Li Ch’ing-chao (Li Qingzhao) Complete Poems, translated and edited by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung

One of the excitements of this term for me has been weekly meetings I’ve been having with a Chinese friend who is studying Comparative Literature. Her particular interest is in Chinese and Japanese literature, so she has been introducing me to Chinese and Japanese women writers while I introduce her to the world of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. One thing we realised very early on was that, although I had some limited exposure to Chinese Literature, it was almost exclusively male writers despite my primary literary interest being Victorian women’s writing; I was excited, therefore, to spend more time studying the writing of women from other cultures.

Li Qingzhao lived from 1084 to around 1155, during the Song dynasty, and is one of China’s most well-known poets. Highly educated, her poetry was well-known during her lifetime and her determination in the face of trials has inspired subsequent female poets; she is generally considered one of the most influential female Chinese writers in history.

The poems in this collection draw heavily on nature, with particularly floral scenes being used to explore the realm of human emotion. Li Qingzhao was clearly someone who not only loved the aesthetic of flowers but also was captivated by the symbolism of blooming and fading flowers as they link to emotions such as love and contentment. One aspect of this I found particularly interesting was the way in which the seasons also came to embody this connection between nature and emotion, with Spring featuring heavily particularly in a lot of her earlier poems. Spring is at different times a hedonistic lifestyle, a metaphor for romance, and the nostalgia of something that will not last forever; it was fascinating to see this development throughout the poems and I enjoyed thinking about that particular topic in more depth.

There are various translations available of Li Qingzhao’s poetry, much of it online, and my friend and I did sometimes have to compare the online translations with the ones in my book. Some of the poems translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung are very good, and are done in a way that maintains the flow and tone of the poems. However, others were over-interpreted and we found that more literal translations made more sense. I think that it was good to read this alongside other translated poems in order to decide which one was most true to Li Qingzhao’s original Chinese poems.

Ultimately, I would really encourage people to look up the poetry of Li Qingzhao. I very much enjoyed learning more about this influential writer and reading her poetry; it was such a privilege to be able to spend time with my friend studying a range of women writers from different cultures and exploring the themes found in their writing. Even of poetry is not your thing, reading a few of Li Qingzhao’s poems is a great way to start investigating Chinese literature through entertaining and thought-provoking writing.

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