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.


  1. can you maybe post a selection so we can see what they're like?

  2. Hello, John!

    I've just added an edit with one of the songs from the Nine Songs, with the Waley translation attached.

    - M