Li Qingzhao


Li Qingzhao
(Li Ch’ing-chao)
(ca. 1084–ca. 1151)
   Li Qingzhao was the most important woman poet of medieval China and the outstanding composer of CI (tz’u) poetry—a genre of lyric poem that put new words to old song tunes. She was a scholar, an aristocrat, an art collector, and later a widow and refugee, in addition to being the outstanding poet of her time.
   She was born into a scholarly family of government officials in what is today Jinan (Chi-nan), and her early life was spent in the lively intellectual atmosphere surrounding her parents and their friends. She learned to write poetry at a young age and already had something of a reputation as a poet when she married Zhao Mingcheng (Chao Ming-ch’eng) at about age 18. It was by all accounts a marriage of equals, as her husband shared her passion for scholarship and the arts. They became great collectors of early Chinese paintings, calligraphy, and inscriptions in bronze and stone. Zhao began a career in the bureaucracy of the Song (Sung) empire, and the couple moved to Shandong (Shantung) province in about 1108.
   Upon the Jurchen invasion and occupation of northern China in 1127 and the fall of the Song capital at Kaifeng, Li and her family were forced to flee with the imperial court to the south. Li and her husband lost much of their famous art collection, and after they had reached JianKang (Chienk’ang; present-day Nanjing [Nanking]), Zhao died in 1129. Widowed and nearly destitute, Li spent much of the rest of her life wandering along with the constantly fleeing court, spending most of her last days in Hangzhou (Hangchow) and Jinhua (Chinhua). There is a tradition that Li Qingzhao married again in about 1132, and that her husband, a military man, abused her so that she sued him for divorce. Though the suit was successful, the law required that any woman suing her husband must be confined, and Li was forced to spend time in prison. The evidence supporting this story, however, is considered by some scholars to be highly suspect. Though lonely and bereft, Li continued to write poetry until her death. She is known to have been writing poetry for the court in the 1140s, and the last official record of her is dated 1149. One of Li’s first acts after her husband’s death was to publish his 30-volume Jin shi lu (Chin shih lu; Records on metal and stone), a study of ancient Chinese inscriptions that Chao had collected over the years. To this Li added an afterword, Hou hsu. Unlike the typical scholarly afterword, Li’s was a remembrance of their happy marriage and a discussion of how the scholarship invested in Chao’s work related to their marital life.
   Of her own work, Li published some seven volumes of shi (or traditional) poems, and six volumes of ci (the newer style of song-lyric), plus the prose Lan ci (Lun tz’u; Discourse on lyric) providing a brief theoretical discussion of the new ci lyric. Only 50 of her ci poems and 17 shi (shih) are now extant. Her poems range in subject from the political turmoil of her time to her own intense emotions, and her style has been called simple, fresh, and natural. The ci poem generally focused on particular moments and the feelings they invoked, and Li’s lyrics, as in the following lines, often evoke her sorrow at the loss of her husband:
   The flute player is gone.
   The jade tower is empty.
   Broken heartedwe had relied on each other.
   I pick a plum branch,
   But my man has gone beyond the sky,
   And there is no one to give it to.
   (Rexroth and Chung 1979, “On Plum Blossoms,” ll. 16–21)
   Bibliography
   ■ Hu, Pinqing. Li Ch’ing-chao. New York: Twayne, 1966.
   ■ Jiaosheng, Wang. The Complete Ci-poems of Li Qingzhao: A New English Translation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989.
   ■ Rexroth, Kenneth, and Ling Chung. Li Ching-chao: Complete Poems. New York:New Directions, 1979.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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