Poetry / China


Ramón Lay Mazo*

PREVIOUS PAGE: LI QINGZHAO 李清照 “故鄉何處是?忘了除非醉!” “Where is motherland? only forgotten when drunk! ”.

In order to evaluate and appreciate the poems by Li Qingzhao in the ci-verse form, we should follow the reasoning put forward by Wang Guowei. He says: "Usually there are three major factors which characterize the works of all great masters. The first are the conveyed emotions which touch and move the hearts of the readers, the second are the images and subjects with they present their description, elating the intellect and the senses of the readers; and the third is a spontaneous literary cadence, a linguistic flow neither affected nor pretentious, much less lacking in authenticity."

Wang Guo Wei further says that a reader who uses these qualities as a measure for the evaluation of the ci and shi- verse forms, be they classical or modern, is guaranteed to achieve an immensely pleasurable appreciation.

The first and second of these three qualites of evaluation are inherent in ci poetry. The third belongs to poetical form or structure. It is not necessary to say that literary cadence and linguistic flow are the technical foundations of poetical art. A poet carefully selects the characters (or vocables, or syllables) and the form of each poem in the same way as a painter deliberates about the brushstrokes and the colours which willdetermine a painting. Since the prosodic rules of the ci -verse form are not rigid, intricate and inflexible, the poet must define from the outset and with extreme caution his writing 'mode'. This chosen 'mode' will be the foundation of his poem, in the same way as an aquarellist progresses in his artwork with outmost attentiveness, from the first stroke, knowing that from it depends the overall final composition and chromatism.

I am deliberately making here the analogy between 'brushstroke' and 'writing' because in Chinese the characters of a poem are 'painted' with a finiteness which bind the form and contents of the work. In the ci-verse form the visual representation of a poem's writing, be it long or short, contribute towards its representational meaning. The poet must choose characters that not only mean precisely what he intends to convey, but that are also adequate to the prescribed tonal sequences, the rhythmic cadence, the modulations of the rhyme and a number of other prerequisites inherent to ci versification.

A careful and detailed analysis of the ci verses of Li Qingzhao confirms that the great majority of her poems in this poetical form comply with the three qualities which Wang Guo Wei lays down as imperative to the essence of a masterpiece.

We have selected some verses from Li Qingzhao to exemplify her technical mastery in the art of poetry. But before we proceed we must point out that the exquisite finesse of Li Qingzhao verses in the ci-verse form ultimately remains beyond translation. Even her best translations fall short in capturing the original supremacy of her verses' rhythm, global and parcelled rhymes, the phonography and most of all the graphic presentation of the poetical compound Translations only manage to present a somewhat generical, abstract, vague and inexpressive vision of works of an exquisite and fascinating grandeur worthy of a genius of Chinese poetry. And exactly because it is impossible to accomplish a finite and meaningful comprehensive translation of any of the original Chinese version poems of Li Qingzhao, the following analysis will principally focus on the 'images' and 'emotions' that can be conveyed to a person who reads then on an alphabetical adaptation.

如夢令 Rumengling

敘 記 溪 亭 日 暮

沉 醉 不 知 歸 路

與 盡 晚 回 舟

誤 入 藕 花 紳 處

爭 渡 爭 渡

驚 起 一 灘 鷗 鹭

"As in a Dream

I often recall the brookside pavilion,

Where I was detained against the waning day.

I was so drunk I couldn't know my way home,

But I had all the fun. I was gay.

All the pleasure spent, I managed to return.

I plunged deep among water-lilies my sculls.

