Chinese Language

Qu Yuan - Father of Chinese Poetry

Zhong wen

This is an excerpt from Volume Two of Joan Chan's book, 'East meets West'. Qu Yuan (340-278 BCE) was the first Chinese poet to have his work published - not on paper, but on bamboo strips or silk. He was a patriot whose act of suicide, gave rise to 'Dragon Boat racing' which is commemorated on the fifth day of the fifth month on the lunar calendar. This Chinese festival is known as 'Duanwu' or the 'Double Fifth'. Dragon Boat Racing is now carried out all over the world, sometimes as an event to raise money for charity.


Qu Yuan (circa 340-278BCE) was one of the greatest poets in Chinese literature. He lived towards the end of the Warring States Period. He was descended from a noble family and in his early career he became a high official in court and served his king as a capable diplomat. He was very successful in his literary achievements and is considered by many to be the Father of Chinese Poetry. He was the first author to have his name associated with his work because before this time, poetic works were not attributed to any specific author. Qu Yuan wrote many melancholic poems which were, in fact, the first recorded work in Chinese literature.

However Qu Yuan was an unsuccessful politician. He tactlessly offended his king and heedlessly fell into the trap of his enemies. He was banished from court for 20 years. Later he became unhappy seeing the power of the court fall into the hands of his enemies. When he heard that his beloved State of Chu had fallen into the hands of the powerful Qin State, he determined to be a martyr by throwing himself into the River Miluo. People living in his area, loved and respected Qu Yuan very much and when they heard about this tragic news, they got into boats and raced to save him, but in vain. He was drowned at the age of 62 (220BCE). In later centuries and now in modern times, annual Dragon Boat Races are held to commemorate the event. In addition people eat dumplings of sticky rice wrapped up in bamboo leaves. These have three corners and are known as zongzi.

'Divination' written by Qu Yuan

Minister Qu Yuan had been expelled from the court for three years and was not even once summoned back to see the king. He tried his best to serve his majesty as a most loyal subject, but was kept at a distance from court, because of a malicious slander against him. Greatly depressed and confused, he did not know which way to turn. Finally he paid a visit to see the Court Minister of Oracles, Tse Jim Wan. He said, 'I am in a dilemma, please sir, can you help me?' At once Minister of Oracles, Jim Wan arranged the oracle reeds into order and brushed his turtle shell. After getting everything ready to serve him, he asked, 'Sir, what can I do for you?'

Qu Yuan said 'Should I be honest and genuine, be loyal and serve my country or should I join the madding crowd for a good time? Should I clear the wilderness and spend time laboriously cultivating the land - or should I get involved with the nobles to become famous and be accepted into their circle?

Should I be out-spoken and show my true feeling so as to endanger my life, or should I follow the vulgarity of the filthy rich and showy nobles to earn my living? Should I stay aloft to keep my decency or should I humble myself and put forth a fluttering giggle and chuckle to please the ladies of the court? Should I be straight and righteous to maintain my principles or should I bend myself down, making jokes and doing all the smooth talks with my oily tongue to fit the circumstances?

Should I hold my head high as a noble horse or should I drift aimlessly in the water as a wild water-duck just to save myself in one piece? Should I behave like the handsome mare drawing a carriage or should I just follow the inferior horse's tail? Should I fly high above and compete with the yellow eagle or should I fight over scraps with chickens and ducks?

I am totally confused and do not know which way to turn for better or for worse! This is a murky and turbid world. People think that the cicada's thin wing is heavier than a thousand catty; they cast aside the precious yellow gold-bell but let the poor quality clay-pot thunder loud. Scandalous people stay in high positions, but the virtuous and learned men are kept in the dark corner. Alas! What more can I say? Who would appreciate my honourable and righteous intention?'

Upon hearing all his grievances, Jim Van put down his oracle reeds and replied apologetically, 'After all, even in measurement, length might sometimes vary, and sometimes weight is not enough; knowledge is sometimes uncertain; luck can come to an end and divinity might not give you protection. I advise you sir to just follow your heart and act according to your own free-will. It is far beyond the ability of the turtle-shell and the oracle-reeds to solve your problems.'

Oracle bones

Oracle bones are pieces of bone or turtle or tortoise shell on which Chinese character s have been inscribed. The article was heated until it cracked and the manner in which the crack appeared was interpreted as a divination message. The characters which have been found on such bones are believed to be amongst the earliest Chinese characters which have been found. These records confirm the existence of the Shang Dynasty of Chinese history (1166BCE to 1122BCE). During this dynasty, the Chinese ruling class would inscribe requests for guidance to the spirits. Many such bones have been found on a site close modern Anyang City (about 500 km south of Beijing). This area is the location of Yin Xu which was the spiritual and cultural centre of the Shang Dynasty and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2011 by Joan Chan reprinted from SACU's magazine China Eye 29, Page 17

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