In celebration of Valentine’s Day, I wanted to share a poem about budding love in the spring. The poem is “Rouge Lips·She Jumps Off the Swing,” written by Qing dynasty poet, Li Qingzhao, who is known for her many love poems. One of her poems, “A Cut Plum Blossom: The Lotus has Withered, yet its Scent Lingers,” is also one of the 25 poems in our book.
“Rouge Lips” is one of Li Qingzhao’s earlier works. It describes a girl who meets an unexpected guest on a spring morning. Below is the poem and my translation:
She jumps off the swing, lazily stretching her slender hands.
The dew is heavy on the thin flower branch, a light sweat seeps through her shirt.
Seeing a guest, she runs away in her socks, her golden hair pin slipping off.
She leaves in embarrassment, yet pauses at the door to look back, and sniffs the green plums.
There are many references to spring in this poem—the dew, the flowers, and the plums that bear fruit in springtime. Spring is the season of love. There are many Chinese words with the character 春 (spring) that refer to love, such as 怀春 (holding love in one’s bosom/thinking of love), 春心 (thoughts of love), 春梦 (dream of love), etc. Line 2 also sets the time of day and location for this poem: it’s early morning and she’s playing in the garden.
The first stanza paints a vivid image of a girl who had just played on the swing. She kneads her sore hands and is sweating from play. She is compared to the thin flower branch covered in dew— young and full of vitality.
Young women in ancient China stayed in their boudoirs and did not often meet unfamiliar guests, especially male ones. The girl was playing with her shoes off, perhaps surrounded by servants she was familiar with, so when the unexpected guest enters, she is so surprised that she doesn’t even get a chance to put her shoes on before she runs away. Her golden hair pin slips off her hair in the process.
We can infer that the guest is a handsome young man because she “leaves in embarrassment.” Although she is quick to flee, her curiosity gets the better of her and she pauses at the door to look back at the guest, but tries to disguise the gesture as sniffing the green plums.