Li Qingzhao: More Than Just a 'Forlorn Widow'

August 28, 2015
Editor: Eileen Cheng

Li Qingzhao []

Widely considered the preeminent Chinese female poet, Li Qingzhao (1084-1155) occupies a crucial place in China's literary and cultural history for her extraordinary ci verses, a lyrical poetry style in the tradition of classical Chinese prose.

Whilst standing out as the great exception to the rule that all the first-rate poets in pre-modern China were male, she has been interpreted most of the time as "a devoted but often lonely wife and, later, a forlorn widow," according to Ronald Egan, Stanford professor.

Chen Yan, a professor from Fudan University, expressed a different opinion of Li during the 22nd International Congress of Historical Sciences (ICHS) in Jinan, the hometown of the great woman poet.

"In ancient China, women were supposed to stay in their boudoirs, but Li traveled around most of the country."

In 1101, Li married Zhao Mingcheng, with whom she shared interests in art collecting and epigraphy (the study of inscriptions). Unfortunately, Zhao died in 1129 en route to an official post. The death of her husband was a cruel stroke from which Li never recovered, and on the other hand, prompted many of the works that are now most applauded by Chinese people.

When Zhao was slandered posthumously and said to have betrayed the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), Li tried to show loyalty and restore the reputation of her husband by donating many invaluable family collections to the emperor.

She then married a man named Zhang Ruzhou, who was later found to be abusive and only after her fortune. "She sought and secured her own divorce, even at the risk of being imprisoned," said Chen. Being neither timid nor resigned, she sustained and survived the harsh criticism of her broken marriage.

From defending her first husband to divorcing her second one, Li was completely different from the stereotype of ancient Chinese women, Chen commented.

Apart from her remarkable ci poems and courageous acts against traditional customs, Li played a role in promoting literature among women. In her later years, she worked as a "teacher in the inner chamber" in Hangzhou and more space was therefore provided for women's culture in southern China.

In fact, international academia has attached more importance to Li than taking her as a mere female poet of the graceful and restrained school, pointed out Chen at the congress. She hopes that more efforts will be made to reexamine the life and achievements of this great woman.

The ICHS was established in 1900. Being the most influential academic activity of the historical sciences calendar, it enjoys a reputation as the "Olympics of Historical Sciences."

The 22nd ICHS is held from August 23-29 in Jinan, marking the first time it has come to Asia.

(Source: and Wikipedia/Translated and edited by Women of China)

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