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《Ten Talks on Poetry Appreciaton: 7_屈原 》__ Kong Shiu Loon (53)

(7) Qu Yuan (屈原), His Mind Had No Limits 

In the history of world civilization, there is perhaps no person as intelligent, knowledgeable, imaginative, linguistically skilled, patriotic, noble and free as Qu Yuan (屈原, 335 BC-296 BC), not Socrates or Aristotle, nor Confucius or Laozi.

He was a poet, a statesman, a naturalist, a people hero, and an idealist. He loved his country and people and served his king truthfully with a “people based” ideal. But, he had rivals who persuaded his king to banish him to exile.

In disappointment, he drowned himself in River Milo on the fifth day of the fifth month. That date has become the Dragon Boat Festival in his memory. He is the only person in Chinese history to be so honored.

Qu Yuan is also remembered as the Father of Poetry. Before him, there was the Book of Poetry (詩經), an anthology of 305 poems by people in northern China during the Western Zhou period (1066-771 BC). They were expressions of daily cares, realistic and artistic. It was so rich in content and artistic in style that it became one of five Confucian Classics, a basic text in traditional education.

Qu Yuan wrote The Verse of Chu (楚辭), a collection of poems which integrated northern realism with southern romanticism. It made him the greatest lyrical poet of the Warring States (475-221 BC). They were long poems, consisting of hundreds of lines and thousands of words. The Sorrow In Departure (離騷) expressed his ideals and his grief at being estranged from the King of Chu. Other poems are Nine Hymns (九歌) and Nine Elegies (九章). The former included songs in praise of gods and goddesses in drama. The latter referred to the universe and human beings. In one of the poems, Ode to the Orange (橘頌), the poet expressed the image of the ideal man.

I first encountered Qu Yuan in the summer of 1953 after I finished high school, not knowing what my future would be. I spent my time dreaming and reading. I did not understand his poems which were written in difficult classical Chinese, full of myths and legends. But I loved the lines:

“Long and far the way I know not where to go xi 路漫漫其修遠兮|
I will seek my desired goals high and low” 吾將上下而求索 

They sounded beautiful and deep and melodic to a teenager full of dreams. It was many years later that I learned that the word xi (兮) was only a particle used for breathing in a song, between lyrical phrases. I read Qu Yuan more seriously after Graduate School, and through life. I admire his extensive knowledge of Nature, especially those many flowers and plants. He used them to represent his king and traitor lords in his long poem Sorrow In Departure, written in 304 BC when he was once again leaving the capital to exile:

“I did not grieve to see sweet blossoms die away
I grieve their decay amid weeds beside the broad way”

Let us now read Ode to the Orange, one of the poems in Nine Elegies, to appreciate his choice of words as he narrated the characteristics of an ideal person. There is no mention of love or hate, no praise of warriors, no celebration of heroic deeds. Here is a section I like because it is a positive description, simple and intuitive:

“External colors fine 精色内白
Internal purity divine 類任道兮
A thousand charms inculcated 紛缊宜修
Not a single shade of ugliness imbued 姱而不醜兮
You are out of the ordinary 嗟爾幼志
Even young you are exemplary 有以異兮
Independent will so free 獨立不遷
We watch in glee 豈不可喜兮
Roots firmly entrenched 深固難徙
You seek nothing unneeded 廓其無求兮
You proudly guard your virtue and vision 蘇世獨立
Distancing vulgarity in all seasons 橫而不流兮
Discreet and cautions you keep 閉心自慎
No wrong could to you creep 不終失過兮
Virtuous and selfless 秉德無私
In heaven as in year’s end 參天地兮
Willingly fade in year’s end 原歲并謝
I should like to be your friend 與長友兮 

In contrast, Nine Hymns features drama in sacrificial ceremonies, with male or female shamans donning elaborate costumes and colorful make-ups. They sang and danced, inviting gods and humans to woo each other in courtship. Qu Yuan had a productive time in his exile home on the bank of the Xiang River when he wrote these hymns, including God of Clouds, Lord of River Xiang, and Madam Xiang (湘夫人). I especially love the last poem which describes how the lovesick goddess vows to care for her lover. Here is the part which tells what she was willing to do to make a home:

“Answering your call I’ve come today 聞佳人兮召予
Together we will ride on clouds away 将騰駕兮偕逝
In midstream a palace shall be made 築室兮水中
Its roof will have lotus leaves for shade 葺之兮荷蓋
Up its purple terrace thymes will wall 蓀壁兮紫壇
Fragrant pepper plants will decorate the hall 播芳椒兮成堂
Cassia pillars will stand like orchids upright 桂棟兮蘭橑
And rooms smell herbal fragrance of cloves white 辛夷楣兮藥房
I shall make ivy weaves for window screens 罔薜荔兮爲帷
And cover the floor with leaves so green 擗蕙櫋兮既張
Cornerstones shall be made of white jade 白玉兮爲鎮
In the air orchid flowers shall never fade 疏石蘭兮爲芳
In lotus house let a vetch be found 芷葺兮荷屋
With fresh azaleas blooming year round 繚之兮杜衡
Let the courtyard be filled with herbs of various kinds 合百草兮實庭
And corridors be frequented by perfumed minds 建芳馨兮庑門
I will invite the gods of mounts nine measures high 女嶷繽兮并迎
To set my soul free aboard clouds in the sky 靈之來兮如雲
I jump into the water awake from my dream 揖餘袂兮江中
With clothes sleeves and all in the stream 遺餘褋兮澧浦
I pick sweet flowers from the landing in the bay 搴汀洲兮杜若
To comfort you living far away 將以遺褋兮遠者
Time lost can’t be regained freely 時不可兮驟得
Let my heart roam intensely feeling for thee” 聊逍遙兮容與 

