Although her name means “eternal light”, Zhai Yongming is primarily a poet of inner psychological darkness and the best way to read her is in utter gloom. At the heart of Zhai Yongming’s poetry is a certain idea of femininity. In a statement made in 1986, Zhai declared that she wished to be a poet rather than a poetess, but that in her life she was first and foremost a woman. According to traditional Chinese thought, the feminine or yin principle is characterized by darkness, water and the spectral light of the moon. All these images are on prominent display in Zhai’s work.
Like most of the leading poets in the contemporary Chinese poetry, Zhai’s life is mixed up with the cataclysmic events of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). For two years as a teenager, she was sent away from her native urban environment in Chengdu, Sichuan province to “learn from peasants” in the countryside by doing manual labour. With her return to the city in the 1976, she devoted much of her energy to writing poetry, inspired by the breakthroughs that were taking place in literature in the early post-Mao period. She also studied in the Laser Technology Department of the Chengdu Institute for Telecommunications and Engineering, graduating in 1981.
Her commitment to the expression of a feminine quality in poetry was given extensive realization in the poem sequence Nüren (Woman), a linked suite of 19 poems published in 1984. According to the critic Tao Naikan, the sequence is characterized by “images of yin and is pervaded by its mystical darkness. . . . the poet looks for a feminine archetype in herself and her times, and tries to understand it further by expanding her own self to fuse with a universal image of woman”.
– from Pascale Petit’s introduction in MPT 3/4 Between the Languages