I struggled and struggled out of the tangle

I thus alarmed a beach of herons and gulls."1

This poem in the ci-verse form belongs to the xiaoling 'type' because it is constitued only by thirty-three characters. The title of Rumengling· derives from the diaopai (melodic rhythm of the sequential verses) which is amply suggestive of the poem's intrinsic expressive contents. According to the most authoritative poetical critics it is the most perfectly accomplished of its kind despite the commonly used characters adopted by the poetess. Li Qingzhao's poetical genius transformed common vocables to gems of poetical diction. Her mastery goes as far as to clearly render in the reader's imagination the described event and to concomitantly transmit her personal emotive experience of the same event. In fact, the described scenario — the beautiful sunset, the "brookside pavilion", the barge, the carpet of flowering "water-lilies", the flock of "herons and gulls" which suddenly take to flight — is so clearly rendered that any reader is able to recreate it as if accompanying the author on the boating excursion.

Although to each Chinese ideogram there corresponds a single vocal emission with its meaning being transmitted similarly to the composition of a painting defined by the boundaries of its frame, the poetical excellence of the poetess and her masterly handling of the language made it possible to describe, in merely thirty-three characters, not only the landscape involving the protagonists as well as the emotion felt by them in this joyful excursion.

芭蕉 Bajiao

添 字 采 桑 子

窗 前 誰 種 芭 蕉 樹

陰 滿 中 庭

陰 滿 中 庭

葉 葉 心 心 舒 卷 有 餘 情

傷 心 枕 上 三 更 雨

點 滴 淒 清

點 滴 淒 清

愁 損 離 人 不 慣 起 來 聼

"Banana Trees

Who planted the Banana trees in front of my casement,

Filling the courtyard with shadows With shadows?

Each leaf a heart brimming over with love As it closes and unfolds.

Patter of midnight rasin on the leaves

Haunting the pillow — Dripping ceaselessly, Dripping ceaselessly.

Dismal sounds, painful memories:

An outcast from the North in the throes of sorrow

Cannot bear to sit up and listen."2

This ci was also written in the xiaoling 'type'. It is formed only by forty-eight characters. Its diaopai is the tune Tianzi cai sangzi·, meaning "Picking Mulberry Seeds") and for subtitle Bajiao· (Banana Trees).

In this poem Li Qingzhao chooses Nature to describe the relationship betwee nseveral stages of her life. The first six verses describe daily occurences, for example, the happy and carefree years of her life spent in northern China, while the "Filling the courtyard with shadows [...]" allude to the disputes and power clashes in the imperial court between members of her family and members of her husband's family; the imminent danger of the Tibetan hordes threatening the southern borders of the empire; the disastrous incursions of the Jin tribes in the northern frontier, and her premature widowhood. The "Each leaf a heart [...]" meaning all those great and small, salute her with deference and etiquette.

The last of the six verses, "Patter of midnight rain [...] Dripping ceaselessly, [...]" makes reference to the second phase of her life, full of sorrows and hardship, living as a refugee in the south of the country after the Jin had taken control of the whole of northern China. It is generally thought that the author wrote this poem while living in the south, after 1228, because no banana trees grow in northern China and also because she refers to herself as "beiren"· ("woman from the north").

This allegorical poem is imbued by a meditative mood verging to melancholic state of mind and being which seems to devastate the poetess and from which she can find no solace.

The repetitiveness of some of the verses provides the reader with an hiatus enabling the mind to ponder and one's thoughts to substantiate the mood and meaning before coming to terms with the expanded temporal meaning of the whole composition.

重九 Chongjiu


薄 霧 濃 雲 愁 永 畫

瑞 腦 消 金 獸

佳 詳 又 重 陽

玉 枕 紗 廚 半 夜 涼 初 透

東 離 把 酒 黃 昏 後

有 暗 香 盈 袖

莫 道 不 消 魂

簾 捲 西 風 人 比 黃 花 瘦

"Double Ninth

Fine mist, thick clouds:

A day of sadness drags on.

The incense in the gilt animal-burner is running out.

Once more the festive day of Double Ninth returns,

And my mesh-curtained bed and jewelled pillows

Are drenched in the chill of midnight.

Beside the east hegdge I drink after dusk:

A subtle fragance fills my sleeves.

Untitled. ADRIÁN LAY RUIZ 1991. Ink on paper.

Don't say one is not pining away!

