Li Ch'ing-chao Essay - Critical Essays

Li Ch'ing-chao


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.

Principal Works

Li Yi'an's Works (poetry and prose) early to mid-twelfth century

Shuyu Ji (poetry) early to mid-twelfth century

Zhao Mingcheng: A Collection of Epigraphy [editor] (nonfiction) 1134

The Lady and the Hermit: 30 Chinese Poems by Li Qingzhao and Wang Fanchih (translated and edited by C. H. Kwock and Vincent McHugh) 1962

As Though Dreaming: The Tz'u of Pure Jade by Li Ch'ing-chao (translated and edited by Lenore Mayhew and William McNaughton) 1977

Li Ching-Chao: Complete Poems (translated and edited by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung) 1979

The Lotus Lovers: Poems and Songs by Tzu Yeh and Li Ch'ing-chao (translated and edited by Sam Hamill) 1985

The Complete Ci-poems of Li Qingzhao: A New English Translation (translated and edited by Wang Jiaosheng) 1989


Kai-Yu Hsu (essay date December 1962)

SOURCE: Hsu, Kai-Yu. “The Poems of Li Ch'ing-chao (1084-1141).” PMLA 77 (December 1962): 521-28.

[In the following essay, Hsu presents an overview of Li Ch'ing-chao's life and her writing, from her early poems to the more serious verse she composed after her husband's death. The critic also discusses the poet's contribution to the development of classical Chinese poetry.]

Light breeze and fine rain, soughing and soughing
Again quicken the endless tears.
The flute player is gone, leaving an empty pavilion;
Forlorn. Who is to lean on the railing together with me?
Picking a twig of beauty, but—
                    On earth or in heaven—
                    To whom...

(The entire section is 5962 words.)

Pin-Ching Hu (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: Hu, Pin-Ching. “The Works of Li Ch'ing-chao.” In Li Ch'ing-chao, pp. 41-77. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1966.

[In the following excerpt, Hu characterizes Li Ch'ing-chao as a purely lyrical and aesthetic poet, showing how her love of nature, her profound sensibility, her love for her husband, and her desire to be free and natural inform her poetry. Hu also describes the poet's critical views, her use of language, and the major themes in her work.]


A great poet should have three fundamental qualities: sensibility, ideals, and creative power. Without sensibility, a poet would not be able to endow...

(The entire section is 12686 words.)

Ling Chung (essay date October 1975)

SOURCE: Chung, Ling. “Li Ch'ing-chao: Another Side of Her Complex Personality.” Journal of Chinese Language Teachers Association 10, no. 3 (October 1975): 126-36.

[In the following excerpt, Chung explores several elements of Li Ch'ing-chao's poetry, including her ability to convey feelings implicitly, her use of delicate metaphors and natural imagery, her mysticism, and her satirical views on contemporary politics, remarking that these aspects of Ch'ing-chao's poetry have not been explored by many scholars.]

In the voluminous Sung shih, the official History of the Sung Dynasty, there are only twenty-four characters referring to the greatest Chinese woman...

(The entire section is 6089 words.)

Yang Minru (essay date April 1981)

SOURCE: Minru, Yang. “Li Qingzhao, a Poetess of the Song Dynasty.” Chinese Literature (April 1981): 94-106.

[In the following essay, Minru explores the complexities of Li Ch'ing-chao's life and interests and the influence these on her poetry.]

The Song Dynasty (960-1279) was a period of cultural growth and economic development. Especially during the first hundred years after its establishment, talented writers and poets were particularly prominent, among whom was a most gifted poetess, Li Qingzhao. Though born in feudal times, when women suffered both oppression and discrimination, and though her biography was not recorded, she nevertheless occupies an outstanding...

(The entire section is 3891 words.)

Peter Dragin and Paul Dresman (essay date autumn-summer 1984-85)

SOURCE: Dragin, Peter, and Paul Dresman. “Forms of Open Form: A Comparison of English Translations of Li Ch'ing-chao.” Tamkang Review: A Quarterly of Comparative Studies between Chinese and Foreign Literatures 15, nos. 1, 2, 3, 4 (autumn-summer 1984-85): 285-306.

