A ghost who won't let go

Lily Yu, the great female poet of China, was a free spirit and feminist who met a terrible fate. Justin Hill describes his growing obsession with the enigmatic Lily, and the difficulties he faced in turning her life into a novel
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As long as a writer's words exist, resurrection of a kind is possible. One who has waited longer than most is a young feminist poet called Lily Yu, who died in the year 856, in the capital of Tang China.

As long as a writer's words exist, resurrection of a kind is possible. One who has waited longer than most is a young feminist poet called Lily Yu, who died in the year 856, in the capital of Tang China.

Lily Yu lived in a time of relative freedom for women: a woman had ruled a century earlier; young ladies were allowed into the city unaccompanied; women dressed in men's clothing; and most importantly, there were a few occupations - courtesan and priestess chief among them - that allowed a woman an independent place in society. Lily Yu was unique in her short life in that she combined these roles. She was also unique in that when she wrote she did not assume the conventional passive voice of a woman. Instead, her poems highlighted the inherent sexism of the world she lived in.

I first came across Lily Yu in an anthology of Chinese poets, near the back of a chapter on the Tang dynasty. There was a poem and a brief biography. The poem was called "Selling Tattered Peonies". It was a poem about age, passing seasons and regret. But at the same time, in a society that considered that women's beauty peaked in her mid-teens, it was a protest poem about the position of women in society. And it kept drawing me back: the poem and the biography. Married at 16 as a concubine, divorced at 19, and executed at 26.

Surprisingly, when I asked my Chinese friends about Lily Yu none of them had heard anything. They found an expert on the poetry of the time and we caught a rickety old bus and chugged across Shaoyang to meet the Shanghai-educated Professor Guo. Over a lunch of steamed dumplings and a bottle of Open-Your-Mouth-and-Smile Wine, he told us virtually all that was known about Lily Yu.

She was married to a Minister Li Zian and remained devoted to him, even after their divorce. Her poems place her in the north of China and also along the Yangtze River: thousands of miles apart. A number of her poems are dedicated to prominent officials, including a Mick Jagger figure, a poet called Wen Tingyun, who was the first great love poet in China, and with whom she is rumoured to have had a wild affair. Finally, according to information from a tabloid-style pamphlet, The Little Tablet from the Three Rivers, which was written 12 years after her death, she was executed for murder at the age of 26.

"But political oppression and slander are not new in China," the professor smiled and I remembered a story about how he had been exiled to Shaoyang 40 years earlier during the Hundred Flowers Campaign. "Maybe she was executed because of her poems."

From a distance of 1,200 years, it is impossible to know the truth of Lily Yu's death. Less than 50 years after she died, the Tang dynasty's decline reached a terminal point and the barbarians rolled in, as they have done so many times in Chinese history, throwing the country into decades of civil war.

From the chaos another dynasty evolved, the Song. The Song dynasty was very different from the multicultural and outward-looking Tang. They blamed the fall of the Tang on such social excesses as emancipated women. This led to a strict enforcement of Confucian ideals, which kept women under control. A stray comment from a Song emperor led to the feet of young girls being bound, and foot-binding remained popular for the next 1,000 years, until it was finally eradicated by the Communist liberation in 1949.

It is through this filter that the facts of Lily Yu's life have come down to us. Her surviving poems were collected by an anthologer, mainly for their "freak" value. The anthology also listed poems by other women, foreigners and ghosts. It was meant to shock and titillate the chattering educated classes of the time, in the way that stories of Roman orgies fascinated the prudish Victorians.

It took me four years to translate all Lily Yu's 49 poems into English, which I did very much for my own amusement, never really imagining I'd do much with them. For a while I was in talks with a specialist publisher on China, but they went bust and I was left with 49 poems without a home.

I gave a few poems to friends to read. The editor of a poetry magazine asked me for a couple to publish in her new magazine. They liked them, so I took the sheaf of papers out and had another look. There was something about Lily Yu that would not let me go. I started writing a dull introduction, which any self-respecting reader would skip on their way to the poems, then gave up and put the box of papers back under the bed, until I had finished working on the manuscript that would become Ciao Asmara.