When the west wind blows the blinds aside,

I am frailer than the chrysanthemums."3

This ci was written in the zhong diao 'type'. It is formed by fifty-two characters. Its diaopai is the tune Zuihuayin, ("Drunk in the Shade of Flowers") and for subtitle Chongjiu ([The festive day of] Double Nine) or ChongYang·

The Chinese general critics classify this ci as one of emotion and sentiment expressed to the reader via the description of Nature. In Chinese poetry, xieqing, · an expression of emotion and sentiment, and xiejing, · the description of Nature through imagery or a setting, are usually combined. There is a phrase in Chinese that says: "[...] feelings are closely related to settings [... and...] settings are closely related to feelings [...]," which really means that Nature and sentiments are intimately bound. So, when a Chinese poet describes Nature the reader immmediately deduces that the poet is subtly making reference to his/her emotions and sentiments.

In this poem Li Qingzhao once again uses popular characters, expressing her talents in the way she juxtaposes them to create jewels of poetic diction. The delightful sonorous cadence of the verses' rhythm associated with their literary emotion mellows the reader's mind and moves one's heart. This effect is not created by the intrinsic meaning of the characters but rather by what they suggest or describe, and this is not the outcome of feelings openly expressed but more by the emotions and feelings they convey.

Untitled. ADRIÁN LAY RUIZ 1991. Ink on paper.

For instance, in saying that "Once more the festive day of Double Ninth returns, [...]" the poetess refers to past Zhong Yang festivals and evokes reminiscences of those events. And when she says "A subtle fragance fills my sleeves. [...]", she is obviously suggesting the presence of chrysanthemums, transferring this abstract image to the reader's mind. At the end of the poem the author presents the reader with an image of herself in the lines "Don't say one is not pining away! [...] I am frailer than chrysanthemums." inferring that her afflictions are due not to a physical illness but to an irretrievable inner longing due to the absence of her husband to whom this poem is dedicated. When she compares herself to the "chrysanthemums" she is explicating that her mortification is greater than that of most other women, since chrysanthemums are popularly known in China as 'the yellow flowers'.

Also, when she describes the environment which surrounds her — the "fine mist, thick clouds", the "chill of midnight", the "after dusk" and the "west wind" — she does not explicitely say that they are unpleasant, but infers such unpleasantness through the emotive description which sets the mood of the poem. In fact, the reader knows that these natural phenomena are pleasant and one can sense that they have been pleasant to the author but that at present and since the death of her beloved husband she can only extract from them nostalgic memories and deep solitude.

Li Qingzhao biographers mention that she sent this poem to her husband during one of his frequent long absences from home in order to fulfil the duties of his official post. According to her biographers, when her husband received it he was so overwhelmed that he composed her fifty poems with the same diaopai. Later he mixed the poem his wife had first written to him with the other fifty and showed them to his friend Lu De Fu, asking him to let him know the one he thought it was the best. Lu De Fu carefully read them all, finally selecting Li Qing Zhao's poem as the best explaining that he was utterly impressed with the last line of the last verse.

The nine characters which constitute this line which so much impressed Lu De Fu are in fact so well selected and so admirably inserted at the poem's end that they conclusively condense all the intentional mood and meaning of the work: that of communicating to her beloved husband how much she was suffering from being away from him. These nine characters equally capture the general mood of Li Qingzhao poetical mastery: compactness and amplitude, emotion and suggestion.

訴衷情 Suzhongqing





















"Grief beyond belief

I look for what I miss;

I know not what it is.

I feel so sad, so drear,

So lonely, without cheer.

How hard is it

To keep me fit

In this lingering cold!

Hardly warmed up

By cup on cup

Of wine so dry,

Oh, how could I

Endure at dusk the drift

Of wind so swift?

It breaks my heart, alas!

To see the wild geese pass

For they are my acquaintances of old.

The ground is covered with yellow flowers,

Faded and fallen in showers.

Who will pick them up now?