[In the following essay, Dragin and Dresman compare different translations of Li Ch'ing-chao's poetry into English and find that none is really more successful than the others.]

Remarking upon American poetry in this century, Kenneth Rexroth defined the major groups as those who were metaphysical poets and those who were anti-literary and based their poetics in presentational immediacy.1 The...

(The entire section is 7345 words.)

William J. Lockwood (essay date autumn-summer 1984-85)

SOURCE: Lockwood, William J. “Kenneth Rexroth's Versions of Li Ch'ing-chao.” Tamkang Review: A Quarterly of Comparative Studies between Chinese and Foreign Literatures 15, nos. 1, 2, 3, 4 (autumn-summer 1984-85): 389-410.

[In the following essay, Lockwood explores the sensual and intellectual kinship between the works of Li Ch'ing-chao and those of poet Kenneth Rexroth, one of the most important translators of her works into English.]

In the introduction to his volume of poems titled The Signature of All Things (1949), Rexroth expresses his belief in personality and his preference for poems that can be sung. At age 44, nine years since the publication of his...

(The entire section is 7125 words.)

Göran Malmqvist (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Malmqvist, Goran. “A Note on a Lyrical Poem by Li Qingzhao (1084-1151).” Archív orientální 2, no. 59 (1991): 190-93.

[In the following excerpt, Malmqvist offers a metrical analysis of Li Ch'ing-chao's lyrical poem ”Shengsheng man.”]

The phonology of the literary koine of the Chinese language at the time of Li Qingzhao must fall somewhere in between that of Ancient Chinese and Old Mandarin, but was probably closer to the latter stage. Our knowledge of Old Mandarin is based on Zhou Deqing's Zhongyuan yinyun (1324), which work reflects the phonological properties of dramatic airs (qu) of the mid 13th century. The...

(The entire section is 1151 words.)

Shiu-Pang E. Almberg (essay date spring & autumn 1994)

Shiu-Pang E. Almberg (essay date spring & autumn 1994)

SOURCE: Almberg, Shiu-Pang E. “Li Qingzhao: Letter to the Academician Qi Chongli.” Renditions: A Chinese-English Translation Magazine, nos. 41 & 42 (spring & autumn 1994): 79-84.

[In the following excerpt, Almberg discusses and then reproduces a letter from Li Ch'ing-chao to Qi Chongli, a relative of her first husband and a respected senior academician. The critic contends that this letter confirms the theory that the poet married for a second time.]

Despite the very limited number of her extant works (some seventy lyrics out of six volumes together with other poems and a few...

(The entire section is 2481 words.)

John Timothy Wixted (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Wixted, John Timothy. “The Poetry of Li Ch'ing-chao: A Woman Author and Women's Authorship.” In Voices of the Song Lyric in China, edited by Pauline Yu, pp. 145-68. Berkeley and Los Angeles, Cal.: University of California Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Wixted examines Li Ch'ing-chao's place in the Chinese literary tradition before exploring questions about the existence of a feminine consciousness in her writing.]

The poetry of Li Ch'ing-chao (b. 1084)1—both her tz'u and shih—prompts fundamental questions when viewed from various twentieth-century Western perspectives, especially feminist ones. Is there a separate women's...

(The entire section is 10581 words.)

Further Reading


Chang, Kang-i Sun. The Evolution of Chinese Tz'u Poetry: From Late T'ang to Northern Sung, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980, 251 p.

Detailed analysis of tzu poetry, explaining the development of the art favored by Li Ch'ing-chao. Contains only scattered references to Li Ch'ing-chao, but provides important background for understanding her poetry.

Owen, Stephen. “The Sources of Meaning.” In Remembrances: The Experience of the Past in Classical Chinese Literature, pp. 80-98. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Focuses on Li Ch'ing-chao's poem “Afterward to Records on...

(The entire section is 112 words.)