Article abstract: The greatest woman lyricist in the history of classical Chinese literature, Li made use of everyday language to explore the subtleties of human emotions, bringing the art of Chinese lyricism close to perfection. Her simple yet elegant style shaped the poetic expressions of the Southern Song Dynasty and inspired many lyricists—even into the modern age.
Li Qingzhao was born the oldest child of a family that was very fond of literature. Her father, Li Kefei, was a renowned essayist; her mother, who came from a politically distinguished family, was also known for having literary talent. From 1086 to 1093, her father assumed a teaching position at the Imperial Academy in the capital, Kaifeng, and engaged himself in composing literary works while fulfilling his scholarly obligations. This position provided him with ample opportunity to work at home. During those seven years, Li learned from her parents much about classical Chinese literature as well as the art of literary composition. Except for a short interruption in 1094, when her father was assigned to a provincial position, Li’s education at home continued well into her mid-teens.
The earliest extant works by Li, two poems of the same title, “Wu-hsi chung-hsing sung shi” (“On Paean to Revival, Inscribed on the Cliff of Wu-hsi”), were composed at the age of sixteen. These two poems were written in order that they might rhyme with a poem of the same title by Chang Lei, a famous poet in the Song Dynasty. Taking exception to Chang Lei’s traditional stance, which celebrates the restoration of the central government during the reign of Emperor Su Tzung in the Tang Dynasty, Li was critical of those writers who forgot and overlooked the corruption and rebellion which preceded this restoration. The fact that Li was able to compose a poem that rhymed with the work of such a renowned poet at a time when women were discouraged from participating in men’s social gatherings—occasions which formed the basis of such poems—indicates the degree of recognition accorded her by her contemporaries. The efflorescence of her creativity, however, did not begin until after her marriage, which occurred in 1101.
Li Qingzhao’s marriage to Zhao Mingcheng inspired her to compose many lyrics of enduring fame in the history of Chinese literature. The third son of Zhao Tingzhi, a censor who later became the premier during the reign of Emperor Hui Zong, Zhao Mingcheng was studying at the Imperial Academy at the time of his marriage to Li. Although arranged by their parents, as was the custom in China, the marriage proved to be a happy one for Li. She began to compose lyrics celebrating the joy of their union. As exhibited in the works at this stage—for example, “Chien-tzu mu-lan-hua” (“The Magnolia Flower”) and “Yü chia ao” (“Tune: A Fisherman’s Honor”)—Li in her married life was a charming yet somewhat coquettish woman who was well aware of her own beauty. She not only often compared herself to a flower but also intended to rival the beauty of a flower—all to attract her husband’s attention. Because of his studies at the Imperial Academy, her husband could return home only on the first and fifteenth days of each month. Consequently, her works of this time also contain melancholy expressions, lamenting her husband’s absence. In such lyrics as “Xiaochongshan” (“Tune: Manifold Little Hills”) and “Zui huayin” (“Tipsy in the Flowers’ Shade”), Li often refers to late spring and expresses sadness that her husband is unable to share the splendid season with her. Generally, the beautiful natural scenery described in her poetry becomes an emblem of her own beauty, which awaits appreciation.
In the second year of her marriage, a power struggle broke out at the imperial court, an event which greatly affected Li’s life. Disliked by the new emperor, her father was expelled from his position as Vice Minister of Rituals and was assigned to a provincial position. In an attempt to rescue her father, Li wrote a poem of petition to her father-in-law, Zhao Tingzhi. The poem moved many people but apparently did not save her father, who served the term of five years in confinement. While Li’s father fell into disfavor with the emperor, her father-in-law rose to power and soon became the vice premier. During the redistribution of political power, her father-in-law was engaged in a struggle for political domination with the premier, Cai Jing, the notorious leader of the New Party. When Zhao finally became the premier, Li wrote and dedicated a poem to him, calling his attention to the inherent danger of becoming an overtly powerful figure. In the midst of this political upheaval, Zhao Mingcheng entered public service. His official career, however, ended abruptly four years later upon the death of his father. As Li expected, after Zhao Tingzhi’s death in 1107, the reinstated Cai seized the opportunity to vent his anger on Zhao’s family.
To avoid persecution, Li Qingzhao and her husband moved back to his hometown in the countryside, Qingzhou, and remained there for ten years. Living in a state of seclusion, Li greatly enjoyed her life with...
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