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Literature is a window through which the public is able to study the essential events of a dynasty or a country and understand the development of a culture. The long course of Chinese civilization had witnessed the rise of numerous renowned male poets and composers of Song ci, for example, Li Bai, Du Fu, Xin Qiji, Su Shi, and Tao Yuanming. Some of them were romantic and elegant, while others realistic, bold and unconstrained. Despite different personalities and styles in writing, all of them were prolific, composing hundreds and even thousands of poems to articulate their ambitions, to express compassion for the people, and to condemn the tyrants.
In contrast to the large number of celebrated male poets in Chinese history, few female poets were remembered and few of their works were widely circulated and studied. The less amount of female literature circulating around and being studied by Chinese students does not cover the glory of female literature in imperial China nor does it deny the accomplishments of female poets, such as Empress Wu, Xue Tao, and Yu Xuanji (Chang et al., 1999). Among those talented female poets, Li Qingzhao stood out because of her transcendent temperament, distinguished accomplishments in poetry, and critical female consciousness embedded in her poems. Unlike traditional women who were constrained by the great virtues, such as humility, subservience, self-abasement, and obedience, as described by Ban Zhao in Admonitions for Women (Ebrey, 2009), Li utilized her words and poems to pursue love and to rebel against feudal ethics. The Song dynasty was a fundamental stage in the development of female literature since this era witnessed the great awakening and development of female consciousness in writings produced by women. Li Qingzhao was thus the most critical representative of this era’s female literature since her poems intensely revealed the awakening and existence of female consciousness through choice of themes, narrative strategies, and main focuses (Li, 2013).
One of the most eminent Chinese historians, Tan Zhengbi, once highly remarked on Li Qingzhao’s accompaniment and her contribution to female literature development. Tan said “there are few female writers in the history of Chinese literature. Cai Yan of the Han dynasty, Xue Tao and Yu Xuanji of the Tang dynasty are few of the brightest and most talented. Among them only Li Qingzhao took a leading position in the literary circle and was able to rival such a large number of male poets in imperial Chinese history.” (Li, 2013)
The Chinese patriarchal feudal traditions advocated the idea of male superiority and female inferiority (Robertson, 1992). Females were seen as male subordinates without political and economic status. Females even did not have the right to choose a partner or freely pursue love. Moreover, feudal ethical concepts, such as wives submitting to husbands, imprisoned women’s thoughts and made them abandon their independence and intellectual development (Robertson, 1992). However, with unique female aesthetics, Li Qingzhao’s poems described the lifestyle and emotions of women in the Song dynasty (Robertson, 1992). The complete and systematic female consciousness expressed in those works has inspired countless readers (Robertson, 1992). Li boldly demonstrated her resistance and rebellion against the feudal rites in her poems. Furthermore, she was brave enough to speak about love and politics (Robertson, 1992). The female consciousness in her works is mainly reflected in the following aspects, including self-awareness, the pursuit of love, and social consciousness (Robertson, 1992).
Most women in imperial Chinese society lacked individuality and independence. They were constrained and imprisoned in the fate of staying at home, submitting to their fathers, husbands, and son, and taking care of the family. On the contrary, Li Qingzhao had the courage to praise herself, to evaluate herself, and to examine and criticize authorities. Her confidence, independence, and resilience were shown vividly and incisively in many of her works.
In one of the poems praising osmanthus flowers, Li Qingzhao captured the characteristics of osmanthus flowers and wrote that “love is far away, while only the fragrance stays” (Ching-Chao, 1979). She imagined herself to be the elegant osmanthus flowers and expressed her inner noble characters (Ching-Chao, 1979). Moreover, with the verse, “osmanthus flowers do not need to be light blue and deep red, since they are inherently the greatest and top-rated flowers”, Li strongly expressed her disdain for ostentation, while advocated refined aesthetic tastes and lifestyles (Ching-Chao, 1979). Furthermore, she continued to complain that Qu Yuan did not include osmanthus flowers into his masterpiece, Li Sao, and boldly pointed out his lack of aesthetic tastes. Li Qingzhao’s confidence, pride and even narcissistic attitude towards life were fully demonstrated throughout this poem.
2. Pursuit of Love
In imperial China, women’s thoughts and behaviors were strictly managed and controlled by the feudal ruling class and the feudal regulations. Women were deeply repressed emotionally by the influence of feudal ethical traditions and concepts. Freedom and rights, such as love and marriage, were strictly entitled to men (Jiaying, 2004). However, Li Qingzhao had the courage to express her pursuit of love, her cherish for her husband, and her desire and praise for true love in poems. With gentle, elegant, and passionate words, she recorded various experiences of life and love from a unique aesthetic perspective of women, shaping an image of females who desired freedom and were daring to love and hate. Her writings also displayed a distinctive female consciousness (Jiaying, 2004).
