Joined Delight

The Gay Love Letters of Bo Juyi to Yuan Zhen and others

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.


There is a very ancient and honorable homosexual literary tradition in China, and gay love poems are contained in the country's earliest surviving anthology. Most gay men fulfilled their kinship interests (still the major factor in Chinese life today) by getting married, but they also maintained romantic homosexual affairs. The two major tropes for homosexual love – "sharing peaches", and "the passion of the cut sleeve" – come from the story of Mizi Xia who gave a half-eaten peach to his lover Duke Ling of Wei (534–493 BC), and the story of how the Emperor Ai (reigned 6 BC to 1 AD) cut off his sleeve rather than wake his sleeping favorite Dong Xian. These ancient images demonstrate that male-to-male love rather than just sex was important for establishing a specifically gay identity, and how imaginative metaphors are at least as important as pejortive labels. For two hundred years the Han Dynasty was ruled by ten openly bisexual emperors, and detailed biographies were written about their favorites. During the Tang Dynasty, more records survive describing gay life and romantic friendship outside of imperial circles. The Chinese poet Bo Juyi (772–846) was one of the scholar-officials who served in the vast Chinese civil service, and became Governor of Suchow in 825. His fellow bureaucrats often were sent to provincial towns in the widespread empire, and he exchanged with them poems or verse-letters which are full of the expressions of romantic love. To his friend Qian Hui he sent a poetic souvenir of one winter night they spent together. His friend Yu Shunzhi sent him a bolt of patterned purple silk as a token of remembrance, and Bo Juyi replied how he would make this gift a symbol of their friendship. His greatest love was his fellow student Yuan Zhen (779–831). They were both Collators of Texts in the Palace Library at the northern imperial city of Ch'ang-an, and they exchanged intimate poetry for several decades when different careers separated them and Yuan Zhen was sent to the eastern city of Lo-yang. Bo Juyi wrote to his beloved, "Who knows my heart as I think of you? / It’s a captive falcon and a caged crane." Even after a long separation – they both became commissioners in different provinces, and it could take almost a year for their letters to reach one another – Bo Juyi would sometimes dream that they were still together: "Awakening, I suspected you were at my side, / reached for you but there was nothingness." Both poets got married; Yuan Zhen loved his wife but she died after only a few years; Bo Juyi's wife "read no books" and he seems to have had no special intimacy with her; he built a cottage near a monastery where he would go to be alone. In his poem "Night Rain" (812) Bo Juyi speaks of his longing for Yuan Zhen: "There is one that I love in a far, far land; / There is something that harrows me, tied in the depths of my heart. / So Far is the land that I cannot visit him; / I can only gaze in longing, day on day. / So deep the sorrow that it cannot be torn away; / Never a night but I brood on it, hour, by hour." In 814 Bo Juyi sent Yuan Zhan a sum of money equivalent to half a year’s salary, "Not that I thought you were bent on food and clothes, / But only because I felt tenderly towards you." They were reunited briefly in 819, when both carved a poem on the rock outside a cave; they met again in 821–2 and in 829. The two men had made a pact to live together as Taoist recluses in their retirement, but Yuan Zhen died after a sudden illness before this plan could be put into effect. Bo Juyi wrote two formal dirges to recite at his beloved's funeral and three songs for the pall-bearers to sing.


BO JUYI TO QIAN HUI

[early ninth century]

Night deep – the memorial draft finished;
mist and moon intense piercing cold.
About to lie down, I warm the last remnant of the wine;
we face before the lamp and drink.
Drawing up the green silk coverlets,
placing our pillows side by side;
like spending more than a hundred nights,
to sleep together with you here.

 

BO JUYI TO YU SHUNZHI

Thousand leagues, friend's heart cordial;
one strand, fragrant silk purple resplendent.
Breaking the seal, it glistens
with a rose hue of the sun at eve –
The pattern fills in the width
of a breeze arising on autumnal waters.
About to cut it to make a mattress,
pitying the breaking of the leaves;
about to cut it to make a bag,
pitying the dividing of the flowers.
It is bettter to sew it,
making a coverlet of joined delight;
I think of you as if I'm with you,
day or night.

 

BO JUYI TO YUAN ZHEN

[805]

Since I left home to seek official state
Seven years I have lived in Ch'ang-an.
What have I gained? Only you, Yuan;
So hard it is to bind friendship fast. . . .
We did not go up together for Examination;
We were not serving in the same Department of State.
The bond that joined us lay deeper than outward things;
The rivers of our souls spring from the same well!

 

YUAN ZHEN TO BO JUYI

[816]

Other people too have friends that they love;
But ours was a love such as few friends have known.
You were all my sustenance; it mattered more
To see you daily than to get my morning food.
And if there was a single day when we did not meet
I would sit listless, my mind in a tangle of gloom.
To think we are now thousands of miles apart,
Lost like clouds, each drifting on his far way!
Those clouds on high, where many winds blow,
What is their chance of ever meeting again?
And if in open heaven the beings of the air
Are driven and thwarted, what of Man below?

 

BO JUYI TO YUAN ZHEN

Last night the clouds scattered everywhere,
for a thousand leagues the same moon color.
At dawn's coming I saw you in dreams;
it must be you were thinking of me.
In my dream I grasped your hand,
asked you what your thoughts were.
You said you thought of me with pain,
had no one to send a letter through.

When I awoke, I still had not spoken in reply.
a knock-on-the-door sound, rap rap!
Saying, "A messenger from Shangzhou,"
he delivered a letter of yours.
From the pillow I rose sudden and startled,
putting on my clothes topsy-turvy.
I opened the seal, saw the hand-letter,
one sheet, thirteen lines.

 


SOURCE: Trans. Howard S. Levy, Translations from Po Chü-i's Collected Works, 4 vols. (repr. New York, 1971); and Arthur Walley, The Life and Times of Po Chü-i (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1949).

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