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Li Qingzhao: Her Work
Most of Li’s poetry was written within the ci (词) framework. This poetic form emerged from the Sui Dynasty (581-618), however none of these poems still exist. The first poet of renown to have written ci poems was the Tang Dynasty’s great Li Bai. Subsequently, the famous Wei Yingwu and Bai Juyi, also of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) began to write using this format. But it was not until the Song Dynasty (960-1279) that the ci came into prominence. Although its dominance subsided in following dynasties, the ci remained very popular. They are still being written today.
Originally ci was a kind a libretto written to the melodies of folk music with lines of unequal length. It soon transformed into a structure with strict meter and rhyme scheme. The many different types of ci poems usually refer to an historical event or state of affairs.
Li Qinzhao’s writing style was considered by many critics to express a quiet, elegant and restrained mood. The well regarded Song Dynasty scholar and critic, Wei Tai, wrote a book called Random Notes on Poetry. From his viewpoint poetry should be exact about the person or thing described, but then hold back from directly expressing the feelings. By doing this, the poet gives the readers the room and freedom to imagine for themselves what the poem is trying to communicate. Li’s poems very much have this implicit and indirect quality. Her poems mention and describe many objects in her immediate environment such as: wine and wine cups, courtyards, musical instruments, including her qin, her hairpins, clothes and make-up, wine, tea, incense and incense holders, lanterns, curtains, blankets and pillows. Outside her house she writes about geese, egrets, swallows and seagulls, as well as the mists, wind, rain and snow, mountains and clouds, rivers and lakes, the moon, dew and frost, shadows and reflections.
Li most often brings the many kinds of flowers and blossoms into her poems, including plum, chrysanthemums, lotus, pear, willow, and crab apple. At times the reader is not really sure whether she is describing the conditions of these flowers, or whether she is talking about her own state of affairs. Most of the time she and the flowers are linked together. Each flower is used to express not only the season of the year, but specific time periods within each season.
Li Qingzhao’s poems are very visual. She describes her immediate surroundings in detail. Her poems often have at least one or two words of color. The Chinese word xiang (香), meaning fragrance, is used many times, referring to flowers, incense and the wine she often drank.
Unlike many other ancient Chinese poets, Li did not rely on literary and historical allusions to express her thoughts and feelings. Many of her poems do not require notes or commentary. Instead she embedded many metaphors that connected her to the environment immediately surrounding her.