Chu Yuan Criticism - Essay

F. X. Biallas (essay date 1928)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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. Thus it became a custom to eat leaf-wrapped parcels of sticky rice on that day and to commemorate the death of K'ü Yüan on the Dragon Boat Festival, over the greater part of China.

Although this narrative of the origin of the Festival and its customs is only a legend, as appears at first sight and we shall see more clearly presently, it surrounds the name and end of K'ü Yüan with a shimmer of glory and brings his works and their importance into a relief which is quite fitting and ingenious.

There are three reasons why this man and his poems are given a special consideration in Chinese literature as well as in European Sinology. In the first place, he was an excellent and noble character who endeavoured to help his king and country during troubled times, but failed to be recognized in his intentions and endeavours, was exiled and ended his life by suicide, and thus lives in history as a type of an honest and loyal minister. Secondly, he was a true and gifted poet, who sang of his life, his ideals, intentions, his sad fate, troubles and sorrows in poems which started a new period in Chinese poetry that had been silent for about three hundred years after the last songs of the Shï-king. Lastly, he was well versed in the sciences of his time, had a thorough acquaintance with the mythology, the beliefs and customs of his country (the southern part of China), used it in his poems and thus made them for us a rich source of knowledge of the Chinese civilisation of that time.

These reasons explain sufficiently why K'ü Yüan and his poems have aroused so great an interest in the Chinese themselves as well as in Europeans who have tried to get an idea of "things Chinese." The same reasons hold good for a further interest and study in the same direction, because here, as in almost all parts of Sinology, we are more at the beginning than at the end of our researches and understanding. Some translations have been made of Yüan's poems, partly good, partly less so; some poems have been little touched upon, some not at all; different questions are raised about Chinese civilisation through his works, sometimes rather interesting questions, but we can not say much about them, if we do not know the poems themselves. Therefore I have worked a little on K'ü Yüan, his life and poems and I hope to be able and think it not amiss to give a general survey of our present knowledge and opinions about them.

The life of K'ü Yüan as always portrayed in Sinology is based on the biography which Sï-ma Ts'ien gives in one of the Lie-chuan of the Shï-ki. This Lie-chuan ("K'ü Yüan and Kia I") containing the biography of K'ü Yüan and Kia I is rather long, but alas! it offers more discussions and reflections than dates and facts. Besides, there are some points in it rather confused and inconsistent, with the result that Dr. Hu Shï in an article in the Endeavour, tries to prove that the whole chapter is not trustworthy and that even the existence of K'ü Yüan before the Ts'in is doubtful. Although it must be admitted that there are some uncertainties about the life of K'ü Yüan and some confusion in this Lie-chuan, no other Chinese scholar (as far as I know) doubts its authenticity; Lu K'an-ju, has published in recent years a special book on K'ü Yüan and refutes the opinion of Hu Shï. I have translated the biography of Sï-ma Ts'ien, with another left by Liu Hsiang, in his book, have considered the different questions and arguments and think there is no reason to doubt about K'ü Yüan as portrayed by Sïma Ts'ien and others.1

The home of K'ü Yüan was one of the many states of China at the end of the Chou Dynasty, called Ch'u. The central part of this kingdom was in the beginning the province of Hupei and it spread by and by over the adjoining provinces of Hu-nan, Ho-nan, An-huei and Kiang-su, and at the height of its power even reached the mouth of the Yang-tse (i.e., about the time when our poet was born). The names given to it, "Land of Thorns," and later on Ch'u and to its inhabitants "Man-I Barbarians," show that at that time, ca. 700 B.C., it was populated by some tribes rather different from the other Chinese; by and by the land was colonised by the Chinese and the Barbarians were driven more and more to the frontiers of Hu-nan, Kuei-chou, Yün-nan and other places. Different names of persons of Ch'u, transmitted by the Tso-chuan and expressions such as "the shrike-tongued barbarian," which Mêng-tsï uses about a man of Ch'u, seem to show that the language of the land was different from Chinese; but it is hard so say, how far the old language of the "Man" tribes still was spoken even at the Court of Ch'u in the time of K'ü Yüan.2

The land was ruled by kings who claimed kinship with the old Chinese Imperial family. Their family became divided into three princely branches, the chiefs of which used as their surnames the names of several appanages with which their ancestors had been invested. Those were Chao, K'ü, and King. Our poet was a descendant of K'ü and lived under the kings of Ch'u, Huai (328-299 B.C.) and K'ing Siang (298-263 B.C.). This is the only certain indication of time we can give about his life. We mostly find the date of his birth given as the year 332 B.C., which is taken from the first stanza of the Li-sao where K'ü Yüan says:

"A descendant am I of the Emperor Kao-
My excellent deceased father was called Pei-
In the year Shê-t'i, just in the first month of
On the day Kêng-yin I was born."

