Su Hui and the Star Gauge

27 Jul 2016

The Chinese genre of “flight of wild geese” poetry is interesting. The poems were sent with the author’s hopes that their distint lover would return back home to them, just like migrating birds. One of the most famous examples is from Su Hui in the 4th century.

Su Hui was married to Dou Tao of Qinzhou, Governor of the Gansu Province, during the Jin Dynasty. Times were happy until her husband transferred posts. He then married a concubine as a second wife. In her grief, Su Hui composed her circular poem. It was hand-embroidered in silk, and sent to him (Wang).

Star Gauge

Su Hui’s poem, Star Gauge (Xinyua Tu), is a complex, palindrome poem woven in a 29 by 29 character grid with 5 colors. The resulting 841 characters could be read 2,848 different ways (Hinton). How is this so? First off, Chinese can be read in any direction; so, you can read it forwards, backwards, horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. Second, Chinese characters can operate as multiple forms of speech. Here is an example taken from the middle of the poem:

Star Gauge Example

You can start in the upper-right and read down and then to the left to come up with: “The beginning of the chart of the star gauge; a poem made by Lady Su” (璇璣圖始詩平蘇氏). You can also start upper-right and read in a zig-zag fashion to get: “The Star Gauge, a poem / by Lady Su from Shiping County” (璇璣圖詩始平蘇氏). (Admussen)

The poem is governed by the rule that, “the second line of every couplet must rhyme with that of the next,” (Hinton). However, you can also let your eyes wander and find connections. As the reader, you encounter junctions and choose which directions to go. Here is one English translation:

Star Gauge

The poem, Star Gauge, works much like an armillary sphere, a device modeling the circles of Heaven. In the sphere, concentric rings move around the Earth to demonstrate the position of celestial bodies. The system rotates and shifts, but eventually comes to focus. Like an armillary sphere, Star Gauge produces many smaller poems circling and co-existing about each each other. And at the poem’s center, there lies the character, hsin, meaning “heart” or “mind”. Hsin is the center of Su Hui’s grand poem, of which all characters revolve upond.

In the end, the poem worked! Su Hui won back her husband. However, Su Hui also provided a legacy of reversible poems (Kěnì de shī) that still persists today. I consider myself exceptionally lucky to have found about her in David Hinton’s anthology, Classical Chinese Poetry.

I am also reminded of my great-grandfather’s poem. Separated from his wife, he wrote to her in Chungking after the loss of the East to Japan. It is deep feeling.

No letter from you
Had there been
Know it would have been drenched in tears of being apart
As this, from me to you

“Su Hui’s intended audience for the poem, and her intended purpose as well, is quite singular and yet the poem [is] everything but—it’s infinite.” - Jen Bervin