Li Qingzhao (1083–c. 1151)

views updated

Li Qingzhao (1083–c. 1151)

China's greatest female poet, who lived during the Song dynasty and specialized in lyric ci (tz'u) verse, and who was praised for the originality of her poetic imagery, her emotional language, and the harmony of her verse. Name variations: Li Ch'ing-chao; Li Ch'ing Chao; Li Chiang-chao; Li Qing Zhao. Born Li Qingzhao in 1083; died around 1151; daughter of Li Gefei also seen as Li Ke-fei or Li Ko-fei (a scholar and minister at court) and a mother who was a poet (name unknown); educated at home; married Zhao Mingcheng (Chao Ming-ch'eng, a famous epigraphist who specialized in deciphering old inscriptions), around 1101 (died 1129); possibly married Zhang Ruzhou, in 1132 (divorced after 100 days); produced a body of work including six volumes of poetry and seven volumes of essays, most of which have been lost.

The sky, the waves of clouds, the morning mist blended in one.
The Milky Way was shimmering, a thousand sails were dancing.
Methinks I was borne to the throne of God.
"Whither are you going?" a celestial voice asked me.
Sighing, I replied: "Long, long is the way, the day is dying."
In vain, I compose astonishing verses.
The roc-bird is soaring upon the wind for a ninety-thousand-mile journey.
Stop not, O wind!
Blow my boat to fairyland.
—Translated by Hu Binqing

This poem was written nearly 900 years ago by Li Qingzhao, who is "universally accepted" as China's greatest woman poet, writes historian Hu Binqing (Hu Pin-ch'ing). Powerful and visionary, by turns heroic, playful, sensuous or imbued with despair, her poetry shows a woman confident in her art and ambitious enough to seek greatness in a society which, in the words of Hu Binqing, traditionally ascribed to women "no freedom of thought, no freedom of action, no freedom of love, and no freedom of expression." Her extant works, mostly in the ci (tz'u) style, a form of lyric verse written for musical accompaniment, display a vitality, energy, and emotional color that have remained vivid throughout the centuries.

Li Qingzhao (also written Li Ch'ing-Chao) was born in Shandong (Shantung) province, China, in 1083, during the reign of Emperor Shenzong (Shen-tsung) of the Song (Sung) dynasty. An interval of calm for the most part within centuries of war and upheavals, the Song dynasty (969–1278) was a fertile period for art and technology within China. It is considered the golden age of Chinese painting as well as a time of increasing sophistication in poetry, literature, porcelain and other arts; it also saw the invention of gunpowder and of moveable type. Li Qingzhao grew up in Chinan, called "The City of Fountains," where her childhood home is now a historical site. Both sides of her family were descended from scholars and notable officials: her father, Li Gefei (Li Ke-fei or Li Ko-fei), was a scholar at the Imperial Academy in the capital city of Gaifeng (Kai-feng) who later served the Song court as Minister of Rites, and her mother was a poet and a granddaughter of Wang Gongchen (Wang Kungch'en [1012–1085]), a poet and essayist. Because of her parents' appreciation of classical learning, Li Qingzhao received a good education. Although such an schooling for women was contrary to Chinese tradition, her father had discovered that she was more interested in scholarship than were her sisters or one of her brothers, Li Mang, and so he personally tutored her at home. She showed a talent early on for writing ci poetry, which was very popular during the Song dynasty, and her poetry, literary talent, and exquisite diction made her a well-known figure in her hometown.

Li Qingzhao first established herself as a poet when she wrote two shi (shih), or regular verse, poems to rhyme with a poem written by a friend of her father's, Zhang Lei (Chang Lei, also known as Zhang Wenqian [Chang Wen-ch'ian]). The initial poem was written upon the discovery of an 8th-century monument celebrating the restoration of royal authority after an uprising during the earlier Dang (Tang) dynasty; Li Qingzhao's responses were critical of Zhang Lei's shallowness and lack of understanding in the events commemorated on the monument. Far from being chastised for her audacity, Li Qingzhao found herself praised by her father and other scholars. In a society where such respect toward women was seldom granted, this may well have given her the confidence to develop her talents to the fullest.

At age 18, Li Qingzhao married Zhao Mingcheng, who at the time was a student of the Imperial Academy. The son of Zhao Tingzhi (Chao T'ing-chih), minister of the interior and later prime minister, he was also from Shandong province, and would later become well known for his explanations of inscriptions found on ancient bronzes and stone monuments. He encouraged Li Qingzhao in her poetry, and one of her early works, written to the tune of "Magnolia," speaks of her relationship with him:

I bought a spray of Spring in bloom
From a flower carrying pole.
It is covered with tiny teardrops
That still reflect the pink clouds of dawn
And traces of morning dew.
Lest my lover should think
The flowers are lovelier than my face
I pin it slanting in my thick black hair
And ask him to compare us.
—Translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung, from Complete Poems. (© 1979, by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.)

