»  Li Qingzhao's "Every Note, Adagio"


Every Note, Adagio

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 second poem. The first poem is on a separate page. Daniel and Jie put together some background remarks, which I am including on both pages. The notes to this poem are also by the Fertigs. In fact everything on this page from here on 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 later, darker period.

"Every Note, Adiago," (Shengsheng Man) is famous for, among other things, the initial string of seven sets of duplicative words that set the tone for the poem.


•  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:

    Note After Note

Searching and searching, seeking and seeking,
so chill, so clear,
        and dismal,
                and forlorn.
That time of year
        when it's suddenly warm,
                then cold again,
now it's hardest of all to take care.
Two or three cups of weak wine —
how can they resist the biting wind
        that comes with evening[1]?
The wild geese pass by —
that's what hurts the most —
and yet they're old acquaintances[2].

In piles chrysanthemums fill the ground,
looking all wasted, damaged —
who could pick them, as they are now?
I stay by the window,
how can I wait alone until blackness comes?
The beech tree,
        on top of that
                the fine rain,
on until dusk,
the dripping drop after drop.
In a situation like this
how can that one word "sorrow" grasp it?

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

    Note Note Slow

search search seek seek, cold cold clear clear,
desolate desolate miserable miserable sorrowful sorrowful.
sudden warm return cold time, most difficult [particle] rest.
three cup two bowls weak wine, how resist it, dawn come wind acute?
geese pass [particle], exact pain heart, but this old time mutual acquainted.

complete ground yellow flower pile accumulate,
haggard withered damaged, as now there is who bear pick?
keeping by [particle] window [particle], alone self how live obtain darkness?
beech tree more concurrently thin rain, reach yellow dusk, drop drip drip drip
this arrangement order, how one single sorrow word complete obtain?

•  Notes

1.  There is a certain amount of scholarly disagreement as to whether the correct character here is 晓 xiao (dawn) or 晚 wan (evening). Owen takes the latter view in his translation. The opposing position, that it should be "dawn," is supported by the interpretation of the poem as transpiring over the course of one complete day from dawn through dusk (the 黄昏 huanghun of the penultimate line). The reference to "weak wine" (淡酒 dan jiu) in the same line bolsters the argument in favor of "dawn" because weak wine often referred to a spirit used as a restorative in the morning.

2.  The implication that the birds are "acquaintances" of the narrator comes from the occasional (anecdotal) use of migrating geese in ancient China as a kind of carrier bird to transmit messages to distant loved ones.