Sitting alone at the window, how

Could I but quicken

The pace of darkness that won't thicken?

On plane's broad leaves a fine rain drizzles

As twilight grizzles.

Oh, what can I do with a grief

Beyond belief!"4



1991. Ink on paper.

This ci was written in the mana· 'type', so-called zhongdiao or an expanded ci. It is formed by more than ninety characters. Its diaopai is the tune "Shengshengman",· ("Adagio" or "Slow slow song") and it does not have a subtitle. This type of ci is characterised by a complex prosodic format, being the most laborious to correctly structure.

This poem stands for the peak of Li Qingzhao's excellence in this genre of ci. A critic once said that "[...] there is no poet, past or present, who has ever surpassed the artistic realm of this ci [...]." Wanshu· in his Cilü· (Compendium of Ci Poetry) wrote that all ci works from all times always related to the Shengshengman by Li Qingzhao, it being considered as the perfect prototype of this 'mode'. This poem contains so many extraordinary qualities that it is supreme of its kind. One of its particularities is the successive duplication of characters, that is, the repetitiveness of ideograms. For instance, the fourteen characters which constitute the first three verses are repetitively paired in such a manner that, besides the intrinsic meaning of the vocables, their correct diction has such a whispering cadence, a murmuring sonority that evokes bitterness, sorrow and pain.

Xun xun mi mi leng leng qing qing Qi qi can can qi qi

尋 尋 覓 覓 冷 冷 清 清 悽 悽 慘 慘 戚 戚

Through this technique the poetess simultaneously creates an alliteration effect called shuang sheng· or (double sound), and the dieyun· (double inner rhythm). Although this technique was well known and commonly used in the oldest Chinese versifications, Li Qingzhao was the first to use fourteen paired ideograms in continuous succession reaching such a cumulative effect.

The alliteration of the double rhyme of these fourteen characters forming highly suggestive yet totally incoherent vocables ultimately produce a particular sound-effect of intense sadness. Some critics think is was meant to be a prelude to a musical composition, others speculate that it was the ouverture to an opera. The dinged and smooth sound sequence has been compared to "[...] pearls, both big and small, falling on a tray of jade [...]", but the sonority of these characters is more like the impetuous and burbling explosion of a deeply compressed and contained anxiety, of a profound and intense pain, impossible to be expressed by words and merely articulated by sobs, pants and whines.

It is therefore credible that the poetess made use of the structure of these fourteen characters without relating them to their intrinsic meanings, but rather for the intense sonority of their diction, thus attempting to orally express, with tremulous whispers, the pain and sorrow she felt. If this is correct then it is not possible to translate these fourteen characters, their only possible interpretation being that of attempting to communicate exactly through a doleful spaced and mournful reading the author's personal feelings.

It is hypothesised that Li Qingzhao wrote this ci — one of the saddest and most moving of her large body of works — shortly after the death of her beloved husband.

In the antepenultimate verse of the poem the characters are again doubled, this time in a melodic attempt to reenact the monotony of rainfall against the setting sun:

Dao huang hen dian dian di di

到 黃 昏 點 點 滴 滴

Here, the characters dian dian and di di are onomatopoeic, and reproduce the turpid and lashing sound of persistent rain drops in their monotonous and melancholic fall.

This poem contains other cumulative qualities besides those of alliteration, double rhyme and onomatopoeia. Readers of this poem always derive the most profound and intense emotion from the extreme technical virtuosity of the poetess in handing this most difficult modality of Chinese versification.

怨王孫 Juanwangsun

湖 上 風 來 波 浩 渺

秋 已 暮 紅 稀 香 少

水 光 山 色 與 人 親

説 不 盡

無 窮 好

蓮 子 已 成 荷 葉 老

青 露 洗 蘋 花 汀 草

眠 沙 鷗 鹭 不 回 頭

似 也 恨

人 歸 早

"Admiring Lotuses

Wind on the lake sends the waves

Drifting far and wide.

Autumn deepens. A few lotus blossoms remain

With a lingering fragance.

