»  Li Qingzhao's "To the Tune of  'Like a Dream'"


To the Tune of  'Like a Dream'

by Li Qingzhao  (a.d. 1084-1151)


•  Background

Li Qingzhao is pretty generally regarded as the greatest of female Chinese poets. My friends Daniel and Jie Fertig have kindly recorded two of her poems and supplied accompanying notes. The actual readings are by Jie Fertig (接洁 … and Jie is proud to have it known that her surname, the lefthand of those two characters, and also pronounced "Jie," is the rarest in China).

Li Qingzhao has a walk-on part in my 1996 novel Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream (Chapter 16).

This page contains the first poem. The second poem is on a separate page. Daniel and Jie put together some background remarks, which I am including on both pages. In fact everything this page from here on down was put together by the Fertigs. Over to them:


If you ask a Chinese person who the greatest female writer in ancient China was, the response more often than not will be the Song dynasty poet Li Qingzhao, known for her ci (词), or "lyrics." Li, who lived during a tumultuous period of transition from the Southern to the Northern Song dynasty, has maintained this reputation despite having left an extant poetic œuvre of only about 70 poems and a relatively sparse biographical record. What we do know is derived mostly from the biography of her father, Li Gefei (李格非), contained in the official Song dynastic history. She came from a notably literary family: her father was an established scholar and a friend of Su Shi (苏轼), the great poet, scholar and artist of the Southern Song, and her mother also wrote poetry. Her marriage to Zhao Mingcheng (赵明诚), also a scholar and writer, was a famously happy union. They shared a passion for literature and art and also compiled a large collection of ancient stone and bronze rubbings.

Li Qingzhao lived through national and personal tragedy. Amidst the tumult of foreign invasions by a nomadic people called the Jurchen, which resulted in the overturn of the existing dynasty, both Li and her husband were frequently in flight from the chaos, and he eventually died in 1129 after an arduous journey to Nanjing to attend his mother's funeral. Li Qingzhao spent much of the remaining twenty-odd years of her life drifting from place to place, trying to keep the collection of objects d'art together and to make a living selling select items. Her poetry is clearly divided into the periods before and after her husband's death. The earlier poems show a carefree world of irreverent drinking and boat trips down the river. The later works reflect her troubled state of mind brought on by the uncertainties of life and chaos in her country. If drink is still present in these later verses, it is only as a means to stave off depression and anxiety.

A brief word about the ci, or lyric, a form which reached its apogee in the Song dynasty. Ci poetry is based upon ancient court and popular songs. The poems are of uneven line length but adhere to tonal and rhyming patterns based upon the original tune. These songs or tunes were already lost at the time the Song dynasty poets wrote, but the original tunes were used as patterns that the poet would "fill in" with his or her lyrics. The titles of ci thus refer to the original tune and provide an indication to the educated Chinese reader of the structure and pattern, if not the content, of the poem.

The two ci recorded on this and the adjacent page are representative works from each of the two major periods of Li Qingzhao's poetry. This one is from the earlier, carefree period.

"To the Tune of Like a Dream" (Ru Meng Ling), one of Li's earliest extant works, is an almost offhand account of an amusing incident on the way home from a party.


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poem




Stephen Owen's translation of this poem, in An Anthology of Chinese Literature:  Beginnings to 1911, is as follows:

    Like a Dream

I will always recall that day at dusk,
          the pavilion by the creek,
and I was so drunk I couldn't tell
          the way home. My mood left me,
it was late when I turned back in my boat
and I strayed deep among lotuses —
how to get through?
how to get through?
and I startled to flight a whole shoal
          of egrets and gulls.

An utterly literal, word-for-word, translation goes like this:

    Like Dream Order

used to remember creek pavilion sun set
deep drunk not know homeward road
excitement complete late return boat
mistakenly enter lotus flower deep place
how cross?
how cross?
startle up one bank egret gull