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Li Qingzhao: Her Life

Li Qingzhao: Her Life

Li Qingzhao (1084-c. 1155), is considered by most to be the most famous and brilliant of all female poets in Chinese history. Her accomplishments are more remarkable because of where and when she lived. Women in general in ancient China did not enjoy the access and opportunities afforded to men. But she was born into a family with deep traditions in education and culture.

The following summary of her life and work came from the two source books my wife and I bought in mainland China years ago. Both of these authors wrote about Li Qingzhao’s life and work before publishing her poems. Like all of the source books we use, they are all in Chinese, and each poem also has written notes and commentary. Historians do not agree on all of the facts regarding her life events. But what follows is one historical interpretation.

Most historian’s believe that Li Qingzhao was born in 1084. Her family’s roots came from the province of Shandong, and the city of Jinan. We know that Li’s father was Li Gufei, a high level government official. Her paternal great grandfather was also a high level official. Li’s mother was most likely not her father’s first wife. There is evidence that the father had as many as three wives. Her maternal side of the family was also educated and well connected.

Li Qingzhao grew up in the city of Yangzhou and therefore received a lot of influence from her great grandfather. Around the age of three or four, Li began her studies of music and the visual arts. When Li was about ten years old her mother died. Her father then got remarried to the deceased mother’s niece.

At the age of fifteen or sixteen she moved to the city of Kaifeng to be with her father. By this time she had been promised in marriage to her future husband. In the year 1101, she was married to a high level government official’s son, Zao Mingcheng. The years right after their marriage were the happiest of their lives. They got busy making music, writing poetry and spent a lot of time and money collecting objects of art, ancient books and artifacts. Later on they even wrote books, and became experts, about their collections. Not concerned with money or government politics, their poems reflected this happiness and peace.

Then Li’s husband obtained a government position in the imperial bureaucracy and had to travel outside. Soon thereafter, the husband’s mother died, which required him to observe the three years of mourning.

In the year 1127, the Northern Song Dynasty finally collapsed, which forced the palace and government had to flee. The capital city was moved to Nanjing. The Southern Song Dynasty thus began, and lasted until 1279. Li and her husband’s hometown experienced civil unrest and the burning of many houses, including Li’s, where their treasures were stored. With her husband working in another city, Li also had to flee. This dislocation had a significant and negative impact upon Li Qingzhao and her husband. She was forced to bury many of their largest treasures near their home in Shandong Province. The rest was packed into fifteen large carts for an arduous trip to Nanjing. She lost many of their books in route. After four months, she and the carts arrived in Nanjing.

Over time, Li realized that her husband was suited to read and write, collect books and objects of art, but not for the rough and tumble of official life. They began to fight more, and he in turn stayed away from their house more. After serving only one year, her husband lost his job as a local city mayor. She expressed her anger at him for not being strong enough to stand up against his political rivals. This forced the couple to move many times looking for a safe place to live.

By the year 1129, her husband was assigned to another low level government position. He had to travel on boats and horses to his new assignment. On the way he came down with a fever and diarrhea. Li, seeking to find and nurse him back to health, traveled about 300 li (180 miles) on boats to be with him. But two months later her husband died while out in the countryside. Under all of the stress, Li too became ill. She ordered her husband’s servants to go and fetch their 20,000 some books and other treasures to bring them to her in the city of Jianxi. Here the mayor was her deceased husband’s brother-in-law. Li Qingzhao hoped that he could help protect her and the treasures that were still left.

Unfortunately the northern hordes invaded this city and region too. At first, Li escaped with a few of her most valued books and artifacts. But then she was caught and put into a jail. At this point Li had to bestow all of the books and treasures to the what was left of the imperial government.   She was forced to do this probably because of a political faction that falsely accused her of selling some of these artifacts to the invaders. But the government was also on the run, her treasures were stashed and hidden in four different cities. Along the way, more was stolen by corrupt government workers.

The Emperor himself was forced to flee onto an ocean going ship, and was only saved by the protection of a large storm. The nomads were not an ocean worthy force so they could not follow him. Later, with the rise of a new emperor, the old guard came back into power. This included both Li and her deceased husband’s families. At this time, Li Qingzhao’s life settled down somewhat. She stopped running, but then thieves broke into her house and stole more books. She lost her most favorite five books, including one by Tao Yuanming.

After a period of sickness and mourning, a well-connected business man came forward to offer Li protection through a marriage to her. At first, she declined his proposal, but surrendered to his persuasions, for reasons both honorable and perhaps dishonorable. We don’t know for sure. But after the marriage, Li’s new husband soon wanted to sell some of her prized books. After her refusal, the physical abuse by her husband followed. Li Qingzhao had to resort to locking up her bookcases.

Then she discovered that this new husband never actually passed the imperial exams, but rather had to buy his government position. When found out, the husband was put into jail. Guilt by association put Li herself into jail for nine days. Only a letter written by her first husband’s cousin got her released. She then divorced her husband, the first divorce in the all of the history of China.

Now over the age of fifty, Li moved to Hangzhou where some of her family could help her. She started to catalog her remaining treasures, and wrote a book that she and her first husband began to write many years ago. During the printing of the book Li had to flee again as Hangzhou was invaded. She went to the city of Jinghua, near the modern day city of Ningbo.

After six or seven years following her first husband’s death, Li finally ended her mourning. At this time she stopped writing her famous ci poems, and began to write poems more masculine and political in nature. Although Li returned to live in Hangzhou, her poems were critical of the government and what had transpired over the past decades. She stopped writing at the age of sixty because of this bitterness. Fearing her criticism would land her in jail again, she chose to remain silent. She died in Hangzhou in her early seventies.

Most critics feel that her poems passed many, or most of her male colleagues in elegance and clarity. The following Ming Dynasty burned many of her poems, so only less than a hundred survived. Much of her life and work remain a mystery to this day.

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