Not thinking about an idea is one of the best things a writer can do. The thought simmers away in the subconscious, and when it comes back into the light you find it has evolved into something entirely different. When I came back to the poems, aspiring to a simple collection seemed too pedestrian. Somewhere under the facts and details and talk of feminism in the 800s was a real person struggling to be heard. Somewhere between the pages of verse was the real Lily Yu.

It is impossible to fill the empty pages between birth, marriage, divorce and death accurately - but, taking the poems and the scant facts from her life, I decided I would use them to add flesh back to the pieces of skeleton that remained until I could show the reader an actual person. And then take them through what I imagined to be Lily Yu's life story. This would not be a novel, so much as an attempt to bring a forgotten and unknown person and era back to life.

It was at that point that found I had stumbled, quite unintentionally, into the realm of "historical fiction". To enable me to move my characters convincingly I had to know the smallest conceivable detail about a world over 1,000 miles and 1,000 years distant. When Lily sat down at her dresser to get ready for a meeting with her lover, I needed to know what make-up she wore - and even if she sat down at all, as chairs were adopted into China hundreds of years after she died.

Luckily for me, my volunteer work in China had me working with peasant teachers and it was during visits to many remote villages that I saw a way of life that is rapidly disappearing. Peasant life in China is not too dissimilar to the days of the Tang. Sitting by candlelight; drinking rice wine; watching the farmers threshing the wheat by hand; or even a watching a team of four girls pulling the plough - it was easy to see how people lived before electricity or water or modern sanitation. But so much of Lily Yu's story happens in Changan (modern day Xian), eastern terminus of the Silk Route, which was the greatest city of its time, with a population of two million. Chinese cities, now as then, were built on a grid pattern - but in the Tang dynasty the "avenues" were 200 metres across and three miles long - and the "blocks" were walled compounds with their own streets and allies and houses and temples. New York gave me a feel for this size and diversity - because Changan was also the eastern terminus of the Silk Route, and Indians, Persians, Arabs, Sogdians and Tibetans were all resident. Actually, until modern times it is hard to think of a city so multicultural and multi-faith. China has never had an official religion, unlike Europe, and in the Changan of Lily Yu's time there were Zoroastrian Fire temples, Manichean and Nestorian churches, synagogues, Buddhist, Hindu and Daoist temples.

Perhaps the greatest find for me was a first-hand account written about 20 years before Lily Yu's birth, by a Japanese monk called Ennin who had come to China to study from Buddhist masters there. His diary was, rather charmingly, called Record of a Pilgrimage to China in Search of the Law. It was crammed with small details about Changan that would be impossible to find elsewhere: such as what a man might see walking from the gates of the city to his home; or who were the 10 masters of Zen in Changan.

The other trap of "historical fiction" I found was letting all the research dominate the story, and I hope that mine is not a book that reads like a converted "Simple Guide to Tang China". Having learnt all I could, it was time to get back to the focus of the novel: Lily Yu.

Writing is like archaeology. Under the grass you can make out humps and depressions, and it is on those that you plan your story. You think the story starts in the far left of the field, pick a spot and begin to dig. Sometimes you find a fragment; sometimes you have to move on. Layer by layer you are forced either deeper, or to dig in an entirely new spot.

When I started I had no real idea of the shape of this novel, except that I had three "humps" to get to (marriage, divorce and death) and that it had to bring Lily Yu back to life for a few hundred pages. It is this sense of mystery and discovery that keeps me returning to my computer each morning, and I hope this same excitement carries on to the reader. As I wrote, I cross-referenced the story and the developing characters back to the poems, which are the only "real" Lily Yu, and discarded what could not fit. It was slow and difficult, but at other times it came easily and quickly as if, after all this time, Lily Yu had decided, at long last, to give up her secrets.

Emerson compared a library to a room full of dead men who remain dead until someone picks out a book and opens a page, and brings the writer or the moment back to life. A brief spark that fades as the page is turned, all light disappearing as the book is closed and put back on the shelf and forgotten.

As a writer, the best I can hope for is that after my book is shut, that spark stays with the reader for a little while, like the burst of a firework that lingers on in the mind's eyes, long after the brilliance is gone.

'Passing Under Heaven' by Justin Hill is published by Abacus (£10.99). To order a copy for £9.99 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897or post your order to: Independent Books Direct, PO Box 60, Helston TR13 0TP