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Li Yu (Southern Tang)

Li Yu (Southern Tang) Ruler of the Southern Tang Kingdom in ancient China

Ruler of the Southern Tang Kingdom in ancient China
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro Ruler of the Southern Tang Kingdom in ancient China
A.K.A. Li Yu
Is Poet Writer
From China
Type Literature
Gender male
Birth 13 February 937, Nanjing, Jiangsu, People's Republic of China
Death 15 August 978, Kaifeng, Henan, People's Republic of China
Mother: Empress Zhong
Father: Emperor Yuanzong of Southern Tang
Siblings: franzingxxx klindixfranzingxxx klindixfranzingxxx klindixfranzingxxx klindixfranzingxxx klindixfranzingxxx klindixfranzingxxx klindixfranzingxxx klindix
Spouse: Queen Zhou the ElderQueen Zhou the YoungerYaoniang
Children: Li ZhongyuLi Zhongxuan
Li Yu (Southern Tang)
The details

Li Yu (Chinese: 李煜; c. 937 – 15 August 978), before 961 known as Li Congjia (李從嘉), also known as Li Houzhu (李後主; literally "Last Ruler Li" or "Last Lord Li"), was the third ruler of the Southern Tang state during imperial China's Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. He reigned from 961 until 976, when he was captured by the invading Song Dynasty armies which annexed his kingdom. He died by poison on orders of Emperor Taizong of Song after 2 years essentially as an exiled prisoner.

Although an incompetent ruler, he was a representative lyric poet during his era, even to the extent of having been called the "first true master" of the ci form.

Early life

In the same Chinese year Li Congjia was born, his grandfather Xu Zhigao, also known as Xu Gao (Li Bian) founded the state Qi (齊), renaming it Tang (known as the Southern Tang) 2 years later. When Li Congjia was 6, his father Li Jing became the next Southern Tang emperor. With Li Jing naming his younger brother Li Jingsui his heir apparent, his sixth eldest son Li Congjia seemed unlikely to ever succeed the throne. However, many of Li Congjia's brothers died very young, and after the death of the second eldest brother Li Hongmao (李弘茂) in 951, Li Congjia all of a sudden found himself right behind Li Hongji — the eldest brother — and uncle Li Jingsui in the succession line.

Li Hongji, a withdrawn and troubled young man, resented his crown prince uncle, whom he saw as a political enemy standing in his way. He also disliked his younger brother Li Congjia, even though they shared the same biological mother, Empress Zhong. Fearing the possible results of this family enmity, Li Congjia tried hard to be inconspicuous and focused on the arts, including poetry, painting and music. He loved reading, a passion encouraged by his father, also an acclaimed poet. At the age of 17, Li Congjia married Zhou Ehuang, chancellor Zhou Zong's daughter and a year his senior. Lady Zhou was not only highly educated but also multi-talented in music and the arts and the young couple enjoyed a very intimate relationship.

Accession to the throne

In 955, a year after Li Congjia's marriage, Southern Tang was invaded by Later Zhou. The resistance war did not end until spring 958, after Li Jing ceded all prefectures north of the Yangtze River to his powerful northern neighbor. Li Jing also relinquished all imperial trappings, degrading his own title from emperor to king (國主). The national humiliation was soon followed by familial tragedy: later that year Li Hongji poisoned uncle Li Jingsui to death, which was followed by his own death a few months later, allegedly hastened by many encounters with Li Jingsui's vengeful ghost.

Not long after Li Hongji's death in 959, Li Congjia was given the post of royal secretary (尚書令) so that he could familiarize himself of governmental affairs. However, despite being the king's eldest surviving son, a few ministers considered him too dissolute and weak for the crown prince position, including Zhong Mo, who pleaded to have Li Congjia's younger brother Li Congshan chosen instead. Li Jing found Zhong's suggestion offensive and demoted him.

Suffering from poor health, Li Jing decided to transfer all responsibilities to his successor. He named Li Congjia the crown prince in spring 961 to take over in the capital Jinling (金陵; modern Nanjing, Jiangsu) while he retired to the southern city of Hongzhou (洪州; modern Nanchang, Jiangxi). A few months later he died, and Li Congjia officially succeeded the throne, not without a last-second effort by Li Congshan to challenge him. By then Zhong Mo had also died, so Li Congshan asked chancellor Xu You to bring Li Jing's last will to him. Xu refused and confided in Li Congjia of Li Congshan's intentions. Li Congjia — changing his name to Li Yu — did not punish his younger brother other than a slight demotion.

