Portrait of a poet

Eva Shan Chou lauds an original, erudite portrait of a writer whose courage matched her creativity

February 20, 2014

It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that Li Qingzhao (1084- c.1155) is the sole female poet in traditional Chinese poetry who is known to all. Although there were other poets of her sex whose works have been recently recovered by scholars, they are known chiefly among specialists. By contrast, Li’s ci (poems in song-lyric form) have been continuously known and quoted since her lifetime. Their haunting evocation of the transience of life, conveyed in fleeting images of nature and glimpses of laughter or sorrow, is reinforced by their reception as moments in the life of an elegant, well-born woman, one who collaborated with her husband in 30 years of collecting rare books and rubbings and with whom she playfully competed in poetry writing and reciting.

Unsurprisingly, no aspect of this portrait is quite accurate, for legacies are strongly, and sometimes unrecognisably, shaped at every turn by historical and cultural demands. Certainly the accrual of myths in Li’s case is enmeshed in every work of criticism on her. But in The Burden of Female Talent, Ronald Egan approaches this tangle in a rigorous, consistent way, and so the amount that remains intact is small. The number of song lyrics that may be reliably identified as Li’s is halved to 36 and none is conclusively dated, while previous interpretations tied to assumptions about her life are disproved. Egan analyses this small corpus in a tour de force entirely free of biography. But what is most valuable is that he replaces the myths with convincing portraits of Li’s thinking and actions that draw on her prose as well as poetry, developing them with sense, sensitivity and erudition.

As Egan shows, the investment of readers and critics alike in maintaining certain views of Li resulted, at its most innocent, in bewilderingly varied connections proposed between poem and life. More soberingly, features of Li’s life that did not conform to convention were suppressed or distorted. An important example is her remarriage at age 49. This act, thought inexplicable, brought her scorn in her lifetime and was explained away in following centuries as slander. Through careful analysis in their entirety of two major, lengthy pieces of Li’s prose (a letter and an afterword to her first husband’s annotated catalogue of their collection), Egan sees something else in this incident: the impossible situation of a widow in flight during wartime, seeking to protect a dwindling collection of books and rubbings from collectors who included the emperor. One difficulty followed another. When her new husband turned out to be a charlatan rather than a protector, she brought action against him that, under Song Dynasty laws, ensured her own imprisonment. (An official’s intercession released her, and the letter was written to him.) In both the letter and the afterword, she could state her position only in the most oblique way. Egan reads these texts ultimately as the courageous, determined efforts of a woman who had to act alone to reinstate her place in society, as she did in the end.

Also considered here are some distinctive attributes of Li’s work that would have been natural for a male poet but have been discounted in her case. She is shown to have written, again obliquely, about such traditionally “masculine” topics as political and military developments, the place of writing in her identity and her ambition to write in the literati’s shi poetry form. Even within the ci form, where the poem’s speaker is always female, she sought to establish a place for herself as a female writer of the female voice.

Li is known for her skilful, intricate ci, but the insights of this study will elicit as much respect for her grit and her suppressed, defiant, unrealised ambitions as for her poetry. The first work of this kind in any language, The Burden of Female Talent is both grand synthesis and original scholarship, with a clear style that makes a complex story easy to follow.

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