Princess Xu Mu – China’s First Female Poet




Princess Xu Mu was a contemporary of Sappho and was the first female poet recorded in Chinese history.[1] She wrote political poems about her homeland.[2] Today, she is considered to be a patriotic heroine.[3] Her poems were beloved during her time and have continued to be cherished for over two thousand years.[4]

Princess Xu Mu lived during the Spring and Autumn period, which lasted from 771 to 476 B.C. E.[5] In this period, the Chinese states were declaring their own independence from the ruling Zhou dynasty to form their own dynasties.[6] One of these states was Wei. This Kingdom was where Princess Xu Mu was born and raised.[7]

Xu Mu was born in the seventh century B.C.E. She was a Princess of Wei. Her father was Duke Wei Xuan, the ruler of Wei.[8] Her older brother, Wei Yi, would be the next Duke of Wei.[9] She also had two other brothers, both of whom would later become Dukes of Wei after Wei Yi, Dai and Wei Wen.[10] Wei was a small state that was always under a threat of invasion from the northern nomadic tribes.[11]

When it was time for her to marry, she had two suitors that asked for her hand in marriage. One was the Emperor of Qi, and the other was the Duke of Xu. Princess Xu Mu wanted to marry the Emperor of Qi.[12] She found Qi to be closer to Wei. Also, if Wei was ever under attack, Princess Xu Mu believed their large military forces would come to their aid. [13] However, her parents had a different man in mind. The Duke of Xu had offered her richer gifts that her parents found irresistible to refuse.[14] Princess Xu Mu was disappointed in her parents’ choice of a bridegroom. She found Xu to be too far away for their military to help her tiny Kingdom.[15] Nevertheless, she obeyed her parents and married the Duke of Xu.[16]

Princess Xu Mu became very homesick and longed for Wei. It was during this time that she wrote the poem “Bamboo Pole”.[17] It goes:

“With a long and slender bamboo,

I fished by the shores of Qi,

Can’t help thinking of that river,

And the land so far from me.

On the left the fountain gushes,

On the right the river flows.

Far away the girl has traveled

From parents, brothers, and home.”[18]

In 660 B.C.E., Princess Xu Mu’s worst fears proved to be true. A northern nomadic tribe known as the Di attacked Wei.[19] The new Duke of Wei (who was also Princess Xu Mu’s older brother), Wei Yi, could not defeat them.[20] He was killed in battle. The Di burned the capital causing many to flee to Caoyi (modern-day Huaxian County), a small town in southern Wei.[21] When Princess Xu Mu learned what had happened to her Kingdom, she wrote her poem, “Spring of Water”[22]. It goes:

“The sparkling fountain rushes on,

It flows into the river Qi,

Not a day passes without thoughts of home,

The home I shall never see.

When I think of the dear fountain,

I have a sigh in vain;

When I think of Xuyi and Caoyi,

My heart flies far away.”[23]

Princess Xu Mu also asked the nearby states of Wei, including her former suitor the Emperor of Qi, for military aid to save her homeland.[24] However, all states refused her.[25] Some states even criticised her for interfering publicly in politics.[26] Devastated and furious with receiving no help from other states, she penned her most famous poem, “Speeding Chariot”.[27] This poem expressed her patriotism for Wei.[28] She still continued to plead for the neighbouring Wei states for help. Eventually, Qi was persuaded by Princess Xu Mu’s efforts[29]. The Emperor of Qi gave Wei three hundred battle chariots and three thousand soldiers.[30] After two years of fighting, Wei recaptured their lost territories and built a new capital at Chunqiu.[31]

No one knows what happened to Princess Xu Mu after the rebuilding of the Wei kingdom. However, the Wei people never forgot how she had helped them.[32] She became their patriotic heroine.[33] Her poem, “Speeding Chariot” was well-loved among her contemporaries and continued to be read in successive generations.[34] Through her poetry, the princess’s love and devotion to her homeland will never be forgotten.

References:

Cunningham, A. (2019). The most influential female writers. New York: Rosen YA.

Eno, R. (2010).  1.7. Spring and Autumn China (771-453). Indiana University, PDF.

Peterson, B. B. (2015). Notable women of China: Shang Dynasty to the early twentieth century (B.

B. Peterson, Ed.). London: Routledge.


[1] Cunningham, p. 22

[2] Cunningham, p. 22

[3] Peterson, p. 20

[4] Cunningham, p. 22

[5] Peterson, p. 17

[6] Eno, p. 2

[7] Peterson, p. 17

[8] Peterson, p. 17

[9] Peterson, p. 17

[10] Peterson, p. 17

[11] Peterson, p. 17

[12] Cunningham, p. 22

[13] Peterson, p. 17

[14] Peterson, p. 17

[15] Peterson, p. 17

[16] Peterson, p. 17

[17] Cunningham, p. 22

[18] Peterson, p. 18

[19] Peterson, p. 18

[20] Peterson, p. 18

[21] Peterson, p. 18

[22] Peterson, p. 18

[23] Peterson, p. 18

[24] Peterson, p. 18

[25] Peterson, p. 19

[26] Peterson, p. 19

[27] Peterson, p. 19

[28] Peterson, p. 19

[29] Peterson, p. 20

[30] Peterson, p. 20

[31] Peterson, p. 20

[32] Peterson, p. 20

[33] Cunningham, p. 22

[34] Cunningham, p. 22






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