As Southern Tang ruler

Appeasing the Song Dynasty

A year before Li Yu ascended the throne, Southern Tang's nominal overlord Later Zhou had been replaced by the Song Dynasty established by former Later Zhou general Zhao Kuangyin, who had earlier participated in several campaigns against Southern Tang. Knowing the limit of Southern Tang's military strength and trying hard to be subservient to the northern court, Li Yu immediately sent a high official Feng Yanlu with a letter — whose language was of extreme humility — to inform Song of his succession. Things got to a rocky start: during his accession to the throne Li Yu built a golden rooster, a symbol of imperial power, the news of which infuriated Zhao Kuangyin. In the end, the Southern Tang ambassador in the Song capital of Bianliang (汴梁; modern Kaifeng, Henan) had to give the explanation that the golden rooster was actually a "weird bird" to satisfy the Song emperor.

Such an embarrassing relationship would define Li's entire reign, as tribute payments, both regular and irregular, drained the Southern Tang treasury. Essentially Li was ready to fulfill Emperor Taizu of Song's every demand except go to Bianliang himself. In 963, Li Congshan who accompanied a tributary mission was held hostage in Bianliang and had to write letters on behalf of the Song emperor asking his elder brother also join him at the Song court. Li Yu, naturally, did not heed the request.

Successive deaths in the family

Li Yu remained close to his musically gifted wife Zhou Ehuang — now Queen Zhou — so close that he sometimes canceled government meetings to enjoy her performances. The absences continued until a censor (監察御史) spoke out against it.

In around 964, the second of the couple's 2 sons, a 3-year-old still called by his milk name Ruibao (瑞保), died unexpectedly. Li would mourn his son by himself so as not to sadden his wife more than necessary, but Queen Zhou was completely devastated and quickly deteriorated in health. During her illness, Li attended her so devotedly that he did not disrobe for days. When the queen finally succumbed to illness, Li mourned so bitterly until "his bones stuck out and he could stand up only with the aid of a staff." In addition to several grieving poems, he chiseled the roughly 2000 characters of his "Dirge for the Zhaohui Queen Zhou" (昭惠周后誄) — "Zhaohui" being her posthumous name — to her headstone himself. Part of the dirge read (as translated by Daniel Bryant):

孰謂逝者 Who is it says, of those departed,
荏苒彌疏 they grow more remote as times goes by?
我思姝子 I long for her, that beautiful lady,
永念猶初 eternally remembering, just as at first.
愛而不見 "I love her but I cannot see her";
我心毀如 my heart seems to blaze and burn.
寒暑斯疚 With chills and fever I am afflicted,
吾寧禦諸 can I ever overcome this?

While Li Yu was almost certainly sincere in his love for his wife, during her last days he also engaged in a secret sexual relationship with the queen's younger sister, who was only around 14 at that time. Worst of all, the queen discovered the "affair" which probably hastened her demise and multiplied Li Yu's regret. A few months later, in late 965, disaster stroke again: Queen Dowager Zhong died after several months of attentive care-taking by Li. The subsequent mourning period delayed Li's marriage to the younger Lady Zhou until 968.

Deaths of Lin Renzhao and Pan You

After conquering Jingnan, the Hunan region and Later Shu, the Song Dynasty army set off to invade Southern Han in 971, Southern Tang's southwestern neighbor. Lin Renzhao, the Southern Tang military governor of Zhenhai Command (鎮海軍) centering in Wuchang (in modern Hubei), believed the opportunity golden to attack the Song cities around Yangzhou (in modern Jiangsu) as the main Song army would be a long distance away and already severely fatigued. Li Yu immediately rejected Lin's request: "Stop the nonsense talks, (stop) destroying (our) country!"

What Li was perhaps unaware was a year before, the Song military had gotten hold of an important chart with detailed measurements of Yangtze River crossing points, provided by a Southern Tang defector named Fan Ruoshui. After the conquest of Southern Han, their next step was to eliminate Lin Renzhao. In 974, Emperor Taizu of Song got hold of a Lin portrait through agents working in Southern Tang, and Li Congshan, the hostage kept in Bianliang, was then made to believe that Lin's loyalty was with Song. When Li Yu was told of this, he without a thorough investigation secretly poisoned Lin to death. Chancellor Chen Qiao angrily reacted to Lin's death: "Seeing loyal ministers killed, I don't know where I will die!".

Fall of Southern Tang

Not known for his governing skill, Houzhu was nevertheless a highly accomplished scholar, he allowed himself indulgence with artistic and literature pursuits, with little regard to the strong Song Kingdom that was eying its weaker neighbor. In 971, Houzhu dropped the name of Tang from its Kingdom's name, in a desperate move to please the mighty Emperor Taizu of Song.

