The Complete Ci-poems of Li Qingzhao:
A New English Translation

Jaosheng Wang


Li Qingzhao (1084-c.1155), alias Yi An the Lay Buddhist, was born into a family of scholars and officials, in Jinan, Shandong Province. Her father, Li Gefei, was a professor at the Imperial Academy and a noted prose-writer; her mother had some reputation as a writer of poetry. Brought up in such a favorable environment and devoted to her studies, she acquired a deep knowledge of literature and the classics in her teens. Even as a young girl she took to writing delightful little lyrics on her excursions to the suburbs and nearby beauty spots. Ci-poems such as 'A Happy Recollection: To the tune In Dreamland' reveal her girlish naivete, her lively untamed spirit and love of nature.

At eighteen she married Zhao Mingcheng, a student in the Imperial Academy. The union was an ideal one, for they shared the same passion for poetry and the classics, ancient bronze and stone inscriptions and objets d'art, painting and calligraphy. Many were the hours they passed happily together composing poems to rhyme with each other's, and delving into points of nicety in the classics. They enjoyed touring the city and its environs and even out-of-the-way places in quest of favorite antiques and rare editions of ancient books. As a result, her poetic style became more quiet and refined. The exquisite ci-poems she wrote during this period expressed deep love for her husband as well as her feeling of loneliness whenever he happened to be away from home. But unfortunately this married happiness proved to be only temporary. In 1127 the Northern Song regime fell to the Tartars in the notorious Jing Kang Invasion when two Song emperors were ignominiously taken prisoner by the Jin army. The Zhaos suffered untold hardships fleeing the invaders, and were compelled to seek refuge south of the Yangtze. They lost most of their manuscripts and a great number of valuable books and antiques collected over several decades. Then in 1129 came the greatest catastrophe in Li Qingzhao's life: her husband died of typhoid en route to an official post. She was left an outcast to wander aimlessly for years from one place to another. She finally settled in the Southern Song capital Hangzhou, to pass the rest of her days in loneliness and misery. Very little is recorded about the time of her death, but it is generally believed that she lived to about the age of seventy-one. The ci-poems she wrote in her declining years, replete with memories of her deceased husband and of her beloved northern homeland, are particularly admired for their pathos. But most of these were lost, like her other writings, in her precarious wanderings during those troubled years, which was an irreparable loss to Chinese literature.


Before discussing Li Qingzhao's ci-poetry, it may be not out of place to make a brief mention of certain technical points characteristic of the ci-form of classical Chinese poetry. Ci was originally a kind of melody tuned to folk music which later developed into a new form'of written verse consisting of lines of different lengths. A ci-poem is limited to a fixed number of characters conforming to a strict meter and rhyme scheme. According to Wan Shu's Tonal Patterns and Rhyme Schemes in Ci-poetrv more than 1100 types of Ci are now extant. Each type has a label of its own, usually symbolizing some circumstance or event which occurred when the original tune came into being. For example, the ci label Bodhisattva's Gold Headdress (Pusaman) dates back to about 850, when the Tang court received as tribute from the Man minority nationality a troupe of girl singers dressed beautifully in the costumes of fairies wearing golden caps. To celebrate the occasion the tune Pusaman was played in the palace under the emperor's orders. It is therefore evident that the labels of present-day ci-poems mostly have nothing to do with their content. In some cases, however, ci-poems may have titles under their labels giving some idea of the content of the ci. Such titles may have been written by the poets themselves, or later added by commentators or anthologists for the reader's edification. Needless to say, a ci-poem may have no title at all without detriment to its intrinsic merit.

The origin of ci dates back to the Sui Dynasty (581-618). However, since no ci-poems belonging to that period now exist, the great Li Bai of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) is now credited with having composed the first two ci-poems in Chinese literature: 'To the tune Bodhisattva's Gold Headdress' and 'To the tune Remembering the Maid of Qin'. Ci gained in popularity when in course of time other noted Tang poets, Bai Juyi, Wen Tingyun and Wei Yingwu among them, began to write ci-poems simultaneously with shi-poems. But it was not until the end of the Five Dynasties (907-960) and the beginning of the Song Dynasty (960- 1279) that Ci made rapid strides, with a great number of renowned poets turning to Ci as their favorite medium of poetic expression. Though Ci dominated the literary scene for only a limited period, its popularity continued almost undiminished through the Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties to the present century. And even today, new ci-poems are printed not infrequently in the Chinese press side by side with shi-poems. That ci-poetry still occupies an important place in classical Chinese literature is further evidenced by the publication in a recent issue of the magazine Chinese Literature of ten ci-lyrics unearthed in the Dunhuang caves. Beautifully translated into English by Mr Simon Johnstone, these poems have excited a great deal of interest among lovers of ci-poetry both in China and overseas.


