Highly educated for her time, Chinese poet Li Qingzhao (1084–c. 1150) wrote lyrical poetry with such emotional intensity and creativity of voice and meter that she was regarded as China's greatest female poet.
In the waning days of the Northern Song Dynasty in the early 1100s, Li was a highly educated woman for her time, studying literature, writing poetry, and amassing an immense collection of Chinese antiquities with her husband. She was a master of the tz'u, or ci, form of lyrical poetry that was set to music, writing with emotional intensity and unconventional language. In 1127, the Jin invaded the northern Song, and she fled with her people to the south, losing virtually all of her artifacts in the exodus. After her beloved husband died, her poetry reflected the deep grief and desolation she felt. The few poems that have survived have continued to influence poets through the centuries.
Educated in Literature and Collected Antiques
Li was born in 1084, in Tsinan [Ji'nan] in what is today the Shandong [Shantung] province in northern China. She grew up in a scholarly household during the Northern Song [Sung] Dynasty, surrounded by a love of history and literature from an early age. Her father, Li Kê–fei, was a high official in the imperial court, a division head in the Ministry of Rites, and an accomplished writer whose prose and poetry was praised by the famous poet Su Tung–p'o. Li's mother, too, was skilled at writing poetry and came from a highly educated family.
At a time when a girl's education depended on the status of her family, Li was blessed with a family of scholars and administrators. She was not only taught to read, but was instructed in Chinese history and literature, calligraphy, painting, and music. She led an intellectual yet sheltered life of cultural refinement and opulence.
In 1101, Li married into another family of academics and government officials. The 17–year–old Li married Zhao Mingcheng [Chao Ming–Ch'eng], the 21–year–old son of a prime minister. An enthusiast of art and antiques, Zhao was a student in the Imperial Academy, but soon began his career as an official in the Song government.
Li and Zhao's marriage was extremely happy, as can be seen reflected in her poetry. The couple shared a love of art and antiquities and spent much of their time and money collecting seals, bronze vessels, rubbings of inscriptions, sculpture, manuscripts, scrolls, poetry, and paintings. Sharing the desire to preserve China's unique artwork, they would spend their evenings together in their studio pouring over their collection, examining and systematically cataloging the many pieces. They had amassed one of the most impressive collections of Chinese artifacts of their time. Zhao even began a book, Record of Bronze and Stone, documenting the relics.
The couple also studied poetry together, often challenging each other and their friends to poetry contests. In her memoir, "Hou Hsu," which appeared in her husband's book, she describes these games and the happiness she felt: "Whenever I got it right, I would raise the teacup, laughing so hard that the tea would spill in my lap . . . I would have been glad to grow old in such a world."
Most of Li and Zhao's money went into their books and antiques, and at times they lived a relatively frugal and sparse life. Often, Zhao would travel around the province on business, leaving Li alone, during which time she wrote poetry about her longing for his return. This academic and blissful married life lasted for several years until the invasion by the Jin [Chin].
Wrote Lyrical Poetry in the Tz'u Style
Li wrote poetry most often in the tz'u, also known as the ci, style, which is written to old song tunes and is usually indicative of the Song Dynasty. Tz'u is lyrical and emotional with precise rhymes and complex meters mirroring the original tune of the song. Always challenging herself with difficult rhymes and variations in meter, Li produced tz'u poems that revealed her immense talent, gift for diction, and natural voice. Seventy–eight of Li's tz'u poems have survived. Li was also a literary critic in her time, examining and judging the tz'u poems of her contemporaries. Her critique Lun Ci, (Discourse on Lyric), is one of the earliest theoretical writings on tz'u poetry.
Tz'u poetry had evolved into two schools: euphemistic and heroic. Li adopted the euphemistic approach characterized by intense themes, graceful style, sincerity, and artistry. She showed a maturity and eloquence in her style that contrasted with the floweriness of her peers. Her poems would later be categorized as the Yi'an style and her euphemistic tz'u became highly regarded.
At the time, male poets attempted to capture the intimate feelings of courting women in their poems, but could not succeed with any authenticity. Li used simple language and expressions to present the emotional experiences of a genuine woman. She rejected the conventional themes of jilted courtesans written by male poets, and wrote sharp original works with warmth, vividness and elegance. In her early life, Li wrote about love and her happily married life. She described her sorrow at being parted from her lover, comparing her loneliness to flower petals falling at the end of spring. In her tz'u to the tune "Drunk under Flower Shadows," she says she "looks thinner than the yellow flower," conjuring the lingering image, metaphorical, yet evocative.
Driven from Her Home
In 1126, the Tartars, or Jin, invaded the Northern Song region of China, destroying homes and remnants of the Song. As the fighting reached the Shandong province, Li and Zhao were forced to flee their home, knowing they could not take all of their vast collection of antiquities with them. They first gave up the bulky items, such as paintings and vessels, but managed to escape with 15 cartloads of books. The Jin ended up burning ten of Li and Zhao's buildings filled with items. Half a million people fled the northern invasion. In their evacuation southward, Li and Zhao were able to ferry their haul over the Huai river to Donghai [Jiangsu] and managed to reach the Yangtze region. Two years later, as the Song established a new capital in Hangzhou [Hong–Zhou], Li's husband received an assignment to govern the city of Hu–Zhou.