Of the many other kingdoms surrounding the Southern Tang, only Wuyue to the east had yet to fall. The Southern Tang's turn came in 974, when, after several refusals to summons to the Song court, on the excuse of illness, Song Dynasty armies invaded. After a year long siege of the Southern Tang capital, modern Nanjing, Li Houzhu surrendered, in 975; and, he and his family were taken as captives to the Song capital at present-day Kaifeng. In a later poem, Li wrote about the shame and regret he had on the day he was taken away from Jinling (as translated by Hsiung Ting):

四十年來家國 For forty years my country and my home —
三千里地山河 Three thousand li of mountains and rivers.
鳳閣龍樓連霄漢 The Phoenix Pavilion and Dragon Tower reaching up to the Milky Way,
玉樹瓊枝作烟蘿 Jade trees and jasper branches forming a cloudy net —
幾曾識干戈 Not once did I touch sword or spear!
一旦歸為臣虜 Suddenly I became a captive slave.
沈腰潘鬢銷磨 Frail my waist, gray my temples, grinding away.
最是倉皇辭廟日 Never shall I forget the day when I bade hasty farewell at the ancestral temple.
教坊猶奏別離歌 The court musicians played the farewell songs,
揮淚對宮娥 My tears streamed as I gazed at the court maidens.

Devotion to the arts

Although, Li Yu indeed was a great exponent and developer of the Ci poetry form, which form sometimes or often seems to characterize poetry of the Song Dynasty, there is also some difficulty in categorizing him as a Song poet: the Southern Tang state is more of a continuation of Tang than a precursor on the Song side of the divide of the history of the Tang-Song transition, also known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. Li Yu represents both a continuation of the Tang poetry tradition, as well as representing the Ci poetic style which is so especially associated with the poetry of Song.

Li Houzhu devoted much of his time to pleasure-making and literature, and this is reflected in his early poems. A second phase of Li's ci poems seems to have been the development of an even sadder style after the death of his wife, in 964. His best-known, and saddest, poems were composed during the years of his captivity, after he formally abdicated his reign to the Song, in 975. He was created the Marquess of Wei Ming (Chinese: 違命侯; literally, the Marquess of Disobeyed Edicts), a token title only: actually, he was a prisoner, though with the outward accoutrements of a prince. Li's works from this period dwell on his regret for the lost kingdom and the pleasures it had brought him.

He developed the ci by broadening its scope from love to history and philosophy, particularly in his later works. He also introduced the two stanza form, and made great use of contrasts between longer lines of nine characters and shorter ones of three and five. Only 45 of his ci poems survive, thirty of which have been verified to be his authentic works, the other of which are possibly composed by other writers: also, seventeen shi style poems remain to his credit. His story remains very popular in many Cantonese operas.


He was poisoned by the Song emperor Taizong in 978, after he had written a poem that, in a veiled manner, lamented the destruction of his empire and the rape of his second wife Empress Zhou the Young by the Song emperor. After his death, he was posthumously created the Prince of Wu (吳王).


Ci poetry

The roughly 40 (some of which incomplete owing to damaged manuscripts) ci poems possibly written by Li Yu are summarized in the table below. The ci as a poetic form follows set patterns or tunes (詞牌).

A few poems have been set to music in modern times, most notably the 3 songs in superstar Teresa Teng's 1983 album Light Exquisite Feelings. Some of the songs are mentioned below.

