Qu Yuan Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Areas of Achievement: Government and literature Chinese statesman and poet{$I[g]China;Qu Yuan} A skilled statesman who always tried to speak the truth no matter what the cost, Qu Yuan exemplified the Confucian ideal of the virtuous official; his country’s first widely known poet, he became one of the founding fathers of Chinese literature.

Early Life

Qu Yuan (chew ywahn) was born about 343 b.c.e. in the southern Chinese state of Chu (Ch’u), which was centered in what is the modern province of Hubei. The Warring States period (475-221 b.c.e.) was characterized by China’s fragmentation into a multitude of rival kingdoms, of which Chu was one of the major powers. Although little is known of Qu Yuan’s childhood, tradition holds that his father’s name was Boyong (Po-yung) and that he was related to Chu’s royal family. Qu Yuan is also reputed to have achieved great distinction as a student and to have been marked for high government service from an early age.

In his late twenties, Qu Yuan was appointed to the important post of zuodu, or “left counselor,” in his country’s bureaucracy. He became the most influential confidant of the reigning King Huai Wang, and his advice was sought on all significant matters of both foreign and domestic policy. As a young man who believed in the ethical ideals inculcated by Confucianism, Qu Yuan tried to convince the king that he should look for these qualities in his new officials and cease the automatic preferment of the nobly born that had been the traditional way of doing things.

The king’s son, Ze Lan (Tse Lan), successfully argued that to do so was obviously not in the interest of the aristocracy; Qu Yuan fell out of favor, his counsels were disregarded, and eventually, he was banished to a remote area in Chu’s northern hinterlands. In the years to come, Qu Yuan’s star would rise and fall several times as his country changed rulers and policies, but he never again would wield the kind of influence he had with Huai Wang. It was the disappointment of these youthful hopes for thorough reform that turned Qu Yuan toward literature, in which he was destined for far greater fame than he could ever have achieved in his homeland’s civil service.

Life’s Work

Qu Yuan’s political aspirations had received a crushing blow, but his profoundly idealistic nature was not much affected by his being sent away from court. His poem “In Praise of the Orange Tree,” which was written about this time, articulated his confidence in what the future would have to say about his unwillingness to play partisan politics with his country’s future:

Oh, your young resolution has something different from the rest.
Alone and unmoving you stand. How can one not admire you!
Deep-rooted, hard to shift: truly you have no peer!

The rural region north of the Han River to which Qu Yuan was banished proved to be a rich source of myths and folktales, many of them related to the shamanistic cults that still flourished in the area. A set of poems known as Jiu ge (third century b.c.e.; The Nine Songs, 1955), thought to be among his earliest literary works, includes many references to such deities as the River God and the Mountain Spirit, and it is possible that the songs were originally sacred hymns that Qu Yuan used as a basis for poetic composition.

Whatever their origin, The Nine Songs combined religious and romantic impulses in a manner completely new to Chinese poetry. Just as the Greek poet Homer (ninth century b.c.e.) described a world in which gods and men were akin in terms of psychology if not in their respective powers, so Qu Yuan envisaged crossing the barriers that divided humanity from the deities it worshiped. This excerpt from “The Princess of the Xiang” depicts a god waiting for his human lover:

I look for my queen, but she comes not yet:
Of Whom do I think as I play my reed-pipes?
North I go, drawn by flying dragons . . .
And over the great River waft my spirit:
Waft, but my spirit does not reach her;
And the maiden many a sigh heaves for me.

The Nine Songs immediately established Qu Yuan as the foremost literary figure of his time.

During the first of what would prove to be several periods of banishment for Qu Yuan, Huai Wang was murdered in 297 b.c.e. while participating in a supposed peace conference—which Qu Yuan had warned him against attending—in the neighboring state of Qin (Ch’in). This shocking event sparked one of Qu Yuan’s most fervently emotional poems, “Great Summons”; the refrain “O soul, come back!” expresses both general fear of death and specific anxiety as to what would now become of the poet. For the moment, however, his fortunes took a turn for the better: The new king of Chu, Jing Xiang (Ching Hsiang), remembering that Qu Yuan had argued against the visit to Qin, recalled him to the court and at first followed his adviser’s policy of breaking off relations with those who had executed his father. For the next two or three years, Qu Yuan was once again his country’s most respected political adviser.

Despite this esteem, Jing Xiang’s younger brother Ze Lan, who had engineered Qu Yuan’s first downfall, worked unremittingly to bring about his second. The crisis came when Qin attacked and subdued...

(The entire section is 2254 words.)