Li Qingzhao On Song Lyrics Essay

Li Ch'ing-chao 1081–84(?)-1141–51(?)

(Also known as Li Qingzhao and Li Yi'an) Chinese poet, prose writer, and editor.

Li Ch'ing-chao's seventy-eight extant song lyrics, or tz'u, have earned her a reputation as a master of lyric poetry and she is considered one of the most important literary figures of the Sung period. Her poetry uses simple, often colloquial language, and original, delicate images, metaphors, and similes, often to depict her intense emotions—happiness, longing, love, despair, and desolation. Her poems also reveal her interest in nature as well as her satirical outlook on politics. In addition to being a poet, Li Ch'ing-chao was a painter, calligrapher, collector of art, and an accomplished prose stylist. Her prose works include a number of essays on literary subjects, editions of other writers' works, and a preface to her husband's posthumously published A Collection of Epigraphy (1134). Li Ch'ing-chao's personal life encompassed great happiness and terrible tragedy, both of which are reflected in her work. Her social standing suffered after the downfall of the Sung dynasty in Northern China, but she continued to write and her delicate handling of the t'zu form has had a profound impact on the genre as well as on subsequent generations of Chinese poets.

Biographical Information

Li Ch'ing-chao was born in Ji'nan, in Shangdong province, around 1081–84, the height of the Sung dynasty, into a literary family. Her father, Li Gefei, was a scholar and prose writer and her mother was well educated and an accomplished literary stylist. Li Ch'ing-chao grew up in a lively literary atmosphere and received an excellent education, particularly for a girl living in her times. Her childhood, according to her poems, was filled with gaiety, and included regular parties and poetry-writing sessions. She was said to be unconventional and frank, read voraciously, and her talent as a writer of poetry and prose was evident early on. When she was around seventeen, she married Chao Min-ch'eng (also Zhao Mincheng), a student at the Imperial Academy and the son of a prominent family. Although it was an arranged marriage, their union was happy and intense. They shared a love of books and of collecting antiques. Their collection of books filled over a dozen rooms and they are said to have spent hours cataloguing, annotating, and studying the background of each object d'art they acquired. One of their favorite activities was to quiz each other on the facts about each item in their collection.

In 1127 the Tartars invaded China, signaling the fall of the Northern Sung dynasty. Among the acts of aggression they committed was the burning of Li Ch'ing-chao's beloved library. She and her husband fled south, and shortly after that her husband died. Her family was also ruined. Rumors surfaced that Li Ch'ing-chao and her husband had offered a valuable jade pot to the enemy to show their loyalty to them; although she tried to refute the accusations, her reputation suffered and she became seriously ill and depressed. Thereafter she wandered alone from place to place in southeast China, homeless and impoverished. There is some evidence that when she was around forty-nine years old Li Ch'ing-chao remarried, a shameful thing for a widow to do in her era. But she soon discovered her husband's involvement in some corrupt dealings and she informed against him—an act that involved mandatory imprisonment for her. She was subjected to social stigmatization and a great deal of ridicule due to these events until and even after her death. In her later years Li Ch'ing-chao made her home south of the Yangtze River, and although she continued to write and study ancient art, she was not the same carefree person of her youth. The exact year and circumstances of her death are unknown, but she is thought to have died around 1141-51.

Major Works

Seventy-eight of Li Ch'ing-chao's poems are extant, although scholars surmise that she produced hundreds of verses. The title of her poetry collection was Shuyu Ji and her complete works were issued as Li Yi'an's Works. Neither of these volumes survives. Most of her remaining work consists of verses in the subdued, lyrical t'zu style, which conforms to the line-length and notation of popular tunes, although she also wrote in the more serious shi style. The poems that have been preserved use a simple, natural voice, yet involve complex metrical structures. They can be divided into two phases, corresponding to her life before and after her husband's death and the downfall of the Northern Sung dynasty. Li Ch'ing-chao's early verses reflect her carefree, happy childhood, her intense romantic and intellectual relationship with her husband, and her love of books and art. Her later poems are infused with anger and bitterness. Li Ch'ing-chao's best-known work is “Sheng sheng man,” a poem written in colloquial language using images of fallen flowers and light drizzle to depict her personal desolation. As is typical of her poetry, Li Ch'ing-chao uses images, ideas, metaphors, and similes to portray her feelings and state of mind. Her lyrics are known for their sensitivity, keen observation, love of nature, simplicity, and delicacy.

Li Ch'ing-chao was also an accomplished prose writer. She composed numerous literary essays, including one of the earliest theoretical writings on the t'zu genre. In 1134, she edited her husband's posthumous work, A Collection of Epigraphy, and wrote a preface for the book in which she offers insights into art as well as personal recollections from her thirty-four-year marriage.

