23 February 2018

Xi Shi, Fuchai and the gates of repentance

Xi Shi 西施

Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 says this in The Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn 《春秋繁路》:
King Fuchai of Wu bullied the state of Yue. He made the ruler [of Yue] his subject and took the ruler’s wife as his concubine. Ultimately he brought about his own destruction. His ancestral temples were razed, and his altars of the soil and the grain were destroyed. This certainly was painful. The aged king [Fuchai] drowned himself at Xi. This certainly was regrettable…

… Having shown that self-importance brings about defeat, there still remain
[cases in which] upright remonstrations were presented but not put into action. In the end, all those [who did not heed these upright remonstrations] always suffered destruction…

Wuzi Xu warned King
[Fuchai] of Wu that Yue would inevitably rise again [from its defeat by Wu]. The king of Wu did not heed his advice but instead murdered Wuzi Xu. Nine years later, Yue destroyed the state of Wu.
Dong Zhongshu does not mention the instrument or means by which King Goujian of Yue 越王勾踐 avenged himself and his state upon King Fuchai of Wu 吳王夫差, though Dong does hint at one of King Fuchai’s fatal weaknesses in alluding to the liberties Fuchai took with Goujian’s wife. Goujian possessed two very loyal ministers who continued to serve and advise him even after his military defeat and humiliation by Wu: steward Wen Zhong 文種 and master businessman Fan Li 范蠡. The two of them suggested to Goujian that the state of Wu might become corrupted by taking advantage of Fuchai’s lusts.

Fan Li went to Yue and there procured two local young women renowned for their beauty: Zheng Dan 鄭旦 and her friend Shi Yiguang 施夷光. Shi Yiguang’s parents were poor – her father was a woodcutter and her mother made a living washing raw silk. (Yiguang herself is often shown in traditional Chinese art washing silk beside a stream.) They lived in a hut to the west of a village sout of present-day Zhuji; for this reason she was called Xi Shi 西施 (or ‘Shi from the west’). Fan Li put these two girls through three years of training in etiquette and song-and-dance before sending them to Wu; however, during that time, he himself fell in love with Shi Yiguang.

Upon receiving the two girls, Fuchai was instantly bewitched by Shi and Zheng. Zheng died only a year after arriving in Wu, but Shi – possessed of a beauty that would literally become proverbial – kept a powerful hold on Fuchai, who showered the state of Yue with various gifts and subsidies on her account. It is here that the aforementioned Wuzi Xu 伍子胥 began to remonstrate with the king, objecting specifically to his squandering state funds on a woman from Yue, whose military threat he stressed as Dong Zhongshu recounts above. That advice cost Wuzi Xu his life – Fuchai gave Wuzi a sword and ordered him to kill himself with it; Wuzi obeyed, but asked that his eyes be put out and placed on the gates of the Wu capital so that he could view the approach of the Yue armies.

As it turned out, Wuzi was quite right about Shi, who was loyal both to her home state of Yue and personally to Fan Li. It is said that she convinced Fuchai to build a canal from Gusu to Lake Tai in Yue – ostensibly so that she could take more pleasure-trips with him, but actually so she could pass key tactical information on Gusu to Fan Li. Goujian, coming into possession of this information from his loyal minister, readied an attack on Wu which overran Gusu and obliterated Fuchai’s armies. Fuchai was forced to cut his throat with his own sword, but not before he bewailed the fact that he hadn’t taken the advice of Wuzi Xu, and ordered that his face be covered so he wouldn’t have to be shamed by Wuzi in the afterlife.

Xi Shi’s fate after having seduced Fuchai to his ruin is unclear and unknown. Some sources have it that she lived out the rest of her days happily, living on a fishing boat with Fan Li and sailing around Taihu. Others have it that she returned home to her native village, where she drowned herself in the river where her mother had washed silk. And still others have it that Goujian and his wife forced Xi Shi to drown herself – with Goujian’s wife holding that Xi Shi’s beauty and ability to bewitch powerful men made her too dangerous to leave alive.

