Li Qingzhao: Beauty from Sorrow

 February 6, 2013

After her wedding ceremony, Li Qingzhao was ushered into the newly decorated bridal room while her husband entertained guests outside. Like all brides, she sat on the edge of the bed, with her face covered by a red veil, waiting for her husband.

Sitting there, trying to look through the red veil, she could not help reflecting on her happy girlhood so far.

Like many of her peers in the Northern Song Dynasty (960 - 1127), Li enjoyed the prosperity of the country.

More than that, by the time she got married, she had already attained a measure of fame as a young writer of ci poetry, a kind of lyric poetry in the tradition of classical Chinese poetry. She was also good at calligraphy, painting and music.

In fact, she was so versatile and talented that her father once lamented, "If my daughter had been a boy, it would have been easy for her to pass the government exam to become an official."

Li Qingzhao was a famous poet who lived over 900 years ago. []

Li Qingzhao was a famous poet who lived over 900 years ago. []

Ideal Marriage

Li was born into a family of scholars and officials in Jinan, capital city of north China's Shandong Province. Her father was a government official and an established scholar. Her mother was also well known for her writing.

Growing up in such a family, she learned to recite 100 poems as a child and began writing ci poems as a teenager.

At 18, she married Zhao Mingcheng, a talented and knowledgeable young man from a family of government officials. Zhao's father was later appointed as the prime minister of the country.

Their marriage was an ideal one as the two shared the same passion for poetry, literature and antiques such as calligraphies, paintings and ancient scripts.

Li helped her husband identify and sort out the antiques they purchased. They lived a happy life, even though Zhao spent most of his time studying at the Imperial Academy.

Every time her husband left home, Li wrote a ci poem for her husband. Two years into their marriage, Zhao had to leave on a long trip. On this occasion, Li wrote one of her most well-known poems, A Sprig of Plum Blossoms: Sorrow of Separation.

Several lines from the poem go like this:

Flowers fall and drift away,
Water glides on,
After their nature.
Our yearning is the sort
Both sides far apart endure
A melancholy feeling there's no resisting.
As soon as it leaves the eyebrows
It surges up in the breast.

After some political turmoil, Zhao resigned from his post and stayed home to study his collection of antiques. He spent most of his savings purchasing them, leaving little for their life expenses.

"I would rather live a simple life so that I can purchase as many antiques as I can," Zhao once told Li.

An understanding wife, Li gave him her full support and sought ways to cut their household expenditure, including wearing cloth clothes instead of silk clothes.

Whenever her husband obtained a new item, she joined him in identifying and discussing it. To her husband's surprise, he found that Li had a deep knowledge of history.

The two also frequently talked about poetry.

"I like the lines in your poems, such as ‘Pear blossoms already past their bloom, I'm afraid one can't keep them from fading' and ‘We scared into flight a shore full of dozing egrets and gulls'. They are natural; I can never come up with such lines," said Zhao to his wife once.

"When I began writing poems, my father told me that you can only make a successful poem in this way," Li said.

Zhao once said that Li was ‘my teacher, friend and wife'.

Fleeing to South China

Unfortunately, their happy life came to an end when the Jin Dynasty (1115 - 1234) attacked the Northern Song Dynasty and captured its emperors in 1127.

With the fall of the Northern Song Dynasty, Li and her husband decided to move to the south of China, where Zhao Gou, a prince of the Northern Song Dynasty, created the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 - 1279).

They lost most of their manuscripts and a great number of valuable books and antiques collected over several decades.

Li and Zhao both hoped that the Southern Song armies would be able to recover the land occupied by the Jin army and rescue the people.

When they arrived in Wujiang River in South China's Anhui Province, Li remembered Xiang Yu, a historic hero and general who committed suicide instead of running away from his enemies.

She then wrote a poem criticizing Zhao Gou, who refused to send troops to fight against the Jin army. The poem was short, consisting of only four lines:

A hero in life,
A king of ghosts after death.
Until now we still remember Xiang Yu,
Who refused to return to Jiangdong.


In 1129, Zhao died of typhoid en route to an official posting, leaving Li to mourn his death in despair.

In most of her poems created during her declining years, she depicted her misery and loneliness. In her poem, A Long Melancholy Tune (Autumn Sorrow) Despair, she wrote:

Searching, seeking.
Seeking, searching:
What comes of it but
Coldness and desolation,
A world of dreariness and misery
And stabbing pain!

To convey all the melancholy feelings
Born of these scenes
Can the one word ‘sorrow' suffice?

When she finally settled in Hangzhou, capital city of east China's Zhejiang Province, she continued to write Recordings of Antiques, a book her husband began but did not have the opportunity to complete.

In 1132, she was stricken by a severe illness. Zhang Ruzhou, a former classmate of her husband's from the Imperial Academy, came to visit her and asked her to marry him. Helpless and in despair, Li agreed, hoping that the marriage would make her life better.

However, Li soon realized that Zhang was only after her collection of antiques. When he discovered that most of them had been lost or stolen during the war, he began to treat Li badly.

Learning that Zhang had cheated in the government examinations for officials, Li reported him and sued for a divorce.

However, according to the law at the time, if a wife reported her husband, she would be sentenced to prison for two years whether or not he was convicted of the crime

Consequently, Li was put into prison. Fortunately, one of her friends, Qi Chongli, a senior government official, pleaded her case to the emperor and she was released a few days later.

She remained alone for the rest of her life and completed Recordings of Antiques. Little has been discovered about how or when she died but it is believed that she lived to her 70s and died around 1155.

(Source:, and The Complete Ci-poems of Li Qingzhao:A New English Translation/Translated and edited by


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