Read time: 7 mins

Comb of Chastity

by Dan Ying
15 June 2021

Translated from Chinese to English by Christina Ng

Translator’s note

This poem is from Dan Ying’s poetry collection 发上岁月 (The Years in My Hair), where quite a number of poems depict marginalized characters in Singaporean society or history. I was interested in this poem as it was a tragic portrayal of Majie—or maidservants—who gave up chances at love and freedom in order to provide for their families. I was drawn to how Dan Ying vividly used the imagery of hair and water; in Chinese poetry, these elements have a very delicate and feminine quality to them, and she made great use of their fluidity and amenability to allude to the soft yet strong Majie character. It took strength for a woman in those times to leave her homeland full of hope, only to be left behind in a foreign land to spend her final days in loneliness. When translating, my main concern was to truthfully translate these feelings of desolation and fatalism through the indelible imagery and emotional intensity so delicately woven by the poet into her words.

The compound nature of Chinese words makes it difficult to translate some imagery into English in as economical a way as the Chinese language does. With Chinese, a string of words could be intense, succinct and still keep to a consistent internal rhythm. Sometimes English can do the same but at the risk of losing some of the original musicality. What I chose to adhere to here is emotional vocabulary: to evoke the same emotion and stay true to the central image but give myself a bit more liberty with the musicality of the poem, allowing myself to respond to it as I hear it. I wanted to cleave to the original music in the poet’s words but also be able to ‘sing’ it in the rhythm that it had evoked in me, so to speak.


 

Comb of Chastity

It is not

just the soft fall of black, shiny

hair on her shoulders

It is, ah,

the dazzle

of youth—

As she winds her way

from Tangshan to Nanyang

Caressed by the breeze through banana leaves

Drenched by the rain on coconut plantations

The black waterfall of her hair tumbles down

a thousand li to a tiny waist

A graceful sway, a shape of svelte

Sends the hearts of many lads

…………..a-flutter

Sends the thoughts of many honest fellows

…………..a-wander

 

On the ninth day of the sixth lunar month, the sparrows’ chirps

rouse the sky from its slumber

Every living thing opens its eyes and discovers

how wondrous the world still is

Not noticing how the beauty rising to the day’s brim

would be swept up with a small bamboo comb held in palm

An upward brush of the hair patted into a bun

that stays, lifelong, up—

Strands of dreams, wisps of romance

combed away

Bottomless affections, endless wistfulness

of lads and honest fellows

combed away

The row of teeth lined up along the comb’s shaft

pulls through her tresses to

bring it to order, to rigour

So chaste, no room for blunder

Even her gaze over the shoulder

is as crystal clear

as ice and jade

 

Feelings collected into 3,000 strands of hair

Coiled up high on the head

Since the ninth day of the sixth lunar month—

Smoothed, servile, sealed

Never again will they fly loose in the breeze

Never again will they entice Heaven’s heaves

Never again will they be adorned

Every gaze that falls upon the hair

is sad, every look that falls upon the hair is

crestfallen,

a disconsolation

 

Why are the dazzles,

the dazzles of youth,

fettered to a long and lonely road?

Why are the ripples,

the ripples of a girl’s water-like heart,

calmed by a comb into sighs

night after night?

Why is the adoration of young lads

arranged into lifelong regret?

Why? What is the reason?

Buddha, Goddess of Mercy

Seated on their lotus plinths

Eyes compassionate and kind, they listen

in silence

to the young girl murmuring

a vow of chastity

 

For the Tangshan home in tatters

For the brothers carrying on the family name

For the chance to flee

from an unknown fate of marriage

…………..……….….of being someone’s daughter-in-law

No resentment lingers

When you offer up a lifetime of loneliness

with your whole heart

and two soft hands

to feed and clothe your family

 

On the day you decided to make a vow of chastity, you said,

‘The temple bells rang loud and bright

in the smoke’s tendrils, the smiling faces

of my father, mother and brothers cloud my sight’

You said,

‘There was so much joy in my heart’

Is that the whole truth?

Would you never, ever regret?

 

A whirlwind fifty years

Roiled away choked

With dirt, grease, filth

With no hate and no love those years slipped by

Only calluses on your hands as you toiled away

For the family and nephews far, far away

Building their houses one after another

Now, the twilight wanes with age, the night exhales with care

You are a guttering flame on the candle

These relations, these people who carry your blood,

Would they gift a tile of roof

over your head? An inch of earth

for your feet?

 

That year when you knelt before the altar

Devoting yourself to a life of chastity

Your heart bursting with joy, your one filial heart

stirring many others

Have you ever thought

how half a century later

you would comb

your tangled strands of sadness?

Is every comb a deeper cry of sorrow?

Is every comb a messier jumble of knots? Finally,

the tangles in your hair become

an interwoven web of woes

knotted together like words

entwined, as if they were

memories too dishevelled

to look back upon


Afterword: During the early 20th century in the Guangdong Province of Shunde in China, there was a custom for women to take a vow of chastity. These women who combed up their hair into a bun are called ‘Majie’, and many of them came to Southeast Asia (or Nanyang) to be maidservants. There was a Singaporean TV series called ‘Years of Being a Self-Comb Woman’ which shows the origin of this custom, and it features interviews with a few of these old Majie. A lot of them suffer in old age; one of them, who sent her pay back to her hometown every month for fifty years and paid for seven houses for her nephews, was not welcomed back when she wanted to go home to live out her old age. There are some whose employers look upon them as family and take care of them in their old age, but they are few and far between.


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Illustration by Griselda Gabriele

About the Author

Dan Ying

Lew Poo Chan, better known by her pen name Dan Ying, is a Chinese-Singapore poetess and a Chinese language lecturer at National University of Singapore where she retired in 2003. Her published works included Poems of Taiji (1979), Time Passing Through My Hairs (1993), The Human World Affairs (2012) and The Road of Poetry (2017). She has won many literary prizes including two […]

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