In Luxurient Gems, Dong Zhongshu uses the example of the Wu-Yue contention – specifically the wrongful death of Wuzi Xu and the ruin of Fuchai – as one among many examples of destroyed states, to advise rulers against overbearing arrogance and to admonish them to accept loyal criticism. He does not mention the rôle of Xi Shi in assisting King Goujian of Yue’s revenge, however, even though he is not averse to castigating other rulers for their lewd behaviour or their improper treatment of women. I’m still not clear on how to take such an omission: knowing Dong Zhongshu’s subtlety of mind and careful reading of the Spring and Autumn Annals, such an omission may well have been deliberate. His intention was not, after all, to eulogise a blameless girl who was the instrument of a lord’s downfall, but to hold up a mirror to the Han Emperor so that he could avoid a similar fate as Fuchai. The upright official, or zhengguan 正官, of classical times was very much like a prophet in this respect, and Dong Zhongshu’s remonstrances, linked as they are to his personalist cosmology, have more than a hint of the theological about them.

And not only lords can benefit from the story of the Wu-Yue contention. I find my thoughts bending another way during Clean Week. Like Fuchai I have coveted in my heart what was my neighbour’s. Like the King of Wu I have justly earned the enmity of my brothers. I have rejected good counsel; I have sought refuge in the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. Like Xi Shi the objects of my passion are without stain; the evil I am mired in is mine alone. In my heart I have done more than destroy a Wuzi Xu; I am guilty of the crucifixion of Christ our Saviour. Even now the soldiers of Yue are at the gates of Gusu; the snares of the world and the Evil One defeat me again and again. The end is at hand; where will I turn?

Such medicine is bitter. The Hebrew Law and Prophets, as the Luxuriant Gems and other classical works of historical commentary, are stern teachers – not easy for me to hear. Yet I must hear them. For Fuchai, the gates of Gusu may have been destroyed by the rampaging Yue, but for us the gates of repentance are yet open.

21 February 2018

Repentance is possible – just ask Qi Huan Gong

Duke Huan of Qi 齊桓公


‘Virtue is as light as a hair, yet few can lift it.’

  - The Odes, Zheng Min.
As a model of repentance, Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 refers us to Qi Huan Gong 齊桓公, the hegemonic ruler of the state of Qi in what is now Shandong Province in China. Dong states that Duke Huan’s succession to the throne of Qi was highly irregular. Indeed, the Spring and Autumn Annals refers to him by his personal name, Xiaobai 小白 (a definite signal of the historian’s disapprobation), and the Gongyang catechist remarks that he ‘usurped the throne’. Duke Huan then used his political leverage over the state of Lu, forcing them to put to death his kinsman the rightful heir, Sir Jiu 公子糾, of Qi. He then attempted to disavow the murder, causing Lu to fortify its riverside border with Qi. Dong Zhongshu remarks, with (I presume) a tone of dry understatement, that ‘his crimes were weighty indeed’. He adds that if Duke Huan had not reformed himself, ‘he would have been lucky to avoid being murdered’. Indeed, the state of Qi was awash in the blood of brothers in Duke Huan’s generation; it stands to reason that if he had kept up the depravity that had marked his brother Zhu’er 諸兒 and his cousin Gongsun Wuzhi 公孫無知, he too would have met such a sticky end.