Beautiful beyond words are these verdant hills and sparkling streams

That endear themselves to be so warmly.

Lotus ponds ripen into seed

As lotus leaves grow sere;

Duckweed and rushes fringe the bank

Fresh-washed by crystal dew.

Dozing egret and gulls on the sand

Do not so much as turn their heads,

As if they, too, regret

My going away so early."5

This ci was written in the zhongdiao 'type'. It is formed by fifty-four characters. Its diaopai is the tune Yuanwangsun· ("Complaint against a prince") and it does not have a subtitle. The heading by which is also commonly known "Autumn deepens" derives com the contents of the poem.

Similar to many other poems by Li Qingzhao, the personification of Nature is integral to its understanding. The terminology of the verses deeply emphasise the poetess's affection for the "[...] sparkling streams [...]" and the "[...] verdant hills [...]". She describes them as her personal friends who "[...] That endear themselves to me so warmly.", and in a burst of emotional admiration: "Beautiful beyond words [...]" ending the poem with an emphatic description of the egrets: "[...] Do not so much as turn their heads [...]" acknowledging their indifference to her departure "[...] As if they, too, regret / My going away so early."

The poetess reduces the risk of emotive charge while declaring her passion for Nature, transferring her personal feelings to elements of the environment such as the "[...] sparkling streams [...]" and the "[...] verdant hills [...]", and in particular describing the indolent behaviour of the egrets.

References to Nature, describing its charms and marvels or expressing the emotions and sentiments it implants in the human soul abound in Chinese poetry. The preponderant role of Nature in Li Qingzhao's poetry directly relates to a cherished traditional format. In the beginning, Chinese poets presented Nature as a physical manisfestion of the Creator, as something which has always existed and has the power of regenerating itself. The Chinese characters which express this phenomena are ziran· (selfexisting). The Chinese mind accepts Nature per se, as it is, something which is and has always spontaneously existed, never bothering to enquire into its primordial origin, but rather as an emantion from a divine creative power or an evolutive consequence of a 'cyclical reproductive force'.

For the Chinese, Nature is neither benign nor hostile to the human race, Mankind even being considered as an integral element of its existence, in opposition to Western philosophies which consider Mankind and Nature as two antagonistic forces, the first in a continuous attempt to dominate, submit, restrict, and conquer the second. The Chinese ideology that Mankind and Nature constitute an undivisible unity, puts forward the concept that all human beings are part of their environment, which nourishes them and gives them vitality. It teaches that it is to all human beings' advantage to live in harmony and in unison with the cycles of Nature, thus belonging to the unstoppable flux of eternal regeneration: birth, growth, decline, death, rebirth.

In her ci poems Li Qinzhao not only complied with all the rules and prerequisites established by traditional conventions but also infused them with originality, new values of beauty and a deep respect for the principles of life.

In her poems Li Qingzhao maintained vernacular language. It was her extraordinary creative competence and her absolute linguistic control which enabled her to structure a discerning selection and placing of characters that elevated her verses from popular rhyme to the highest peaks of poetical composition. Furthermore, her plain language and straightforward expressions attest for the honesty, freshness and enthusiasm of her personality. To all these qualities are associated the deep maturity of her personality. Her poetical achievements have been qualified by the Chinese, as "[...] yijing gaoshen [...]"· ("[...] a sublime and deep spiritual atmosphere [...].").

漁家傲 Yujia'ao


天 接 雲 濤 連 曉 霧

星 河 欲 轉 千 帆 舞

彷 佛 夢 魂 歸 帝 所

聞 天 語

殷 勢 問 我 歸 何 處

我 報 路 長 嗟 日 暮

學 詩 謾 有 驚 人 句

九 萬 里 風 鵬 正 舉

風 休 住

蓬 舟 吹 取 三 山 去

"A Dream

By twilight, the sky looks like a boundless sea.

O'erlapping waves are what clouds appear to be.