Li Qingzhao lived at a time when Ci as a literary genre had attained to the acme of its perfection, with the emergence of two schools of Ci widely different in style and tone: the bold romantic style and the elegant restrained style. There is no doubt that Li belonged to the latter. But when it comes to the question of her status among the ci-poets, critics are prone to two extremes. While some laud her as the greatest writer of ci-poetry that China has ever produced, others deny her even the privilege of ranking among the major Song ci-poets. The consensus today seems in favor of the Qing poet Wang Shizben's view that while Xin Qiji was the foremost exponent of the bold romantic style of ci-poetry, Li Qingzhao was that of the elegant restrained style. She inherited and creatively developed all the fine qualities of her predecessors and finally surpassed them. She brought the elegant restrained style of ci-poetry to its highest perfection by evolving a new style of her own -- the Yi An style, which exerted a profound influence on many distinguished contemporary and later poets. The great Xin Qiji was one of her admirers, and wrote a ci-poem entitled 'Going through Boshan Mountain Pass' in the Yi An style, which appears in Chinese calligraphy on Page 56. This poem suggests an atmosphere of serenity very much like that of Li Qingzhao's "Admiring Lotuses" on Page 12, with the white gull personified and in much the same mood as the egrets and gulls in Li's poem. Wang Shizhen composed no fewer than seventeen ci-lyrics rhyming with hers.

Particularly worthy of notice is Liu Chenweng, a patriotic poet who lived almost a century after Li Qingzhao in the declining days of the Song Dynasty. Like Li, he was greatly troubled by thoughts of the lost Northern Song homeland, and the sufferings of the people under the rule of the Tartar invaders. He wrote a ci-poem entitled 'To the tune Happiness of Eternal Union' to rhyme with one of Li's, with a prefatory note to the following effect:

It is now three years since I first read Yi-an's 'To the tune Happiness of Eternal Union', and was moved to tears. I cannot help feeling touched whenever I re-read it. So I have written one of my own to rhyme with hers, which, though much inferior as regards diction and style, is nevertheless even more permeated with grief.

Liu's poem with his Preface appears in Chinese calligraphy on Page 84. This incident shows that besides their literary excellence, Li Qingzhao's ci-poems, especially those written in her later years, possess a deep social significance in that they exerted a far-reaching imperceptible influence on the thinking of the masses of that age.


Speaking of poetry-writing, the noted Song Dynasty scholar and critic Wei Tai, in his Random Notes on Poetrv, made a remark to the effect that poetry should be exact about the thing described, but refrain from directly expressing the feeling it is intended to convey. In this way the reader may be left to imagine for himself, and enter into the poet's inmost thoughts. Li Qingzhao's ci-poems pre-eminently possess this quality. Among the Song ci-poets she was unique as a master of poetic diction and literary devices. Her ci-poems abound in nature images drawn mostly from material things such as wine, tea and incense; window blinds and bed-cushions; flowers and plants like plum, cassia, crabapple and chrysanthemum; grass and willows; wild geese, egrets, gulls and other birds; as well as natural phenomena: the sun, the moon, the stars; rain, wind, snow, dew, frost, clouds and mists. These are sometimes followed by some description of a human event or action that presumably offers a sort of parallel to the nature images. But the poet refrains deliberately from telling her own feeling, so that the reader is left to imagine, as an aftertaste, what is disturbing her mind. For example:

No more incense smoke from the gilt lion-burner;
Quilts in the bed---a riot of crimson waves.
A jumble of parting thoughts,
Yet I hesitate on the verge of utterance
For fear of bitterness.
Of late I've been growing thin,
Not that I overdrink myself,
Nor from lament for the autumn.


This year at the end of the Earth,
I find my hair greying at the temples.
Now that the evening wind is growing in force,
I shall be hard put to it to come by plum blossoms.

Except in the long poem 'A Galaxy of Beauties' Li Qingzhao seldom relied on classical allusions to achieve effect. Instead. she showed a marked preference for the metaphor and the simile. In several instances, her comparisons have a freshness all their own owing to her innovation of comparing inanimate objects, animals and birds to human beings instead of comparing human beings to these in the conventional way, as witness the following:

Sunny breezes, warm drizzle
Take the chill off the air
As the thaw sets in.
Willow sprouts like a girl's eyes,
Plum blossoms rosy-cheeked:
Already one feels the heart of spring stirring.

In 'Spring at Wu Ling', one of her best-remembered ci-poems, by the ingenious use of colloquialisms, she has created the metaphor 'grasshopper of a boat' to bring the smallness of the boat into charming relief:

I hear 'Twin Brooks' is still sweet
With the breath of spring.
How I'd, too, love to go for a row,
On a tiny skiff.
But I fear at 'Twin Brooks'
My grasshopper of a boat
Wouldn't be able to bear
Such a load of grief.

Li Qingzhao was also a gifted user of Personification, as shown in the following passages from 'Admiring Lotuses':

Beautiful beyond words
Are these verdant hills and sparkling streams
That endear themselves to me so warmly.
Dozing egrets and gulls on the sand
Do not so much as turn their heads,
As if they, too, resent my going away so early.