In 1129, on a trip for his new post, Zhao took ill very suddenly. Li received word in time to travel to him, but was with him only a few days before he died. The death of Zhao was a cruel blow to Li, who was 46 and childless. After her husband's death, Li never managed again to find rest in one place, fleeing with the rest of the Song court, wandering the country from city to city. Along her many travels she was forced to sell what little remained of her prized collection for income. She sent some of her baggage to her husband's brother–in–law, but the Jin sacked that city and destroyed more of her collection. Even when she was able to find rented lodgings, landlords stole her remaining baskets of books and ink stones.
Li's poetry had by now lost its spiritedly optimistic bent and reflected the deep sense of grief that crushed her. In the tz'u set to the tune "Every Sound, Lentemente," she listed seven pairs of monosyllabic words at the beginning of the poem, such as "lone . . . cold . . . pain . . . moan," drawn out when sung slowly. She abruptly ended the poem with the word "grief."
Wrote a Brief Memoir
Li finally arrived at the new capital of Hangzhou in 1132. Around this time, she was determined to finish the work Zhao had begun compiling their vast collection. She collated his manuscripts into an antiquarian manual entitled Chin Shih Lu [Jin Shi Lu], Record of Metal and Stone, alternately known as Record of Bronze and Steel. The 30–volume tome included 2,000 rubbings of inscriptions Zhao had copied and 500 essays. The book received praise for its anthology of seals and bronze characters.
Not only did Li collate the book, she wrote an epilogue to it, which served as a memoir of her life and poetry, known as the "Hou Hsu." Li spent the rest of her life in misery and loneliness. In the "Hou Hsu," she expressed how her heart was broken after her husband's death and her utter desolation: "When there is possession, there must be loss of possession; when there is a gathering together, there must be a scattering. . . . The reason why I have recorded this story . . . is to let it serve as a warning for scholars and collectors in later generations."
Soon she was on the move again for the city of Chin–hua in the Chekiang province. According to historical records, she was writing assignments for the new court in the 1140s, but the official mentions of her or her works end in 1149. She is presumed to have died circa 1150.
Some historical sources claim she remarried in 1132, to a man who beat her, but that is open to debate. The sources of this information originated after her death with the puritanical Neo–Confucianism movement which held that a proper widow does not remarry. It is believed that news of her second marriage was created to discredit her name by male historians who were jealous of her status as one of China's greatest female poets.
After a lifetime of writing, Li published seven volumes of shi, or traditional poetry written in essay form, and six volumes of tz'u lyrics. Sadly only about 17 shi and 50 tz'u have survived to the present, and most of those only survive as fragments. Her "Hou Hsu" epilogue to her husband's book survives, as well as her Lun Ci critiques. Kenneth Rexroth's collection, 100 Poems from the Chinese, contains seven of Li's poems.
Liu, Wu–Chi, An Introduction to Chinese Literature, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1966.
Rexroth, Kenneth and Ling Chung, The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China, McGraw Hill, New York, 1972.
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China Today, February 2004.
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"Other Women's Voices," Dorothy Disse,http://home.infionline.net/~ddisse/liquinzh.html (December 17, 2004).
"People: Outstanding Female Li Qingzhao," Chinese History: The Song Dynasty (960–1279), China Voc,http://www.chinavoc.com/history/song/lqzh.htm (December 17, 2004).
1084 - CIRCA 1151
A Literary Life. Known as Yianjushi (The Lay Buddhist of Easy Peace), Li Qingzhao was born to talented parents in Licheng (Jinan), Shandong Province. Her father, Li Ge, was a scholar and prose writer, and her mother, the daughter of a noble family, also had literary abilities. Li Qingzhao married the son of a government minister, Zhao Mingcheng, a minor official who was also an antiquarian, a book collector, and a writer of epigrams. They had a happy and literary life together until the Jurchen invasion of 1129. During their escape Li’s husband died, and most of her six volumes of poems were destroyed. Only fifty lyrics are extant.
Lyrics. Li Qingzhao was good at painting and calligraphy, but her greatest achievement was in lyric writing. She is considered one of the foremost lyric poets, the successor to Su Shi (1037-1101) and the predecessor of Xin Qiji (1140-1207). Li’s gift for language enabled her to depict subtle, complex feelings with ruthless honesty. Lyrics such as “Drunk under Flower Shadows,” “Spring in Wuling,” and “Each Sound Slowly” have been highly acclaimed by generations of readers.
Lucy Chao Ho, “More Gracile than Yellow Flowers”: The Life and Works of Li Qingzhao (Hong Kong: Mayfair Press, 1968).
Wang Guangqian, Li Qingzhao he tadi zuopin (Taipei, Taiwan: Dafang wenhua shiye gongsi, 1986).