Qu Yuan, the father of Chinese poetry

Society & Culture

Illustration by Derek Zheng

April is National Poetry Month, and to commemorate, we’ll be taking a look at famous Chinese poets this month in our Chinese Lives series.



There are few concrete facts about Qū Yuán 屈原 (c.340 – 278 BC), a government official considered the father of Chinese poetry — some have even doubted he existed at all — but his fame is rooted in a legend.

In 278 BC, according to Han historian Sīmǎ Qiān 司马迁, a 62-year-old man appeared on the banks of the Miluo River in what is now Hunan Province. He looked frantic — “lost in thought, his hair unbound, his face haggard with care, his figure lean and emaciated.” He lamented to a nearby fisherman that “all the world is muddied with confusion, only I am pure! All men are drunk, and I alone am sober! For this I have been banished!” After reciting a poem he had written — now known as the Lí Sāo 离骚, “Encountering Sorrow,” the longest poem in ancient China — berating the corrupt rulers of the country he loved, he picked up a boulder and hurled himself into the river.

Qu Yuan had been popular with locals (according to a follow-up Han Dynasty legend), who paddled furiously out into the river, throwing rice to the fish so they didn’t eat his body. This became an annual offering until Qu’s spirit returned to the villagers and explained that the rice was being eaten by a dragon, so they should wrap it in dragon-repellent bamboo leaves. There are a plethora of origin stories for the Dragon Boat Festival (端午节 duānwǔ jié), but the official line is that paddle-boat races and eating zòngzi 粽子 (sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves) every fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar started in honor of Qu Yuan.

Who is Qu Yuan?

Qu Yuan, who became synonymous with loyalty and sacrifice after his suicide, had once been a powerful official, an aristocratic statesman to the King of Chu, one of numerous kingdoms in the Warring States period. Tasked with the weighty responsibility of creating a new legal system, he fell foul of corrupt ministers who ensured he was exiled twice from the state. But Qu Yuan, unlike his with his state-hopping contemporary Confucius, refused to abandon the state he served.

It was during these exiles that Qu Yuan supposedly wrote his poetry, including “Li Sao.” Today they make up part of the Chǔcí 楚辞 (“Verses of Chu”), the first verses ascribed to an individual in Chinese poetry. Unlike other poems of the time, Qu uses the pronoun “I,” pinning emotions to the voice of an individual poet.

His presence heightens the emotion of the verses — his yearning for Chu and his pity for the people left with a bad ruler. Chu is an oasis in a dangerous world, where the drink was good, the songs were fine, the women pretty. Others praise the fallen in the wars Chu fought, or are bound with the mysticism of Southern China — flights to far-off lands on the wings of a dragon; meetings with witches, goddesses and comets, all in lines threaded with orchids, magnolia, and vanilla flowers. His poetry sparked a romantic tradition for generations to come.

But he was still a ruthless analyst. “Heavenly Questions” (天问 tiān wèn) has an exacting logic, worthy of the man in charge of overhauling a state legal system. It interrogates the divine beliefs of the time, testing their boundaries:

“From dawn until dusk, how many miles does it [the sun] travel?”

“Upon what are the heavens folded?”

“The Mandate of Heaven shifts from side to side; whom does it punish, whom protect?”

Perhaps he loathed Heaven for making him love an unworthy state which punished his virtue with exile. Final proof the kingdom had lost the mandate of Heaven may have come with the news that the state of Qin had sacked the capital of his beloved Chu. At that point, Qu headed for the banks of the Miluo, and the rest is myth.

Why is he known?

“Like the Yangzte River coursing its way across the breadth of China,” writes sinologist  Laurence Schneider, author of A Madman of Ch’u, “the mythology of Qu Yuan weaves its way through Chinese history.” Qu was revered by generations of scholar-officials for his integrity and dedication to his work. The Han adopted him as the epitome of Confucian honor and loyalty; the Tang elevated him to high culture in their poetry; the Song spread his verses across the empire with their printing presses.

Lack of evidence means Qu Yuan’s life is easily shaped to suit the needs of the present. May Fourth Movement leaders, with an eye on Western values, saw him as a hero of individualism, or a martyr dedicated to forging a strong nation in reaction to an outdated, decadent regime.

The Chinese Communist Party rushed him into national service: a feudal aristocrat serving a king became “the people’s poet.” Mao was fascinated by Qu Yuan, quoting his lines and writing poems about his death, comparing major editions of the Chuci on the eve of his Great Leap Forward. Stuart Schram, one of the great Western experts on Mao, argues Qu Yuan may have contributed to “the romantic inspiration of the Great Leap as a whole.”

Qu was role model to both oppressors and the oppressed. The playwright Lǎo Shě’s 老舍 decision to drown himself in 1966 after being persecuted by Red Guards may have been in imitation of the injustices suffered by Qu Yuan. Lao She’s son certainly drew that comparison.

The official line still paints Qu Yuan as an egalitarian reformer, his poetry and suicide a megaphone forcing the state to listen to his demands for the people. High school students are set exam questions on how his suicide was a perfect act of patriotic self-sacrifice. In 2009, the government reinstated Duanwu as a holiday to instill national unity and cultural identity.

“Li Sao” is still Qu’s best-known work, a paean of selflessness and duty. “Long did I sigh to hold back tears, saddened I am by the grief of my people” (长太息以掩涕兮,哀民生之多艰 zhǎng tài xí yǐ yǎn tì xī, āi mínshēng zhī duō jiān), is quoted by politicians like former prime minister Wēn Jiābǎo 温家宝 and current president Xí Jìnpíng 习近平. The line is held as proof of Qu’s loyalty to the needs of the “people” — that’s what mín 民 means in modern Chinese, but in classical texts, this character mostly refers to the noble classes.

Although a favorite source of quotes for Xi when allusions are needed, lines from Li Sao have also made their way into common parlance. When someone has to tell the truth despite the cost, or is in the midst of a grueling struggle, the appropriate phrase is: “The road ahead is long and I can see no end, / Yet high and low I’ll search along this road for the truth, without yielding” (路漫漫其修远兮,吾将上下而求索 lù mànmàn qí xiū yuǎn xī, wú jiāng shàngxià ér qiúsuǒ).

By stepping into the waters of the Miluo, Qu Yuan became a beacon for those striving for a better world and an idol to those running from a bad one. In a history as long and muddied with confusion as China’s, he has never ceased to serve.

Chinese Lives is a weekly series. Previously:

Li Qingzhao, poet, ‘the most talented woman in history’