But we can not say exactly which year this was. There is no doubt that K'ü Yüan was already before 312 in a high position. Now, Lu K'an-ju says that if Yüan had been born in the year 332, he would have been, before he finished his twentieth year, in one of the highest positions of the mightiest state in China at that time, which seems very improbable. Therefore, he thinks Yüan must have been born at least about 340. I think there is some weight in his words.

Yüan is also called P'ing. Some say this is his ming, and Yüan his tsï; but there is no certainty about that either. The same uncertainty reigns about the stanza of the Li-sao where he says: "He (his father) named me 'Correct pattern,' and afterwards styled me 'Wonderful equilibrium."' Whether these are poetical equivalents of Yüan and P'ing or new names, we do not know.

Yüan of K'ü or P'ing of K'ü, as he may be correctly styled, was well-gifted and well-educated and strove to develop his faculties, as he often tells us in his poems. Therefore, and also on account of his relationship and friendship with the king, he was soon called to high position in Ch'u. Sï-ma says: "He was the 'minister of the left"' of King Huai, skilful in both orderly and disorderly times, possessed of extensive information and with great energy, expert in the composition of governmental notifications and orders. In council he deliberated with and advised the king on the business of the State; out of the council he was employed in the reception of visitors and guests, and in communicating with the princes who came to the Court. The king employed him a great deal. But the great officer Shang Kuan of the same rank as Yuan had long striven for the favour which he enjoyed, and was his enemy at heart, wishing to deprive him of his influence and power.

On one occasion (thus Sï-ma Ts'ien continues his narrative of the event that was of so great consequence in the life of Yüan), when King Huai had appointed K'ü P'ing to draw up a governmental proclamation, and he had made a draft of it, but had not finally written it out, this tai-fu, Shang Kuan, wished to carry it off, but K'ü P'ing refused to give it to him. The other slandered him to the king, saying, 'All are aware that Your Majesty employs K'ü P'ing to prepare notifications. Whenever a notice comes out, P'ing boasts of his services, and says, 'If it were not for me, nobody could do it.' This made the king angry and he removed K'ü P'ing (from his office).

K'ü P'ing was much pained that the king listened to such a charge against him without discrimination; that slanderers and flatterers were able to obscure (the king's) intelligence, that the justice (of his words) was perverted by their injurious and contemptible misrepresentations, while his loyalty and sincerity were not acknowledged. He therefore became sorrowful, brooded moodily over his case and composed the Li-sao, which may be considered as equivalent to 'Fallen into trouble.'

This is the way the great historian speaks about the most important fact in the life of our poet. Later on he tells his ideas about kings who do not know how to employ the right men, about the poem Li-sao, comparing it with parts of the Shï-king, writes an eulogium of K'ü Yüan, and lastly resumes the historical narrative and seems to make up for what he omitted to tell in the beginning. In all, Sï-ma seems to be specially interested in praising the loyal and honest minister and showing how kings are often deaf to right counsels and cause thus the ruin of their countries. No doubt, I think, the historian had in view the sad story of his own life when he wrote this Lie-chuan.

Comparing the biography written by Sï-ma with what Liu Hiang says and with the sayings in the poems of Yuan himself, Lu K'an-ju is very right, I think, in putting the dates of the poet's life in the following way:

