speaking reader to believe something very earthly was intended. However, my Chinese is not sufficiently good to know whether there is any analogous play on words in the Chinese original. But even if there is not, my understanding is that during the Tang era the sensual pleasures of the body were widely appreciated — Francoeur and Noonanso (2004) write "In China, erotic painting and erotic fiction occurred over 1000 years ago, in the Tang dynasty. The official prohibition of erotic art and literature started as early as about 800 years ago, in the Yuan dynasty", so I would tend to go along with Michael Pratt's interpretation. As to why his interlocutor/informant dismissed these ideas as highly improbably, I do not feel in a position to judge.

  2. stephenl said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 3:27 am

    I asked this before in a comment, but there was no reply, but this is possibly a more appropriate thread in which to re-enquire. I assume the seemingly accepted etymology of 心 (that it comes from a "stylized heart" according to wikipedia) is a result of sexual taboo?心心#Glyph_origin

  3. David Morris said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 4:45 am

    Sometimes a pluckable flower is just a pluckable flower . . .!

  4. Claire Zhao said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 6:48 am

    Personally, I think the poem's main purpose is to urge youth to cherish the time and to enjoy life. Actually, the meaning of it is ambiguous and vague. So it will lose its charm if we connect it to some specific targets. After all, Chinese is a veiled language and it always carries more than one meaning. Sometimes, less is more.

  5. RebeccaX4 said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 7:12 am

    I have learned this poem from my teacher and other people's interpretation that young peopel shoule value time instead of money and power which are disgusted by the high-minded poet. Most Chinese students completely accept their teacher's interpretation of the poem that they don't want to fail in the exam because of the 'different' ideas.
    However, 'One thousand reders,there are one thousand Hamlet.' and let the good ideas light up this drad world.

  6. Michael Pratt said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 7:22 am

    I agree that this poem (like so many Chinese poems) emphasizes suggestion over bald statement. But several of my Chinese interlocutors have told me, in no uncertain terms, that it is simply WRONG to assume that sexual pleasure can be among the delights proper to youth (the 少年时 shào nián shí mentioned in line two). I have a hard time believing that this iis really the case. However, I am eager to be educated!

  7. Bloix said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 10:28 am

    Does the Chinese state the imperative as strongly as the English (you MUST pluck it)? If there is no sexual innuendo intended, why the emphasis on taking the flower? Why not just see the flower, smell the flower?

  8. Ian Myles Slater said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 10:30 am

    I won't attempt to judge what a Tang poet may have been trying to say in a language I certainly don't know. But Michael Pratt's initial understanding seems to me almost inescapable — if not therefore necessarily correct — for anyone familiar with Western poetry on the "carpe diem" theme.

    The first thing that came to *my* mind while reading this was the seventeenth-century poet Robert Herrick's "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may," the opening line of his "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time."

    It turns out that there is a fairly decent Wikipedia article on the poem (under the title; and containing the complete text), pointing out its relationship to other works, including the closing lines of the (pseudo-)Virgilian "De rosis nascentibus," which I don't recall ever seeing mentioned elsewhere. (Wikipedia includes a link to the Latin — not, as implied in the note, German — text, at BIBLIOTHECA AUGUSTANA.)

    The connection I would have drawn (if asked) would have gone back, through intermediaries, to the medieval French allegorical poem, "Romance of the Rose," in which the sexual implications of the flower are, I would think, unavoidable. Of course, this association may only reflect my reading of the (possibly) Chaucerian translation of part of the poem, and, probably more decisively, the chapter devoted to it in C.S. Lewis' "Allegory of Love."

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 10:52 am


    Thoughtful analysis and good questions.

    The relevant Chinese words are: zhí xū 直須 ("simply must").

  10. Claire Zhao said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 11:30 am

    直须 means “Don't hesitate. Just do it if you want to."
    It's a kind of exhortation. You don't HAVE TO do it, but it will be GOOD FOR YOU if you do.

  11. Michael Pratt said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 12:17 pm

    @Ian Myles Slater:

    The Herrick analogy occurred to me, too. Herrick's tone is decorous enough, but he's squarely in the carpe diem tradition.

    Does anyone have any idea why my Chinese friends are so adamant that it is simply wrong to read any erotic dimension into the poem?