One of the officials who had steadfastly supported Sir Jiu’s bid for the throne, and who had been exiled and sentenced to death in absentia by Duke Huan, was a classicist named Guan Zhong 管仲 (also known as Master Guan 管子). However, the Gongyang Commentary later shows Guan Zhong, alive and well, serving as an advisor to Duke Huan four years later, advising him to deal sternly but fairly with the representatives of other states. What is left unspoken in the Commentary, but which Dong Zhongshu dwells on at some length, is that Duke Huan had a massive change-of-heart from his first couple of years as ruler. The Gongyang Commentary states, after he had pardoned Master Guan and was acting under his advice:
Even pacts made under coercion may be broken, but Duke Huan would never be guilty or suspicious of betrayal. He could have held a grudge against Master Cao [an emissary from the state of Lu who insulted Duke Huan to his face], but he never did. Duke Huan’s good faith was renowned throughout the empire, beginning with the making of this pact [between Qi and Lu] at Ke.
The author of the Gongyang Commentary expects us to be taken aback at this. Indeed, we should be. Neither he, nor the historian of the Spring and Autumn Annals, elaborates on what caused this sudden and remarkable reformation in the character of the Duke of Qi, who but two years previously had been displaying all the fratricidal violence of a usurper and all the overbearing temper of a tyrant. But at Ke we see Duke Huan yielding meekly to the advice of his righteous minister, dealing earnestly with the envoy from Lu, and honouring his word to make reparations to Lu for the violence that occurred over his succession.

The pardon and repatriation of Guan Zhong, the willingness to listen to a minister who had once opposed him in his bid for the throne, the reconciliation with Duke Zhuang of Lu 魯莊公 and the reparations made to his state, taken all together, constitute an act of repentance. This is repentance in the true sense of turning around (metanoia μετάνοια) or, as Dong Zhongshu would have it, ‘returning to [his] Way’ (fu qi Dao 復其道). Duke Huan, although he could never fully make restitution for the blood of his brother, nevertheless found those elements within himself that had led him down a disastrous path.

The word the Fathers use for ‘repentance’, the same metanoia aforementioned, is a word of pagan philosophical importance. This same importance inheres to the ‘fu qi Dao’ of Dong Zhongshu – a phrase he borrows, in fact, from the Book of Changes (Yijing 已經; Legge clumsily, and unfortunately, translates this phrase as ‘returns and pursues [his] own path’). It is good to remember, even and especially now, during Lent as we begin reading from the Hebrew Law and the Prophets: that the ancient Chinese, the ancient Hebrews and the ancient Greeks were all well-aware of the need to ‘return to the Way’. It is possible to overstate this. Dong Zhongshu notes that toward the end of his life, Qi Huan Gong relapsed somewhat into his former ways:
From this time forward, however, Duke Huan of Qi grew arrogant regarding his accomplishments. He became haughty and self-satisfied and failed to cultivate his virtue… He harmed the people of other states. He detained their great officers… He had not yet completed his meritorious undertakings, but his heart already was content… From this time forward, the state of Qi gradually declined and numerous states rose up in rebellion against it.
God save us from finding any such illusory contentment! Saint Andrew of Crete, the Damascene saint who wrote the Great Canon that will be said at Vespers all this week, understood all too well that spiritually, we are still no better-off than those pagans who lived and died before Christ; indeed, in many ways, we are far worse-off, because we do not even have the excuses they had.
I have willfully incurred the guilt of Cain's murder, since by invigorating my flesh I am the murderer of my soul's awareness, and have warred against it by my evil deeds,
Saint Andrew cries aloud with us.
I have not resembled Abel's righteousness, O Jesus. I have never offered Thee acceptable gifts, nor divine actions, nor a pure sacrifice, nor an unblemished life!
And again:
David once joined sin to sin, for he mixed adultery with murder, yet he immediately offered double repentance. But you, my soul, have done things more wicked without repenting to God!
We may lament, alongside Saint Andrew of Crete, the wretched states of our souls. But we should never forget – Saint Andrew would never let us forget – that those who were in a similarly-wretched state, such as King David (or Duke Huan of Qi), were able to repent, however imperfectly and even without being able to see for themselves the Way which they aimed at. Dong Zhongshu ends his meditation on Duke Huan of Qi with the quote from the Odes shown above. ‘Virtue is as light as a hair’, which means that we can pick it up – if we want to. The fact that, as the Ode says, ‘few can lift it’ merely shows that, in the unfathomable depths of our hearts, we don’t really want to do so.