With the personal intrigue of the tai-fu Shang Kuan against Yüan there was probably mixed right in the beginning some political intrigue. It was the time of the Contending States. Ch'u was at that time the mightiest state in China, but its rival was the mighty Ts'in. By 318 B.C. seven of the States had united in a confederation of which Ch'u was the head. Yüan was against Ts'in and tried by all means to persuade Ch'u to be on friendly terms with Ts'i; it may even be that he had some family relations with that state. Thus he was a foe to Ts'in and hated by its king and his minister Chang I, who personally hated Ch'u, because he was once maltreated there. Ts'in tried to induce the king of Ch'u to break with Ts'i, which he really did in 313. Thus it is quite natural that Ts'in and his minister strove to do away with the influential minister and councillor of the King of Ch'u. All means were good for Ts'in and Chang I which led to success: calumny, lies, bribery, etc. At the Court of Ch'u the tai-fu Shang Kuan, the Sï-ma (marshal) Tsi Ts'io, the ling-yi (first councillor) Tsï-lan and the concubine of the king, Chêngsiu, were the most influential persons and enemies of K'ü Yüan. And thus I think personal intrigue was linked with political to remove K'ü Yüan, and was successful. Yüan was removed from his office and probably even banished from the city and court.

But the king of Ch'u got very soon to know how he had been cheated by Ts'in and Chang I. Ts'in started war against Ch'u and the latter was beaten. King Huai saw how well Yüan was justified, called him back, and, it seems, sent him to Ts'i to renew the old relations with that country. But during the absence of Yüan, Chang I came again to Ch'u and was put in prison, yet afterwards Huai let him free and even honoured him, induced by belief in false promises. It seems that Yüan was not called to his former office, but from now was only the "great officer of the three families."

Finally, Ts'in tried to get hold of King Huai by a mean trick. A marriage was proposed between Ts'in and Ch'u, and King Huai was asked to come to Ts'in for the arrangement. Yüan was against that, saying that Ts'in being a country of tigers and wolves could not be trusted. All others of the entourage of the king were for the proposal and the king went to Ts'in, was detained and fled to Chao; Chao sent him back to Ts'in where he died, and was brought to Ch'u to be buried (396 B.C.). The excitement in Ch'u was great and all pointed to those who had given the king the bad advice. Yüan was not silent and therefore was again accused to the new king K'ing Siang, and banished to the southern parts of Ch'u, to Hu-nan.

He wandered around, waiting in vain, believing the king would call him back, till he at last ended his life by drowning himself in the river Mi-lo. In one of his poems he speaks of his nine years of banishment. But we do not know if he really finished his life this same year, or when his exile began. Therefore like the year of his birth, that of his death is uncertain; Lu K'an-ju gives the year 290, others about 285, etc.

H. Maspero4 even thinks K'ü Yüan did not throw himself in the river Mi-lo, but died on one of the domains of his family, which may have been down in Hu-nan. The tradition of his suicide would then be only a dramatic interpretation of the suicide-theme, of which Yuan speaks in one of his cantos, in the Si-wang-jih, "Lament over days gone by." Although such a tradition could easily originate in such a way, I cannot see how it could become so general so soon after the death of the poet, if it was without any foundation in fact.

As to the origin of the Dragon Boat Festival being the tragic death of our poet, there cannot be any doubt that this is only an euhemeristic explanation, i.e., there was another reason for these races with dragon boats, but the former meaning having been forgotten or weakened in the memory, the people put another fact or person in the place of mythological or other ideas.

In the first p)ace, it is not natural to suppose that a custom so widely spread—it is partly related to a custom of the Malay peoples and the Japanese—could originate on account of a man who was only known in a part of China; then there are in other provinces other persons in whose honour these races are said to be held. This Festival is also called the Summer Solstice Festival and that seems to show, as De Groot rightly supposes, that the races were made in honour of the Spirits of rivers and lakes in general, to implore the rain so badly needed at that time of the year for the crops. We may compare this euhemeristic explanation with that given of the Festivals of Ts'ing-ming and Han-shih, which were Spring Festivals and to which later on the narratives of historical persons and their deeds were credited.5

Myths and legends lose their meaning and attractiveness with time and the people will and must have more facts and persons which interest more their imagination and minds, and which they can honour and imitate at the same time and which seem to have a relation to some special Festival. So it was with the picturesque Dragon Boat Festival and the tragic figure of Yüan. First, there was probably a coincidence of time. According to tradition Yüan ended his life at the time of the Summer Solstice. He is supposed to have composed the song Huai-sha "Embracing the stone" before his death; now this poem begins:

"How vast the flowing of the streams in the
first month of Summer!
How luxuriant the grass and the trees!
With wounded heart and constant grief
I press along the regions of the South."

