Begum Rokeya (1880 – 1932)

The first ever prolific Islamic feminist, Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain (বেগম রোকেয়া সাখাওয়াৎ হুসাইন) was a Bengali writer and activist who championed girls’ education nearly a century before the incomparable Malala Yousafzai was born.

RokeyaBegum is an honorific, not a name—was an orthodox Muslim wedded to an older man at sixteen. As a child she was taught Arabic and Persian instead of English or Bengali so as to keep her insulated within the Muslim world; however, her brother Ibrahim Saber taught Rokeya and her sisters the more worldly languages after completing his Western education.

Rokeya was lucky that her husband, chosen by her father, was a progressive man in favor of her reading and writing. The esteemed Syed Sakhawat Hossain encouraged Rokeya to write in Bengali, the regional language; to publish her works; and later, to open a school for girls’ education.

After Syed’s death in 1909, Rokeya founded the Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ High School for Muslim women in Bhagalpur. The institution was later relocated to Calcutta.

Perhaps Begum Rokeya’s most famous work, and her only piece available online (or, as it were, for $0.99 on Kindle), the satirical short story Sultana’s Dream (1905) tells of a fantasy world called “Ladyland” in which men are enclosed in zenana as Indian women were at the time. According to Rokeya’s work, when men keep purdah and stay out of the women’s way, the society is entirely free of conflict, pain, and sin.

Though this solution to gender inequality is a little too extreme, it is clear to me that Rokeya means her story to awaken men to the ridiculousness of their shutting up women in little rooms and running the world into the ground. In many ways, Sultana’s Dream by Begum Rokeya is indeed not unlike  The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: a fantasy world showing what happens when gender roles are taken to an extreme. In Rokeya’s satirical sensibilities, all forms of society, from agriculture to politics to religion, are stronger with women in charge, thereby directly contrasting with traditional Muslim and Indian expectations of women’s worth.

This little story by Begum Rokeya is certainly worth the read (and 99¢ on Amazon). And Begum Rokeya is a name worth knowing, particularly to Americans in this time of hatred and the ‘Muslim Ban.’



In the Age of Nasty Women

After Qiu Jin

Don’t tell me a woman

must be a damsel in distress,

when we alone win a war every minute,

every moon.

From pink nails

flows fearless femme freedom,

poems pouring from the tips

of pithy pigtails.

Don’t try to tie our waists,

our dreams cannot be bound.

I dream. I grieve. Ashamed

for all the times I didn’t stand with my

Sisters. But we are ever together in blood.

Marching onward through fear

and through frost.

The only distress we afford is that which we

conceive. So tell me how you think of me?

A whisper of wind? Or a tempest?



Here is the Chinese version of Qiu Jin’s original poem “Capping Rhymes With Sir Shih Ching From Sun’s Root Land” from







Sadly, my Chinese is not yet strong enough to translate my own attempt at mimicking Qiu Jin’s style and form. I might talk to my friend from Beijing about whether she would help me rewrite my poem “In the Age of Nasty Women” in Chinese.

Thanks for reading! ~JM

Qiu Jin [秋瑾] (1875 – 1907)

Through a Google search for “Asian feminist writers,” I stumbled upon radical feminist and writer Qiu Jin. As a student of Chinese and as a feminist, I’m shocked that I have never before heard her name. Perhaps her erasure can be explained by censorship, or the fact that American schools teach very little Asian history: regardless, Qiu Jin is an icon who should be admired by all.

Living in nineteenth century China brought Qiu Jin plight after plight. As the daughter of a comfortably well-off family, she did receive an adequate education, but Qiu was still unhappily married off to a stranger before turning twenty. Two children and one oppressive husband later, Qiu did the unimaginable–she picked up and left for Japan to learn and lecture about women’s rights. In the time of bound feet, Qiu wore men’s clothing and insisted upon remaining free, finally martyring herself in a political rebellion against a government more tyrannical than her husband.

Qiu apparently has several books in China, though I imagine she received no compensation for those works in her lifetime. One of the only poems I was able to find online is entitled “Capping Rhymes with Sir Shih Ching From Sun’s Root Land” and goes as follows:

Don’t tell me women

are not the stuff of heroes,

I alone rode over the East Sea’s

winds for ten thousand leagues.

My poetic thoughts ever expand,

like a sail between ocean and heaven.

I dreamed of your three islands,

all gems, all dazzling with moonlight.

I grieve to think  of the bronze camels,

guardians of China, lost in thorns.

Ashamed, I have done nothing;

not one victory to my name.

I simply make my war horse sweat.

Grieving over my native land

hurts my heart. So tell me;

how can I spend these days here?

A guest enjoying your spring winds?

JM again here. And can I just say wow! Qiu Jin is quickly becoming one of my favorite historical figures. Right after publishing this post I plan on writing my own poem inspired by the one above, then scouring the internet for more of Qiu’s musings.

In the meantime, feel free to check out the sites below for a more detailed telling of Qiu Jin’s life. Enjoy! – JM


Image from

Li Bai(李白) (701 – 762)

Li Bai of the Tang Dynasty is one of China’s most famous and prolific poets. Though he is not a woman, I am analyzing his classic poem “Quiet Night Thoughts” as part of my Mandarin Midyear Exam, and so I felt that to leave such a classic Chinese writer off this blog simply because of his gender would be an inexcusable oversight.