Hence – for us Orthodox Christians, at least – the Lenten disciplines. The Lenten disciplines of fasting and prayer and almsgiving aren’t meant to show us that lifting that ‘hair’ is something hard and gruelling. Nor are they meant as vain propitiations. What they are meant to show us instead is that it is our hearts that are heavy, our wills that are unwilling, the passions that are unbearable to us. The Lenten disciplines are exercises of the heart and of the will, for mastery of the passions. If repentance was possible even for the brother-slayer Duke Huan of Qi in a time of anarchy and constant war, is it not also possible for us, who have the visible and tangible Christ as our Way?

18 February 2018

Qilin and lamb – a reflection on history for Lent

Qilin 麒麟

Gentle readers, you may have noticed a bit of a theme to the past few weeks of my blogging, and it may have left you wondering whether or not it was an accident – these reflections on the telos of ancient Chinese history interspersed with personal reflections on the Last Judgement. I’m here to put your mind at rest. It was an accident – a serendipitous one, as I’m discovering, which I hereby intend to build on.

The Lenten season, for us Orthodox Christians – with its three pillars of prayer and fasting and almsgiving – is meant to serve two purposes: to turn us inward, toward the holy stillness of ēsuchía as expressed in the prayer of the heart; and to turn us backward, to reorient ourselves to Christ and see where we have been failing to meet Him. One of the things that the Church does, to aid us in turning backward, is to recount to us the history of the Hebrew people – and in particular the story of the Exodus. This is all very finely spoken, you might say. But what does it have to do with ancient China? What makes ancient China a fitting topic for Lent? Isn’t the Hebrew historical tradition used by the Church sui generis in terms of how it relates to our salvation?

The answer to the last question is an unambiguous ‘yes’: Hebrew history is the history of our salvation, and Christ is the personal recapitulation, the face and the true meaning of that history. But when reading the opening chapters of the Book of Isaiah – the readings that are going to happen this coming week – I can’t help but recall the history of cosmic decline accounted in the Gongyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals. The propitiations offered by the Hebrews which the prophet deems ‘unpleasing’ to God have a strong, an all-too-strong echo in those ritual sacrifices of the Dukes of Lu, which earn the ‘mockery’ and derision of the chronicler. When the prophet says:
To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats… Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.
Reading Isaiah now, I can’t help but think of the Dukes and other ‘lords of the land’ in the Gongyang Commentary who murdered their kinfolk, committed tremendous injustices against their neighbours and even against their own people, but then sought to appease their gods and ancestors with overweening ceremonies that took place even out-of-season. And I can’t help but think of the same attempts at a kind of propitiation at work in our ‘thoughts and prayers’ in light of our own human sacrifices. We are, after all, living in the same ‘long defeat’. History has refused, most unobligingly, to come to an end for us and our generation.

But what the Hebrew tradition, and what the Gongyang commentator both tell us, is that even if we are lost in the wilderness; even if we are among idols; even if we find ourselves mired in this kind of decline; even if we are found so far from God’s presence – we cannot take refuge in defeatism. In the Exodus story, in the prophecies of Isaiah and in that one last ‘marvel’ of the fourteenth year of Duke Ai’s reign at the end of the Spring and Autumn Annals, we catch fleeting glimpses of an unveiling, of the presence of God in history – whether in the image of a qilin or in that of a lamb. In all these instances, God is always nearer to us than we think. Even if we happen to be looking for Him half a world away or in the musty pages of a 2,500-year-old history book.

The practice of turning inward and turning backward is an inescapably historical exercise. Historical memory is painful, for the same reasons true repentance is painful. Saint Paul and the Fathers of the Early Church were aware, centuries before Nietzsche, that memory is eternally in a losing conflict with pride. Their solution, however, is to strengthen the arm of memory with the history of the salvation of the Hebrews from Egypt, and the voice of prophecy within that history that still challenges us. At the same time, we are to restrain our own pride by restraining what we eat, what we see and hear, what we say and do, and by limiting what we withhold for ourselves and our own use. May God strengthen our wills in attending to both tasks.