Then he was an honest and loyal man but vilified and persecuted by hatred and calumny, and thus he appears as a luminous character on the dark background of his time, who attracted the eyes of all, and did this still more, because he was a poet who sang of his fate in poems which made him immortal and successful, though he was unsuccessful in his political life and strife. The tragic death of such a noble man and great poet seemed worthy, to become the theme of the most poetical and picturesque Festival the Chinese have.

The poems of K'ü Yüan have been since the Catalogue of the Suei united with various poems of his disciples and followers under the name of Ch'u-ts'ï; which has been translated as "Elegies of Ch'u"; H. A. Giles proposes "Rhapsodies of Ch'u." These poems are marked externately by an irregular metre and the regular use of the particle hi—"alas!"; their contents are concerned with personal events, ideas or feelings, mostly of an elegiacal, mournful character. Thus there is some reason to call them Elegies, and some reason to style them Rhapsodies, but both expressions seem to me imperfect and I would simply use the Chinese name Ch'u-ts'ï; just as we speak of the Shï-king, the Shu-king and so on, since it is hard to find a perfectly equivalent translation. About the form of the Ch'u-ts'ï I have written in my Introduction to the Yüan-yu; on the evolution of Chinese poetry and the position the Ch'u-ts'ï occupy in Chinese literature as far as is known to-day, the reader can consult the explanation given by G. Marsoulies and A. Waley.6

The number of the poems of K'ü Yüan is given as twenty-five in the first mention of them in the Catalogue of the Han, and the Chinese tradition is, generally speaking, uniform as to which these twenty-five poems are. There were in former times amongst the Chinese some differences about some other poems as to whether they were by K'ü Yüan or others. I will leave those aside and speak only of those generally recognized as works of our poet.

I shall go now through the various poems laying stress on those which have been less noticed or which seem to be specially characteristic of Yüan and his work.

The best known is the Li-sao. It has been translated into German by A. Pfizmaier, into French by D'Hervey de Saint-Denys and into English by J. Legge, who has given the most complete discussion of it according to the Chinese commentators (J.R.A.S., 1895). I think we could make some improvements in all these translations in several points because of our present knowledge of the Chinese language and poetry, but it would be of little use, before we know all the other poems. Although the poems seem rather easy at first sight (cf. J. Edkins), the difficulty begins when we intend to give the exact meaning of all his words, sentences and expressions. There are four characteristics we must not forget in our study and which appear best in the Li-sao, too. (1) Yüan's poems are most personal; he speaks of himself, his ideas, intentions, experiences, sorrows. It would be easier to understand what he says if we know better all the different events of his life; but for many facts we only can guess through his poems as to what happened to him. (2) There is a constant use of mythological language. But Chinese mythology is to us rather an unknown terrain; many subjects we have got to know of only because they are mentioned by Yüan. (3) The constant use of personification and (4) the use of metaphors. We know how easily a metaphor is changed into a personification and thus we often do not know what the poet wants to say. Take now the imperfection of our knowledge of the vocabulary and grammar of the old Chinese language and it will be seen what difficulties we meet in trying to understand and translate K'ü Yüan and the Ch'u-ts'ï in general.

Legge discusses the contents of the Li-sao, following Chinese authors, in fourteen sections; I think two will do.

In the first part Yuan tells about his origin, his name, his education and intentions. He had intended (he says), to develop his natural talents and virtues, to strive for the ideals of the ancient saints and rulers, to be the helper and councillor of a wise king. But the world is bad, the king is blinded: his own virtues are envied, he is calumniated and cast away, exiled. He, therefore, will follow the example of P'êng-hien, a virtuous minister of olden times who failed to be recognized and drowned himself in a river. The sister of Yüan (if she be his sister really) admonishes him not to be too proud and not to separate himself from others and the world; but he thinks of the sad examples of men in history who met with ruin and cannot follow her advice. He goes to the mouldy grave of the old emperor Shun in...

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Ho Chi-fang (essay date 1953)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2599 words.)

Yang Yu (essay date 1953)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

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Cheng Chen-To (essay date 1953)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

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Kuo Mo-jo (essay date 1953)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

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James R. Hightower (essay date 1954)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

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C. H. Wang (essay date 1971-72)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

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Laurence A. Schneider (essay date 1980)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 12302 words.)