Li Ch'ing-chao Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.