Li Qingzhao’s early life was one of privilege and happiness, but that happiness did not last. Political infighting resulted in her father’s temporary exile and her father-in-law’s disgrace. Her beloved husband’s official duties caused repeated separations, and he died in his late forties. The conquest of North China by the Tartars meant the loss of her extensive art collection and difficult years as a widowed refugee. Despite the nostalgic and sorrowful tone of many of her poems, however, her work suggests the personal strength that enabled her to survive in such difficult times.
Li Qingzhao was born to a family that placed a high value on literature and education. Her father, Li Kefei, was an important figure in the national government and was well known for such prose writings as his essay on the famous gardens of the city of Luoyang. Her mother, whose family name was Wang, was a poet who had been educated at home by her grandfather, an outstanding scholar and former prime minister. Family friends of talent, influence, and learning filled the household. The lively, intelligent girl’s abilities were encouraged by this literary atmosphere and by the approval of the adults around her, despite the strictures concerning education for women that were prevalent in her time. Her reputation for poems in the respected shi form was established while she was still in her teens, and she developed her talents for painting and calligraphy as well.
By most accounts, Li Qingzhao was eighteen when she married Zhao Mingcheng, a young student from another important family. The two were well-matched. In two years, her husband entered the civil service, and the couple developed their collection of books, antique bronzes, and other art objects. In...
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