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A Poetic Riddle for Li Qingzhao, Wang Anshi and Du Mu

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Li Qingzhao was a prominent Chinese poetess of the Northern Song Dynasty. She was a gifted writer of ci poetry and her talent was acknowledged already by the time she was 18 years old. Li’s parents were intelligent Chinese citizens, members of the upper social class. Thus, she received a refined education and grew up enjoying the progress and prosperity of the Song Dynasty. Li had a deep knowledge of history and an exquisite artistic taste.

At the age of 18, Li married Zhao Mingcheng, a knowledgeable and talented young man from a family of government officials. Their marriage was graceful and flourishing as they shared a common passion for poetry, literature and antiques. However, two years into their marriage, situation in the Dynasty drastically changed. In 1127, the Northern Song Dynasty was attacked. The emperors were captured by the Jin army, but the ninth Prince Zhao Gou fled to Yingtianfu and settled in the South. The main battle took place in Shandong, where Li lived with her husband. Taking into consideration the consequent political turmoil, Zhao Mingcheng resigned from his governmental post choosing to escape from rebellions and public chaos rather than stay and strive to regulate the situation. Li remained by his side as a faithful and devoted wife, although his disgraceful decision shook the harmony in their marriage and interfered with Li’s respect for her husband. Ever since, their relationships were difficult and burdened with Li’s disappointment and Zhao’s remorse.

Zhao and Li departed in the direction of Jiang Xi and eventually arrived at the bank of Wujiang, a river in Anhui Province. This inspired Li to recall the heroic story of Xiang Yu, a general who, instead of running away from his enemies, chose to commit suicide. On this basis, she wrote a poem, in which she criticized Zhao Gou’s decision to refuse to send troops and fight against the Jin army and revealed the concealed shame and embarrassment, from which she suffered because of her husband’s detestable escape and his unwillingness to face the enemy. The poem consists of the following 20 words: “A hero in life, A king of ghosts after death. Until now we still remember Xiang Yu, Who refused to return to Jiangdong”.

This poem reveals Li Qingzhao’s clear and realistic manner of writing and implies a set of sensible images that communicate a conscious and succinct message. The poem declares an elevated patriotic spirit and a secluded criticism of Zhao Gou for the lack of aptitude and commitment to his country and people. In order to accentuate this issue, Li refers to a pronounced political figure of Xiang Yu. He engaged in a lasting struggle for power with an emperor of Han Dynasty and suffered defeat in the decisive battle at the bank of the Chu River. Although Xiang Yu had an opportunity to escape and save his life, he said he could not allow himself to encounter his people after shamefully retreating from the battlefield. Xiang Yu and the remains of his army bravely fought against numerous Han forces. Finally, when Xiang was the only one left alive, he committed suicide by slitting his throat with his own sword. This event gradually became subject to further discourse, and Li Qingzhao was among those who interpreted it as an act of patriotic will worth exceptional respect and admiration.

When discussing the evaluation perspective applied in Li Qingzhao’s poem, it is notable how she accentuates the importance of spiritual values over other aspects of human life. She reveres faithfulness to high moral standards and integrity and exalts these values in her graceful lyrics. The opening phrase of the poem describes Xiang Yu as a ‘hero in life’, thus referring to his political and ideological stance as a public and military leader. Li interprets his perspectives and actions as heroic and worth admiration. Calling Xiang Yu a ‘king of ghosts after death’, the poetess emphasizes her moral values and the extent to which she esteems Xiang’s virtues. She introduces a point of view, according to which every righteous man should devote his life to serving his country. Patriotic duties should be valued and cherished above all and the souls of those, whose deeds were worthy, will eventually be elevated after death, when the time for achieving will have passed. At the end of her poem, Li proclaims that ‘Until now we still remember Xiang Yu, Who refused to return to Jiangdong’, thus testifying that true dignity and high moral integrity shall never be forgotten or disregarded by the following generations. Furthermore, the virtues and merits appraised in this poem should be viewed through the framework of Li’s personal life and her evaluation of her husband’s decisions.

Another Chinese poet to refer to this poetical theme was Wang Anshi. However, his vision of Xiang Yu was very different from that cherished by Li Qingzhao. He did not believe that Xiang’s decisions were politically justified and wise, and his attempts to defeat the Han Dynasty were destined to be a failure since the people could never rebel against historical rule. Wang’s chief argument was that Xiang Yu’s constant strategy of struggling with other political leaders exhausted his army and resources and failed to secure his lasting authority as a social and political leader. Wang Anshi wrote his poem in shi form and implied less elevated allusions.

A talented poet Du Mu, who lived in the period of Tang Dynasty, also referred to the story of  Xiang Yu. In the poem entitled Ti Wujiang Ting, he revealed a rather sympathetic attitude towards Xiang Yu. Du Mu suggested that if Xiang Yu had escaped from the final battle, he could have continued his struggle, re-gained the power and eventually achieved the desired political success. Ti Wujiang Ting is an outstanding representation of Du Mu’s unique and refined manner of rewriting historical insights and making powerful comments that give the readers space for further thought and inspiration. He evaluated Xiang Yu’s story from the point of view of various military strategies and concluded: ‘Victory or defeat is common in battle. One who can endure humiliation is a true man’. Consequently, Du Mu introduces the possibility of an alternative outcome of Xiang’s struggle by saying: ‘There are several talents in Jiangdong, who knows if he can make a comeback’. His poetic language is inquisitive and analytical, and the stance he takes is that of an objective observer.

The story of Xiang Yu became a popular theme in the works of numerous Chinese scholars and poets. There are many divergent opinions as to the policy, attitude and strategies implemented by this prominent historical figure, and they all form a many-sided riddle to be solved.

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