University of Vermont

The Honors College

Student Viewpoint Feature: Greta Mattessich

Greta Mattessich


We are pleased to welcome back to our pages Greta Mattesich (09), whose work first appeared in the June 2008 issue of the e-News. She was the first student to answer our call for juniors to write about choosing a topic for their upcoming thesis-writing experience. Her exemplary essay continues to set the standard for all those that followed. Writing then about her upcoming thesis, she said, "An idea for a project began to form in my mind, although at first it was but an amorphous amoeba of a thought that seemed to be in a constant state of flux." Yet however fluid her thoughts, they did have a shape. "I had determined my purpose," she said. "I wanted to show the universality of Chinese ancient poetry, while still displaying the qualities that are unique to the culture and time." Her proposal, she said, took shape gradually. "I chose eight classical Chinese poems, each displaying a different theme and aspect of culture. My project would be to write a short story based on each of the poems, not necessarily adhering to the storyline of the poem (if it had one), but rather paying more attention to the transmission of the theme and intended message of the poet. I would have creative freedom and still be able to complete my objective."

As you read the following selection from her thesis project, "Orchid Spinning," you are certain to be impressed by how well she has completed her objective. But more than that, you will be as delighted as we are for the opportunity to read the work of a young writer whose remarkable talent is cause for excitement at what the future holds for her. We are pleased to celebrate that talent in our pages, at the same time we look eagerly ahead to reading that future novel she hints at writing in her 'Forward.'

Visiting the South Pavilion at Chongzhen Temple
Where the Civil Service Exam Results Are Posted

Yu Xuan-ji (mid-9th century)

Cloudy mountains fill my gaze-
I think they enjoy the spring
under skillful fingers
great calligraphy is born
I wish my woman's clothing
didn't obscure my poems
raising my head in vain
admiring the names on the honor rolls.

Forward: Orchid Spinning

"Orchid Spinning" is inspired by a woman poet of the Tang Dynasty, Yu Xuanji, and her very short poem with a very long title: "Visiting the South Pavilion at Chongzhen Temple Where the Civil Service Exam Results Are Posted."

Unfortunately, the poems that have survived are few in number, and details of Yu Xuanji's personal life are hazy. Steven Owen's Anthology of Ancient Chinese Literature includes only two poems by Yu Xuanji and a very short, vague biography. The only substantial English biography of her life and complete, translated anthology of her poems that I could locate was on the University of Virginia Library website. At least one commentator has suggested that after her death, Yu Xuanji was included in Chinese anthologies merely for shock value, or perhaps to provide readers with a laugh - a situation which can only pique the modern reader's interest in her writings.

What is known for sure, however, is inspiring. Yu Xuanji was a talented and respected poet, whose roles during her short life as a concubine and Daoist nun allowed her to consort with male poets of equal talent and esteem. At one point, Yu Xuanji was the head of a Daoist monastery, in which she would conduct lavish parties, entertaining friends and lovers with alcohol and poetry. Most interestingly, all sources agree that she was sentenced to death in her late 20's as punishment for murdering her maid - in a fit of jealousy, some say, after discovering the maid with one of her lovers.

I felt compelled to include this poem in my thesis collection for its unique feminist undertones. In this short verse, Yu Xuanji expresses her longing to be included on the list of scholars who have passed the all-important civil service exam, and laments that the societal expectations of women at the time - symbolized by the woman's robes - keep her from doing so.

In contemporary China, the belief that women are equal to men is still fairly new, and is greatly due to Mao Zedong's convictions that "women hold up half the sky." But, for generations, the belief structure was considerably different. Women were considered necessary to the perpetuation of the species, yet still subservient to men.

Yu Xuanji might be considered lucky to have lived during the Tang Dynasty, which was designated the "golden age" of poetry. In this particular epoch, women had more freedom than in previous times, and were permitted to study the classics and compose poetry. In spite of these progressive, so-called liberties, though, women were still forbidden to hold government positions. Also, the liberal-minded shifts in the acceptance of females applied only to higher-class women, powerful concubines, and Daoist nuns.

It is apparent, from analyzing this particular poem and her other works, that Yu Xuanji felt a sense of repression as a woman in a patriarchal society. Nevertheless, her expressed sentiments are far more delicate and vague than the forceful diatribes of modern feminists. In order for the American feminists of the 1960's and afterward to entertain such adamant convictions, there had to have existed some sort of precursor - basically, the women's suffrage movement at the turn of the 19th century. In ancient times, "feminism" was a concept as yet unformed, and therefore unvoiced. Accordingly, it makes sense that Yu Xuanji is unable to articulate her sense of injustice with contemporary feminist conviction. In her poems, she does not speak of anger so much as longing, sorrow, frustration, and solitude.

Not only did I feel united to Yu Xuanji by feminist ideals; I also felt a deep appreciation for her ability to see the intrinsic duality of good and bad in the world. She writes: "from ancient days to the present, sorrow and joy are twins." Though her writings are sorrowful, and at times desperate, she seems to recognize that in spite of all the terrible things in life, there still exists something beautiful and worthy of enjoyment. After reading what remains of her works, I developed a loyalty toward this woman who managed to find joy and satisfaction even in the "inferior" role of a woman, and felt compelled to give her a voice.

And thus, Orchid was born. She has gone through numerous drafts and, though her basic traits have remained the same, her situational details have changed considerably. Orchid started out as a concubine; after that, she became a wife and expectant mother; and finally, she emerged as she appears in this final version. Out of all the characters in these narratives, Orchid is the one to whom readers in my writer's workshop seemed most closely to connect. They feel as if they have seen her "grow," and one of my colleagues even requested that I keep her as a character for a future novel.

In "Orchid Spinning," I wished to adhere to the setting of the original poem, for the beautiful and exotic qualities of a distant era are what, in large part, gives rise to the elegant and lyrical tone of the piece. I hoped to captivate the reader with these aesthetics specific to the Tang Dynasty, while simultaneously imparting the story of a woman who, in her own way, overcomes her frustration with repression - something to which modern-day readers can certainly connect to their own lives. Though it is unrealistic for Orchid to break free from the confines of society, she finds a creative way to execute power over a situation. This is, in essence, her moment of triumph.

In order to more accurately portray the mentality of a woman in the Tang Dynasty, I have attempted to keep Orchid's feminist tones to a minimum. However, there are a few situations and thought processes which are somewhat unrealistic for a woman of ancient times; for example, Orchid's brash desire to toss a cup of wine in a corrupt official's face. Though these types of brazen actions or thoughts would be atypical of the time period, it has been my personal choice to include them as a sort of ode to the inchoate feelings that Yu Xuanji suggested, but could not pinpoint. In ancient times, a female poet would be shunned for such bold expression; however, since these strong feelings are acceptable and even commended under certain circumstances in modern day, I had no qualms in lending Orchid a passionate inner monologue, so long as her overt actions remained realistically disciplined.

"Orchid Spinning" by Greta Mattessich (PDF file)

Last modified June 19 2009 02:37 PM