  12. Taymara Montague said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 12:21 pm

    Having just discovered that the author of the poem was a concubine to the poem's primary character Li Ch'i, the then military commissioner to Chen-hai, the "better to pluck it than tug it" vibe I read into the last line seems entirely reasonable.


  13. hector said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 2:16 pm

    "Does anyone have any idea why my Chinese friends are so adamant that it is simply wrong to read any erotic dimension into the poem?"

    — Culture. Upbringing. In the nineteenth century, Victorians thought Dante's "Inferno" horrid, and much preferred the later volumes. In the second half of the twentieth century, the Inferno became far more popular than Purgatorio and Paradiso.

    On a more particular note, Victorians thought Dante lacked a sense of humour, an opinion this twentieth-century reader finds nigh-on unfathomable. It's a bit like "The Emperor Has No Clothes"; upbringing causes people to not see (or feign to not see) what is obviously there.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 2:18 pm

    From a Chinese professor of poetry and esthetics:

    I don't see anything sensual or even covertly erotic in this poem at all. I don't feel that the interlocutor in question is prudish.

    I think that the academic reader simply doesn't understand Chinese, still less classical Chinese poetry. He may develop a better appreciation of classical Chinese poetry if he continues to learn Chinese in the context of Chinese culture and literature. I wish him good luck.

  15. Alex Price said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 2:50 pm

    I don’t read Chinese, but based on the English translation provided above I read this poem as a simple injunction to “cherish the time of your youth,” and I don’t see that it carries any specific erotic intention. The poem is addressed to a youth (“milord”), and “the flower that is open and pluckable” as well as the branches he may “vainly break” seem to me metaphors for different stages in the young man’s life; the flower is the youth’s own flower, the flower of his youth, as we might say in English.

    I agree that the poem’s message is similar to Horace’s in his carpe diem ode, but Horace addresses his ode to a woman, Leuconoe, who has generally been understood to be Horace’s lover or a prostitute. Otherwise, nothing in Horace’s ode suggests an erotic intention. Life is short, times flies faster than we realize, this is Horace’s theme. But that he addresses these words to a woman, possibly his lover encourages us to link them to the enormous body of poetry in Western literature in which lovers explicitly urge a women (or women) to go to bed with them because time is passing, tomorrow we’ll be old or dead, etc. Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress and the Herrick poem mentioned above are prime examples. We have been trained by these poems to link the carpe diem theme to sexual desire, but that connection is obviously not a necessary one, and perhaps it isn’t made in Chinese poetry to the degree it is in Western poetry. In any case, Marvell’s and Herrick’s poems seem to me quite different from the Chinese one in question here.

  16. boynamedsue said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 5:26 pm

    I don't speak any Chinese and so am going only from the English version, and I suspect am therefore misled.

    Reading it in English there does seem to be a sexual subtext due to the juxtaposition and repetition of the root "pluck" (which….rhymes) alongside "flower" and "open". In several English dialects "flower" means vagina and in Spanish and Italian there is a tendency to associate the verb "to open" with female sexual arousal, so I can kind of see why an anglophone Spanish professor would find those allusions in the text.

    However, if those connotations didn't exist in Tang era China then there's no reason to read them into the text, especially given the context of a concubine writing to her lover. Also, the bit about breaking branches doesn't fit with a sexualised reading of the text, or at least if it does it's beyond me.

    Having said that, there is nothing I can see in the text which would exclude sex and/or love from the pleasures he's supposed to be enjoying, though perhaps something in the register employed did exclude sexualised interpretations. Or maybe the register merely seems desexualised to modern Chinese, but wasn't at the time. Nobody likes to think of their ancestors getting it on.

  17. Michael Pratt said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 6:54 pm

    I don't mean to suggest that a sexual reading iis obligatory, or whether it's foregrounded. I don't think that it is. My question is whether reading such an implication into the poem is plainly out of the question, as my Chinese interlocutors have insisted.

