Visualizing Li Qingzhao (1084-c. 1155)
Nanxiu Qian(Department of Asian Studies,Rice University USA)
This paper explains why I wrote a traditional Chinese drama following on Li Qingzhao’s life. Li’s reputation as the best Chinese woman poet, and one of the most accomplished of all Chinese poets, has long been tarnished by her controversial personal life. Sincere and outspoken, Li often openly voiced her direct conflict with the leading male statesmen and literati of her time, on issues ranging from government affairs to questions of literary style. To most Chinese male intellectuals, Li’s intelligence was impressive but also subversive. Complicating matters was her remarriage after the death of her first husband, and then her divorce from the second. Later male scholars condemned her as “having talent but lacking virtue.”
This disparagement reached its high point during the 1898 reform era, when male reformers singled out Li Qingzhao as a negative example of women’s learning and dismissed poetic creation as outside the acceptable knowledge structure for women. Women, by contrast, admired Li Qingzhao for both her talent and her courage, valorizing her as the teacher of women.
Modern literary criticism tends to split Li’s life into two parts, criticizing her “self-indulgent youth” but acclaiming her “patriotic later years.” Yet this modern version of patriotism that places sovereignty before people’s well-being differs very much from Li’s. For Li, patriotism means first and foremost love for the land, the people, and the culture, and relentless criticism of a sovereign who fails to protect all this and, worse even, puts his people in misery. Li’s life was not an amalgamation of fragments, but a coherent whole permeated with such love.
Since the 1980s, China has staged four different versions of Li Qingzhao’s life. All of these versions, written by male playwrights, have portrayed Li primarily as her husband’s devoted wife, while neglecting her own subjectivity as a passionate poet who expressed in her poetry not only a deep affection for her family, but also a profound love for her country and her people.
This script is written, therefore, in an effort to portray a more authentic Li Qingzhao—one based on extensive archival research and up-to-date scholarship about her life and works.
Li Qingzhao, talent and virtue, patriotism, women’s poetry, subjectivity