Readers may imagine being in a grand theater on a huge plain 3000 years ago, watching a full scale opera, with nervy music, breathless dances, gods and humans donning colorful costumes, acting out real and surreal events. The experience could be exhilarating

Alternately, you can sit in a quiet room with a cup of fragrant tea, reading the above and other lines aloud, once, twice and again. Your senses will be happily engaged with the Chinese words, their sounds and meanings, keeping you calm and serene. Even with my English translation, the lines are so colloquial and easy flowing, that they put you on the poet’s wings.

In the summer of 303 BC, Qu Yuan visited a 200 year old temple by the Han River. All the walls and the ceiling were covered with murals, depicting mythic stories. As he knelt down to worship his ancestors, his mind flashed with lightening and queries. He began to ask questions. Before the day ended, he had a good start in writing his monumental poem To Sky I Ask (問天).

On completion, this long poem has 374 questions in 1553 words. Part One contains 112 questions. It began boldly, asking why there is no fairness, not directed by the highest god, or among human beings. Part Two has 270 questions on human affairs, personal, interpersonal and between man and all other things, living or still. This work deals with so much real and imaginary facts, that it has touched the hearts of scholars in the arts as well as the sciences, including Nobel Laureate physicists. It has been translated into 33 languages.

One of the questions asked if man has a soul, and if the soul leaves the body after death, could it be called back? The poet used the whole of Calling Back the Soul (招魂) to deliberate this question. He used the soul to represent the ideal King and, at the end of this particular poem, expressed his disappointment and despair, hinting his eventual suicide. Here is an example:

“Come ye back soul 魂兮歸來
Why leave your king’s fold 去君之恆干
To roam in world’s four corners 何方四方些
Leaving behind this land of joy and honour 捨君之楽處
Keep free from suffering disasters” 而離彼不祥 

Unfortunately, the king had lost his soul a year ago, ruined by his disloyal ministers. No call back feats by Qu Yuan were able to call it back home. One late spring day in 277 BC, a lone gentleman dressed in a white robe paced on the bank of the Milo River. He looked back at his motherland over the distant hills and sighed, singing a song he had written not long ago:

“I rather die and let my soul wander 寧溘死而流亡兮
Not to endure disasters one after another 恐禍殃之有再
I put off my writing ready to jump into the river不畢辭而赴淵兮
Alas my king is drunk in dark lanes linger” 惜痴君知不識

A sudden gust sent the ribbons on his hat flying. He cleared his mind with a shake of his head, and jumped into the swift river.

A fisherman nearby recognized him as his beloved ex-minister. He wailed as he rushed to the site to save him. Other boats in the river raced to attempt the same. But the river swallowed the great poet and the beloved minister of Chu. He returned to the universe which he loved so much. 

Today, the dragon boat race has become a world-wide game of competition. It has also been admitted to the records of UNESCO to be a Human Cultural Heritage in 2005, claimed by South Korea as her heritage and pride. Many Chinese consider the award to be unfair. But I believe we should be more accommodating to people who loved our tradition. It is important to know the facts of history. The following stories are derived from our ancient records.

First, the fishermen of the Milo River believed that the river had a ferocious dragon which was always hungry. It overturned fishing boats to get prey. So, they had the tradition of carving their canoes like dragons to counter the malice. Those were the boats that raced to haul Qu Yuan’s dead body following his suicide. But they could not find it. Thereafter, people commemorated that date as the Duan Wu (端午) Festival. They celebrate it every year with a dragon boat race.

Second, when people in Qu Yuan’s hometown heard the sad news of his suicide, they were so grieved that they organized ten boats, each paddled by four oarsmen, to the Milo in an attempt to recover his dead body. They did it for many days without success. They then raced to the Dongting Lake hoping to find it. There, they saw ten white sails with white robed oarsmen circling the lake to do the same thing. Time passed. No one gave up. One morning on the 49th day, someone spotted a glittering gold object in one end of the lake. He shouted and raced to it, believing that was Qu Yuan’s corpse. The other nine canoes and ten sailboats also raced to the spot. What they found was only the poet’s square hat. They hauled it up and brought it back to the hometown for burial. Thereafter, people remember their beloved poet by holding a dragon boat race on that same day.

To end this talk, let us remember the soul is the noblest spirit of human beings. We must never allow it to stray in the evil sphere. We quote the shortest line in the longest poem: “Come back ye soul.” (魂兮歸來).

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