CASE 1:  Women and Arts in the 13th Century


Successor to Su Shi and precursor to Xin Qiji, Li Qingzhao is known as “China’s greatest woman poet” and was a leading master of the lyric form of poetry. Since the Song Dynasty, she has been appreciated for her proud and unconventional spirit, which is reflected in her sometimes indecorous poetry. As early as the twelfth century, China had famous women poets. However, elsewhere in Eurasia at this time, it was very uncommon to have such a well-respected and educated woman writer publishing popular romantic poetry, like Li Qingzhao.

Her poem Dian jiang chun describes the emotions felt by Li as she resides in her bedroom chamber without her lover. From the first line of the poem, we know that Li speaks of her lover since she is alone in her bedroom (a place typically occupied by lovers). Also, she describes her sorrow, which is tangled in a thousand skeins of loose coils of thread or yarn. The images of spring ending and the flower petals falling allude to the fact that her lover is not present. We know that Li feels weak from sorrow because she must lean on the balustrade, a railing with upright supports, in order to hold herself up. Early in her life, Li married a Chinese official named Zhao Mingcheng; therefore, we can assume Li’s romantic poem of deep loneliness refers to the absence of her husband, Zhao. In the last couple of lines of the poem, Li uses the image of the fading path in withering grass to explain that she worries her husband will not be able to find his way home if the path has faded.

Title: Dian jiang chun
Author: Li Qingzhao (1084–c.1151; Song Dynasty)
Translator: Eugene Eoyang

[English translation]

Lonely in my inner chamber.
My tender heart, a wisp; my sorrow tangled in a thousand skeins.
I’m fond of spring, but spring is gone,
And rain urges the petals to fall.

I lean on the balustrade:
Only loose ends left, and no feeling.
Where is he?
Withering grasses stretch to the heavens:
I can’t make out the path that leads him home to me.

Cited in Kang-i Sun Chang and Haun Saussy, eds., Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 95.

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