Tune First line Notes
Cǎi Sāng Zǐ (采桑子) Lù Lú Jīn Jǐng Wú Tóng Wǎn (轆轤金井梧桐晚)
Tíng Qián Chūn Zhú Hóng Yīng Jìn (庭前春逐紅英盡)
Cháng Xiāng Sī (長相思) Yún Yī Guā (雲一緺)
Dǎo Liàn Zǐ Ling (搗練子令) Shēn Yuàn Jìng (深院靜)
Dié Liàn Huā (蝶戀花) Yáo Yè Tíng Gāo Xián Xìn Bù (遙夜亭臯閑信步)
Huàn Xī Shā (浣溪沙) Hóng Rì Yǐ Gāo Sān Zhàng Tòu (紅日已高三丈透)
Làng Táo Shā (浪淘沙) Lián Wài Yǔ Chán Chán (簾外雨潺潺) Tune written as Làng Táo Shā Lìng (浪淘沙令)
Wǎng Shì Zhǐ Kān Āi (往事只堪哀)
Lín Jiāng Xiān (臨江仙) Qín Lóu Bù Jiàn Chuī Xiāo Nǚ (秦樓不見吹簫女) Tune written as Xiè Xīn Ēn (謝新恩)
Missing 1 character in the sixth line
Yīng Táo Luò Jìn Chūn Guī Qù (櫻桃落盡春歸去) Authenticity of the last 3 lines questioned
Liǔ Zhī (柳枝) Fēng Qíng Jiàn Lǎo Jiàn Chūn Xiū (風情漸老見春羞)
Pò Zhèn Zǐ (破陣子) Sì Shí Nián Lái Jiā Guó (四十年來家國) Shiao Lih-ju sang it in Mandarin
Pú Sà Mán (菩薩蠻) Huā Míng Yuè Àn Lóng Qīng Wù (花明月暗籠輕霧)
Péng Lái Yuàn Bì Tiān Tái Nǚ (蓬萊院閉天台女)
Rén Shēng Chóu Hèn Hé Néng Miǎn (人生愁恨何能免) Tune written as Zǐ Yè Gē (子夜歌)
Tóng Huáng Yùn Cuì Qiāng Hán Zhú (銅簧韻脆鏘寒竹)
Xún Chūn Xū Shì Xiān Chūn Zǎo (尋春須是先春早) Tune written as Zǐ Yè Gē (子夜歌)
Qīng Píng Yuè (清平樂) Bié Lái Chūn Bàn (別來春半)
Ruǎn Láng Guī (阮郎歸) Dōng Fēng Chuī Shuǐ Rì Xián Shān (東風吹水日銜山) Possibly by Feng Yansi
Sān Tái Lìng (三臺令) Bù Mèi Juàn Cháng Gèng (不寐倦長更) Authorship questioned
Wàng Jiāng Nán (望江南) Duō Shǎo Hèn (多少恨)
Duō Shǎo Lèi (多少淚)
Xián Mèng Yuǎn (閑夢遠)
2nd line: Nán Guó Zhèng Fāng Chūn (南國正芳春)
Tune written as Wàng Jiāng Méi (望江梅)
Xián Mèng Yuǎn (閑夢遠)
2nd line: Nán Guó Zhèng Qīng Qiū (南國正清秋)
Wū Yè Tí (烏夜啼) Zuó Yè Fēng Jiān Yǔ (昨夜風兼雨)
Xǐ Qiān Yīng (喜遷鶯) Xiǎo Yuè Zhuì (曉月墜)
Xiāng Jiàn Huān (相見歡) Lín Huā Xiè Liǎo Chūn Hóng (林花謝了春紅) Teresa Teng sang it in Mandarin
Wú Yán Dú Shàng Xī Lóu (無言獨上西樓) Teresa Teng sang it in Mandarin
Shiao Lih-ju sang it in Mandarin
Xiè Xīn Ēn (謝新恩) Jīn Chuāng Lì Kùn Qǐ Huán Yōng (金窗力困起還慵) Missing the rest of the poem
Rǎn Rǎn Qiū Guāng Liú Bù Zhù (冉冉秋光留不住) Possibly missing lines and/or characters
Tíng Kōng Kè Sàn Rén Guī Hòu (庭空客散人歸後)
Yīng Huā Luò Jìn Chūn Jiāng Kùn (櫻花落盡春將困) Missing 2 lines
Yīng Huā Luò Jìn Jiē Qián Yuè (櫻花落盡階前月)
Yī Hú Zhū (一斛珠) Wǎn Zhuāng Chū Guò (晚妝初過)
Yú Fù (漁父) Làng Huā Yǒu Yì Qiān Chóng Xuě (浪花有意千重雪)
Yī Zhào Chūn Fēng Yī Yè Zhōu (一棹春風一葉舟)
Yù Lóu Chūn (玉樓春) Wǎn Zhuāng Chū Liǎo Míng Jī Xuě (晚妝初了明肌雪) Chang Chen sang it in Mandarin
Yú Měi Rén (虞美人) Chūn Huā Qiū Yuè Hé Shí Liǎo (春花秋月何時了) Teresa Teng sang it in Mandarin
Chan Ho Tak sang it in Cantonese
Huang Yee-ling and others sang it in Taiwanese
Huang Fei sang it in Taiwanese
Fēng Huí Xiǎo Yuàn Tíng Wú Lǜ (風回小院庭蕪綠)

One of Li Yu's most famous poems, popularly known as "Alone Up the Western Tower" (獨上西樓), was written after his capture. As translated by Chan Hong-mo:

無言獨上西樓 Alone to silence, up the western tower, I myself bestow.
月如鉤 Like silver curtain hook, so does the moon glow.
寂寞梧桐 The fallen leaves of one forsaken parasol
深院鎖清秋 Make deeper still the limpid autumn locked up in the court below.
剪不斷 Try cutting it, it is still profuse –
理還亂 More minding will but more confuse –
是離愁 Ah, parting's such enduring sorrow!
別有一番滋味在心頭 It leaves behind a very special taste the heart alone could know.