Critical Reception

Li Ch'ing-chao is now acknowledged as one of the greatest Chinese female poets of all time, but her reputation before and after her death has been uncertain. Up until her mid-forties, before the invasion of her homeland by the Tartars, Li Ch'ing chao had established herself as an immense talent, a woman who was ranked with and compared to the male poets of her time. She enjoyed the company of the literati and was renowned for her poetic brilliance and her literary and aesthetic taste. In her later years, she established herself as a literary presence in her community, although she did not have the social acceptance she enjoyed in her younger days. In the official history of the Sung dynasty, Li Ch'ing chao barely merits a mention, even though her father, a minor literary figure, is discussed. For the most part, the reception of Li Ch'ing-chao's writing by critics over the centuries has been favorable, but she has also been regarded merely as a writer of the lesser form of t'zu poetry and thus not an important literary figure. Her lack of social standing also contributed to her relative neglect. In the twentieth century, Li Ch'ing-chao's mastery of the t'zu is acknowledged as sufficient reason to count her among the greatest and most original voices of China. Combined with her talent for other forms of poetry, her prose writing, her painting and calligraphy, and her knowledge of art, she is now regarded as one of the most versatile female artists in Chinese history.

English-language criticism of Li Ch'ing-chao's work began with Kai-Yu Hsu's influential 1962 essay on her poetry. C. H. Kwock and Vincent McHugh's English translation of the poet's works also appeared in that year. Interest in Li Ch'ing-chao's verse continued to grow and in 1979 a translation of her poems by Ling Chung and the distinguished American poet and scholar Kenneth Rexroth appeared. Book-length studies and articles sought to introduce her delicate and lyrical style to readers. Since then scholars have also written about Li Ch'ing-chao's life, her place in Chinese literary history, and her status as a female poet. Scholars have explored distinctively feminine aspects to her writing, studied translations of her work, and considered the affinities between Li Ch'ing-chao and Rexroth. They have also demonstrated how her work has contributed to the genre of Chinese lyrical poetry and influenced later generations of mostly male poets.

It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that Li Qingzhao (1084- c.1155) is the sole female poet in traditional Chinese poetry who is known to all. Although there were other poets of her sex whose works have been recently recovered by scholars, they are known chiefly among specialists. By contrast, Li’s ci (poems in song-lyric form) have been continuously known and quoted since her lifetime. Their haunting evocation of the transience of life, conveyed in fleeting images of nature and glimpses of laughter or sorrow, is reinforced by their reception as moments in the life of an elegant, well-born woman, one who collaborated with her husband in 30 years of collecting rare books and rubbings and with whom she playfully competed in poetry writing and reciting.

Unsurprisingly, no aspect of this portrait is quite accurate, for legacies are strongly, and sometimes unrecognisably, shaped at every turn by historical and cultural demands. Certainly the accrual of myths in Li’s case is enmeshed in every work of criticism on her. But in The Burden of Female Talent, Ronald Egan approaches this tangle in a rigorous, consistent way, and so the amount that remains intact is small. The number of song lyrics that may be reliably identified as Li’s is halved to 36 and none is conclusively dated, while previous interpretations tied to assumptions about her life are disproved. Egan analyses this small corpus in a tour de force entirely free of biography. But what is most valuable is that he replaces the myths with convincing portraits of Li’s thinking and actions that draw on her prose as well as poetry, developing them with sense, sensitivity and erudition.

As Egan shows, the investment of readers and critics alike in maintaining certain views of Li resulted, at its most innocent, in bewilderingly varied connections proposed between poem and life. More soberingly, features of Li’s life that did not conform to convention were suppressed or distorted. An important example is her remarriage at age 49. This act, thought inexplicable, brought her scorn in her lifetime and was explained away in following centuries as slander. Through careful analysis in their entirety of two major, lengthy pieces of Li’s prose (a letter and an afterword to her first husband’s annotated catalogue of their collection), Egan sees something else in this incident: the impossible situation of a widow in flight during wartime, seeking to protect a dwindling collection of books and rubbings from collectors who included the emperor. One difficulty followed another. When her new husband turned out to be a charlatan rather than a protector, she brought action against him that, under Song Dynasty laws, ensured her own imprisonment. (An official’s intercession released her, and the letter was written to him.) In both the letter and the afterword, she could state her position only in the most oblique way. Egan reads these texts ultimately as the courageous, determined efforts of a woman who had to act alone to reinstate her place in society, as she did in the end.

Also considered here are some distinctive attributes of Li’s work that would have been natural for a male poet but have been discounted in her case. She is shown to have written, again obliquely, about such traditionally “masculine” topics as political and military developments, the place of writing in her identity and her ambition to write in the literati’s shi poetry form. Even within the ci form, where the poem’s speaker is always female, she sought to establish a place for herself as a female writer of the female voice.

Li is known for her skilful, intricate ci, but the insights of this study will elicit as much respect for her grit and her suppressed, defiant, unrealised ambitions as for her poetry. The first work of this kind in any language, The Burden of Female Talent is both grand synthesis and original scholarship, with a clear style that makes a complex story easy to follow.

The Burden of Female Talent: The Poet Li Qingzhao and Her History in China

By Ronald C. Egan
Harvard University Press, 432pp, £44.95
ISBN 9780674726697
Published February 2014

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