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The Works of Li Qingzhao, ed. by Anna Shields, trans. by Ronald Egan. 
Library of Chinese Humanities, De Gruyter, 2019. 207 pages. 
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid

One is told a million times that traditional Chinese society was supremely sexist, and that one had better not hold one’s breath, looking for good poems in Classical Chinese written by women. Yet here is something good: Li Qingzhao.

Ever heard of her? I hadn’t either. Yet I had read a few of her poems in anthologies without knowing they were written by a woman. Like most non-Chinese, I can’t tell a feminine Chinese personal name from a masculine. And even if I could, it’s only very recently that I’ve begun to track Chinese poets’ names at all. For most of my life, I’ve known the names of the most famous five or six, and that’s it. These days, I’m trying to map the field, get a chronology up on its legs…

Li Qingzhao is supposedly the most famous female Chinese poet of all time. She lived during the Song Dynasty. Her dates are 1084 AD to ~1155. She had money, connections; she supposedly had a good marriage (well, the first one was good; the second one, not so much). She was famous in her lifetime. There are modern statues of her in blazing white marble, all over China.

The number of surviving poems is not great. You could read all her poems in two hours. There are basically two categories: the pretty much normal stuff (ramjam with allusions, written in five- and seven-character lines), and the song lyrics. Her modern reputation, I have surmised, is mainly founded on the latter. It was her specialty.

A word about this form. It’s called ci. (You’re not gonna believe this, but “ci” is pronounced like the English word “sir,” but with a T in front. “Tsir.” Trust me.) This form was extremely popular during the Song Dynasty; all the bigshots wrote ’em. What one would do is take a song whose melody everybody knew, and write new words to it. Your title would be “To the tune of _____.” 

One thing quite charming to this reader is the fact that such titles virtually never have anything to do with the content of the poems. You get these titles like “To the tune ‘Sands of the Washing Stream’” and then the poem has no sand, no stream. Look at some of these titles, though; they’re neat:

  • To the tune of “The Vile Charmer”

  • To the tune “Fragrance Fills the Courtyard, Modulated Version”

  • To the tune “Bodhisattva Barbarian”

  • To the tune “A Happy Event Draws Near”

  • To the tune “Auspicious Partridge”

Anyway, this is a fundamentally good idea. There is no need to make new melodies; the ones we already have are just fine. But new words! Anyone can see the potential there. I actually marvel that said potential has almost never been exploited in Western culture, with the signal exception of little kids deliberately singing wrong lyrics to the songs they’re made to sing at school. Relatedly, but on a different scale, is the exciting case of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728). And look at the script: looks just like the table of contents of Li Qingzhao’s ci.

Another charm of the ci form lies in the fact that a poet will often write several different sets of lyrics to the same tune. So whatever irregular twists the lines have (ci poems often look strangely like free verse on the page) are reproduced exactly in each new poem. Here’s an example where, even without the Chinese, you can see what’s going on:

To the tune “As If in a Dream”

I often recall one sunset in a riverside pavilion.

Having drunk too much, I forgot the way home.

Knowing it was late, I started back in my boat at dusk

but paddled by mistake into a thick patch of lotuses.

Struggling to get out,

struggling to get out,

I startled a whole sandbar of egrets into flight.

To the tune “As If in a Dream”

Last night the rain was intermittent, the wind blustery.

Deep sleep did not dispel the lingering wine.

I tried asking the maid raising the blinds,

who said the crabapple blossoms were as before.

“Don’t you know?

Don’t you know?

The greens must be plump and the reds spindly.”

If this kind of thing looks like it might be hard for you to get into, I have a tip. Get a voice recorder on the job. Simply read all fifty-nine ci into the machine; takes a little less than an hour. Then play it back to yourself while you’re doing calligraphy. Changes everything. Only, don’t make the same mistake I did. Don’t neglect to record the titles, meaningless though they are. Don’t you know, don’t you know: The meaningless is never meaningless.


ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). www.anthonymadrid.net