Shi poetry

Li Yu's poems in the form of shi include:

  • "Bìng Qǐ Tí Shān Shě Bì" (病起題山舍壁; "Getting up while Ill: Written Upon the Wall of My Mountain Lodge")
  • "Bìng Zhōng Gǎn Huái" (病中感懷; "Feelings while Ill")
  • "Bìng Zhōng Shū Shì" (病中書事; "Written while Ill")
  • "Dào Shī" (悼詩; "Poem of Mourning")
  • "Dù Zhōng Jiāng Wàng Shí Chéng Qì Xià" (渡中江望石城泣下; "Gazing at Stone City from Mid-river and Weeping")
  • "Gǎn Huái" (感懷; "My Feelings") — 2 poems
  • "Jiǔ Yuè Shí Rì Ǒu Shū" (九月十日偶書; "Jotted Down on the Tenth Day of the Ninth Month")
  • "Méi Huā" (梅花; "Plum Blossoms") — 2 poems
  • "Qiū Yīng" (秋鶯; "Autumn Warbler")
  • "Shū Líng Yán Shǒu Jīn" (書靈筵手巾; "Written on the Napkin for a Sacrificial Banquet")
  • "Shū Pí Pá Bèi" (書琵琶背; "Written on the Back of a Pipa")
  • "Sòng Dèng Wáng Èr Shí Dì Cóng Yì Mù Xuān Chéng" (送鄧王二十弟從益牧宣城; "On Saying Farewell to My Younger Brother Chongyi, the Prince of Deng, Who is Going Away to Govern Xuancheng") — including a long letter
  • "Tí jīn lóu zi hòu" (題金樓子後; "Written at the end of the Jinlouzi") — including a preface
  • "Wǎn Chí"(輓辭; "Poem of Mourning") — 2 poems

"To the Tune of Liǔ Zhī" mentioned in the ci section may also be classified as a shi.

Prose writing

Though miscellaneous in character, Li Yu's surviving prose writings also demonstrated his poetic genius. For example, "Dirge for the Zhaohui Queen Zhou" is rhymed and almost entirely in regular four-character metre, resembling the dominant fu form a millennium before.


"Traveling on the River in First Snow" (江行初雪) by the Southern Tang painter Zhao Gan (趙幹), National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan. The column of 11 characters on the right edge of the painting, which specified the artist and the title, was written by Li Yu.

Li Yu's calligraphy style has been dubbed "golden inlaid dagger" (金錯刀) for its perceived force and clarity. As one Song Dynasty writer noted: "The large characters are like split bamboo, the small ones like clusters of needles; altogether unlike anything done with a brush!"

Television series

Three independent television series focused on the complex relationships between Li Yu (Li Houzhu), Emperor Taizu of Song (Zhao Kuangyin) and the various women in their lives. They are:

  • The Sword and the Song (絕代雙雄), a 1986 Singaporean series starring Li Wenhai as Li Yu.
  • Love, Sword, Mountain & River (情劍山河), a 1996 Taiwanese series starring Chin Feng as Li Yu.
  • Li Houzhu and Zhao Kuangyin (李後主與趙匡胤), a 2006 Chinese series starring Nicky Wu as Li Yu.

Notes and references


Primary sources
  • (in Chinese)  
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Secondary sources
  • Davis, A. R. (Albert Richard), Editor and Introduction, The Penguin Book of Chinese Verse. Baltimore: Penguin Books (1970).
  • Landau, Julie. 1994. Beyond spring tz'u poems of the Sung dynasty. Translations from the Asian classics. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-09678-X ISBN 978-0-231-09678-2
  • Liu, Kezhang. 2006. An appreciation and English translation of one hundred Chines (i.e. Chinese) cis during the Tang and Song dynasties. Pittsburgh, Penn: RoseDog Books. ISBN 0-8059-9008-9 ISBN 978-0-8059-9008-9
  • MacKintosh, Duncan and Alan Ayling. 1967. A collection of Chinese lyrics. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
  •  CS1 maint: Extra text: editors list (link)
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