Li Qingzhao’s Ornaments

by James Graham

Three poems that transcend time and distance


Once upon a time in a country far away...

In the summer of 1127, the poet Li Qingzhao and her husband left their home in northern China and moved south of the Yangtze, to Hangzhou. It must have been a long, weary, disheartening journey, but they had no choice in the matter.

Battles had been lost, the Song Emperor had surrendered his northern lands to a rival dynasty, and for all sorts of reasons life was becoming difficult and dangerous. If they found any happiness in exile, it was to be short-lived, for Li’s husband died three years later.

We find ourselves in a place and time far removed from our own. Assuming we’re interested enough in the first place, we have to work hard to understand the history and politics of such a remote society.

True, in our time people still suffer as a result of power games, and many have to go into exile. But the power games of the medieval Chinese dynasties tax our understanding, even more so than the adventures of such equivalent European ‘great families’ as the Bourbons, Hohenzollerns and Stuarts, who were tyrants as often as not, but at least are part of our own familiar history — the devils we know.

To most of us, the history and values of medieval China are very long ago and far away. But here is a poem written by Li Qingzhao shortly after her husband’s death.

To the tune of ‘Lamentation’

It was far into the night when, intoxicated,
I took off my ornaments;

The plum flower withered in my hair.

Recovered from tipsiness,
the lingering smell of wine
broke my fond dream,

before my dreaming soul could find
my way home.

All is quiet.

The moon lingers,
and the emerald screen hangs low.

I caress the withered flower,
fondle the fragrant petals,

Trying to bring back the lost time.

I won’t launch into a critical commentary on this poem, because it speaks for itself. It’s enough to point out how immediate and personal it is, and how strongly her loneliness and heartbreak are communicated to us. By the simplicity of its language and the depth of its feeling, this poem cancels at a stroke every barrier of time and culture. Li’s faded flower is immortal.

Notice, too, that it’s a song, written to a tune called ‘Lamentation’. We don’t need to know the original tune; we can think of sad tunes of our own — not ones, of course, that would fit Li’s words exactly, but tunes that have the same feeling in them.

She moves through the fair, perhaps. Or Barbara Allen. Or Schubert’s Letzte Hoffnung (‘Last Hope’). In a curious way our ignorance of the tune enriches Li’s title for us; her poem becomes an elegy set to a universal music of mourning.

Here’s an even older piece that I think has passed the test of time. There’s something about the encounter recorded by the poet that tells us right away it belongs to another age. But the time difference is easily overcome.

Under pines
I ask the boy;

he says: ‘My master’s gone
to gather herbs.

I only know
he’s on this mountain,

but the clouds are too deep
to know where’.

— Jia Dao (779-843)

Though it’s clearly not modern, in its own way it works as well as Li’s poem does. It flits across thirteen centuries and half the globe as if nothing lay in its path. Much of its immediacy comes, I think, from the impression it gives of being a ‘found’ poem — reporting what the boy actually said.

Like the mountain, it is surrounded with a cloud of meanings and associations. The total merging of the master with nature is very telling. The mountain is his habitat; he won’t get lost, any more than a goat or an eagle will get lost. He knows where to find every variety of herb; he will identify them with ease even in thick mist, gather what he needs, and then make his way home.

He is, we suppose, a healer, a herbal doctor. He has an apprentice to whom he is imparting his knowledge — but who is not yet experienced enough to venture on to the mountain on a day when the clouds are so low.

Once the master himself was an apprentice. The poem is about the continuity of traditional wisdom — of ‘lore’, of folk science — and by extension about continuity in general, all the things we inherit and pass on.

By way of introduction to the third of our long-lived poems, I’d like to perform the simple trick of turning the world upside down. Let’s imagine we live in present-day Li-ch’eng, Li Qingzhao’s birthplace, and are reading a book of European verse in a Mandarin translation; or we live in Sumatra perhaps, and our version is in Bahasa Indonesia.

We come across an old poem from Ireland, an obscure country somewhere in the mysterious Occident. What do we know of Ireland? It’s an island off northwestern Europe; for a long time its people were harassed and subjugated by warlords from neighbouring England.

In modern times there has been conflict between two sects of Christianity, something like the Shias and Sunnis of South Asia. Or maybe not much like that at all. The barbaric Europeans are hard to fathom in many ways, but this little poem — from about the 11th century — has a universality that sweeps all these things aside.

The Blackbird by Belfast Lough

What little throat
Has framed that note?
What gold beak shot
It far away?
A blackbird on
His leafy throne
Tossed it alone
Across the bay.

If blackbirds aren’t familiar to us, as with Li’s ‘tune of Lamentation’ we can substitute a songbird we know, and imagine the notes of its song piercing the crisp morning air of whatever quiet place comes to mind. Wherever we may be in the world, we need only the services of a translator in order to share that ethereal moment, first experienced by an anonymous poet in a land far away, once upon a time.

Of course, we mustn’t forget the translator. The Irish poem must be translated for British readers, never mind Chinese or Indonesian. The old forms of our own language are almost as foreign to us as Old Irish — you need a dictionary to read Beowulf (that is, if you want to read Beowulf).

No doubt Jia Dao’s Chinese must be updated for a modern Chinese reader. Not only is there a babel of languages at any given time; each language changes almost beyond recognition with the passage of time. The arts that use words as their raw material are at a disadvantage compared with music and the visual arts.

In translation even from French into English or vice-versa, something is lost — especially any correspondence there may have been between sound and meaning. An English translation from Chinese or Japanese loses something else too — the visual impact of the calligraphy.

But, not forgetting the necessary alchemy of translation, these three poems wonderfully transcend time and geography. It’s interesting to speculate whether any of the three poets entertained the thought — or the hope — that his or her poem might live a thousand years.

Most of all I imagine Jia Dao thinking along these lines. He was a Buddhist monk, and perhaps saw existence with a long perspective. I imagine him saying to himself, ‘This is only a little anecdote, but it will be understood in years to come’. Indeed — in the fulness of time — even by the barbarians of the West.

But the thought that their work might be rediscovered by new generations might have occurred to Li and to the Irish poet too. When they reflected on what they had written, they might have been aware that they had managed to look beyond the political, religious or personal preoccupations of their own time, beyond the contingencies of the age, and briefly touched on the universal.


Copyright © 2011 by James Graham

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