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Featured Poem: To the tune ‘The River is Red’ by Ch’iu Chin

Written by Rachael Norris, 2nd March 2020

This week's Featured Poem is To the Tune 'The River is Red' by Ch'iu Chin, chosen by The Reader's Learning and Quality Leader Natalie Kaas Pontopiddan.

A few months back I read a beautiful, and tough, book called ‘The Unwomanly Face of War’, which is filled with testimonials from the one million Russian women who fought in the Second World War.

Their stories are coming back to me again now as I’m reading this poem, and especially the line, ‘The perfume of freedom burns my mind’. Perfume? Freedom? Burns? It feels as if those words can’t exist side by side in the same sentence. And yet, they do here! What do we make of that?

I re-read and I notice on the second reading a similar kind of dislocation when it says, ‘Though tears stained their dresses/Their hearts were full of blood.’ I am not sure what the feeling is here in the bit about the hearts full of blood? Is it revenge? Being fit for fight? Wanting more out of this life? I don't know.

‘Tears stained their dresses’ feels very human somehow. Perhaps it's describing a side to war which we don’t always hear about. It doesn't really belong to a classic hero's journey. I wonder if these human things - perfume, dresses - tears, pain - alongside the inhumane battle makes it even more real, and horrifying, to us?

The woman fighting here feels the pain of it and yet has to continue in the hope 'That at last peace may come to our people/And jewelled dresses and deformed feet/Will be abandoned.'

I wonder what might this fight be about? And the very last line, 'And bearing brilliant and noble human beings'?

To the Tune ‘The River Is Red’ 

How many wise men and heroes 
Have survived the dust and dirt of the world?
How many beautiful women have been heroines?
There were the novel and famous women generals
Ch’in Liang-yu and Shen Yun-yin.
Though tears stained their dresses
Their hearts were full of blood.
The wild strokes of their swords
Whistled like dragons and sobbed with pain. 

The perfume of freedom burns my mind
With grief for my country.
When will we ever be cleansed?
Comrades, I say to you,
Spare no effort, struggle unceasingly,
That at last peace may come to our people.
And jewelled dresses and deformed feet
Will be abandoned.
And one day, all under heaven
Will see beautiful free women,
Blooming like fields of flowers,
And bearing brilliant and noble human beings. 

Ch’iu Chin 

(translated from Chinese by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung)  

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