Li Qingzhao was born in 1084, in Zhangqiu located in modern Shandong province. She was born to a family of scholar-officials, and her father was a student of Su Shi. The family had a large collection of books, and Li was able to receive comprehensive education in her childhood. From very young age, she was unusually outgoing for a woman from a scholar-official family.

Before she got married, her poetry was already well known within elite circles. In 1101 she married Zhao Mingcheng, with whom she shared interests in art collection and epigraphy. They lived in present-day Shandong. After her husband started his official career, he was often absent. They were not particularly rich but shared enjoyment of collecting inscriptions and calligraphy which made their daily life count and they lived happily together. This inspired some of the love poems that she wrote. Li and her husband collected many books. They shared a love of poetry and often wrote poems for each other as well as writing about bronze artifacts of the Shang and Zhou dynasties.

The Northern Song capital of Kaifeng fell in 1127 to the Jurchens during the Jin–Song wars. Fighting took place in Shandong and their house was burned. The couple took many of their possessions when they fled to Nanjing, where they lived for a year. Zhao died in 1129 en route to an official post. The death of her husband was a cruel stroke from which Li never recovered. It was then up to her to keep safe what was left of their collection. Li described her married life and the turmoil of her flight in an Afterword to her husband’s posthumously published work, Jīn Shí Lù (金石錄). Her earlier poetry portrays her carefree days as a woman of high society, and is marked by its elegance.

Li subsequently settled in Hangzhou, where the Song government made its new capital after the war against the Jurchens. During this period, she continued writing poetry. She also kept working on completing the book Jīn Shí Lù, which was originally written by Zhao Mingcheng. The book was mainly about the calligraphy on the bronze and stones: it also mentions the documents Li and Zhao collected and viewed during the early period. According to some contemporary accounts, she was briefly married to a man named Zhang Ruzhou (張汝舟) who treated her badly, and she divorced him within months. She survived the criticism of this marriage.

Only around a hundred of her poems are known to survive, mostly in the ci form and tracing her varying fortunes in life. Also a few poems in the shi form have survived, the Afterword and a study of the  form of poetry. Her life was full of twists and turns and her poems can be split into two main parts – the dividing line being when she moved to the south. During the early period, most of her poems were related to her feelings as a maiden. They were more like love poems. After her move to the south, they were closely linked with her hatred of the war against the Jurchens and her patriotism. She is credited with the first detailed critique of the metrics of Chinese poetry. She was regarded as a master of wǎnyuē pài (婉约派) “the delicate restraint”.

Poems by Li Qingzhao

To The Tune Of Wu Ling Spring Late Spring

Wind ceased, the dust is scented with fallen flowers.
Though day is getting late, I am too weary
to attend my hair.
Things remain as ever, yet his is here no more,
and all is finished.
Fain wound I speak, but tar flow first.
They say that at the Twin Brooks spring is still fiar.
I, too, wish to row a boat there.
But I am afraid that the little skiff
on the Twin Brooks
Could not bear the heavy load of my grief.

To The Tune Of Intoxicated Under The Shadow Of Flowers

Light mists and heavy clouds,
melancholy the long dreay day,
In the golden cencer
the burning incense is dying away.
It is again time
for the lovely Double-Nith Festival;
The coolness of midnight
penetrates my screen of sheer silk
and chills my pillow of jade.
After drinking wine at twilight
under the chrysanthemum hedge,
My sleeves are perfumed
by the faint fragrance of the plants.
Oh, I cannot say it is not enchanting,
Only, when the west wind stirs the curtin,
I see that I am more gracile
than the yellow flowers.

To The Tune Of Like A Dream

I always remember the sunset
over the pavalion by the river.
So tipsy, we could not find our way home.

Our interest exhausted, the evening late,
we tried to turn the boat homeward.
By mistake, we entered deep within the lotus bed.
Row! Row the boat!
A flock of herons, frightened,
suddenly flew skyward.

To The Tune Of Happy Event Is Nigh

The wind ceases; fallen flowers pile high.
Outside my screen, petals collect in heaps of red
and snow-white.
This reminds me that after the blooming of the cherry-apple tree.
It is time of lament the dying spring.
Singing and drinking have come to an end;
jade cups are empty;
Lamps are flickering.
Hardly able to bear the sorrows and regrets of my dreams,
I hear the mournful cry of the cuckoo.

To The Tune Of Song Of Peace

Year by year, in the snow,
I have often gathered plum flowers,
intoxicated with their beauty.
foundling them impudently
I got my robe wet with their lucid tears.
This year I have drifted to the corner
of the sea and the edge of the horizon,
My temples has turned grey.
Judging by the gust of the evening wind,
There’s hardly a chance that I will be able
enjoy the plum blossoms.

To The Tune Of Lamentation

It was far into the night when, intoxicated,
I took off my ornaments;
The plum flower withered in my hair.
Recovered from tipsiness, the lingering smell of wine
broke my fond dream.
Before my dreaming soul could find my way home.
All is quiet.
The moon lingers,
And the emerald screen hangs low.
I caress the withered flower,
Fondle the fragrant petals,
Trying to bring back the lost time.

