Passing Under Heaven

by Justin Hill

I started reading this while I was on The Tale of Murasaki, and it soon dawned on me the interesting parallels of the two stories.  Well, it was more than interesting parallel – the similarities are uncanny, so much so that I have to put aside Murasaki least I get the two mixed up.

Both tales are historical fiction about a female writer, heavily interlaced with original works written by the protagonists themselves. Murasaki is the creator of The Tale of Genji, one of the, if not the, best known classics from medieval Japan.  Yu Xuanji is among the most well-known female classical poets in China.

While the upbringing of the two girls are rather different – Murasaki grew up in a noble family, Lily was of humble birth – they share a strong streak of stubbornness and independence, not the meek and obedient ideal figure as expected of their tradition.  They both become concubines to prominent officials and at one point of their lives, lived in a monastery.

Interestingly, in Murasaki, Fuji mentioned the visit of a Chinese ambassador, while in Passing Under Heaven Lily went on the street of the Capital to view the passing by of a Japanese convey.   Both girls are also very much intrigued with the poem The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, about Yang Guifei and the King.

I did not realize, till well pass half the book, that Passing Under Heaven is a fictional biography of Yu Xuanji (she did not acquire the name Xuanji till rather late in her life). I could not say I know much of her, though I remember there was a porn movie about her – The Slut of the Tang Dynasty (: P).  She is also, more flatteringly, given the title as the Most Talented Woman of Tang.  And the Tang Dynasty is, mind you, the most liberal period in Chinese history, even counting modern times.

I was glad to read this book which prompted me to look deeper into Yu’s life and work.  Part of the plot does not fit in with what little was known of the historical figure, though that is the license of fictional creation.  I do wish that the quotations are translated in a more poetic style – they do not quit convey the beautiful nature of the original work, though I understand that poetry translation is probably the hardest of all.  I also do not quite understand how the author created Lily with an almost monstrous streak of meanness.  While she was a child she would kill insects, an act that likely many kids may have done, but in fictional work, such acts are usually reserved for characters to brand them as evil to the core.    While he may want to use this to explain her ultimate crime, it is unnecessary.

I do not remember reading her works during my Chinese Literature classes back in high school.  Maybe her unconventional lifestyle has banned her work from making it to classrooms?  I remember that Li Qingzhao’s work was thoroughly discussed, and she was a upperclass housewife with a doting husband. However, reading Passing Under Heaven, I was reminded of a saying by my Ch. Lit teacher, Miss Wong: there are two types tragedies: one made by tragedic events (being at the wrong place at the wrong time), and tragedic personalities (personalities that make other people hate or misunderstand a person.)  Yu is definitely a poster child of the latter.  She could have been so happy, so loved, and lived a comfortable life to death.  Her wilfulness ruined it all, she had nobody to blame but herself.

And, for those who are interested, here’s the “official” biography of Yu’s short and sad life.  A life that, in fact, is more unfortunate than the fictional one.


There was no mention of adoption, but Yu’s father died early and she was working as a washing maid with her mother when the famous poet Wen discovered her. He became her mentor, though there was no indication that there was anything beyond a teacher/student, father/daughter relationship or friendship.  Once when they went to view the public exam announcement, she wrote a poem on the wall, whcih drew Li Zian’s attention.  Wen gladly became the matchmaker, considering them a young, talented and handsome couple.  They had a lovely honeymoon, but Li’s wife was extremely jealous of Yu and beat the girl with a stick the moment she stepped into the house.  The beating went on till three days later, Li sent Yu off to a monastary till he straightened things out.  Yu was only 17 then.  She later found out that Li had moved away with his wife, and she was abandonned.  When the abbot of the monastery died, Yu started inviting admirers to visit, for drinks, literary discussion and more, making a notorious name for herself.  One day, she killed her maid out of suspicion that she had an affair with her sponsor.  She was beheaded for her crime, at the age of 24.

Of her poems, the most famous line was: “Easy to find a priceless treasure. Hard to find a loving man.”

Published in: on March 21, 2007 at 10:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

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