Li Yu (李煜; c. 937 – 15 August 978), before 961 known as Li Congjia (李从嘉), also known as Li Houzhu (李后主; 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.

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.

In 955, a year after Li Congjia’s marriage, Southern Tang was invaded by Later Zhou.

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。

After Li Congjia officially succeeded the throne, he changed his name to Li Yu.

A year before Li Yu ascended the throne, Southern Tang’s nominal overlord Later Zhou had been replaced by the Song Dynasty established by former Later Zhou general Zhao Kuangyin, who had earlier participated in several campaigns against Southern Tang.

Not known for his governing skill, Houzhu (Li Yu)  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.

Li Yu was close to his musically gifted wife Zhou Ehuang — Queen Zhou — so close that he sometimes canceled government meetings to enjoy her performances.

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.

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.

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.

 

Li Yu 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).

Wikipedia

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