To The Tune Of Complint Against The Prince

Over the lake the breeses come, waves expand, hight and far.
Autumn approaches its end, blossoms are scanty and fragrance rare.
Water lustrous, mountains bright -hued show their affection and friendliness to us mortals.
Words arenever sufficient to describe
The boundless beauty of nature, Lotus seeds are ripe, leaves are old. Dew drops, clear and cool, have washed and duckweek flowers and sprinkled the grass on the islets.
Heorns, resting on the sand, do not turn their heads,
As if they, too, hate to see
People leave so soon.

Stanford poetry scholar offers new perspective on China’s most revered female poet

Li Qingzhao was an anomaly in a literary world dominated by men.

One of China’s best-known poets, she wrote during the Song Dynasty in the 12th century, when Chinese women would have been actively discouraged from writing. Yet she was determined to create a place for herself in the male literary tradition.

A beloved Chinese national treasure whose works are still read widely today, Li Qingzhao wrote prolifically throughout her lifetime. Her oeuvre includes song lyric poems, a now infamous critical essay on the song lyric form, political poems and an unorthodox biographical account of her life.

Although Li Qingzhao’s poetry and criticism have gone relatively unstudied by Western scholars, Ronald Egan, the Confucius Institute Professor of Sinology in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Stanford, has spent the last decade examining her life and writings. His latest book, The Burden of Female Talent: The Poet Li Qingzhao  and Her History in China(Harvard Asia Center, 2013), is the first critical treatment of Qingzhao’s writing in English to appear in 50 years.

Coming from an aristocratic, scholarly family which educated its daughters, Li Qingzhao openly aspired to be taken seriously as a writer. She wrote boldly about nature, love and longing with verses like these from song lyric no. 43:

I’ve heard spring is still lovely at Twin Streams,
I’d like to go boating in a light skiff there
But fear the tiny grasshopper boats they have
Would not carry
Such a quantity of sorrow.

Her poems also contained political themes, and she even wrote about a military strategy board game called “Capture the Horse.”

Unlike traditional Chinese scholarship, Egan’s groundbreaking approach to investigating Li Qingzhao’s life and writings examines her place in history before analyzing her literary work. Reconstructing the social and literary world in which Qingzhao wrote has to come first, Egan explained, because it enables him to address the gender biases she has faced throughout the past 800 years of Chinese scholarship and criticism.

“I can’t start talking about my understanding of her literary works,” Egan said, “until the reader sees the whole story unpacked and deconstructed. And then we can go back with all that in mind and have a fresh look at her literary works. Only by doing that can we accurately gauge her achievement as a poet.”

Egan added that one of the primary aims of his research on Li Qingzhao is “to fill a very conspicuous gap in English language writing about this great writer and at the same time address problems that exist in the Chinese critical tradition and scholarship about her.”

Centuries of gender bias

Li Qingzhao was already an established poet by the time she married her first husband in 1101. When he died during a military invasion of their native Northern China, Li Qingzhao was left extraordinarily wealthy and without an heir. Tricked into marrying an abusive man who was after her fortune, she sought and, remarkably, secured her own divorce, but not before she was imprisoned for seeking it.

What most interests Egan about Li Qingzhao’s biographical details is how she openly recorded her experiences and her reactions to them in writing.

What also fascinates Egan is how, given Li Qingzhao’s life experiences, scholars redefined her image over the centuries, “because changes in China’s social history would not tolerate a powerful, erudite female poet without male attachments,” he said.

Therefore, scholars read into her poems the voice of a lovesick, pining wife or a forlorn widow, Egan suggests, because those were the only socially acceptable voices for a woman to express.

But Egan argues that Li Qingzhao’s work can be interpreted very differently. He challenges conventional assumptions about how a female poet would have approached her writing by suggesting, for instance, that Li Qingzhao may not have been writing autobiographically at all when it came to her song lyrics.

Li Qingzhao lived and wrote when “there were deep ambivalences in Song society about educating women, allowing women to write, and even if they did write, preserving or circulating what they produced,” Egan said.

Women often destroyed their own writing or male writers would co-opt and manipulate women’s poems to serve a male audience. Since male poets of the Song dynasty frequently impersonated female voices, and Li Qingzhao would have studied these poets and known their verses well, Egan posits, why wouldn’t a woman writer of the same period use the same strategy?

“As far as I know, scholars writing in Chinese haven’t asked these questions,” Egan said.

With plans underway to translate The Burden of Female Talent into Chinese, Egan is prepared to encounter resistance from native scholars because his perspective is unlike any other book on Li Qingzhao.  Nevertheless, he has been pleased by how well his lectures on the poet have been received by younger scholars at Chinese universities, especially faculty and graduate students who have been exposed to feminist literary thinking.

Pioneering writer

Egan’s investigation of Li Qingzhao draws heavily from the fields of women’s literary criticism and women’s history by presenting the unique case of an unattached Chinese female poet who was a subversive and pioneering writer with her own dynamics and circumstances.

Egan’s historical analysis, followed by translations and close readings of her poems and critical writings, supports his iconoclastic claim that she was a woman who wrote confidently and knowledgeably about the male literary tradition that came before her.

Another example to support this perspective is Li’s renowned essay on the song lyric form in which she “claims special understanding of the form and denigrates the work in it by the most famous writers of the preceding generations (all male),” Egan said.

Egan said he hopes that his work on Li Qingzhao may compel more scholars to reexamine other female poets because he’s now so conscious of how key historical figures and cultural icons are apt to be recreated and refashioned.



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