The Milky way has changed from a patch of light —

Into thousands of sails dancing. What a sight!

Far from the earth, I seem to be on a ride.

To where the Celestial King above resides.

A voice, fairy-like, speaks. That's how it sounds.

It asks in earnest for which place I'm bound.

"I am in despair," I begin with a sigh.

"A poet's gift is void", so ends my reply.

Just then, the roc is making its long flight.

Windward, to Fairyland, I travel light."6

This ci was written in the zhongdiao 'type'. It is formed by sixty-two characters. Its diaopai is the tune Yujia'ao· ("Honouring the Fisherman") and for the subtitle Jingmeng. ·

It is said that this poem is unique is the history of Chinese women's poetry. It was possibly the result of a vision or mystic trance experienced by the poetess during one of her long meditation periods in the deep solitude of the last years of her life.

Chinese critics of poetry consider these verses as 'visionary', a compound of cosmic imagery and mystical Daoism. It is said that after eating a 'sacred mushroom' (a kind of hallucinogenic fungus) the most fervent daoists experience cosmic visions similar to the ones described by the poetess in this composition.

These visions have been compared to the surreal landscapes painted by the retired high dignitaries of the Tang and Song dynasties' imperial administrations. Such pictorial imagery finds its literary counterpart in this poem in expressions such as "[...] the sky looks like a boundless sea.", "O'erlapping waves [...]", and the poetess descriptions of "twilight" and the spiralling "Milky way" which carried in its sweep "thousands [of boats] sails".

The diction of these verses starts with a spectacularly resonant sonority, similar to a sudden outburst of all percussion instruments of a symphony orchestra, introducing the protagonist to a face-to-face dialogue with the "Celestial King". Questioned by the Voice of Heaven of her final destination, the resigned protagonist babbles in her reply that ''''A poet's gift is void"[...]." The protagonist being a devout buddhist and aware that she does not have very long to live, supplicates the wind to propel her "Windward, to Fairyland, [...]" — to the Sanshan· (Three Mountains).

The Three Mountains which stand for the Sanxiandao· (Three Islands of the Genii, or Islands of the Blest) considered by the daoists and their earthly paradise, are compared to the back shells of three gigantic tortoises poised near the mainland shores of the Eastern China Sea. They are known by Penglaishan, · Fangzhang· and Yingzhou. ·

According to mythological beliefs these islands are supposed to contain fantastic gardens with trees of jade canopies and flowers of faceted precious stones, fruits of pure gold, and branches abundantly covered by pearls. Here, the Genii live in imposing and extraordinary mansions, eat gems washed ashore and drink water from the rejuvenating yutiquan· (Fountain of Life). This fountain is at the base of a gigantic monolith of jade more than one-thousand fathoms high. In this colossal outcrop abundantly grow the fungus lingzhicao· (plant of long life). These mysterious islands and all they contain have always been one of the favourite themes of Chinese painters and literati which excel in their media to highly praise their marvels, fantasies and immortal inhabitants.

This poem is yet another marvel of diction which, in conjunction which extreme poetical and artistic technicality, convey an extraordinary sensation of religious mysticism, peace and resignation. It might express Li Qingzhao's anxiety to reach the eternal paradise of the Three Mountains, the ultimate goal of her hazardous and tortuous life on earth.

Translated from the Spanish by: Carlos Gonçalves


1XU Zhongjie, · 100 Chinese Poems in English Verse 《徐詞百首英譯》, Beijing, Foreign Languages College Publishing House, 1986, p.81.

2WANG Jiaosheng, 1989, The Complete Ci-poems of Li Qingzhao: a New English Translation, in "Sino-Platonic Papers", Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania - Department of Oriental Studies, October 1989, p.89.

3WANG Jiaosheng, op. cit., p. 17.

4XU Zhongjie, op. cit., p.309-311.

5WANG Jiaosheng, op. cit., p. 13.

6XU Zhongjie, op. cit., p. 84.


1995. Colour ink drawing.

start p. 135
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