She was the daughter of a high-ranking member of the Song court and she married the son of another. Her early life was spent in a beautiful part of north China. After they were married her husband, who entered the government service, was frequently absent on official business and in the pursuit of his interests in collecting historical inscriptions and works of literature and art. When the Jurchen invaders from Mongolia took control of north China they were forced to flee to the south during which time he died and almost all of their possessions were lost.
These brief facts inform the content of her poetry – her carefree young life, the pleasures she found in trees and flowers, her deep love for her husband, the trauma of their flight to the south, the loneliness of her widowhood and her general reflections on life. These themes were developed in a particular form of verse which set her language free from the restraints of classical Tang verse. They are as fresh and moving today as when they were first written.
The quality of the translations of Li Qingzhao’s poems into English vary greatly. There have been few attempts to essay translations of what may be regarded as the entirety of her surviving works. There have been none that have invited the reader to enter into and understand the process and problems of their translation into English.
This book does that. An extensive introduction deals with the detail of the historical and personal background against which the poems were written as well as explaining aspects of the Chinese language and the approaches which can be taken to translations from Chinese into English. There is also a translation of a brief autobiography written by Li Qingzhao. Notes accompany each of the poems which explain meanings which might otherwise be obscure and generally discuss aspects of the process of translation. The text of each of the poems is provided in Chinese characters and their Anglicised pronunciations. The book itself is beautifully presented, including striking calligraphy by a distinguished New Zealand Chinese scholar as well as interesting colour plates of works in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing.
The author is a senior Melbourne barrister who has a deep and abiding interest in all things Chinese. He has previously translated all of the poetry of the Southern Tang Emperor Li Yu in his book The Poetry of Li Yu.