17 February 2018

Slavophilia of the ‘left’? Not quite, but close

A young Ivan Kireevsky [r], with his wife Natalya

Abbott Gleason puts an interesting paragraph into his English-language biography of Ivan Kireevsky, when describing his early involvement in the literary magazine, The European. For a bit of background, Kireevsky contributed “The Nineteenth Century” to The European (which was largely his own idea and creation) after having returned from his studies in Germany:
Just as “The Nineteenth Century” made the high-water mark of Kireevsky’s attraction toward the West—and, one might add, the contemporary world—the publicistic venture of the European marked his closest approximation to a “left” political position. In the first place, simply to chart the direction of contemporary Europe and say that Russia must become part of it was, in Russia, a political act. The Europe of Heine, Börne and (to a lesser extent) Menzel was a radical Europe.
Many of the ‘left’ elements Gleason identifies in Slavophil thought outlasted Kireevsky, along with Khomyakov and the rest of that first generation. Slavophilia never really abandoned (literary) realism. Even if their historiographical and philological projects were, on the whole, fanciful, they continued to seek out and highlight the differences between the Westernised nobility and the ‘authentic’ common people – and to point to the common people as possessing, in an imperfect form, the knowledge that was needed to guide the (hitherto absent) cultural awareness of the country as a whole. Likewise, for all the anti-German sentiments Kireevsky and Khomyakov would give voice to, Slavophilia never abandoned that hallmark of the Junges Deutschland: the stalwart defences of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. Indeed, the suppression of the European under Nicholas I accentuated these ‘Young Russian’ tendencies in the first generation of Slavophils all the more. And even though Kireevsky himself turned away from this initial openness toward the Germans, these marks of left-Hegelianism would continue to show themselves in Slavophilia as a whole.

Gleason is not very sympathetic to placing the Slavophils on the ‘left’ in general. That’s fine. They were, after all, conservatives of a peculiar sort. And I’ve done my own pushback, when it comes to that first generation of Slavophils, both against the Berdyaevian position that makes them out to be crypto-anarchists, and against the Katkovian position that turns them into unreconstructed Russian nationalists.

My personal take on the Slavophils is closer to that of the Jewish-turned-Orthodox narodnik-revolutionary saint, Ilya Bunakov. Both the genius and the doom of the Slavophil movement was that it was syncretic in a way that opposed it to all sorts of liberalisms, both of the ‘right’ and of the ‘left’. The Slavophils had no truck at all with the right-liberalism of Chicherin, but their attitudes toward radical democrats like Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov were much more complex.

The Slavophils agreed with the radical democrats on several key issues – notably opposition to censorship; the abolition of serfdom; and the centrality of the local commune, obshchina, to Russian political œconomy – but could not conscientiously countenance the radical democrats’ embraces of constitutionalism and rationalism. And even where they agreed with the radical democrats, the Slavophils’ reasoning was reactionary rather than progressive. They hated censorship because it was instituted by the reforms of Peter the Great; they likewise detested serfdom because it was an import from the apostate West; and they loved the obshchina, a uniquely Slavic and Russian institution, because it could be defended from ‘ancient’ and pure Christian principles.

Still, this note on the syncretic roots of their ideas is needed and well-taken. They were not, as many seem to claim, merely stubborn and recalcitrant haters of all things Western. There was a moment of openness to the West that, in Khomyakov and Aksakov, expressed itself in a kind of Anglophilia, and in Kireevsky expressed itself in a selective borrowing from German idealist philosophy.

There’s always a Hitch…

Image courtesy the Daily Mail

And it’s usually worthwhile to read him. The younger one, that is.

Peter Hitchens notes that, this time (as so many times before), the Russians have been telling us the truth about the so-called ‘revolution of dignity’, which was in fact a right-wing putsch carried out by heavily-armed thugs, aimed against the legitimate and democratically-elected government of Viktor Yanukovich. Hitchens (and the paywalled article by David Roman which he cites) rightly alludes to the Waffen-SS insignia and other evidences of far-right hooliganism on the Maidan, which have been confirmed even by research friendly to the overall aims of the movement. To all of which can be added: the beatings by Maidan activists of unionists, journalists and non-whites, the arson attack which murdered 42 labour activists in Odessa, the ugly anti-Semitism which has not died down but gotten worse in the meantime.

