Li Yu: Life, Times, and Work

Li Yu: Life, Times and Work

Li Yu was born in 937 just months before his grandfather, Li Bian, staged a palace coup that founded the dynasty, and later thekingdom, of the Southern Tang. He was the sixth son of his father, Li Jing, but because most of his older brothers died early in life, he was the third, and last ruler of the Southern Tang. He reigned from the years 961 to 976.

By the year 951, at the age of fourteen, Li was third in line for the throne, behind his uncle, Li Jingsui, and his oldest brother, Li Hongji. At the age of seventeen, Li married Zhou Ehuang, the chancellor’s daughter. Like Li, Zhou was also highly educated and had many talents in art and music.

In an effort to keep peace with the larger and stronger Song to the north, his uncle and then senior official, ceded the Southern Tang lands north of the Changjiang. This in effect downgraded the father’s imperial title from emperor to king. Four years later in 959 Li’s oldest brother, Li Hongji, poisoned his uncle to become second in line to the throne. But Hongji then died just a few months later.

In 959, Li’s father made Li a royal secretary in order to study government affairs and learn what was needed to one day succeed his father. A few months later in 961 his father passed away, leaving Li an unprepared king in both training and temperament. During his reign he tried to avoid war with the neighboring states and encourage the practices of Buddhism. The Song were by far his strongest and most aggressive neighbor. Li at first made peace payments in order to appease them. But made the security of his kingdom more tenuous as the royal treasury was slowly drained.

Three years into Li’s reign, the second of his sons unexpectedly died at the age of three. His wife grief stricken soon followed him in death. Over the following years, one by one the surrounding kingdoms fell to the Song. The capital city of Jinling (modern day Nanjing) was soon under threat from the north. In the year of 974, the Song moved against Li Yu. By 975 the capital and kingdom fell. Li Yu was taken captive, and then taken to the Song capital of Kaifeng.

While in captivity Li Yu wrote many of his most famous poems. These were works than expressed his personal grief and sense of waste in all of the human endeavors. Many of the Southern Tang court characteristics were continued by the Song. These included the traits of literary and artistic splendor.

On Li Yu’s forty-fourth birthday, the Song emperor, Taizong, sent him a gift. The gift turned out to be poisoned wine. Li Yu died soon thereafter on the fifteenth of August, 978.

Li Yu was famous as an important developer of the Chinese poetic form known as ci. Here lyrics are set to well-known and popular melodies from the past. Li broadened the art form from love and romance to include the topics of history and philosophy. He introduced the two-stanza form, contrasting a nine-character line with those of three and five characters.

Subsequent critics have categorized Li Yu’ work into one of three periods. In the early period, Li wrote poems of pleasure-making and in those that used literary allusions. The second period Li developed his style of expressing melancholy after the death of his wife and son in 964. This third and final period found Li producing his best known, yet saddest poems during his captivity by the Song in Kaifeng. During these last two or three years, Li Yu wrote of his regrets for having lost a kingdom.

Many historians are fairly sure that forty-five of Li Yu’s ci poems have survived, as well as seventeen of his shi poems still exist. Many other poems are of uncertain origin, with some probably written by Li, and others not.

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