One of Li Qingzhao's most famous poems, "Sorrow of Departure," was written to her husband on a silk handkerchief, to the tune of "Cutting a Flowering Plum Branch," while he was still a student and she longed for his return:

Red lotus incense fades on
The jeweled curtain. Autumn
Comes again. Gently I open
My silk dress and float alone
On the orchid boat. Who can
Take a letter beyond the clouds?
Only the wild geese come back
And write their ideograms
On the sky under the full
Moon that floods the West Chamber.
Flowers, after their kind, flutter
And scatter. Water after
Its nature, when spilt, at last
Gathers again in one place.
Creatures of the same species
Long for each other. But we
Are far apart and I have
Grown learned in sorrow.
Nothing can make it dissolve
And go away. One moment,
It is on my eyebrows.
The next, it weighs on my heart.
—Translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung, from Complete Poems. (© 1979 by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.)

Two years after their marriage, Zhao Mingcheng graduated from the Imperial Academy and became a functionary at the royal court. They lived in Gaifeng, often entertaining the literati in their home and using their wealth to collect bronzes, calligraphy, paintings, pieces of jade, stone inscriptions and antiques of all types. Considered an ideal match, they wrote poems to each other expressing their intelligence and love, and enjoyed researching the histories of their treasures together, which they recorded in careful detail. At night, they often read and discussed books together. The poet frequently accompanied her husband on his official business and to social gatherings; when he went away alone, she would send him poems to maintain the strong link between them. It was during this time, using imagery including the chrysanthemum, Chinese flowering crabapple, wine, wind, moon and moonlight, birds, cold rain, and leaves, that Li Qingzhao founded a graceful and restrained school of ci poetry called the yi'an style. Some of her works, such as this, to the tune of "Red Lips," are nonetheless blatantly erotic:

Tired of swinging
I rise
with a slender hand
put right
my hair
the dew thick
on frail blossoms
sweat seeping through
my thin robe
and seeing
my friend come
stockings torn
gold hairpins askew
I walk over
lean against the door
turn my head
grasp the dark green plums
and smell them
—Translated by James Cryer (© 1984 by Carolina Wren Press. Used by permission.)

A similar eroticism is found in a poem to the tune of "Picking Mulberries":

Come with evening
ranks of wind and rain
was away
the fires of sunset
I finish tuning the pipes
face the floral mirror
thinly dressed
crimson silken shift
over icelike flesh
in snowpale cream
glistening scented oils
and laugh
to my sweet friend
you are within
my silken curtains
your pillow, your mat
will grow cold
—Translated by James Cryer (© 1984 by Carolina Wren Press. Used by permission.)

Due to their involvement with the court, Li Qingzhao and her husband were subject to the power struggles there, where rival factions and intrigues were weakening the Song dynasty. In 1102, her father was exiled from the court. She wrote poems to her powerful father-in-law, then vice prime minister and one of the rivals of her father's faction, imploring him to reinstate her father. "Your fingers are burned," she wrote in one poem, "while your heart grows cold." In 1103, it was decreed that no further marriages could take place between the rival factions of her father and her father-in-law, placing Li Qingzhao in a politically precarious position. Two years later, however, her father was granted amnesty and returned to court. Her powerful father-in-law became the prime minister, but lost favor and was dismissed in 1107, and died soon thereafter. With their influence thus greatly reduced, the Zhao family members, including Li Qingzhao and her husband, suffered persecution. The couple left the capital for Qingzhou (Ch'ing Chou), in the south, where they remained in exile for at least ten years. Zhao Mingcheng served as magistrate, first in Laizhou (Laichow) and then Qingzhou. They continued their hobbies of deciphering stone tablets and bronze inscriptions and collecting antiques, paintings and precious jade, and reading from the classics, asking each other questions, and rewarding correct answers with sips of tea. They also began collaborating on an important book, Jin Shi Lu (Chin Shih Lu [The Study of Bronzes and Stone Inscriptions, also seen as Collection of Inscriptions on Ancient Bones and Stone Tablets]), explaining the ancient inscriptions that recorded history and told of the great accomplishments of Chinese leaders.

On the occasion of her 31st birthday, when Li Qingzhao had her portrait painted, her husband wrote the following poem in the top corner of the portrait:

To Poetess I-an on the Occasion of Her
Thirty-first Birthday Anniversary:

Her poetry is pure and elegant,
Her person modest and dignified,
A real companion for me
In my retirement

Soon after the couple went into exile, an invasion from the north occurred, led by the Jurchens, a Tartar tribe from Siberia. The Jurchens had recently overthrown the Khitan Tartars, founders of the Liao dynasty in Manchuria and parts of Northern China to which the Song dynasty had paid tribute, and were now continuing a slow push towards the Yangtze river. (The Jurchens shortly would found the Jin [Chin] dynasty.) In 1126, the capital of Gaifeng was laid seige by Jurchen horsemen who captured the emperor and several thousand of his retainers. The northern Song dynasty fell that year, and a boundary was established along the Huai River, dividing the area still controlled by the newly reconstituted government of the southern Song and the Jurchens' Jin dynasty. (The southern Song dynasty would last until the Mongol invasion in 1279.) In the resulting turmoil, Li Qingzhao and her husband were forced to flee, leaving behind most of their collected bronzes, antiques, and paintings. They remained on the run until 1128, when they settled in Jian Ning (modern Nanjing or Nanking). As the Jurchen invasion spread southward into the middle of China, the poet boldly satirized the Song emperor for behaving in a cowardly fashion and criticized the nobles and troops who crossed the Yangtze, fleeing southward:

Alive we need heroes among the living
Who when dead will be heroes among the ghosts.
I cannot tell how much we miss Hsiang Yu
Who preferred death to crossing to the East of the River.