In her ci-poems we often find simple phrases used in preference to ornate expressions such as are frequently found in the work of her contemporaries. She had a remarkable gift for refining everyday colloquialisms and turning them into plain expressions with a literary flavor that sometimes even have a deep meaning. Her poems are enriched by a wealth of parallel sentences and reiterative words and phrases beautifully adapted from colloquialisms. Take one of her masterpieces "Autumn Sorrow, to a Long Melancholy Tune", which begins with seven pairs of characters ingeniously repeated---a literary feat characteristic of Li's genius that is much admired but hardly ever equalled by later writers. Such repetition not only lends a musical rhythm to the poem but serves as a powerful prelude to the nature images that follow: tantalizing weather, flavorless wine, howling evening wind, vanishing wild geese, faded chrysanthemums strewn neglected on the ground, fine rain dripping lugubriously on the leaves of parasol-trees, and lastly the author's own wizened self at the window in the deepening twilight. The melancholy picture called up by all these, summed up in the concluding sentence, cannot but enter deeply into us, and make our minds respond with ecstasy.


In her celebrated Essay On Ci-poetry, Li Qingzhao laid down hard and fast rules to define the difference between ci and shi, two forms of poetry different in their aims. While shi expresses the will, ci conveys the feelings. Ci is therefore a school all its own.

Li Qingzhao's shi-poems, of which only fifteen survive, were mostly written to satirize the Northern Song emperors' capitulationist policy, as the following translation of her well-known shi-poem Lines Written On A Summer's Day indicates:

In life we should be heroes among the living;
After death, let us be heroes among the ghosts.
To this day we miss that ancient hero Xiang Yu,
Who would rather die than cross to the East of the River!

This satire reveals the poet's clearcut stand against the North Song emperor who fled with his ministers to the South of the Yangtze when pursued by the Jin invaders. It is evident that shi-poems such as this one, though important from a political point of view as her favorite medium for expressing her political ideas, were different in some respects from her ci-poems.

When it comes to the question of style, there is no doubt that Li's shi-poems are far eclipsed by her ci-poems, because the former are mostly written in straightforward, matter-of-fact language, and lack the refined elegance and charm of the latter. It is therefore on her achievements as the leading exponent of the elegant restrained style of ci-poetry that her great fame rests today. The renowned scholar Zheng Zhengduo rightly comments: "As regards style and artistic concept, her five-character and seven-character shi-poems are none too good. But her ci lyrics, it may be said, are peerless among the aneients, and likely to be so in the generations to come... And among poets of all time, she should not rank below either Tao Qian, Li Bai and Du Fu, or Ouyang Xiu and Su Shi." And Li Diaoyuan, in his Random Notes On Ci-poetry From A Rain-washed Village, has this to say: "There is not one of Li Qingzhao's ci-poems but is done with exquisite artistry."

In reading Li Qingzhao's ci-poems, we are conscious of a kind of lingering charm rarely to be found in the works of her contemporaries. This is because her verse with its rich imagery suggests and hints rather than directly expresses the feeling. It was perhaps this irresistible charm that the American poet Amy Lowell referred to as the perfume of a poem which she considered more important than its metrical form.


In her lifetime Li Qingzhao is said to have compiled a book entitled Shu Yu Ci (Jade Rinsing Ci) in several volumes comprising most of her ci-poems written during the two periods of her eventful life (i.e. before and after the fall of the Northern Song in 1127). But all we now have of her ci-poems number only about seventy-eight, of which forty-three are believed to be from her pen, the remaining thirty-five, though generally attributed to her, are still of doubtful authorship despite scholarly debates in the many centuries since her death. However, some consolation may be derived from the fact that even this small number that survive reveal her versatile genius at its best.

This book of The Complete Ci-poems of Li Qingzhao: A New English Translation with the Original Texts in Chinese Calligraphy, contains a total of fifty-five ci-poems. Besides all the forty-three ci-poems written by Li herself, it includes twelve* chosen from those attributed to her, which have long enjoyed popularity because of their being written in the style of Li Qingzhao and their own intrinsic value as poetry.

Although the nuances of Li Qingzhao's ci-poems are too subtle for the translator to transplant effectively to another language, it is hoped that this slender volume will increase the reader's understanding and enjoyment of these treasured lyrics by one of China's greatest poets.

*i.e. poems on pp. 2-3, 26-27, 34-35, 38-39, 40-41, 42-43, 58-59, 96-97, 98-99, 100-101, 104-105, 112-113. However, it must be pointed out that in a very few cases, while in one anthology a certain poem is listed as written by Li herself, in another it may be placed in the category of poems attributed to her. In such circumstances the translator has no alternative but to follow the anthologist he thinks most reliable, taking into consideration as well the intrinsic merits of the poem itself.