Nirmal DASS

Li Qingzhao is considered to be China’s foremost woman poet. She wrote during the Song dynasty; only a hundred of her poems have survived.

Considered to be the foremost of women poets in China, Li Qingzhao was born in the city of Jinan in the province of Shandong. Her family belonged to the upper echelons of northern Song dynasty (960–1279) society, and she likely had made a name for herself as a poet, calligrapher, and painter well before she was married at the age of seventeen to Zhao Mingcheng, the son of a royal minister in the court of the Song emperor.

These were halcyon days for Qingzhao, and the few poems of hers that survive from this period are filled with expressions of bliss and include descriptions of married life that suggest that her husband shared in those very things that were important to Qingzhao, such as literary pursuits, artistic endeavors, art collecting, and politics of the court. Chief among these pursuits was book collecting, and soon their library contained some of the choicest volumes of the Song period. The couple wrote delicate poems to each other, especially when Mingcheng had to be away to attend to the demands of his position.

Their world changed abruptly, however, in 1127 with the fall of Bianliang (Kaifeng) to the invading Jurchen, who had emerged from northern Manchuria and who quickly consolidated their rule by abducting the northern Song emperor, Qinzong, along with most of the royal family; Qinzong was exiled to a remote part of northern Manchuria. During this time of chaos the house in which Qingzhao and Mingcheng lived was burned, resulting in the loss of most of the things the couple had collected over the years, including their valuable books. They hastily gathered what belongings remained and fled with them to a new home in Nanjing, but this place of refuge could never equal the home they had lost. By 1129 Zhao Mingcheng was dead. This came as a cruel blow to Qingzhao; her husband had been the foundation of her life. The poems from this period of her life are filled with bleak hopelessness, wherein the best she can do is safeguard the things remaining from her once-happy life in Jinan, namely, the poetry the couple had written to each other.

One of the first acts of the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1125–1234) when it established its rule was to dismiss all the officials who had worked for the previous emperor. Because she belonged to the class of society that had served the Song emperor, Qingzhao’s financial position grew somewhat precarious, and by 1132 she was living in rented rooms. Of the many poems she and her husband had written she now possessed only a meager collection; the rest had been pilfered by various people she had dealt with as she wandered from one place to the next. But she diligently set about publishing what remained of her books in a series of volumes entitled Jin shi lu (Record of Bronze and Steel), in which she meticulously set down an accounting of the artifacts and artwork she and her late husband had collected. In the final volume of the series Li Qingzhao wrote a moving memoir of her married life. Some evidence indicates that she remarried in later years, although briefly; but this is a point of contention. The last record of her comes from Zhejiang Province, after which she disappears from the historical record. She presumably was dead by 1149. In her lifetime she published seven volumes of shi (traditional) poetry and about six volumes of ci (lyrics). Of these only a hundred poems have survived.

The Poetry of Li Qingzhao

The heavens join with the clouds.

The great waves merge with the fog.

The Milky Way appears

Turning overhead.

A thousand sails dance.

I am rapt away to the place of the Supreme,

And here the words of Heaven,

Asking me where I am going.

I answer, “It is a long road, alas,

Far beyond the sunset.”

I try to put it into verse

But my words amaze me.

The huge roc bird is flying

On a ninety thousand mile wind.

O wind, do not stop

Until my little boat has been blown

To the Immortal Islands

In the Eastern Sea.

Source: Rexroth, K. & Ling Chung. (Trans., Eds.). (1972). Women poets of China. New York: New Directions Books.

Further Reading

Chang Kang-i Sun & Saussy, H. (Eds.). (1999). Women writers of traditional China: An anthology of poetry and criticism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Ebrey, P. B. (1993). The inner quarters: Marriage and the lives of Chinese women in the Sung period. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Hu P’in & Li Ch’ing. (1966). Li Ch’ing-chao. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Rexroth, K., & Chung Ling. (Trans.). (1972). The orchid boat: Women poets of China. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Yu, Pauline. (Ed.). (1994). Voices of the Song lyric in China. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Source: Dass, Nirmal (2009). LI Qingzhao. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1317–1318. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

LI Qingzhao (L? Q?ngzhào ???)|L? Q?ngzhào ??? (LI Qingzhao)

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