    The association of women with flowers isn't unique to Western poetry. The Tang poet Du Mu (who wrote a biography of Du Qiuniang) alludes to a song called "Hou Ting Hua" ("The Flowers of the Rear Courtyard," I believe) in a famous quatrain . The "flowers" in question were palace ladies. Why is it beyond the pale or grossly ignorant, as Professor Mair's Chinese near colleague suggests, to wonder whether the flowers in the poem under discussion might not also have multiple meanings? Again, I am looking for an EXPLANATION of this viewpoint . What frustrates me is that, so far, I have encountered only assertions to that effect.

    @Professor Mair, how secure is the attribution to Du Qiuniang? Based on my readings so far, that point is not clear to me.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 7:11 pm


    "Nobody likes to think of their ancestors getting it on."

    That gave me my heartiest laugh of the month.

  19. Rick said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 7:35 pm

    Getting it on, at some point, would seem to be a necessary precondition to becoming an ancestor.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 8:18 pm


    And that gave me my second heartiest laugh of the month.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 8:19 pm

    @Michael Pratt

    First of all, thank you for raising the very interesting question that you have put before us. I can assure you that what has been written so far in the comments to this post does not constitute the last word on the subject.

    As for how secure the attribution of this poem to Du Qiuniang is, the association of these lines with her begins in an annotation by the famous Tang poet, Du Mu (803-852), whom you mention in your note about “Hou Ting Hua” (“The Flowers of the Rear Courtyard”).

    In her prime, Du Qiuniang had been an imperial consort (to Emperor Xianzong of the Tang [778-820; r. 805-820]), and consequently was celebrated throughout the land. When she was old and poverty stricken, Du Mu passed by the old hometown to which she had retired and wrote a poem about her. The preface to Du Mu's poem amounts to a biographical account of Autumn Maid Du.

    Attached to Du Mu's poem was a note that consisted of “Jīnlǚ yī 金缕衣” (“The Robe of Golden Thread”), the subject of your query, and the remark that "Li Qí cháng chàng cǐ cí 李錡常唱此辭" ("Li Qi often sang these verses").

    Li Qi (741-807) was the powerful military governor to whom Autumn Maid Du was a concubine before she became Emperor Xianzong's consort. Judging from the circumstances in which Du Mu recorded these lines and his linking them to Li Qi at the time of his passing Du Qiuniang's hometown and writing a poem about her, it is evident that he believed they were addressed to Li Qi. Ever afterward, “Jīnlǚ yī 金缕衣” (“The Robe of Golden Thread”) was attributed to Du Qiuniang. The inclusion of this poem in the famous Tángshī sānbǎi shǒu 唐诗三百首 (Three Hundred Tang Poems) served to cement the attribution securely in the minds of later readers.

  22. Jonathan Smith said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 11:29 pm

    From the Western perspective it is hard to appreciate that when Tom/Dick/Harry Tang literati dashed off lyrics for young courtesans to faux-coyly sing back to them in the nightclubs, intentions were strictly high-minded all-around — at times, of course, it proved necessary for said literati to take said courtesans as concubines to facilitate more extensive intellectual exchange on the human condition, but how — frankly — boorish of Prof. Pratt to imply anything further.

  23. Greg Ralph said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 11:57 pm

    Ausonius' De Rosis Nascentibus is such a lovely poem that it deserves wider attention. Helen Waddell, in her translation and commentary pointed out Ausonius' affinity with the Tang poets. See for example 'The Wandering Scholars', pp 34-35 in the most readily available Pelican edition.

  24. Michael Pratt said,

    May 7, 2017 @ 12:21 am

    @Jonathan Smith: You are right! I repent in ashes and sackcloth!

    @Greg Ralph: I have always planned to get around to reading Waddell. It sounds even better than I had imagined.

  25. Greg Ralph said,

    May 7, 2017 @ 12:45 am

    @michael pratt Professor Pratt – you must! One of the great stylists. And the influence of her Tokyo childhood shows.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    May 7, 2017 @ 2:43 am

    To wake up early and read such an exchange as the last four comments is one of the greatest joys of my life.

  27. Philip Taylor said,

    May 7, 2017 @ 2:57 am

    Would it be possible, I wonder, for Professor Mair's colleague ("a Chinese professor of poetry and esthetics") to offer an English translation of the quatrain ? I think that if he could be persuaded so to do, it might help those of us less fluent in Chinese to gain a better understanding of why his reaction to the poem's words is so different to that of many of the Western commentators here and, of course, to Michael Pratt's own interpretation.

