Li Qingzhao was born in 1084 in modern Shandong province. She was born to a family of scholar-officials, and her father was a student of the great poet Su Shi.
The family had a large collection of books, and Li was able to receive comprehensive education in her childhood.
Her poetry was already well known within elite circles before her marriage at the age of 17. Her husband Zhao Mingcheng was a low ranking official with whom she shared interests in art collection and epigraphy. After her husband started his official career, he was often absent. They were not rich but shared enjoyment of collecting inscriptions and calligraphy which made their daily life count and they lived happily together. This inspired some of the love poems that she wrote.
The Northern Song capital of Kaifeng fell in 1127 to the Jurchens during the Jin–Song wars. Fighting took place in Shandong and their house was burned. The couple took many of their possessions when they fled to Nanjing, where they lived for a year. Zhao died in 1129 en route to an official post. The death of her husband was a cruel stroke from which Li never recovered.
Li subsequently settled in Hangzhou, where the Song government made its new capital after the war against the Jurchens. During this period, she continued writing poetry. She also kept working on completing the book Jīn Shí Lù, which was originally written by Zhao Mingcheng.
Her life was full of twists and turns and her poems can be split into two main parts – the dividing line being when she moved to the south. During the early period, most of her poems were related to her feelings as a maiden. They were more like love poems. After her move to the south, they were closely linked with her hatred of the war against the Jurchens and her patriotism. She is credited with the first detailed critique of the metrics of Chinese poetry. She was regarded as a master of wǎnyuē pài – “the delicate restraint”.
We selected three of her poems as follows:
A Friend Sends Her Perfumed Carriage
A friend sends her perfumed carriage
And high-bred horses to fetch me.
I decline the invitation of
My old poetry and wine companion.
I remember the happy days in the lost capital.
We took our ease in the woman’s quarters.
The Feast of Lanterns was elaborately celebrated –
Folded pendants, emerald hairpins, brocaded girdles,
New sashes – we competed
To see who was most smartly dressed.
Now I am withering away,
Wind-blown hair, frost temples.
I prefer to stay beyond the curtains,
And listen to talk and laughter
I can no longer share.
A Morning Dream
This morning I dreamed I followed
Widely spaced bells, ringing in the wind,
And climbed through mists to rosy clouds.
I realized my destined affinity
With An Ch’i-sheng the ancient sage.
I met unexpectedly O Lu-hua
The heavenly maiden.
Together we saw lotus roots as big as boats.
Together we ate jujubes as huge as melons.
We were the guests of those on swaying lotus seats.
They spoke in splendid language,
Full of subtle meanings.
The argued with sharp words over paradoxes.
We drank tea brewed on living fire.
Although this might not help the Emperor to govern,
It is endless happiness.
The life of men could be like this.
Why did I have to return to my former home,
Wake up, dress, sit in meditation.
Cover my ears to shut out the disgusting racket.
My heart knows I can never see my dream come true.
At least I can remember
That world and sigh.
A Song of Departure
Warm rain and soft breeze by turns
Have just broken
And driven away the chill.
Moist as the pussy willows,
Light as the plum blossoms,
Already I feel the heart of Spring vibrating.
But now who will share with me
The joys of wine and poetry?
Tears streak my rouge.
My hairpins are too heavy.
I put on my new quilted robe
Sewn with gold thread
And throw myself against a pile of pillows,
Crushing my phoenix hairpins.
Alone, all I can embrace is my endless sorrow.
I know a good dream will never come.
So I stay up till past midnight
Trimming the lamp flower’s smoking wick.
By Staff Editor