Here is Li Bai’s best-known poem:





And my translation:

From my bed, I can see the bright moon;

I wonder if its light on my floor is frost.

I raise my eyes to the moon,

lower my head, and think of home.


Please note: this poem is often recited for the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节). In Chinese, 月, the word for moon, is associated with the word for round: 圆, which in turn represents the concept of family reunion (团圆), hence the poet’s homesick reaction to the sight of a full moon on a cold, lonely night.



Image from < >

An Qi [安琪] (1969 – )

Huang Jiangpin (黄江嫔) is a modern-day Chinese woman, formerly a teacher, now working as a full-time poet under the pseudonym An Qi (安琪). What strikes me about her poems—which I first read through translations— is the attention to detail that helps to paint a picture.

Reading An Qi’s work has been an interesting experience for me. As I have now been studying Chinese for almost ten years, I was able to understand much of the original poem in Mandarin. I also noticed some slight differences in meaning from the original to the translation: for example, the Chinese version repeats 天,or day, much more frequently than it appears in the translation. Fascinating!

Below find an 安琪 poem in both English and Chinese.

Parting Before Daybreak

by An Qi

First the day,
then daybreak,
and finally the time for parting.
Local time in Beijing is 7 o’clock according to the TV.

As a child, I liked to lie in bed
and wait for daybreak,
my silver broach stayed in its soft dormant curve.
I counted my fingers,
exactly ten.

Almost daybreak,
but no light in the sky.
At daybreak you come. Daylight is gone when you go.
Days with light, days without light, days come, days go.
You come, you go, coming and going, walking to me, and away from me.

Now a grown-up, I still daydream,
waiting for daybreak like waiting for an archaeologist
to excavate, patting me with a spade
and expose me to daylight.
Oh, oh, just as I feel the thrill, I see your hand leaving.








Image from <;

Note: I could not find an image of An Qi large enough to head this post. Apologies~


Waka by JM

Hello, friends and followers! Using the research I posted Friday and an explanation of modern English waka found at, I have written some waka poems of my own. Please note that I deviate from the 31 syllable structure, for as Chesapeake Bay poet M. Kei explains, single words use many syllables in Japanese, and punctuation is also counted; therefore, simplicity is key. Here are my attempts at my own waka:

fingers raw
and bleeding
from the grit
of holding on
to time

unwelcome assistance
forces through doors
resist it

children race
and fly away
they laugh
as they soar

– JM

Japanese Poetry: Waka (和歌)

Most of the Western world is familiar with the Japanese haiku. What many Americans and Europeans don’t know, however, is that the haiku’s 5/7/5 structure is derived from an older form of Japanese poetry: waka, or “Japanese poem.” Waka is written in single stanzas with syllable count 5/7/5/7/7, although the format is not always maintained after translation.

Below are some examples of waka poetry, which I discovered yesterday through Ono No Komachi.


mirume naki

wa ga mi o ura to

shiraneba ya

karenade ama no

ashi tayuku kuru


There is no seaweed

to be gathered in this bay.

Does he not know it—

the fisher who comes and comes

until his legs grow weary?

by Ono No Komachi


aki no no ni

sasa wakeshi asa no

sode yori mo

awade koshi yo zo



My sleeves are wetter

that night when we failed to meet

than when of a moon

I have parted bamboo grass

traversing autumnal fields.

by Narihira no Ason


akikaze ni

au tanomi koso


wa ga mi munashiku

narinu to omoeba


Because I trusted

someone who grew tired of me,

my life, alas, must be

 as empty as a rice ear

blasted by harsh autumn winds.

by Ono no Komaji


* Note: by Monday I hope to post some waka poetry of my own. *

Ono No Komachi (825 – 900)

The more I look into Ono No Komachi, the more I fall in love with her story. A strikingly beautiful woman, Komachi made a name for herself 1000 years ago in Japan that went beyond her aesthetic appeal. She was a recognized waka (traditional Japanese lyric) poet, even earning “Immortal” status from the emperor.

The translations of Ono No Komachi’s poems I read remind me of the short but passionate observations of Emily Dickinson. See for yourself:


“Was I lost in thoughts of love

When I closed my eyes? He

Appeared, and

Had I known it for a dream

I would not have awakened.”


“The color of this flower

Has already faded away,

While in idle thoughts

My life goes by,

As I watch the long rains fall.”


“No exchange of glances- a barren beach-

How I hate myself for it!

Doesn’t he realize it,

Heedless of distance, the fisherman,

Coming and going on weary legs?”


“How sad,

to think I will end

as only

a pale green mist

drifting the far fields.”


“‘It’s over!’

Upon me drizzle

Falls and with my years

Even your words, too,

Have turned sere.”


“Placing burning coals

To burn my body hurts less than

The sorrow of

The capital and island shore


Note: I assigned numbers to the poems in this post for the readers’ convenience, as all of these translations are otherwise untitled.

Here is one of Komachi’s poems in its original language for readers whose Japanese is better than mine:


(“So the flower has wilted during the long spring rains, just as my beauty has faded during my forlorn years in this world.”)


Image from <

Update #7


I have now collected the names of many talented Asian women, from An Qi (安琪) to Nandini Sahu to Ono No Komachi. While still in the research phase, I am reading a book of poems called 21st Century Chinese Poetry, No. 14. As always, the plan is to gather resources and intermittently post my own work inspired by these incredible authors. Thank you for your patience!