Many of Li Qingzhao’s poems, especially her early works, depicted young girls’ yearning for and active pursuit of love (Jiaying, 2004). For example, in one of her most celebrated poems written to the tune “Rinsing Silk Stream”, she wrote the following verses and expressed the intense emotions of a young girl. “Thousands of light flakes of crushed gold for its blossoms, Trimmed jade for its layers of leaves. This flower has the air of scholar Yen Fu. How brilliant! Plum flowers are too common; Lilacs too coarse when compared. Yet, its penetrating fragrance drives away my fond dreams of faraway places. How merciless!” (Ching-Chao, 1979)
With only a few strokes, Li Qingzhao was able to picture a gorgeous girl with beautiful makeup and dress, passionately pursuing freedom and love. Using the image of a girl who dared to rebel against feudal ethics, Li Qingzhao fully expressed her support for women’s active pursuit of love. At the same time, she harshly criticized the oppression of women in the patriarchal society and highlighted the female consciousness in her works.
Li Qingzhao also did not hesitate to show her love life in her poems. Her love life was not always happy and sweet (Jiaying, 2004). She was once upset and frustrated with her marriage with her husband, Zhao Mingcheng. One of the most famous poems Li wrote was when her husband traveled far away from home for business. At that time, they were a newly married couple and had to be separated (Jiaying, 2004). Therefore, she had a lot of difficulties restraining her sadness and wrote down a touching and sentimental masterpiece as a gift for Zhao Mingcheng. She wrote “who sends letters in the cloud to come? When wild goose returns, the moon climbs the west building” and “one kind of lovesickness, idle worry in two places” to show that she and her husband missed and cared about each other (Ching-Chao, 1979). Moreover, this poem demonstrated that in Li’s marriage, she viewed husband and wife as equal and independent. However, this intimate relationship also made them depend on each other (Jiaying, 2004).
3. Social Consciousness
In imperial China, women had no social status, and few women had the opportunity to express their concern for the country and the people. Li Qingzhao was not only knowledgeable and talented, but more importantly, her talent was not limited to playing the piano and chess, painting, poetry and music. Li Qingzhao lived in a fast changing dynasty and as a woman, she could not kill the enemies on the battlefield when the foreign armies invaded, nor could she enter the court to discuss politics when the country was in danger (Van Bibber-Orr). However, she still held a firm sense of social responsibility and expressed her deep concern for the country and the people from a unique female perspective through her poems.
Although Li Qingzhao was a representative figure of the school of graceful and restrained ci poetry in the Song dynasty, there was a heroic spirit in her blood. After the Rebellion of Jingkang, she lost her husband and was displaced from her home, experiencing all kinds of hardships. Li Qingzhao opposed the negative actions of the rulers of the southern Song dynasty and hated the pain brought by the war (Van Bibber-Orr). At the same time, she expressed her wish to firmly fight against the unfair fate. In the later stage of Li Qingzhao’s creative career, many works reflected her experiences through her own sufferings (Van Bibber-Orr). From the perspective of a woman, Li used her sensitive heart to feel the pain of the suffering people, and expressed her deep sympathy for them with her sincere writings (Ko, 1992).
As a woman living in the imperial Chinese society, Li Qingzhao broke away from the strict confinement of the traditional feudal ethics with her distinct female consciousness. Her achievement as a woman in the history of Chinese literature will forever remain legendary. Her poems aroused the awakening of female consciousness and had a profound impact on the development of many knowledgeable women and female literature and Li Qingzhao thus became a monumental figure admired by generations of readers.
Chang, Kang-I. Sun, Haun Saussy, and Charles Yim-tze Kwong. Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism. Stanford University Press, 1999.
Li, Xiaorong. Womens Poetry of Late Imperial China: Transforming the Inner Chambers. University of Washington Press, 2013.
Robertson, Maureen. “Voicing the Feminine: Constructions of the Gendered Subject in Lyric Poetry by Women of Medieval and Late Imperial China.” Late Imperial China 13.1 (1992): 63-110.
Ching-Chao, Li, and Qingzhao Li. Li Chʻing-chao, complete poems. Vol. 492. New Directions Publishing, 1979.
Van Bibber-Orr, Edwin. “Bodies of work: song dynasty prefaces to women’s poetry as gender discourse.” International Communication of Chinese Culture: 1-16.
Xuanji, Yu, and Hsüan-chi Yü. The clouds float north: the complete poems of Yu Xuanji. Wesleyan University Press, 1998.
Ko, Dorothy. “Pursuing Talent and Virtue: Education and Women’s Culture in Seventeenth-and Eighteenth-Century China.” Late Imperial China 13.1 (1992): 9-39. (Tan Zhengbi’s quote)
Jiaying, Ye. “From Li Qingzhao to Shen Zufen: Talking about the Evolution of Aesthetic Qualities of Feminine Ci-poetry [J].” Literary Heritage 5 (2004): 000.
Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, ed. Chinese civilization: A sourcebook. Simon and Schuster, 2009.
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