The central point of the piece is solid; if I have any gripes with it, it’s that Mr Hitchens is a wee bit too soft on Saakashvili. Saakashvili as crusading anti-corruption outsider is rather laughable not only when you consider his Atlantic connexions in the early junta, but also when one considers his rôle as the sadistic, corrupt ex-dictator of Georgia (which country has since sensibly and rightly stripped the man of his citizenship and has sought to have him arrested and extradited).

Hitchens must be heeded on this point. (As a rule, I’ve found it a useful exercise to give notice to the Old Right, of whom Hitchens and Bacevich are representative, on these kinds of issues.) Now, it is true that the presence of fascism and far-right elements in the original Maidan protests has not given neo-Nazi parties like Svoboda or the Radical Party any immediate political benefits. But it’s clear that the willingness of more ‘moderate’ (read: neoliberal) parties to make common cause with fascists signals something about the nature of the current government itself, as well as about the nature of the opposition.

Let’s think back to the waning days of 2013. Yanukovich was overthrown because he refused to sign an accession agreement to the EU. Regardless of what you think of Yanukovich’s record prior to that (and believe me, it isn’t inspiring), speaking from the point of view of the welfare and dignity of the Ukraine’s working class, Yanukovich did the right thing in rejecting the agreement. The EU accession agreement was a textbook example of the exact same sort of œconomic liberalism that the interwar agrarians in Czechoslovakia made a point of explicitly rejecting in their own day. All trade barriers were to be removed. The investment was overwhelmingly to flow one way; the trade to flow the other. The beneficiaries of the agreement would essentially all be German (or Belgian, or French); the losers and victims would be Ukrainian. Sean Guillory summed it up eloquently:
I think there is a false choice here as much as there is a force choice. Ukraine’s desire to be in the EU should be separated from the problems with Yanukovich. But because of its dire economic situation, Ukraine is being forced to make a decision—cast its future with the EU or with Russia. But people must understand that the EU path—and frankly the association agreement doesn’t appear to be a path to membership. It is an attempt at neoliberalizing Ukraine.
It’s an attempt that has succeeded to a significant degree. But it hasn’t gone down simply. The Ukraine’s continuing transition into neoliberalism, privatisation and austerity has to disguise itself by ascribing false names to events that deserve their own explanation. It has to dehumanise people who fall out of line. Crimea’s annexation by Russia was legally dubious, though not without historical precedent; however, the attitudes of its people are anything but dubious: they prefer to be part of Russia by overwhelming majorities, and continue to be so. Protests against neoliberal trade policy that arose organically in the Donetsk Basin, largely among industrial workers there, were written off as a Russian operation. The Ukraine’s losses of both Crimea and parts of the Donbass were wholly avoidable self-fulfilling prophecies, arising from the fact that the post-2014 politicians wanted to keep the territory but couldn’t care less about the people who lived there.

Is the current Ukrainian government ‘far-right’ or ‘fascist’? No. It is neoliberal. That is a distinction that critical observers need to continue to make. However, that same neoliberal government continues to rely on far-right and fascist support, for everything from the rewriting of its history to the maintenance of the status and geopolitical alignment of its current political élites. It shouldn’t take someone like me to explain why that’s troubling.

And this is why voices of the Old Right, like those of Peter Hitchens and Andrew Bacevich, are so valuable. Very few people will listen to a leftist on these things – most of us (even and perhaps especially a left-conservative Slavophil like me) would just be accused of ‘red Putinism’, Soviet nostalgia or post-Occupy sour grapes. No one ever had cause to accuse Peter Hitchens of being soft on the commies. When these issues are couched in the language of realism, sober assessment of national interests, the balance of moral obligation with ability, the understanding of fallen human nature as having real-world ramifications – there is still a remote chance that people will listen.

16 February 2018



A very happy and blessed Lunar Year 4716 to one and all!

