Widely considered the preeminent Chinese woman poet, Li Qingzhao (1084–1150s) occupies a crucial place in China’s literary and cultural history. She stands out as the great exception to the rule that the first-rank poets in premodern China were male. But at what price to our understanding of her as a writer does this distinction come? The Burden of Female Talent challenges conventional modes of thinking about Li Qingzhao as a devoted but often lonely wife and, later, a forlorn widow. By examining manipulations of her image by the critical tradition in later imperial times and into the twentieth century, Ronald C. Egan brings to light the ways in which critics sought to accommodate her to cultural norms, molding her “talent” to make it compatible with ideals of womanly conduct and identity. Contested images of Li, including a heated controversy concerning her remarriage and its implications for her “devotion” to her first husband, reveal the difficulty literary culture has had in coping with this woman of extraordinary conduct and ability. The study ends with a reappraisal of Li’s poetry, freed from the autobiographical and reductive readings that were traditionally imposed on it and which remain standard even today.
The number of song lyrics that may be reliably identified as Li’s is halved to 36 and none is conclusively dated, while previous interpretations tied to assumptions about her life are disproved. Egan analyzes this small corpus in a tour de force entirely free of biography. But what is most valuable is that he replaces the myths with convincing portraits of Li’s thinking and actions that draw on her prose as well as poetry, developing them with sense, sensitivity and erudition… The insights of this study will elicit as much respect for her grit and her suppressed, defiant, unrealized ambitions as for her poetry. The first work of this kind in any language, The Burden of Female Talent is both grand synthesis and original scholarship, with a clear style that makes a complex story easy to follow.
- 432 pages
- 6 x 9 inches
- Harvard University Asia Center
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