  28. Michael Pratt said,

    May 7, 2017 @ 4:23 am

    I agree that it would be interesting to hear the professor's reasons. If I am truly off the mark here, I would appreciate being educated.

  29. GH said,

    May 7, 2017 @ 6:31 am

    If you'll excuse some under-informed speculation, is it possible that the "gather ye rosebuds" exhortation didn't have the same erotic dimension in Chinese as in Western poetry because the Chinese were not limited to monogamous marriage?

    If the logic of the "have sex while you're young" is at least partly "because once you get married you'll be expected to remain faithful to one partner" (ignoring religious disapproval of premarital sex on the one hand and widespread infidelity in at least some social classes and time periods on the other), perhaps this argument would be less compelling when the poem's addressee might expect to have multiple wives, concubines and courtesans, quite respectably, throughout life.

  30. Phil H said,

    May 7, 2017 @ 8:50 am

    I do read Chinese, though my Classical Chinese is poor, and I have to say that I have some sympathy for both sides of this argument.
    We are being somewhat misled by the English translation given, I think. Flowers and plucking in English have quite specific sexual connotations. To the best of my knowledge, the words used in the Chinese poem here simply don't have those meanings. Flowers in Tang poetry mean all the ephemeral beauties of the world – think of the English phrase "take time to stop and smell the roses," and you'll be quite close to what "flower" means. And I've never seen the word here translated as pluck used in a sexual context before. So I think it is fair to say that the language of the poem itself does not lead one directly to a sexual understanding.

    (Classical Chinese poetry does have plenty of sexual metaphors – hair, windows (which lead to boudoirs), dew (like sweat), etc. – but the specific words used in this poem aren't among them, I don't think.

    Having said that, given that it is supposed to be a poem from a concubine to her lord, to suggest that it doesn't or couldn't have a sexual reading seems… obtuse. What else could it possibly mean?! My own copy of the "300 Tang Poems" ties itself up in knots trying to avoid this reading. In the notes it says, "This poem may seem like a prostitute flirting with her client or a wife teasing her husband, but actually it's about making good use of one's time. We should understand it in a positive way." My hardy commentator goes on to give a translation into modern Mandarin prose, which completely fails to dispel the sexual undertones, so he adds onto the end an entire extra sentence: "In your professional life, you have to take the opportunities when they come." Fairly obviously, this contradicts the first line of the poem…

    So I think we can feel reassured that while particularly pious can, if they wish, find reasons to blind themselves, at least some commentators are sufficiently aware of the obvious reading that they feel the need to deny it. So, clearly Prof Pratt isn't just imagining the sexual subtext!

  31. Lucas Klein said,

    May 7, 2017 @ 9:05 am

    In the last century or so China outlawed polygamy, cracked down on prostitution, decried Freudianism as a foreign bourgeois decadence, and desecrated, then consecrated, then desecrated, then consecrated again its ancient heritage and cultural traditions; it's pretty easy to see why Du Qiuniang's lines would not be likely to imply anything sexual to Chinese readers today. To be conclusive about whether it meant anything sexual to earlier readers, though, would require going through earlier commentaries and anthologies, to see what others have said about this poem and what Du's other poems read like. There's been lots of frank discussion of sex and sexuality in the Chinese tradition, but they're unlikely to have stayed attached to the poet's one poem to have been canonized in an anthology made for children.

  32. Phil H said,

    May 7, 2017 @ 9:26 am

    A little further research has very quickly turned up a couple of books (modern books written in Chinese) which give the expected erotic readings of this poem. I have no idea who the authors are or how much they represent the academic mainstream of thinking on these poems – to be honest, they look a bit lightweight. But they are definitely out there. One of them contradicts my reading of "flowers": "Flowers, fish, snakes, and rouge are all Chinese literary euphemisms connected with sex."
    So there are a bunch of readings out there, and I agree that the anti-sex readings are motivated more by a prudish exegetical tradition than by close readings of the poem.
    Links to the two books:

  33. TR said,

    May 7, 2017 @ 12:00 pm

    Here's Waddell on Ausonius' Chinese affinities, a passage which I reproduce here because even typing her prose is a delight:

    "There is something Chinese about Ausonius. He reminds one of half-a-dozen provincial governors in the Dictionary of Chinese Biography: of Han Yü, whose friends washed their hands in rose water before opening the manuscript of his poems, and who rid his province of a large and pestiferous crocodile by addressing to it a written censure, committed to the river along with a pig and a goat, a censure still regarded as a model of Chinese prose composition: of Po Chü-i, sitting on the terrace under the peach trees in blossom."

