Illustration by Derek Zheng
April is National Poetry Month, and to commemorate, we’ll be taking a look at famous Chinese poets this month in our Chinese Lives series. Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) poets get the most press — Lǐ Bái 李白 and Dù Fǔ 杜甫 are held on par with Shakespeare — but these men are just the tip of the iceberg.
Lǐ Qīngzhào 李清照 (1084 – c.1155) is one of the best-known female writers in Chinese history. At a time when women commonly burned their poems rather than have them read in public, Li used hers to publicly criticize the government and male peers. She was a defiant visionary who turned years of struggle into lines of startling originality, and today is known as “the most talented woman in history” 千古第一才女 (qiān gǔ dì yī cáinǚ).
Who is Li Qingzhao?
Born into a prominent literary family, Li was an iconoclast from the start. Women in the Song Dynasty (960–1279) stayed indoors. They didn’t discuss politics, and only spoke when spoken to. Imagine the surprise amongst leading male poets when a young girl 40 years their junior released two poems charging the Tang Dynasty — whose government they considered sacrosanct — with weakness and corruption, in verses as good as their own. At just 17, Li Qingzhao made a name for herself.
She was lucky in her arranged marriage, wed at 18 to an up-and-coming official who shared her passion for collecting books and artifacts. Li penned a loving and intimate portrait of their relationship in an afterword to her husband’s Records on Metal and Stone. They pawned clothes and went hungry to slowly build up a vast library, their nights whiled away with literary drinking games such as this one: An event would be chosen from a pile of books, and the first person to name the book, chapter, page, and line it was found on would win (Li records, perhaps with fond nostalgia, of holding her tea high over her head when victorious, laughing so hard it splattered down her gown).
This idyllic life was destroyed by the Jurchen invasion of 1125. Fleeing the northern barbarians with cartloads of books, Li’s library was slowly whittled down to two battered tomes, “yet I still treasured them as if they were my life itself,” she said in her afterword. Her husband spent long periods away serving the emperor, eventually dying of exhaustion aged 49, leaving her childless and alone.
Perhaps she blamed the Jurchen — her personal bereavement fueling her public demands for a Song counter-attack. When invited to read her poems at court, she lambasted calls for appeasement. “Barbarians have long had the nature of tiger and wolf,” she reminded envoys in “A Poem Presented to Lord Han of the Military Affairs Bureau and Lord Hu of the Ministry of Works” (上枢密韩公工部尚书胡公 shàng shū mì hán gōng gōng bù shàng shū hú gōng). What use was diplomacy with an enemy who only listened to the language of war? Her advice was ignored. Her “Rhapsody on Capture the Horse” (打马赋 dǎ mǎ fù) suggests that she turned to a classic Chinese military board game for solace, furiously commanding her own armies to “relieve the ambition to vanquish others.”
Along with victory, she craved stability. It led her into a disastrous second marriage, Li later branding the man gold-digging, abusive, and “a worthless shyster.” A woman remarrying would have raised eyebrows, but she took it a step further into outright scandal when she divorced him just three months after.
A woman as unorthodox as Li Qingzhao inevitably risked alienation. Although her talent was never questioned, a woman who searched for inspiration by walking alone on the city walls during snowstorms was badly suited to the demure roles and manners of a Song woman. One 10-year-old girl spurned her as a potential tutor because “literary ability is not something appropriate for a woman.” Although legend says she was generally ostracized after her divorce, continued invitations to present poems at court suggest she still held at least some status. Her final years are foggy, contemporaries writing them off in a brief afterword. According to the poet Cháo Gōngwǔ 晁公武, “she wandered about the rivers and lakes until she died,” but we don’t know for certain if this is true.
Why does everyone know her?
Li’s song lyrics have been enshrined in modern textbooks across China. Contemporaries saw the song lyric (词 cí) as side-show entertainment at banquets, ditties written by male ghost-writers for wispy dancing girls, but Li took no quarter with such writers, labeling their verses slapdash and lackluster. Instead, she wrote songs that are introspective, sincere, and deeply personal. Very few survived beyond slivers of verse quoted in passing by contemporaries, but those that did still ring fresh and true to modern Chinese ears.
There is genius in Li’s lyrical simplicity. One famously opens with seven double characters: 寻寻觅觅, 冷冷清清, 凄凄惨惨戚戚 (xúnxún mìmì, lěnglěng qīngqīng, qīqī cǎncǎn qīqī) — “Searching, hunting, seeking, looking, / so chilly and yet so clear. / Distressed, dismal, and forlorn.” Poets had doubled characters before, but seven was unprecedented.
Her work is crooned by famous singers during X-Factor-esque TV shows, and quoted in passing every day, usually in sad situations. If someone looks like they are wasting away with misery, the go-to phrase is 人比黄花瘦 (rén bǐ huánghuā shòu) — “You’re more shriveled than the yellow flowers.” If resigning themselves to loneliness, some choose to say, especially these days, 不如向, 簾儿底下, 听人笑语 (bù rú xiàng, lián er dǐ xia, tīng rén xiào yǔ) — “Better to sit behind / lowered blinds / and listen to others’ talk and laughter.”
As Li blossomed into a role model for women writers, so scholars became determined to squash her into society’s molds. When it became dishonorable to remarry, the evidence Li had done so was denied until 1957. Her independent streak was also pruned. “Changes in China’s social history would not tolerate a powerful, erudite female poet without male attachments,” says Professor Ronald Egan of Stanford University in his seminal book on Li, The Burden of Female Talent. The inspiration for her melancholy poems is still seen to arise from yearning for her first husband, as she has been airbrushed into the form of a dejected, lovesick widow.
This mocks her bravery. Her refusal to conform to male hierarchies has earned admiration from women across China. Her advice to the court over Jurchen resistance is stirring enough to be posted on Weibo accounts when honoring fallen Chinese soldiers and COVID-19 fighters this Qingming Festival (Tomb-Sweeping Day), which was commemorated on Saturday: 生當作人傑, 死亦為鬼雄 (shēng dàng zuò rén jié, sǐ yì wéi guǐ xióng) — “In life be a hero among men, / In death be a champion among ghosts.” For many Chinese, Li Qingzhao was both.
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