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Phrase & Stories
Poems by Li Qingzhao

Poems by Li Qingzhao


Notes on the Poems

     Li Qingzhao is one of the most famous authors of ci. This form of lyric verse first became prevalent during the Five Dynasties, and was widely used by the literati of the Song dynasty. The ci arose as words to older melodies transmitted from Central Asia. Each poem takes its title, its rhyme scheme, and the pattern which determines the number of syllables per line from the piece of music for which it was written. The ci thus feature lines of irregular syllabic length combined in stanzas which adhere to a fixed pattern. Such poetry offered fascinating new rhythmic opportunities to Chinese authors.


     Both of the following ci address the theme of mourning for an absent husband. The first was written by Li Qingzhao during the Mid-Autumn festival to a tune titled "Drunken under the Shadows of Flowers". This piece was created for and sent to Zhao Mingcheng while he served as an official in a distant province. The second was written six years after his death to the tune of "Spring in Wuling".
     The mid-autumn or Chongyang festival takes place on the ninth day of the ninth month. It was originally a harvest celebration, the time of the autumn feast for the dead. This is a day for picnics, for admiring scenery and places of natural beauty, for spending time with lovers and family. The festival is a ritual intended to grant long life to its participants; it elicits musings on longevity and mortality.


     The celebration of the Double Ninth was a topic addressed several times by the wine-loving recluse Tao Ch"ien (AD 400). When she speaks of drinking wine in the eastern bamboo groves, Li Qingzhao thus doubtless refers to a famous line from the earlier poet"s piece "Drinking Wine" (V): "I gather chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge". The image of the chrysanthemum is associated with both long life and the Zhongyang festival. Li Qingzhao refers to the golden blossoms while mourning the absence of her husband during the mid-autumn fest.
     The place-name Wuling is probably a reference to Tao Chien"s prose piece "Peach Blossom Spring". In another poem ("Mourning the Flute in the Phoenix Pavilion"), Li Qingzhao calls her husband her "Wuling friend", implying someone with whom she has shared blissful days. Such beauteous, halcyon times will, like the land of peach blossoms which Tao Chien describes, never again be experienced by mortals.
     Both poems illustrate a unique awareness of the progress of time. Tension is created between the conflicting images of time as a cyclic and a linear phenomenon. "Double Nine" describes one interminable day during which the poet mourns her absent husband. The return of the mid-autumn festival indicates a repetitive aspect to time; however, the onset of cold at midnight speaks of linear progression and describes the poet"s sharpening awareness of loss. The incense burner wears away, the soul withers; Li Qingzhao imagines herself dwindling and fading like a flower. "Wuling Spring" is set at the close of day, the end of summer. The blossoms have fallen. The feeling of loss which entered the reader"s consciousness in the previous poem now overwhelms. Elsewhere, other lives go on: spring returns to the town called Shuangxi, but it passes the poet by.

 

Double Nine

To the tune of "Drunken under the Shadows of Flowers."

     Faint mist, somber clouds; sorrow the whole day. My incense wears thin its golden beast. It is again the festive season of Mid-Autumn. At midnight the chill first penetrates my gauze curtains and seeps into the headrest of precious jade.
     After dusk I hold a cup of wine in the eastern groves. A secret fragrance fills my sleeves: you cannot say that this does not wither the soul. A wind from the west furls the curtain; I dwindle, thin as a golden flower.

Tenuous mist, thick cloud overcast;
Sorrow the whole endless day.
Incense wears thin the brazen beast;
Again comes the time of the Mid-Autumn fest.
Through gauze curtains and pillow of jade
At midnight the cruel chill seeps.

After dusk I drink in the eastern grove.
A secret fragrance fills my sleeves:
Don"t tell me this loss does not wither the soul.
The curtain rolls in the western breeze;
I dwindle, thin as a flower of gold.


Wuling Spring

To the tune of "Spring in Wuling."

     The wind is stilled; the dust is fragrant, the blossoms already fallen. As the day grows late I am too weary to comb out my hair. His possessions are here, but his essence is gone: everything has ceased. I long to speak, but the tears stream.
     I have heard it said that springtime at Shuangxi is yet lovely. i intend to sail there in a dainty boat. I fear only that the featherweight Shuangxi boats would be unable to bear such a burden of grief.


Wind is still, dust fragrant among blossoms fallen fair.
At close of day I am too worn to comb my silken hair.
Objects remain, but the essence is no longer there:
Everything has ceased. My speech is choked by tears.
Shuangxi in spring is still lovely, I hear.
I would sail there in a boat dainty as a leaf.
But the featherweight Shuangxi vessels, I fear,
Could not bear the mortal burden of my grief.

 

 
   
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