Li Ye (李冶; died 784), also known by her courtesy name Li Jilan (李季蘭), was a Tang dynasty Chinese poet, Taoist nun, courtesan, and entertainer who was known for her talent in poetry as well as her beauty. In the tumultuous years of the late Tang, she was accused of treason for poems denigrating the imperial house of Tang that the rebel leader Zhu Ci forced her to write. She was condemned to death and executed in 784. Li is one of the few Tang-dynasty women whose poetry has survived.
Li Ye was born in Wuxing, in present-day Huzhou, Zhejiang Province. As a child, she enjoyed writing poetry and was described by her father as “exceptionally clever” when she was six, after he read a poem she had written. However, he worried that she would grow up to become an “unchaste woman.” Li’s father was encouraging of her literary promise and believed that her talent would be wasted on marriage.
As a courtesan, Li was particularly known for her “beauty and grace,” as well as her talents for poetry, music, and calligraphy. She was well known in literary circles and associated with famous poets such as Liu Changqing, Jiaoran and Lu Yu, and her writing was praised by her contemporaries. She also had a reputation for being an “unchaste” woman. Her friend Jiaoran, the renowned poet and Buddhist monk, composed a poem after she paid him a visit: “A celestial fairy came to test me, / With the intention of spreading her blossoms onto my clothes.”
In her middle age, Li was recognized as a poet laureate by Emperor Daizong of Tang, who summoned her to the court after learning of her literary talent. She stayed in the palace for about a month, where she was treated lavishly by the emperor. However, she preferred her former carefree life and was allowed to return home.
In 783, rebel leader Zhu Ci captured Chang’an, the capital of China and seated himself on the throne. Li was forced to write poems denigrating the imperial house of Tang. Zhu was defeated the following year, and Emperor Dezong, Daizong’s successor, returned to Chang’an. Dezong accused Li of treason for her anti-Tang poetry. She was condemned to death and executed in 784.
A Loving Complaint
By Li Ye (Tang dynasty)
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
The people say the sea is deep.
The love he gives me is that and more.
The sea at least dies dry on land.
But love’s far reaches wash no shore.
I’ll take my harp and scale the tower
To empty rooms full of the moon,
And strum the song of missing him.
There heart and harp will break in tune.