  34. Victor Mair said,

    May 7, 2017 @ 3:12 pm

    From a Chinese professor of poetry and esthetics (the same one as in the 14th comment above):

    The following is my quick trans:

    Treasure not your dress of golden threads;
    Treasure your youthful time instead.
    When flowers blossom, just pluck them;
    Never wait until the branches are empty of bloom.

    The academic reader discussing the subtextual theme of this poem may have a point about the sensual or even erotic subtext of this poem (both versions) if it is read outside the orthodox Confucian context. In other words, this poem may be read as a veiled invitation to a young man for having sex with her (If the anonymous poet is assumed to be a female.) if it is not read as a "readerly text" (to use Roland Barthes's term) in traditional moralistic or didactic terms. This is especially the case if the concept of zhehua 折花 or zhaihua 摘花 (pick flowers) is interpreted in a erotic sense as a euphemism for deflowering a virgin, which is a common parlance in vernacular Chinese. However, this alternative or non-orthodox interpretation of the subtextual theme of this poem is not something new or western but has been an common interpretative practice in traditional Chinese society.

    The poem exists in two slightly different versions.

    The first, as in the o.p. above:


    The second, with the differences marked in bold:


  35. chris said,

    May 7, 2017 @ 3:14 pm

    In several English dialects “flower” means vagina and in Spanish and Italian there is a tendency to associate the verb “to open” with female sexual arousal
    I wouldn't expect either of those to be limited to specific languages, any more than the double meaning of "lips", or numerous phallic metaphors.

    the speaker’s insistence on the importance of plucking blossoms during one’s qīngshàonián 少年时 (“youth”) was entirely high-minded
    This seems anachronistic to me — I am no scholar of Chinese cultural history, but did they even have a concept of "high-minded" that was incompatible with eroticism?

    Or in other words, when and why did Chinese culture adopt the idea that a sexual connotation in a context like this would be something to be ashamed of? Especially if it was written by a courtesan to her lord, in which case a more or less continuous attempt to seduce him is the only form of job security she's likely to have…

  36. Alex said,

    May 7, 2017 @ 6:33 pm

    I think this says it all.

  37. Davek said,

    May 7, 2017 @ 8:59 pm

    Herrick's poem (the last stanza of which states "then be not coy, but use your time/ and while ye may, go marry") seems more clearly about sex than Du's. The correspondence between flowers and youth is even more widespread than the one between flowers and womanhood, and the poem could just be saying to "cherish the time of your youth".
    Then again, I don't think a sexual reading is unfair–sex is a big part of young adulthood after all–and Du could just be reaching for plausible deniability.

  38. boynamedsue said,

    May 8, 2017 @ 4:57 am

    "I wouldn’t expect either of those to be limited to specific languages, any more than the double meaning of “lips”, or numerous phallic metaphors."

    Yeah, I'm kind of surprised "open" isn't used in that sense in English (or at least not in my hearing, you can never tell with these things). Seems from people better informed than myself that you are right, "flower" would seem to have sexual undertones in Chinese as well, so I would tend towards thinking that was part of the poet's intent.

  39. Big C said,

    May 8, 2017 @ 7:52 am

    Although I have no knowledge of Chinese, this is why I read Language Log! Does it not seem that the insistence on there NOT being a particular reading of this poem strongly imply that such a reading is indeed possible if not likely?

  40. Michael Pratt said,

    May 8, 2017 @ 9:32 am

    I, too, have found this discussion quite stimulating.

    One question that particularly interests me–indeed, it is what initially led me to reach out to Professor Mair–has to do with my curiosity about the protocols that readers educated in different times and in different traditions bring to bear when approaching a literary text. As Professor Mair's Chinese colleague suggests, there seems not to be anything particularly novel–nor anything particularly "Western"–about reading the poem outside the orthodox Confucian framework. Nor (provided that one recognizes that the poem operates via suggestion rather than by means of blunt statement) does reading the poem in such a way require any willful interpretative contortions. Nevertheless, several Chinese acquaintances have told me, in the friendliest possible way but with great firmness, that it is an error even to consider such a reading.