12 February 2018

Longing for love and justice – Qu Yuan and the Chuci

I’ve touched only very briefly on the topic of the poet and statesman Qu Yuan 屈原 (in whose honour the Dragon Boat Festival is held) on this blog; suffice it to say that I’m a fan. He belonged, very much so, to the class of literati gentlemen and scholar-officials, but his contributions to Chinese literature have had a much more ‘popular’, and I might even dare say ‘populist’ impact. I read a translation by Sir Arthur Waley of the Nine Songs 九哥 taken from the Songs of Chu 《楚辞》, which are traditionally credited to Qu Yuan; Waley approaches these poems from the standpoint of comparative religion and stresses the ritual-shamanistic element in them, but the poems, taken on their own, have powerful meanings that play with much broader themes.

Most of these Songs are love-songs, addressed to a powerful and beautiful woman (or man, or god) who bestows her love for a brief moment on the narrator, who recounts his longing, his happiness – and ultimately, his grief at having been ignored or left for another. Traditional Confucian commentators link these love-songs to historical figures like Shun (a superlatively-virtuous commoner who married two of the powerful Yao’s daughters); Waley ties these feelings to the practice of shamanistic rituals whereby spirits and gods are summoned and likened to lovers, who then leave the shaman after the ritual is completed; however, these Songs evoke a universal understanding of erōs. In the botanical and natural imagery of these Songs there is expressed a powerful yearning after completeness, complementation and harmony which is left unfulfilled. The shedding of thumb-rings and girdle-pieces in some of these poems denotes a willingness to part with all manner of worldly glory, power and respect for the sake of love. There is a ‘departure’ from the self, an apophasis in the space-breaks (which Waley refers to as a ‘mantic honeymoon’) which happens between the expression of desire and the lamentation of abandonment.

And there is another current that flows through these poems; oftentimes the god addressed is in control of a certain aspect of cosmic balance or harmony. In the song ‘Da Siming’ 大司命, there is reflected a standpoint that comes close to that of the ‘loyal minister’ who, seeking only to aid the god in ensuring peace and balance, is instead cast off by an uncaring or fickle-minded ruler. And, of course, this is what the historical Qu Yuan was most famous for. Qu Yuan had a high status, but lost it in part because he was willing to remonstrate with his high-born kin.

The tension between poet and politician is keenly felt, and it’s in these songs that the erotic urge and the desire for justice are most closely allied and indeed indistinguishable. Even in much later times, at the high points of Chinese art, the erotic impulse and the desire for justice intertwine themselves in precisely this way; one can see these twinned desires, for justice and consummation – the total demand for completion – reflected even in the ‘monstrous’, ‘nihilist’ imagination of Lu Xun 魯迅.

And then there is the class aspect cropping up again. Personally, I’m not qualified to discuss this yet, as I’ve only read the Nine Songs in Waley’s translation rather than in the Chinese original. However, contemporary Chinese commentators (like the socialist poet and martyr Wen Yiduo 聞一多) have made note that the Songs are composed in a style redolent of folk-art traditions, that make them easy for common people (and not merely literary gentlemen, statesmen and scholar-officials) to understand and sympathise with when they are performed. Again, I can’t really speak to the accessibility of the originals. However, the Nine Songs do carry themes of unrequited (or barely-requited) love and lamentation that are immediate even in translation; I can well imagine that they would have a powerful cross-class appeal even in early China.

EDIT 1 (13 Feb): I struggled for a bit with the question of making this a separate blog post or an addendum to my previous one. I guess I kind of needed to process this in order to give it another shot.

One of the frustrating things about reading Qu Yuan (or any other poet whose original works are in a language other than English) in translation, is that you are largely at the mercy of the translator. Now, I have nothing against Sir Arthur Waley, but the anthropological gloss he puts on the Nine Songs is heavy, and much of the plain meaning in the songs gets – if not lost – then, a bit muted. The pre-Confucian animistic-shamanistic ‘drama’ is, of course, all still there; however, the point that I was trying rather clumsily to make was that the broader and merely-human themes are still very much front-and-centre.

