Chu Yuan 340? B.C.-278? B.C.
Revered in China not only for his innovative and imaginative poetry but for his exemplary character, Chu Yuan is credited as the author of twenty-five poems, the best known of which is the "Li-sao" (Encountering Sorrow). He is considered one of ancient China's finest poets and was hugely influential on all later poets; his work broke a span of some three hundred years in which no extant important Chinese poetry was written. Chu quickly grew to legendary proportions, becoming a symbol against treachery and corruption.
Chu Yuan was born at the end of the Chou Dynasty into the ruling house of Chu, a powerful state in central China from which the first part of his name was taken. He grew up to attain a high position, second only to the prime minister, under its ruler, Huai-wang. During a time of great upheaval in China, with states warring against and seeking alliances with one another, a jealous officer, Shang Kuan, slandered Chu Yuan. The slander was believed by the King and Chu Yuan was banished. His political career ruined, he wandered about China in despair, studying the common folk and writing poetry. Called back, he again was banished by Huai-wang's successor. Hoping the new King would eventually relent, Chu Yuan wandered south of the Yangtze river for years until one day he clutched a heavy stone to his chest and jumped into the river Milo and drowned. The Dragon Boat Festival, which China celebrates on the fifth day of the fifth month of each year, commemorates his death. On this day glutinous rice wrapped in leaves is thrown into rivers as a sacrifice to him—either as food for him, or food for dragons so that they are not tempted to eat him. Although this custom was widely practiced before Chu Yuan's death, public perception that it originated to honor Chu Yuan has supplanted its original meaning.
Chu Yuan is generally identified as the author of twenty-five surviving poems (all in the Songs of Chu authology), but it is not possible to know with certainty which poems he wrote and which he did not; scholars disagree about which to include and which to exclude from his canon. The 375-line "Li-sao" opens the Songs of Chu. It is an autobiographical lament on an emperor's belief in falsehoods about a loyal subject. The poet tells of his desire only to serve a wise king in an honest manner. But that is not to be, for his good intentions have been slandered and his virtue unrecognized. Preparing to drown himself, he is magically transported into the air, where he begins a long and unfruitful journey searching for a deserving king. Among Chu Yuen's other most admired works are the "Nine Songs," which were based on religious songs used in his homeland, "Calling Back the Soul," which was intended to be used by sorcerers to heal the sick, and "Tien Wen," which represents many ancient Chinese myths and legends.
Chu Yuan is considered by many critics to be China's greatest poet. No precedents are known for the form he used, and thus he is credited with being a tremendous innovator as well as practitioner. It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate his work from the myth surrounding him. James R. Hightower has written: "During the past two thousand years Ch'u Yüan has been perhaps the most written-about literary figure in Chinese history. The melancholy poet and frustrated bureaucrat has captured the imagination of Chinese readers.… Except for Confucius himself no one has enjoyed such emotionally charged esteem, and Ch'u Yüan's rare detractors have fared badly at the hands of the majority." Hightower continues by pointing out that Western readers generally do not understand the reason for such acclaim and that they do not find Chu Yuan's poems to be the best examples of early Chinese poetry. Hightower believes it is Chu Yuan's heroic status in China that accounts for the differences in perception. Cheng Chen-to writes that Chu Yuan "drew upon historical studies, ancient myths and legends, observations of living things and natural phenomena. With his incomparably rich imagination, his sincerity and nobility of spirit and boundless and beautiful vocabulary, he organized and developed his knowledge of the past and the events of his time as the power of spring develops a garden of luxuriant flowers."
Principal English Translations
The Li Sao, An Elegy on Encountering Sorrows by Chü Yüan (translated by Lin Boon Keng) 1929
The White Pony (edited by Robert Payne) 1947
Li Sao and Other Poems of Chü Yüan (translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang) 1953
Selected Poems of Chü Yüan (translated by Sun Dayü) 1994
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SOURCE: "K'ü Yüan, His Life and Poems," Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, No. 59, 1928, pp. 231-53.
[In the following essay, Biallas discusses Chu Yuan's life, banishment, and suicide; explains how he reached legendary status; presents current critical opinions of him; and offers new translations and commentary on some of his overlooked poems. Chinese characters have been edited out of the text.]
The name of the statesman and poet K'ü Yüan is closely linked with the Dragon Boat Festival which the Chinese celebrate each year on the fifth day of the fifth month of their calendar. When K'ü Yüan, thus one tradition goes, not being able to bear the sad fate of his banishment any more, clasped a stone to his breast and drowned himself in the river Mi-lo, an affluent of the Tung-t'ing lake, in Hu-nan, about 290 B.c., the people of the neighbourhood, who knew him well, ran to the place of the tragedy and tried to save him or to search for his body. Being without success, they lamented him and each year on this day commemorated his sad end on rivers and lakes by races with dragon-shaped boats or boats on which dragons were carved or painted. They threw rice into the water at the same time in his honour or as food for him and to prevent dragons and fishes eating it, they put it in bamboo-sticks or wrapped small quantities of sticky rice, sugar, and fruit in leaves of rushes....