    Why should this be? The people in question are all intelligent, and some of them have been very helpful when I have come to them to ask about about questions of interpretation in poems by (say) 李商隐 Lǐ Shāngyǐn. Indeed, for me one of the pleasures of living in China is that educated people are almost uniformly helpful and supportive when they become aware of my interest in classical poetry. (My former neighbors in the Philadelphia area would have regarded a Chinese with a passion for Chaucer or Quevedo with puzzled bemusement.) What interests me is not why my interlocutors disagree with my approach to the poem,
    but why they believe that it is entirely baseless. Why should this be?

    Thank to all of you for the many interesting comments that have been posted so far. Thanks particularly to Professor Mair, who has made this discussion possible. If any readers of Language Log live in the Shenzhen/Hong Kong area and would like to discuss Chinese or Western poetry, feel free to contact me at or look me up on WeChat (michaelp53).

    Mil gracias, compañeros.

  41. GH said,

    May 8, 2017 @ 1:50 pm

    @Michael Pratt

    several Chinese acquaintances have told me, in the friendliest possible way but with great firmness, that it is an error even to consider such a reading.

    Well, it could be worse: " anyone quoting verses from the Song of Songs giving them the literal meaning was declared a heretic who had forfeited his portion in Paradise."

  42. Xmun said,

    May 8, 2017 @ 6:57 pm

    "In several English dialects “flower” means vagina".
    I don't know much about English dialects, but do know that in Early Modern English poetry "flower", if not meant literally, referred to the maidenhead, not the vagina.
    "Keepst thou the flow'r that doth so much commend thee?" — to take a typical example — means "Are you still a virgin?"

  43. Taymara Montague said,

    May 8, 2017 @ 8:05 pm

    "The lotus, as divine womb or vagina, is a potent sexual metaphor in both Hindu and Buddhist tantra. Padma and kamala are synonymous Sanskrit terms that mean 'lotus' of the female vagina, which is soft, pink, and open."

    There's quite a history of the flower as symbolic of feminine purity, a lack thereof, and the vagina. I'm listing two reference sources. The first is the source of the above quote and the second, while not making a direct comparison between flower and vagina, does reference the flower in various conditions (bud, open, torn, many) as a metaphor for purity, love, loss of innocence, defilement, libidinousness, as well as its spiritual connection to heaven and the divine.

  44. Michael Pratt said,

    May 8, 2017 @ 11:05 pm


    That's a great consolation. All in all, I seem to be getting off pretty easily!

  45. Victor Mair said,

    May 11, 2017 @ 8:53 pm

    From Julie Lee:

    This conversation is most refreshing, as it goes from Chinese poetry to English carpe diem poetry, to the erotic meanings of "flower " and "open" in English, Italian, and Spanish, to Dante, to the traditional interpretation of the Hebrew biblical Song of Songs . This Hebrew tradition resembles the refusal of so many Chinese teachers to accept the erotic meaning, literal or veiled, in poems like Du Qiuniang's.

    The flower as a word with erotic associations is, I would think, universal. In Chinese you have, for instance, the phrase 柳巷花街 liuxiang huajie ("willow lanes and flower streets", or the brothel district). In China there is also an exegetical tradition similar to that for the Hebrew Song of Songs. This is the Confucianist exegesis of the ancient folk songs of love and courtship (8th to 7th century BC) in the Shi Jing ("Book of Poetry", one of the books in the Confucianist scriptural canon — corresponding to Song of Songs in the Hebrew scripture). These simple folk songs of erotic love were resolutely given political meaning by Confucianist scholars — "complaints against lovers were seen as complaints against faithless rulers," "if a maiden warns her lover not to be too rash… commentators promptly discover that the piece refers to a feudal noble whose brother had been plotting against him…". (Wikipedia)

    I thought this Confucianist tradition of prudishness and puritanism had been wiped out by Maoism, but I see it is alive and well in the classroom in Mainland China, as reported by Professor Michael Pratt.

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