She was born into a literary family and became an antiquarian, book collector, and calligrapher. Of her six original volumes of lyrics, only about 50 lyrics remain.
In Stephen Owen's chapter, "The Snares of Memory," it concentrates on Li Ch'ing-Chao's Afterward to Records on Metal and Stone. He believes that Chao's account is filled with memories of her happy times in her married life and her tremendous bitterness toward her husband for the excessive value he placed on this material collection.
Chao opens the afterward with a comparison of two men, Ch'ang-yu and Yuan-k'ai, deluded by the importance of their possessions. She refers to their love of collecting as "hoarding," as a "disease." Using this as a backdrop, a reader can understand Chao's ambivalent feelings toward her husband's love for his collection of the inscriptions and vessels.
In relating their experience of collecting their treasures, Chao initially emphasizes the experience of sharing their passion for knowledge and beauty. She relates how Chao Te-fu brought home the rubbings and fruit and they would then sit together and munch on the fruit and admire his latest find. They would savor the treasure, the fruit, and their time together.
One of the few works Chao mentions by name is the painting of peonies by Hsu Hsi. Yet this is the work they could not afford to purchase. Owen calls attention to the idea that by not acquiring this work, it is recorded in memory. The possessions they acquired are left unmentioned.
As Chao records the details of their growing library and museum, she also records their losses. She must reduce the amount of meat in their meals and do away with all the "finery" in her dress. The result of her husband's passion for acquisition is that a "nervousness and anxiety" enters their life. Chao's resentment toward her husband's growing passion for acquiring material possessions is by now apparent.
Owen details the importance of the Chinese inclusion and omission of the personal pronoun. By excluding the pronoun, Chao sometimes covers the different values she and her husband place on their growing collection. However, when she includes her comment, "I could not bear it," she leaves no doubt that her dedication to their pastime is more casual than is his.
After Chao Te-fu dies, Li Ch'ing Chao experiences the dissolution of their treasure as their collection is burned and stolen. The transitory nature of possessions acquired on this earth is never more apparent.
Li Ch'ing Chao ends her afterward much as she began, with the remembrance of their collection as a living experience. She speaks of how her husband would edit the collations and write a colophon. The importance for her is not to view their collection as possessions but to view them as events, similar to their eating the fruit as they used to look over their acquisitions. These actions serve to retain in her memory their love for each other and their love for knowledge and beauty.
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