The exclusive emphasis on the shamanistic elements were part of what I was beginning to push back against in my ‘take’ yesterday on the Nine Songs: pointing to the immediately-accessible themes of erotic love and desire for harmony and completion, and the direct appeal to a much broader swathe of Chinese society than just the literati, the officials or the court. But I feel I haven’t done even that particularly well. Qu Yuan speaks in a much stronger voice than I was allowing him to do, and the fault there is mine, and not necessarily Waley’s.

Shamanistic content aside, the Songs still reflect very strongly a superlatively-pagan worldview. Male ‘actors’ and female ‘actresses’ call out in distressed longing for an otherworldly, other-sexed counterpart, awaiting (at best) a transient and æthereal consummation (Waley’s ‘mantic honeymoon’) whose completion will ultimately leave them in a state of wounded abjection. This doomed desire is represented as a kind of fleeting oracular genius which lies beyond the grasp of reason. Love in all its madness, all its danger, and even some of its heroic potential, is foremost in this poetic opus.

But to our age, this kind of paganism can seem naïve, even overwrought. We’re living in an age of Gnostic flight from the body, flight from biological sex, and a self-defensive flight from feeling, in a culture which is being, by degrees, depleted of its erotic content. We’re in an age which frowns on abjection and incompleteness – which seeks to make the individual self-sufficient, liberated, master of her own destiny. Qu Yuan’s narrators, on the other hand, are heart-rendingly insufficient to themselves. They are firmly and gloriously gendered. They are kenotic. They are conduits for an erōs that overmasters their self-interest in the most intimate possible way. In most cases they are rendered literally speechless at the mantic interlude. If we don’t find this earnestness somewhat too earnest, too cutting, too discomfiting, then in a certain sense we’re not allowing Qu Yuan to speak to us.

Of course, whatever else we might pretend (or psychologically hoodwink ourselves into believing about ourselves), we are gendered, vulnerable, incomplete – even broken. If Qu Yuan’s poetics can offer only cold consolation, a sense of ‘being in the same boat’ and perhaps a sense of solidarity among the broken, then at least they serve the purpose of making us aware of that brokenness for ourselves.

EDIT 2 (13 Feb): Here is Waley’s translation, along with the original Chinese, of The Princess of the Xiang 湘君:

The Princess does not come, she bides her time.
Jian! She is waiting for someone on that big island.
I will deck myself in all my handsome finery
And set out to find her, riding in my cassia-boat.
May the Yuan and Xiang raise no waves,
May the waters of the Great River flow quietly!
I look towards that Princess, but she does not come;
Blowing her pan-pipes there, of whom is she thinking?

Driving her winged dragons she has gone to the North;
I turn my boat and make for Dongting.
My awning is of fig-creeper, bound with basil.
My paddles of sweet flag, my banners are of orchid.
I gaze towards the furthest shores of Cenyang;
But athwart the Great River she lifts her godhead,
Lifts her godhead higher and ever higher;
Reluctant, her handmaids follow her; for my sake heave great sighs.
And my own tears flow aslant in an endless stream;
I long bitterly for my Lady and am in deep distress.
My oars of cassia-wood, my steering-plank of magnolia
Do but chip ice and pile up snow.
Can one pluck tree-creepers in the water?
Can one gather water-lilies from the boughs of a tree?
When hearts are not at one, the match-maker wearies;
Favour that was but scant is lightly severed.
These rocky shallows are hard to pass,
Those flying dragons sweep her far away.
In our union was no faithfulness, only grief has lasted;
She did not keep her tryst; told me that she was not free.
In the morning I gallop my horses through the lowlands by the River;
In the evening I stay my course at that northern shore.
The birds are settling on the roof-tops;
The waters circle under the hall.
I drop my ivory thumb-ring into the River,
I cast down my girdle-stones on the shores of the Li;
On a fragrant island I pluck the galingale,
Hoping for a chance to give it to her waiting-maids.
Though I know that the time can never come again,
For a while I loiter, pacing to and fro.