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SOURCE: "The Works of Chu Yuan," People's China, No. 14, July 16, 1953, pp. 5-9.
[In the following essay, Ho Chi-fang discusses Chu Yuan's political outlook and patriotism, and credits him as "the first to write poetry expressive of the individuality of the author."]
The works of Chu Yuan are strongly expressive of his political thought. This is so because not only is there always a close connection between literature and politics, but especially because in those ancient times the social division of labour was still relatively undeveloped and the writer was often also at the same time a statesman. Thus to have a clear understanding of Chu Yuan's thought, it is necessary to know what he had in mind when he spoke of "good government."
Chu Yuan's Political Outlook
In Li Sao (The Lament), Chu Yuan made it quite clear that his ideal of good government was the type of government represented by the rule of the Emperors Yao, Shun, Yu and Tang as well as by King Wen and King Wu of the Chou Dynasty. Li Sao was written not as a treatise on politics but as lyric poetry, so Chu Yuan naturally provided in it no details concerning this good government. He contented himself with merely saying that the Emperors Yao and Shun were "upright," that Yu and Tang were "scrupulous and pious," and that the founder of Chou ruled according to the principles of good...
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SOURCE: "The People Commemorate Chu Yuan," People's China, No. 14, July 16, 1953, pp. 30-1.
[In the following essay, Yu discusses ancient and modern celebrations honoring Chu Yuan.]
On the fifth day of the fifth moon of the Lunar Calendar which this year fell on June 15, the Chinese people commemorated Chu Yuan, their first great patriot-poet. But this was not a usual celebration. In addition to traditional rites there were ceremonies that this 2,230-year-old occasion had never yet seen—scholarly dissertations and exhibitions on the poet and his life and times, all the most modern resources of public discussion of radio, press and theatre linking this great figure of the ancient world with the modern manifestations of the things he fought for—peace, freedom, justice and the happiness of the people.
Peasants living beside the Milo River in Hunan Province attended a great memorial meeting at the newly renovated shrine to the poet on a hill beside the River. Dragon boats swept past on the Milo in a long procession. This was the spot where, according to tradition, Chu Yuan, exiled from the court of Chu (one of the seven Warring Kingdoms), drowned himself as a final act of bitter protest against the betrayal of his country and his people by inept and corrupt rulers.
Throughout the land the people honoured the annual...
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SOURCE: "Chu Yuan: Poet-Patriot," China Reconstructs, Vol. 2, No. 5, 1953, pp. 14-7.
[In the following essay, Chen-To discusses Chu Yuan's political career, banishment, and his legacy.]
Chu Yuan (340-278 B.C.) was one of the great poets of ancient China. He was famous not only for the soaring imagery of his verse but also for his love of country and people. This year, at the instance of the World Peace Council, he is being commemorated throughout the world along with Francois Rabelais of France, Jose Marti of Cuba and Copernicus of Poland—three other giants of human thought.
How the Chinese people themselves have long regarded Chu Yuan is evident from one striking fact.
On the fifth day of the fifth moon of the lunar calendar the Chinese people celebrate the famous 'Dragon-Boat Festival', (this year it fell on June 15). Wherever there are rivers magnificent dragon-boat races are held, and every home prepares a special sort of three-cornered boiled dumplings by wrapping glutinous rice in reed leaves. The dragon-boat races symbolize the people's attempts to rescue Chu Yuan when, driven into exile by injustice, he drowned himself in the Milo river in Hunan province in the year 278 B.C. The dumplings were originally thrown into the water both as a sacrificial offering to him and as food for the dragons so that they would not eat his body. Today, shorn of superstition,...
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SOURCE: "Chu Yuan, Ancient China's Patriot-Poet," People's China, No. 11, June 1, 1953, pp. 12-7.
[In the following excerpt, Kuo Mo-jo provides a biographical sketch of Chu Yuan with historical background and credits him with a poetic imagination unrivaled in Chinese literature.]
Chu Yuan is a great Chinese poet who lived more than two thousand years ago. He was not simply a poet, but also a thinker and statesman.
Chu Yuan was born in 340 B.C. during the Warring States period (403 B.C.—221 B.C.). The twelve great states of the Spring-and-Autumn period (770 B.C.—403 B.C.) had now been reduced to seven, which were struggling among themselves trying to achieve the unity of China.
