top of page

The Life of Li, Qingzhao


    Li Qingzhao (1084-?/c.1155 /65, social name; Yi'an, also known as 'the Recluse Yi'an'.) ) was born into a family of scholars, her “grandfather and her father, Li Gefei, having been students of the noted scholar Han Qi”. In the Song dynasty, poetry was an avenue to political position via the official imperial examinations. The shortlisted candidates were chosen for administrative posts. Candidates were examined on the classics of poetry, literary writings, and the ancient arts to find those most worthy to interpret justice, official decrees, and the social good, in their official capacities. Li Gefei is supposed to have written the Li-Chi Ching-i, an explanation of The Book of Rites, an interpretation of Confucian customs that are no longer extant. In 1086 Li Qingzhao's father was made a professor in the university in the capital.


    She received an excellent education at her home. Her mother also wrote poems and essays. Because of her father's position, numerous scholars, poets, and writers were often received in their home. Su Shi (Su Dongpo) was among those she certainly knew. Her first known creative work of substance was a companion set of poems for one of Zhang Lei's works when her father and the great poet were friends, during Li Gefei's tenures as a collator of the imperial library at Loyang and as director of one of the bureaus on The Ministry of Rites.


    In 1101, at the age of seventeen, Li Qingzhao was married to Zhao Mingcheng, the son of Zhao Tingzhi, then vice-minister of personnel in the national government. Soon after her marriage she wrote:


Budding blooms

- to the tune of Jianzi Magnolia

(translated by Julia Min)


From a flower peddler in neighborhood

I bought budding blooms for our room.

The pink tips are covered with morning dews

Still twinkling with golden red hues.


Her natural charm could fascinate my mate.

I regret my silly choice,  but too late.

So pinned on my hair near my cheeks fair

I wear the blossom for him to compare.


    The marriage, in fact, proved a happy one though no children were born to them. It was troubled only by two events, Zhao Mingcheng's frequent and prolonged absences on career matters and the political disfavor that came to Li Qingzhao's family when her father's reactionary positions on The New Law were declared out of favor with the Dragon Throne and he was listed as one of those who could not hold public office, in 1095. It was her own husband's father, Zhao Tingzhi, who relegated Li Gefei to a very minor position, and who had to be implored even to grant his own son access to an official position, which was finally granted. Two years after their marriage, Zhao Mingcheng graduated from the Imperial Academy and began a career as a public functionary in the national administration. For ten years, they lived in their native province, where he was a magistrate, first at Lai Zhou and then in Qingzhou.


    Even while he was a student, and later, while he was a humble magistrate, the young, learned lovers bought precious manuscripts, paintings, and art objects from the past, often pawning clothing, and always straining their modest means, for the thrill of possessing the originals of important works. They copied painstakingly the manuscripts they could not afford to purchase. They played a game of naming specific lines and points in one of the manuscripts in their collection, as a challenge to recalling the precise location. The winner was served jasmine tea by the loser.

    The scholarly pair also collected ancient bronze objects and reproductions of inscriptions on steles, which they later organized and published as a rather famous critical study called Jin Shi Lu (Critical Studies of Metal and Stone Inscriptions, c.1121).  Typical ancient inscriptions on bronze ceremonial vases often contain lines of  Zen ideas, e.g.:


       A man mirrors his face every morning. why not his heart?


      About 1124, Li Qingzhao and her husband moved to Zizhou ( today in Shandong Province) upon his transfer and were there in 1126 when the capital came under Jin‘s siege. In 1127, in the first year of the reign of Emperor Gaozong of the Southern Song Dynasty, Zhao Mingcheng's mother died and he left, alone, for Nanjing to attend the funeral. He took fifteen cartloads of books with him but could not take any more of their sizable collection. When the Jin took Qingzhou  at the end of that year, it is said, ten rooms of books were burned. That same year Li Qingzhao learned that her father had fallen again into disgrace with the Emperor. Her loneliness was extreme because she could see her world coming undone and much pain and unhappiness ahead. She was forty-seven and all the best years were unquestionably behind her.


      1127 was also the year the new Emperor appointed Zhao Mingcheng prefect of Jiankang, and Li Qingzhao joined him there. In early 1129 the couple moved again, out of harm's way, to Huzhou (Zhejiang). But then disaster. In early July of 1129, while separated from his wife and once more on his way to a new post, Zhao Mingcheng fell ill. Li Qingzhao hurried by boat to JianKang to meet him, taking with her a goodly coach of manuscripts and household necessities. He died in early September and she was left alone in a land alive with invasion turbulence on every border and the Dragon Throne itself moving from capital to capital.


    With an always decreasing quantity of household possessions (utensils and beddings enough for only one-hundred guests) Li Qingzhao followed the Dowager Empress and the royal court to Hangzhou (Jiangsu Province), to Yuezhou, and thence to Mingzhou (Zhejiang Province). She regarded as her most precious possessions manuscripts of the Tang poets Li Bai and Du Fu. In 1132 she followed the court to Hangzhou.


     There is reason to believe she remarried. Perhaps in 1132, to one Zhang Ruzhou, whom she seems to have sued for embezzlement. He was dismissed from public office, some records show, as a result. If it was so, Li Qingzhao herself would have been sentenced to two years imprisonment for accusing her husband, under Confucian law. The record is that she spent nine days in prison, and was released after the intercession by a friend of her husband's family. Later historians, favoring a more romantic story, tried to dismiss this scanty but real evidence of her subsequent marriage. The real possibility is that her younger brother, Qinhua, with whom she was living in 1130, counseled an ill-advised marriage for his sister, whose wealth would have attracted unscrupulous suitors. Though Confucian law did frown upon the remarriage of widows. Such marriages did often occur. The later Ming apologists for her widowhood were likely trying to defend the Confucian ideal of womanhood.


      When peace with the Jin was made in 1138, Li Qingzhao was living in Hangzhou. In 1142 her congratulatory poems for the Dragon Boat Festival were declined by the court, allegedly because of the disapproval of court intellectuals. In 1149, at the age of sixty-five, she took some of her deceased husband's writings on a visit to his old friend Mi Youren, to invite him to add lines of his own. This is the last recorded activity of her life.


      She had lived to see herself in ultimate loneliness as a recluse, her and her husband's vast collection of manuscripts and artifacts either burned, abandoned, or stolen, and her country invaded and conquered. Her poems that had begun in almost girlish glee at life's (and art's) possibilities, came to embody years of solitude at her privileged window in despair.

bottom of page