To Her SistersSeptember 30th, 2010 by Wei Djao
The ci* poem presented below is not among her best known ones. However, it has a charm and importance all of its own, written after her husband Zhao Mingcheng had resumed an official position in the imperial administration following a hiatus of ten years of retirement in the countryside.
In assuming his official duties in Laizhou, Zhao Mingcheng seemed to have gone there by himself, unaccompanied by Li Qingzhao. She travelled there separately and on the way, while staying in an inn wrote a ci. In one of the rare instances, she mentioned the town, Changle (昌樂), in a short preface and that the ci was to be sent to her sisters.
To the tune of “Butterflies Love Flowers”
– Evening, to my sisters from the inn at Changle
Tears coursing down powdered and rouged faces
Dampened silk gowns.
We sang a thousand times the four stanzas of Yang Pass.
They say the mountains go on forever,
And mountains break us apart.
Alone in the inn, there is only the sound of fine drizzle.
Sad partings disquiet the heart, forgetting
If we drank wine in farewell from cups deep or shallow.
Ask the wild geese to carry your letter!
East Lai is not as far as Peng Lai.
蝶戀花 – 晚止昌樂館寄姊妹
Changle in Shandong province was a town that Li Qingzhao must pass through on her way from Qingzhou to Laizhou, referred to as East Lai in the ci, in order to join Zhao Mingcheng who had already been posted in Laizhou. Peng Lai (蓬萊) is a mythical island in the eastern ocean according to the daoist religion. Here Li Qingzhao is urging her sisters to send her letters as Laizhou was not so far away.
Wang Wei (王維 701-761 CE) of the Tang dynasty wrote a poem upon a friend’s departure for the west. In it he laments that beyond the Yang Pass there will only be strangers for his friend. The poem became a popular farewell song, often repeated in its rendition. In Li Qingzhao’s ci, she describes her farewell to her sisters as repeating the song many, many times.
That Li Qingzhao composed the above ci for her sisters is still immensely fascinating to any readers almost 900 years later. Many poems in Chinese literature were written by men as they bid their male friends farewell. The system of Chinese administration and civil service in sending scholar-officials to various parts of the country, often for a limited period of time, and then assigning them to somewhere else produced numerous meetings and partings among colleagues and family members. In fact voyages by scholars would have been undertaken even earlier than civil service postings as they would have to leave home in order to sit for examinations at the local, provincial and national levels. Thus some of the most touching verses in Chinese literature are about sorrows of partings and of missing family, friends and hometowns. But that was among the male scholars.
Although the women often travelled to the places of their husbands’ or fathers’ postings, there are not many extant poems about leave-taking and separations from their own friends. There are, however, quite a few excellent poems about missing their husbands. On the whole, fewer women were educated to the extent of being able to compose poetry. Even when they did, their writings were not likely to be included in official dynastic histories or even in anthologies, which were almost exclusively collected and edited by male scholars.
Li Qingzhao’s use of the term jiemei (姊妹), translated as sisters, in the preface confirms the fact that this literary gem was written by a woman and for other women. It is most significant. First of all, the term jiemei consists of two words: jie meaning elder sister and mei meaning younger sister. So she was writing to a group of sisters, not one individual.
Secondly, the term jiemei does not necessarily mean biological sisters. As far as we know Li Qingzhao had only one sibling, a younger brother. But the term jiemei as it was used then and still is used today can refer to a variety of women of the same generation or about the same age. In Li Qingzhao’s case, they could possibly be Zhao Mingcheng’s sisters; as we have seen, two of them also moved to Qingzhou after the death of their father. Jiemei could also include sisters-in-law and cousins of either Li Qingzhao or Zhao Mingcheng. It might also include good friends and neighbours. All of these would be addressed as elder sisters or younger sisters depending on the age of any two women in question. In the Chinese naming culture, it would be considered disrespectful to call people by their names. Among the men, the “courtesy names,” the zi, are used. But even among men and certainly among women, in addressing each other, the person’s name would be followed by the relational term of elder sister, younger sister, elder brother or younger brother. That Li Qingzhao intended this ci for her “sisters” means that in Qingzhou at least she had a coterie of close women folks whom she was unhappy to leave.
Lastly, the ci is significant in pointing to the literacy of women of the gentry and how some of them spent their time. This ci of Li Qingzhao takes for granted that her sisters were literate and in fact quite educated. They would not only read this ci that Li Qingzhao is sending them, but Li Qingzhao expects them to write letters to her.
The ci does not describe the women’s daily life. Most women in the scholar-officials’ households did some needlework, and some might even be quite competent in cooking as at some point in their lives they would be expected to run a household. Nevertheless, there would be servants who did the actual housework. The ladies of the scholar-official class would thus have much leisure time. It is into the leisure time that Li Qingzhao gives the readers a glimpse. Later on she would write a treatise on a gambling game popular among ladies of the gentry. In the preface to that piece of writing she admits that she was very fond of gambling. The ci presented above points to another pastime of the gentlewomen. It appears that they would get together on various occasions and make music and sing, but certainly not always in sorrow. They would have wine and drink to each other’s good fortune, health or happiness. When their education was coupled with their social gatherings, it is not too far-fetched to imagine that the women of the gentry would compose poetry as they drank their wine and partook in the repast.
This kind of gathering where food and wine were served and verses were composed was probably quite frequent among the educated women of the gentry. In her earlier ci (discussed in Chapter 2 of A Blossom Like No Other: Li Qingzhao about rowing into a tangle of lotus flowers and the sea gulls getting annoyed at people leaving too early, the excursions were not solitary experiences. They were outings by a group of ladies of the gentry. The gatherings of the jiemei could be the celebration of a birthday, a festival, or the New Year. In this case, it was to say farewell with wishes for a safe journey. On these occasions, the jiemei would re-affirm their bonds and provide support for each other.
Such groups of literary women could have been quite informal in Li Qingzhao’s days. In the later Ming and Qing dynasties, actual poetry clubs were formed and women’s literary productions could be quite prolific. One such club included three generations of a scholar-official family plus other close friends (see Ko 1994). Perhaps the best description of the multi-faceted and layered interaction among women in such formal or informal poetry clubs, most likely based on actual literary groups of gentlewomen, is provided by Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹) in his novel Honglou Meng (紅樓夢 ), often translated into English as the Dream of the Red Chamber or Dream of the Red Mansions. It would not be far-fetched to assert that Li Qingzhao’s ci here refers to an early example of these poetry clubs.
* In her life time, Li Qingzhao was best known for her shi poems (詩), a more widely used form of poetry, and essays (wen文). But in the centuries since then she is most admired for her ci (詞) which is a specific form of poetry consisting of lines of irregular length. Ci poems were set to music and sung in her days.
Excerpted from Wei Djao’s book A Blossom Like No Other: Li Qingzhao.