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."