Rattling along, the wheels of a pair of carts,
Each day they turn a million times.
The same heart; not the same cart,
Since we parted, so much has changed.
Yet the cartwheels still leave tracks,
Thinking of you alone; you don’t appear.
In 1606, Zhu Zhifan 朱之蕃 included the following description in a preface to an anthology of Korean poetry, Nansŏrhŏn Jip 雪蘭軒集, which has since disappeared, although later copies are extant:
For a woman of the inner chambers (kyubang) to compose poetry suggests a fusion of heaven and earth, mountains and streams; this is a fusion that cannot be forced nor forcibly stopped.
Looking now at the Collection of Hŏ Nansŏrhŏn’s Works, it flutters above the dust of the mundane, is graceful without being artificial, full of strength without losing its form.
There is much talent in the Hŏ family, whose siblings are all respected in the Eastern Kingdom (i.e., Korea) for their literary achievements. The loyalty among the siblings allowed for the preservation of these few priceless manuscripts for editing and transmission. I have looked over them and written a word or two for a preface. Upon reading this collection, one will realize that my words are not false.
White Orchid’s younger brother, Hŏ Kyun 許筠 wrote this postscript to the same anthology:
The family name of the lady is Hŏ, she was known as Nansŏrhŏn. The third older sister of Kyun, she married into the eighth-rank scholar-official Kim Sŏngnip family. She departed this life in her early years. With no children, she devoted her entire life to writing and authored many pieces. Per her testament, all were burnt to ashes, leaving very few extant pieces for transmission… Anxious about losing the poems over time, I carved them onto wood in order to broaden their reach.
The Song of the Zither (kŏmungo) by the Xiang River
Plantain blossoms well up with dewy tears at the sound of the Xiangjiang;
In nine directions, autumn mists; beyond the blue is yellow-green.
Cold waves run high in the Shui Fu*; a dragon sings through the night;
A savage maiden nimbly carves some lucid jade.
A parting pair, a phoenix and her mate, separate at Cangwu Mountain;
Rain and mist descend upon the river, muddling the pearly morning dew.
Heavenly strings are leisurely plucked atop a stone cliff;
Wreathed in blossoms, a moon-coiffure, a beautiful girl cries by the river.
The Milky Way leaps suddenly into a marbled sky;
There, five clouds sink the feather-blossoms and golden stems.
Outside the gate, the fisherman sings the “bamboo branch” melody;
In the silvery pond, half-suspended, a moon of mutual longing hangs.
*The Water Bureau, or shui fu 水府, where the God of Water, shuishen 水神 resides.
Hŏ Nansŏrhŏn, also known as Heo Nanseolheon or White Orchid (formerly Heo Chohui) was born into a household of the ruling yangban class during Korea’s Chosŏn dynasty, and was thus expected to follow the rules of neo-Confucian ethics, which literally decreed: Men Above, Women Below (namjon yubi). Although these women lived in luxury, they were forced into a nearly invisible existence: they were confined to first their fathers’, and then their husbands’ houses for most of their lives, emerging only for brief outings, when they were transported by servants to and fro on curtained sedan chairs. It was actually against the Chosŏn legal code for a woman of her class to walk freely outdoors.
However, at age 8, Nansŏrhŏn, who had been allowed to learn to read and practice calligraphy, astonished her family by writing a prodigious poem entitled, “Inscriptions on the Ridge Pole of the White Jade Pavilion in the Kwanghan Palace.” At this point, her older brother, Hŏ Pong, a government minister, took her under his wing, against their father’s objections, and educated her in the Chinese classics. Nansŏrhŏn wrote poetry in the customary Chinese script of the time (hanshi), and even after she was placed in an arranged marriage, she continued to write poems in the style of the T’ang dynasty. Those of her contemporaries who did not censure her un-Confucian conduct (calligraphy and poetry were taught to high-class courtesans, or gisaeng, for the entertainment of men, but were thought beneath a noblewoman’s calling) considered her, as a writer, equal in talent to Li Po.
Stirred by My Experience
At night, in a dream, I climbed Mt. Pongnae,
My feet on the dragon of Ko-p’o bank.
An immortal with a magic bamboo cane
Invited me to Lotus Hill.
I looked down on the Eastern Sea,
As tranquil as a cup of water.
Beneath the lotuses a phoenix played the flute;
The moon shone on a golden jar.
Nansŏrhŏn’s husband was not her intellectual equal. Her mother-in-law encouraged his long absences, and, some say, his philandering. The marriage was apparently not a happy one. She gave birth to two children, a girl and a boy; neither of them survived. A third pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Needless to say, this did not endear her to her in-laws.
Grieving My Children
Last year, I lost my beloved daughter;
This year, I’ve lost my beloved son.
Filling with sorrow, this ground is like Kangnŭng:
Twin graves face each other, side by side.
Wind weeps through white aspen branches;
A goblin’s gleam flickers in the woods.
Scattering paper money, I call to your spirits
And sprinkle wine across your graves.
Ah! Roaming and lonely, brother and sister,
Are you still playing nightly, like you did during your lives?
Even if I give birth to another child now,
How could I raise it free from harm and difficulty?
Listlessly, I sing the Yellow Terrace tune,
Swallowing my laments, and tears of blood.
Some scholars detect traces of Taoist leanings and influences from older Korean legends in Nansŏrhŏn’s poems; according to one source, she became a Taoist nun after her husband died. A Chinese emissary brought a copy of her poetry anthology to his homeland. By the 18th century, the poems of Nansŏrhŏn had appeared in print in Japan. According to certain sources, Nansŏrhŏn predicted the day of her death. On that very day, her ladies found that she had, indeed, passed from this world. She was 27 years old.
Seeing Beyond This World
Chartreuse orchids wave
in a light breeze
a harpy harbinger wings above trees–
the Mother of Heaven
glides to an island
in a chariot drawn by kirin.
In a phoenix-harnessed pearl–
wearing a lace waistcoat,
her banner of orchids coursing–
she smiles, leans over ruby trim
plucking reeds of amethyst.
blow her citrine gown
the beryl rings
of her necklace clink clink clink.
On her moon-world
nymphs dance in pairs, strumming harps
and laurel blooms three times a year–
the winter-ending curls of clouds, sweet as honey nectar.
At daybreak, the party ends in a lotus pavilion–
from powdery swells of sea
an indigo messenger boy
rides a silvery crane.
A plum-colored piccolo trills
clears the hyacinth half-light–
the damp of early morning
sprinkles a universe of islands–
and the Dawn Star descends.
(Translation by Ian Haight and Tae-young Ho.)
Creative Women of Korea: The Fifteenth Through the Twentieth Centuries, edited by Young-Key Kim-Renaud
“Songs From the Inner Rooms: The Poetry of Hŏ Nansŏrhŏn,” Childs, Cynthia. In Acta Koreana, Vol. 4, 2001
Additional sources for the translations of the poems of White Orchid (Hŏ Nansŏrhŏn), and biographical details for this post:
Posted by Jillian Parker