Li Qingzhao (1084 – 1155) and her Ci’ (Lyric Poetry)
Dr Penny Ding shares the story of Chinese female poet Li Qingzhao.
Li Qingzhao (Li Ch’ing-chao 李清照) was a famous Song Dynasty (960-1279) poet. Born on 13th March 1084 in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province, she is regarded to this day as one of the greatest and most talented literary figures in Chinese history. Li was revered as a Master of the Wanyue Style, or the ‘The Graceful and Restrained School’ of Chinese poetry. She became an inspiration for many Chinese women writers and remains an inspirational and iconic figure today.
Li’s legacy is not solely due to her literary work, of which only fragments survive, but also on account of her status as a role model and inspiration to women. Living in a period of history where women were, almost without exception, silenced under a highly patriarchal system.
Li Qingzhao had a privileged childhood, and her father was a scholar official who studied poetry under the famous Song Dynasty poet Su Shi. Li’s poetry, rather sadly, reflects the tumultuous historical period in which she lived, and changes as her life was transformed through a series of traumatic event – reflecting her own journey from happiness to despair against the backdrop of war and conflict.
At the age of 18, Li Qingzhao married Zhao Mingcheng, a noted antiquarian from an educated family who shared her passion for literature, books, inscriptions, artefacts and collections. Li and Zhao lived in Qingzhou, Shandong Province, where she spent a carefree life with her husband and gave herself a pen name Yi’an (易安) literarily translated as ‘Easy and Peaceful’. Li and Zhao established their residence in Fangongting Park in Qingzhou.
However, their idyllic existence was brought to an end when the Jurchen tribes of the Jin dynasty declared war on the Song dynasty in 1125, leading to the invasion, conquest and defeat of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127). Along with many Han Chinese fleeing the hostilities, Li and Zhao moved south of the Yellow River (黄河) as the Song Court established the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), and a new capital at Lin’an in modern day Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.
During this time her husband died from exhaustion and illness. Li edited his volume and wrote an Afterward to her husbands’ book, Jin Shi Lu (Record of Bronzes and Stones 金石录). In this Afterward she described her content and fulfilled marriage life and the great emotional hardships she experienced after their escape to the south and the loss of her husband. Li’s earlier poetry was high-spirited and full of vitality. Her later poetry, by contrast, was shadowed with inconsolable grief,; dark and sombre reflections on the death of her husband, and a deep sadness for the loss of her home to war and conflict.
In life, be a hero among men, In death a champion among ghosts
Li Qingzhao was seen by many Chinese as a patriotic Song dynasty poet, as she severely criticised the Jurchen invasion and advised the court using her poems. She wrote the famous verse “In life be a hero among men, In death, a champion among ghosts”（生当作人杰，死亦为鬼雄） This has been a commonly quoted verse to celebrate those heroic figures who lost their lives to defend their profession and save peoples’ lives during the pandemic. For many people these words were a life portrayal of Li Qingzhao.
To the Tune of Ru Meng Ling
Last night the rain was light, the wind fierce,
And deep sleep did not dispel the effects of wine.
When I ask the maid rolling up the curtains,
She answers, "The crab-apple blossoms look the same."
I cry, "Can't you see? Can't you see?
The green leaves are fresh but the red flowers are fading!"
(Translated by Yang Xianyi, Gladys Margaret Tayler)