Qu Yuan (Ch’ü Yüan, also known as Ch’ü P’ing), is traditionally recognized as the chief author of the poetry from the Chu Ci anthology (The Songs of the South). This anthology is a collection of Chu poetry edited by Wang Yi, a librarian in service of the emperor Han Shundi in the 2nd century A.D. Chu poetry is defined by certain characteristic elements of style and form that were originally used by poets of the Chu kingdom, a political power in what is now southern China that reached the height of its influence in the 4th century b.c.
According to a biography by Sima Qian [q.v.] dating from early in the 1st century B.C., Qu Yuan belonged to the royal house of Chu and was a foreign ambassador and valued servant to King Huai (ruled 328–299 B.C.) during the Warring States period (variously dated 475 or 403 to 221 B.C.), when expanding states were engaged in bloody mutual aggression as the old feudal system was giving way to political centralization. In Sima Qian’s account, a high-ranking administrator of the court who was envious of Qu Yuan’s favor with the king attempted to take credit for some of Qu Yuan’s writings. When Qu Yuan refused to comply, the official made allegations to the king that Qu Yuan was boastful and proud, and Qu Yuan thus fell into disfavor with King Huai. The king’s eldest son inherited the throne, but he, like his father, was also subject to the influence of deceitful advisors. Qu Yuan criticized the new king’s poor judgment and was banished to a remote part of the kingdom. In protest, he drowned himself in the Miluo River.
Qu Yuan’s best known work is “Li sao” (“On Encountering Trouble”), a long poem in autobiographical form in which the poet describes himself as a nobleman descended from an ancient legendary ruler and depicts the growing disillusionment of an idealistic young man who has come to see that the world is filled with corrupt people and institutions. He plans to abandon the world and join the holy dead, symbolized by Peng Xian, who according to the original compiler of The Songs of the South, Wang Yi, was an upright minister at the court of one of the Shang kings, who drowned himself when his good advice was not taken. Qu Yuan’s poem “Li Sao” concludes with the following lines:
Enough! There are no true men in the state: no one understands me.
Why should I cleave to the city of my birth?
Since none is worthy to work with in making good government,
I shall go and join Peng Xian in the place where he abides.
“Embracing Sand,” presented here, is sometimes understood as an expansion of these final four lines of the earlier poem. “Embracing Sand” was Qu Yuan’s suicide note: he is said to have written the poem and then clasped a large stone to his bosom to drown himself in the Miluo River. Thus the title “Embracing Sand” is presumed to refer to the practice of filling the bosom of one’s robe with sand in order to drown oneself, much as Japanese suicides are said to have filled their sleeves with sand or gravel. Qu Yuan clearly represents his impending suicide as an example of resolve and personal restraint, as well as an escape from sorrow and grief, though a background of wounded dignity and angry pride is also evident, based in the disillusionment and isolation of an idealist much like that he had earlier expressed in “On Encountering Trouble.”
Qu Yuan is still commemorated in China, as well as in Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and Malaysia, with dragon-boat races on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, the day he is believed to have drowned himself. A special variety of sticky-rice dumpling, wrapped in leaves and steamed, is thrown into the river to feed, according to different accounts, Qu Yuan in his afterlife or as a distraction for the fish and dragons that would otherwise eat Qu Yuan’s body.
Qu Yuan, quotation from “Li sao” (“On Encountering Trouble”) and text from “Jiu zhang” (“Nine Pieces”), V, “Huai sha” (“Embracing Sand”), from The Songs of the South. An Ancient Chinese Anthology of Poems by Qu Yuan and Other Poets, tr. David Hawkes, London: Penguin Books, 1985, pp. 78, 170-172; see also Li Sao and Other Poems of Chu Yuan, tr. Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang, trs., Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1955, p. x.
In the teeming late summer
When flowers and trees burgeon,
My heart with endless sorrow laden,
Forth I went to the southern land.
Eyes strain unseeing into the hazy gloom
Where a great quiet and stillness reign.
Disquieted and tormented,
I have met sorrow and long been afflicted.
I soothed my feelings, sought my purposes,
Bowed to my wrongs and still restrained myself.
Let others trim square to fit the round:
I shall not cast the true measure away.
To change his first intent and alter his course
Is a thing the noble man disdains.
I made my marking clear; I set my mind on the ink-line;
My former path I did not change.
Inwardly sound and of honest substance,
In this the great man excels so richly.
But when Chui the Cunning is not carving,
Who can tell how true a line he cuts?
When dark brocade is placed in the dark,
The dim-eyed will say that it has no pattern.
And when Li Lou peers to discern minutest things,
The purblind think that he must be sightless.
White is changed to black;
The high cast down and the low made high;
The phoenix languishes in a cage,
While hens and ducks can gambol free.
Jewels and stones are mixed together,
And in the same measure meted.
The courtier crowd are low and vulgar fellows;
They cannot understand the things I prize.
Great was the weight I carried, heavy the burdens I bore;
But I sank and stuck fast in the mire and could not get across.
A jewel I wore in my bosom, a gem I clasped in my hand;
But, helpless, I knew no way whereby I could make them seen.
The dogs of the village bark in chorus;
They bark when they do not comprehend.
Genius they condemn and talent they suspect –
Stupid and boorish that their manner is!
Art and nature perfected lay within me hidden;
But the crowd did not know of the rare gifts that were mine.
Unused materials I had in rich store;
Yet no one knew the things that I possessed.
I multiplied kindness, redoubled righteousness;
Care and probity I had in plenty.
But it was not my lot to meet such as Chong Hua;
So who could understand my behaviour?
It has always been so – this failure of happy meeting;
Though I do not know what can be the reason.
Tang and Yu lived a great while ago –
Too remote for me to long for!
I must curb my rebelling pride and check my anger,
Restrain my heart, and force myself to bow.
I have met sorrow, but still will be unswerving;
I wish my resolution to be an example.
Along my road I will go, and in the north halt my journey.
But the day is dusky and turns towards the evening.
I will unlock my sorrow and ease my grief,
And end it all in the Great End.
The mighty waters of the Yuan and Xiang with surging swell go
rolling on their way;
The road is long, through places dark and drear, a way far and forlorn.
The nature I cherish in my bosom, the feelings I embrace, there are none to judge.
For when Bo Le is dead and gone, how can the wonder-horse go coursing?
The lives of all men on the earth have each their ordained lot.
Let my heart be calm and my mind at ease: why should I be afraid?
Yet still, in mounting sorrow and anguish, long I lament and sigh.
For the world is muddy-witted; none can know me; the heart of man cannot be told.
I know that death cannot be avoided, therefore I will not grudge its coming.
To noble men I here plainly declare that I will be numbered with such as you.