Ask a Badass

Ask a Badass is an advice column answered by history’s hidden badasses, writing as they see their whole lives and our modern world.

Li Qingzhao

The Master Ci Poet answers:

What's the Point of Art

Dear Badass,

I’m a designer. I have been since I was born. I don’t remember when I first started playing with clothes. I was making outfits for my dolls before I even knew what outfits were. My favorite childhood game was dress-up. I went to Parsons after spending my teens religiously watching Project Runway and now my career’s… okay. I’m not famous or anything, but I get to design with a team. I have my own line on the side. It takes a lot of time and energy and lately I’ve been struggling. It’s hard to know what’s the point of making people feel pretty when the world is on fire. They should be feeling scared. I am.

What’s the Point of Art

Dear What's the Point of Art,

You seem to believe that because darkness exists, it is foolish to seek light. I believe that if darkness didn’t exist, we would have no need for the light. It is precisely because there is so much ugliness in the world that you must strive to create beauty.

“Who sits alone by the bright window?
My shadow and I, only we too.”

I say this as one who has known the heights of joy as well as the depths of sorrow. I have lived privilege and poverty, harmony and mourning. In times of happiness, I reveled in the poetry of others and created my own. I turned to poetry in my grief and wrote my own as a refugee.

I experienced everything, you see. I was young, rich and famous. I loved and was loved beyond any words could describe, though we did try. We were poets enamored of that which was very old and that which was very beautiful. When we were building our lives, we sold our work clothes to buy calligraphy. As we rose in status, we collected what was left of the land’s oldest history in brass and bronze. Scholars from around the country would travel to see our collection.

“I would have been glad to grow old in such a world.”

All was burned and lost. I fled when my country was invaded, the smoke of my burning home in my nose. My dearest love returned to what is beyond without me. I had to scrape my way in a new land without family or home. Through everything, I wrote my poems and shared them with those experiencing the same loss and dislocation.

It is because I have experienced both light and dark, intimacy and bereavement, that I can tell you they are intertwined. All of life exists in the balance between these two. We surrender so fully to the joy of connection because we foresee the grief of its end. Neither is to be avoided because each depends on the other.

“In life, we should be heroes among the living;
After death, let us be heroes among the ghosts.”

If you see grief and anger rising, it is a call to create more, not less. If you feel your time is out of balance and all around you turn to rage, you must fight for the joy and light that will bring balance to your age. Find small ways to be kind. Find large ways to be just. But do not dismiss creation and beauty in the face of destruction and ugliness.

Li Qingzhao

About Li Qingzhao

Born around 1084 CE in Zhangqui to a family of scholars; her mother was a poet and her father was a teacher and writer who studied under the famous Su Shi. Died after 1155 CE, likely in Zhejiang. To this day, Li Qingzhao is considered one of the greatest poets in Chinese history, a master of the ci style that was set to music and involved great emotional restraint. She and her husband were noted collectors and scholars of artifacts from the earliest Chinese dynasties. When the Song dynasty was invaded by the Jurchens, she and her husband fled. Her husband died of typhoid while traveling to a new government post and, while pieces of her poetry remain, little is known about the end of her life.

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