Of the seven states, Chin in the northwest was the most powerful, while Chu in the Yangtse River valley was the largest. The state of Chi in the Shantung peninsula, thanks to its proximity to the sea, had abundance of fish and salt and was the richest. Han, Chao and Wei, having come into being as a result of the partition of Tsin, were sometimes called "the three Tsin states," and occupied the central part of the Yellow River valley; they were smaller states, thickly populated, in the heart of ancient China. The state of Yen in the northeast had its boundary along the Liaotung peninsula and northern Korea, and was therefore relatively remote from the struggle....
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SOURCE: "Ch'ü Yüan Studies" in Silver Jubilee Volume of the Zinbun-Kagaku-Kenkyusyo, Kyoto: Kyoto University, 1954, pp. 192-223.
[In the following essay, Hightower contends that perceptions of Chu Yuan as hero, patriot, and Marxist revolutionary have encouraged hagiography over scholarship. He also assesses some specific works concerning Chu Yuan, particularly regarding attribution of particular poems in the Chu Yuan canon. Chinese characters have been edited out of the text.]
One of the most perplexing and crucial problems in Chinese literary history centers around the controversial figure of Ch'ü Yüan. To some he is China's greatest poet; to others he is a mythological figure. The poems associated with his name, coming after a three-century interval from which no poetry at all surives, mark the first great flowering of Chinese poetry after the anonymous Classic of Songs. The sao poetry credited to Ch'ü Yüan is in a form for which no literary antecedents have been discovered, and the bases of almost all subsequent verse forms in China have been traced back to the sao poems, if not always very convincingly. A major poet who was at the same time an innovator on such a scale is surely unique in world literature, and the interest in Ch'ü Yüan attested by the hundred-odd studies published during the past twenty-five years is certainly justified.
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SOURCE: "Sartorial Emblems and the Quest: A Comparative Study of the Li Sao and the Faerie Queene," Tamkang Review, Vol. II, No. 2, October, 1971 and Vol. III, No. 1, April 1972, pp. 309-28.
[In the following essay, Wang compares the allegorical style of the Li Sao with that of the Faerie Queene in terms of their presentation, dominant concepts, and "formative tropes." Chinese characters have been edited out of the text.]
Before Marinell marries Florimell in the twelfth canto of the fourth book of the Faerie Queene, Spenser in the eleventh canto devises a wedding of Thames and Medway. Many famous rivers from all over the world attend the wedding; and yet none of the Chinese rivers is present in the scene, not even the illustrious River Hsiang, which is most likely of all to foster a romance savouring of the Spenserian. If concordance is the anagoge of the happy riot of the rivers, as it is generally regarded to be, the fact that Spenser does not draw into the scene any Chinese river may also predetermine the fruitlessness of our attempt to associate the Faerie Queene with the Chinese poem, the Li Sao, a product of the Hsiang area in the fourth century B.C. The comparative study of two poems, nevertheless, does not necessarily aim at "concordance." A.C. Hamilton ventures in his comparative interpretation of the opening episodes from the...
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SOURCE: "Rites of Summer: Ch'ü Yuan in the Folk Tradition" in A Madman of Ch'u, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980, pp. 125-57.
[In the following excerpt, Schneider analyzes the formation and evolution of the Chu Yuan folk cult and explores the purpose of some of the mythical elements concerning the poet.]
Tungting Hill floats on the lake. At its foot are hundreds of gilded halls where the jade virgins dwell, and music in every season carries to the crest of the hill. King Huai of Ch 'u made talented men compose poems by the lake …[and later he] gave ear to evil ministers and all the good men fled. Ch'u Yuian, dismissed for his loyalty, lived as a hermit among the weeds, consorting with birds and beasts and having no traffic with the world. He ate cypress nuts and mixed them with cassia oil to cultivate his heart until, hounded by the king, he drowned himself in the limpid stream. The people of Ch'u mourned his loss bitterly and believed he had become a water saint. His spirit wanders through the Milky Way, descending on occasion to the River Hsiang. The people of Ch'u set up a shrine for him which was still standing at the end of the Han dynasty.
Forgotten Tales (Shih i chi),
Fourth Century A.D.
During the first half of the twentieth century, the intelligentsia's reverence for Ch'ü Yüan was...
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Field, Stephen. Introduction to Tian Wen: A Chinese Book of Origins, ix-xvii. New York: New Directions, 1986.
Explains why it is unlikely that Chu Yuan wrote the Tian wen.
Kuo Mo-jo. Chu Yuan: A Play in Five Acts. Translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1953, 126p.
Revised 1942 drama that attacks the present-day Chiang clique indirectly by drawing parallels with Chu Yuan's struggles against corruption.
Chu Yuan. Selected Poems of Chui Yuan. Translated by Sun Dayü. Shanghai: Foreign Language Education Press, 1994, 665p.
Rendering of Chu Yuan's works into English by a renowned Chinese poet; includes an extensive introduction.
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