- The Burden of Female Talent: The Poet Li Qingzhao and Her History in China by Ronald Egan
Ronald Egan’s new book on Li Qingzhao is the best study on China’s most famous woman writer to date, and it is the best study we are likely ever to have, given the limitations of her oeuvre and the sources, which Egan has worked through in meticulous detail. It is a study of the person through her own works that can be reliably used as biographical sources and through other sources. As the first half of the title tells us, Egan consistently situates Li Qingzhao and her work in the context of being not only a woman but a woman writer of considerable talent, and he carefully historicizes the nature of her gender “burden” as it changed from her own time to the present. He has sifted through a numbing amount of secondary scholarship, much of which is more hagiographical than historical. With sometimes painful detail, we see that gender was always the central issue, even as Egan tries to discriminate how gender was an issue for Li Qingzhao in her lifetime from how it was an issue for the primarily male admirers and critics of the nine centuries that followed.
The paradox of the book is faced early on. We initially become interested in Li Qingzhao because of her talent as a lyricist, but the lyrics themselves may offer us little or no direct access to the person. Egan first reminds us how few of Li Qingzhao’s lyrics have any credible claim to authenticity and how her lyric collection grew over the centuries along with her fame. In other words, texts that have commonly been used as “evidence” of the “real person” may, in fact, be constructs of the very image for which they are used as evidentiary support. Then, with precision, Egan dissects and historicizes the tradition that came to read her lyrics as direct expressions of her feelings and experiences, astutely observing how such a way of reading is, even more than with male lyricists, a function of her role as a woman writer. In this context, the most tedious Chinese scholarship offers some unintentionally humorous moments, as Egan shows how scholars have constructed different scenarios to separate Li Qingzhao from her husband Zhao Mingcheng in order to provide an interval during which her lyrics on [End Page 363] “longing for the absent beloved” can find occasion to have been written. Chinese scholarship has invested vast erudition and ingenuity in dating and biographically contextualizing her lyrics, without raising the question of whether her lyrics do indeed directly represent her lived experience—and in song lyric, as opposed to classical poetry (shi), that is a very serious question.
Having disabled the use of song lyrics as direct evidence of Li Qingzhao’s experiences, Egan then turns most of his attention to the handful of her surviving works in other genres, genres that offer more credible historical evidence. In these he is fully at home, showing how she manipulates her self-representation: the woman writer carried away by feeling is replaced by the woman writer in full control of her self-representation in the complex personal and political situation in which she was being read and judged. We see the famous issue of her remarriage and divorce, both in the context of her time and in the context of changing attitudes toward widow remarriage later in the tradition. The manipulation of evidence to justify foregone conclusions does not show Chinese scholarship in its best light.
The issues in Chinese scholarship that Egan surveys are sometimes maddening, despite his best attempts to be sympathetic. Chinese scholars seem unable to accept that in a marriage of many years’ duration a wife might feel deep resentment of her husband together with deep love for him, and that in any wife’s account of marriage such resentments might spill over and blend with expressions of love. Li Qingzhao’s “Afterword to...