Wu Zao (or Wu Tsao) is considered one of the great female poets of China, and one of the greatest lesbian poets of all time. Very little of her work has been translated into English, but the most beautiful translations are the handful by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung (the above being the best of the bunch, IMO).
Born in 1799, Wu Zao was the child of a merchant, and married to a merchant (in an arranged marriage, naturally). Both relationships are believed to have been unhappy. There were no literati in either family, and no one knows how she learned to read, write, play music and paint, since women of the merchant class were rarely taught these skills. A common dictum in the era was “A woman without talent is a virtuous one.” She basically said, “Fuck that noise,” and became a productive and talented poet, playwright and composer; one of the few female writers of the period. She used her writing to express her longing to break away from a traditional view of women’s roles, including an opera about a woman who cross-dresses and paints her own self-portrait, while lamenting her inability to use her talents because she is a woman and the gender roles of the era are stupid.
Her work was highly praised by poets and scholars, and her songs were sung all over China. She hobnobbed with other great artists of the age, both male and female. In her middle years she retreated from the world and became a Taoist priestess. (Or a Buddhist one, depending on who you ask). She died in 1863.
It’s clear from her poetry that she had sexual and romantic relationships with women, but apart from the short biography by Rexroth and Chung in their book Women Poets of China, it’s impossible to find a biography in English that does more than hint at her lesbianism. According to them, she had many female friends and lovers during her life, and wrote erotic poems to several courtesans, including this one. After reading it, I like to imagine her and Ch’ing Lin hanging out in her bedroom, painting each each other’s eyebrows and making out, like some kind of 19th century Chinese version of a sexy high school sleepover.
[Translation from Women Poets of China by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung; biographical information primarily from Women Poets of China, The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry and The Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women].