During the several thousand years of feudal society in China, women were invariably placed at the bottom of society, their talent and intelligence were given no chance to develop. Throughout the ages, however, nearly a hundred remarkable women writers succeeded in breaking through the bounds of the feudal ethical code and winning their rightful place in the history of literature. Their artistic achievements were by no means inferior to those of their contemporary male counterparts. Among these illustrious women, Li Qingzhao, a poetess of the Song Dynasty was the most outstanding and influential.
Li Qingzhao was born of a famous literary man's family in Jinan, Shandong. In her childhood, she had received a good education and read extensively in ancient Chinese history and literature. Her husband Zhao Mingcheng was a brilliant Imperial University student who was deeply interested in classical scholarship and especially in epigraphy and archaeology. There is an interesting anecdote about their marriage. When Zhao Mingchong was still a youngster, he had a dream one day while taking a nap. On waking up, he remembered only three of the lines in a book he had been reading in his dream: “Words will fall into place; hair grows profuse without a cap; stalemate shall be truncated.” Full of curiosity he told his father about it. The latter was overjoyed, saying, “It seems to me that you will soon have a talented woman for wife.” He then began to give his explanation, “Words falling into place is the process of composing a poem; a capless person who has long hair is a woman; and stalemate truncated makes the word mate. Doesn't that mean you are going to be a talented woman's mate? Common interest and aspirations brought about a perfect marriage. Since they cherished the same ideals and were utterly devoted to each other, they were always seen together, sightseeing, composing poetry and exchanging ideas on the appreciation of literary works. On the other hand, they led a frugal life, and whatever money they could spare they spent on books, scrolls of art and curios , and made a systematic study of them.
Connubial happiness made the two loath to part with each other. On the few occasions when Zhao Mingcheng had to be away from home on official business, Li Qingzhao would be pining at home for his early return. The best she could do was to commit her yearning and agonizing thoughts to paper by way of writing poetry. One of the ci poems composed to the tune of Rumengling runs as follows:
My sleep last night was troubled by a violent storm outside ;
And when I work I still felt dizzy from the lingering effect of wine;
Anxiously I asked the maid who rolled up the bamboo curtains;
To my surprise came her reply, “The flowers are all right.”
But that's impossible, and don't you know all would remain a scene;
Of petals fallen and leaves of their company sorrowfully deprived!“
This short poem of no more than six lines effectively describes through a short poetic dialogue the scene of a storm-swept garden in autumn. The description reflects the loneliness of a sad sensitive woman touched by the sight of fallen petals and reminded of the transience of youth. In the line "petals fallen and leaves of their company sorrowfully deprived." "petals" and “leaves" are personified and the dual images of a dismal scene in nature and a self-pitying woman are blended. Despite its sadness and sentimentality, the poem has won high admiration from posterity for its plain figurative language, natural but sophisticated description, and pregnant and profound artistic conception. "Petals fallen and leaves of their company sorrowfully deprived" has become a famous oft-quoted line.
Once on a Double Ninth Festival, Li Qingzhao sent a poem she had written to her husband who was then far away. After reading it, Zhao Mingcheng couldn't help admiring its superb artistry, then he felt eclipsed for his own compositions. Yet with the hope of doing better than his wife, he shut himself up for three whole days refusing to see anyone, and succeeded in composing over fifty poems.
Then, mixing them up with those written by his wife, he took them to his friend for comments. His friend read the mixed poems carefully for several times and said, "Of all these poems, my opinion is that the following lines are the best:
I have indeed been pining away;
The bamboo screen sways with unconcern in the chilling gusts;
While my emaciated body is now comparable to a withered flower."
And these lines happened to be Li Qingzhao's.
In the year 1127, the Jin, a minority nationality in the north, vanquished the Northern Song government, which fled south and established the Southern Song regime in Hangzhou. The war broke up Li Qingzhao’s happy family. Zhao Mingcheng died of illness while a large part of their collection of books, scrolls and curios was lost in the war. Alone, Li Qingzhao wandered about until she came to an area between today's Hangzhou and Shaoxing, and spent the rest of her days in misery, loneliness and profound melancholy. In many of her poems, she expressed her nostalgia for her native town, her old home and late husband, recalling the peaceful happy life that was no more. “All alone, my thoughts keep wandering, groping mournfully in the utter gloom of misery.” These are the beginning lines of the best-known ci poem Shengshengman she wrote in her old age, in which she poured out the boundless pent-up bitterness in her heart.
The abrupt changes of the age and the vicissitudes in her life gave Li Qingzhao’s poems a richness of subject matter, a sincerity of feeling and an artistic maturity. Li Qingzhao became an outstanding representative of the “Euphemistic School“ in Chinese poetry, whose works are characterized by a depth of meaning and a graceful style of natural simplicity. Li Qingzhao was not only an accomplished ci poetess but an outstanding and original theoretician of ci writing as well. Her essay On Ci was the earliest theoretical work on the subject. She was a versatile writer who also excelled in poems and essays. Li Qingzhao’s remarkable achievements and lasting fame were the pride of all Chinese women in the feudal ages.