Go Ask the River

by Evelyn Eaton

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

Go Ask the River by Evelyn Eaton Go Ask the River is a novel spun around the life of the eighth-century Chinese woman poet Hung Tu (also known by her birth name Xue Tao or Hsueh T'ao, though the novel sticks to Hung Tu). Hung Tu's education as a courtesan, in a manner similar to the Japanese geisha tradition, developed her talent as a poet. She went on to serve as an official hostess for Wei Gao, the military governor of her province, and became highly respected for her literary ability. About a hundred of her poems still survive. Some hint that she may have had a love affair with a distinguished fellow poet, Yuan Zhen.

Emotionally restrained in the manner of the Chinese society of Hung Tu's time, Go Ask the River tells a meticulously imagined story of Hung Tu's life from childhood to old age. Drawing on subtle hints from her poetry and combining these with a richly textured understanding of eighth-century Chinese life, it creates a moving, though never openly passionate, story about a woman required to discipline her emotions in order to serve powerful men with grace and dignity. Her insight and sensitivity to her role occasionally allow her to influence political decisions. Though it is not always possible, she tries to gently steer events toward harmony and away from violence.

As she matures past youth into a woman whose intellectual and emotional gifts surpass mere physical beauty, life places in her lap the rare opportunity for a true companionship of heart, soul and body with a poet she deeply admires. For several years, she and Yuan Zhen live together at her villa, a gift from the governor. It is a temporary interlude in a life that requires accommodating heartbreak of many kinds. Hung Tu's poetry, using garden and nature metaphors to suggest feelings that cannot be openly expressed, is a quiet triumph. (1969; 2012 Singing Dragon edition is 288 pages and includes a selection of 37 of Hung Tu's poems adapted into English by Mary Kennedy)

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Other novels about women poets:

Passing Under Heaven by Justin Hill (2004), about the ninth-century Chinese poet Yu Xuanji. More info

The Laughter of Aphrodite by Peter Green (1993), about the ancient Greek poet Sappho. More info

Josefina’s Sin by Claudia H. Long (2011), about a fictional woman's life-changing encounter with the seventeeth-century Mexican nun and poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. See review or more info at Powell's Books

Women's poetry of Tang Dynasty China:

Brocade River Poems: Selected Works of the Tang Dynasty Courtesan Xue Tao edited and translated by Jeanne Larsen (1987). More info

Willow, Wine, Mirror, Moon: Women's Poems from Tang China edited and translated by Jeanne Larsen (2005). More info

The Clouds Float North: The Complete Poems of Yu Xuanji translated by David Young and Jiann I. Lin (1988). More info


Xue Tao (768-831), a brief biography and selection of her poems translated into English

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