The creative impulse makes me restless as a nocturnal bird Reluctant to perch after flying three rounds

—Li Qingzhao

The same year, during the reign of Emperor Gaozong (Kao-tsung), Zhao Mingcheng resumed office in Nanjing as a magistrate. When he was appointed to Huchow in Zhejiang (Chekiang) province and made plans to establish his family in Jiangxi (Kiangsi), the couple took along their families' remains. In 1129, the poet's husband was en route to a new post in Jiankang when he died at age 48. As the Jurchen invaders attacked Jiankang, Li Qingzhao fled alone southward, to Yongzhai (Yung-chai), Shaoxing (Shao-hsing), and Chuxian (Ch'u-hsien). She arrived in Hangzhou (Hangchow) in 1132, where she wrote a poem, to the tune of "Andante," expressing her feelings as a bereaved widow:

Search. Search. Seek. Seek.
Cold. Cold. Clear. Clear.
Sorrow. Sorrow. Pain. Pain.
Hot flashes. Sudden chills.
Stabbing pains. Slow agonies.
I can find no peace.
I drink two cups, then three bowls
Of clear wine until I can't
Stand up against a gust of wind.
Wild geese fly overhead.
They wrench my heart.
They were our friends in the old days.
Gold chrysanthemums litter
The ground, pile up, faded, dead.
This season I could not bear
To pick them. All alone,
Motionless at my window,
I watch the gathering shadows.
Fine rain sifts through the wu-t'ung trees.
And drips, drop by drop, through the dusk.
What can I ever do now?
How can I drive off this word—
—Translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung, from Complete Poems. (© 1979, by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.)

In Hangzhou she lived with her brother Jinhua (Chin-hua). During the summer of that year, she was married to Zhang Ruzhou, possibly for protection during that period of turbulence (a minority of scholars dispute her second marriage). In September, after a union of only one hundred days, she divorced Zhang Ruzhou, who had mistreated her. Alone now, Li Qingzhao continued with the scholarly work she had begun with Zhao Mingcheng, completing their manuscript on ancient inscriptions. Her poems of this period took on a melancholy air of gloom and nostalgia, reinforced partly by the success of the invaders in weakening the Song dynasty; little of her work from this time is sublime or heroic, and information on the rest of her life is scarce.

According to the History of the Sung Dynasty, there existed six volumes of Li Qingzhao's poetry and seven volumes of her essays; most of these were lost during the Jurchen invasion. The date of her death is not recorded, although she is known to have lived to the age of 68. During her lifetime she was recognized, in the words of Hu Binqing, as an "epoch making poetess who was on an equal footing with her [male] contemporaries in prosody, rhetoric, and creation." Today her poetry is read partly for its commentary on the society of the Song dynasty, but also because of the eternal beauty of her compositions. One of her most important extant poems was written (to the tune of "Spring in Wuling") during the later part of her life, and speaks of the solitude of old age:

The gentle breeze has died down.
The perfumed dust has settled.
It is the end of the time
Of flowers. Evening falls
And all day I have been too
Lazy to comb my hair.

Our furniture is just the same.
He no longer exists.
All effort would be wasted.
Before I can speak,
My tears choke me.
I hear that Spring at Two Rivers
Is still beautiful.
I had hoped to take a boat there,
But I know so fragile a vessel
Won't bear such a weight of sorrow.
—Translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung, from Complete Poems. (© 1979, by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.)


Cryer, James. Plum Blossom: Poems of Li Ch'ing-Chao. Chapel Hill, NC: Carolina Wren Press, 1984.

Hu Pin-ch'ing [Hu Binqing]. Li Ch'ing-chao. NY: Twayne Publishers, 1966.

Rexroth, Kenneth, and Ling Chung. Li Ch'ing Chao: Collected Poems, 1979.

Turner, John A. A Golden Treasury of Chinese Poems. Chinese University of Hong Kong (distributed by University of Washington Press, Seattle), 1976.

suggested reading:

Cheng jun-song, et al. The Seventy-Two Great Figures of China's Nations. Shanxi People's Publishing House, 1985.

Department of History Nanking University. A Dictionary of the Famous Figures in the History of China. Nanking: Jiangxi People's Publishing House, 1982.

Xu Gong Chi, et al. The Heroes Before Our Time. Beijing Press, 1986.

Xu Peijn. Li Qing Zhao. Shanghai Ancient Books, 1981.

Barbara Bennett Peterson , Professor of History, University of Hawaii, author of America in British Eyes and editor of Notable Women of Hawaii