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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


Qu Yuan (chew yew-an) was born into an aristocrat family in the Chu kingdom in the late Warring States era. At the time, the kingdoms of Qin and Chu were the strongest; each had the strength to unite the other kingdoms into a single China. Qu Yuan was trusted by the Chu king and served as the vice prime minister. He suggested that the king appoint able and virtuous persons to serve him and that he should form an alliance with the Qi kingdom against Qin so that the Chu could dominate a unified China.

After being betrayed by corrupt aristocrats, Qu Yuan lost the trust of the king and was exiled. In his exile, he wrote poems, including “Li Sao” (to leave from worries) and “Tian Wen” (to question Heaven), which are included in the collection Chuci (first collected in first century b.c.e., material added second century c.e.; Chu Tz’u: The Songs of the South, 1959). In 277 b.c.e., the Qin army invaded Chu. Qu Yuan could not bear to face his country’s defeat and committed suicide, drowning in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar in 278 b.c.e.


Qu Yuan was the earliest great Chinese poet. The imagination, true emotions, and honorable integrity that are hallmarks of his poetry had a major influence on Chinese literature in later dynasties. The Chinese continue to revere him as a great thinker and patriot.

Further Reading:

Hawkes, David, trans. Ch’u tz’u: The Songs of the South, an Ancient Chinese Anthology. 1959. Reprint. New York: Penguin, 1995. Hawkes’s versions of the poems, which are accompanied by excellent notes, are somewhat different from those of earlier translators and are generally considered more accurate by his fellow scholars.

Hawkes, David. “The Quest of the Goddess.” In Studies in Chinese Literary Genres, edited by Cyril Birch. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. This essay places Qu Yuan’s work in its cultural perspective, compares it with that of his predecessors and successors, and argues that he represents the victory of a written, secular approach to literature over earlier oral and religious modes of expression. A seminal discussion by Qu Yuan’s foremost modern interpreter.

Qu Yuan. Li Sao: And Other Poems of Qu Yuan. Translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang. Honolulu, Hawaii: University Press of the Pacific, 2001. A translation of the complete corpus of Qu Yuan’s poems.

Schneider, Laurence A. A Madman of Ch’u: The Chinese Myth of Loyalty and Dissent . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. A well-researched account of the development of Qu Yuan’s reputation into a synonym for political rectitude. The treatment is basically historical and culminates in a convincing demonstration of how he became the patron saint of...

(The entire section is 690 words.)