New book brings out the dark side of ancient China's great poet Li Qingzhao

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 February, 2009, 12:00am

Long before deranged Rimbaud, drunken Dylan Thomas and sex-crazed Byron, ancient China could boast about Li Qingzhao. That is, if you believe Yang Yu (pictured), a literature professor from Central South University in Changsha, Hunan province. What! Isn't that an affront to the memory and reputation of one of the greatest female poets in the nation's history! Not only did Li match all those poets' eccentricities, but in her new book, Yang claims Li was also a gambling addict who regularly put in all-nighters playing mahjong and who personally invented more than 20 betting games. Among the belongings that Li carried with her when she went into exile were gambling paraphernalia.

Li was one of the greatest lyric poets from the Song dynasty. Most senior secondary school students in Hong Kong would have studied a few of her lyrics, which are less formal than poems. But most wouldn't have the faintest idea about the fascinating personality behind the poetry. Now, courting controversy, Yang has presented a very different side to the poet who has come down to us through conventional literary tradition. It was known that she married at least twice after her first husband died. As a young poet, she also drank at salons with assorted literary types, many of whom became her suitors.

Yang counted that out of 58 lyric compositions by Li, 26 were about wine and getting drunk. She also argues some lyrics were in fact disguised passionate serenades to entice her husband to go to bed with her. 'Read properly, they are erotica,' the professor wrote. I must have been reading them improperly.