Qu Yuan was born in Zhikui (Chih-K’uei), Hubei
(Hupeh) province, China, during the chaotic period
of the Warring States (403–221 B.C.),when the
authority of the Zhou (Chou) dynasty was decentralized
among seven rival feudal states. Qu was a
descendant of the royal family of Qu and later became
the Left Counselor of King Huai of Qu. He
belonged to the anti-Qin (Ch’in) party in the court,
which unfortunately went against his favor. Qu
Yuan was sent into exile twice by two different Qu
kings because he advised them not to continue
diplomatic relations with the court of the rival state
of Qin. For many years, he roamed from place and
place before finally drowning himself after learning
that the Qu dynasty had fallen to the Qin armies.
During his exile, Qu Yuan vented his grievances
through his poems, such as the Lisao, the most famous
of his works. The longest of Qu Yuan’s lyrical
poems, the Lisao reveals his devotion to and
love of his country and his unyielding desire and
determination to persuade his erring kings to
avoid committing the gravest mistake by cultivating
friendly relations with the treacherous Qin
state. Lisao is divided into three sections. The first
describes the ancestors, biographical details, and
poet’s desire to serve his king. A female character,
probably the poet’s sister, dominates the second
section, in which she tries to persuade the poet of
his foolhardiness. The final section contains a vivid
description of Qu Yuan’s imaginary pursuit of
hope and truth. The poem ends on a despondent
note as the poet laments:
Alas! All is over.
My fellow countrymen know me not
Why should I pine for my native land?
Since there is none to govern well with me.
I shall join Beng Xian’s abode.
It is this keenness of expression which makes the
Lisao a valuable document in the tradition of important
Chinese literature, both as a poetic biography
and as a model of poetic style and sentiment.
English Versions of Works by Qu Yuan
Li Sao, A Poem on Relieving Sorrows. Translated by
Jerah Johnson.Miami: Olivant Press, 1959.
Tian Wen: A Chinese Book of Origins. Translated by
Stephen Field. New York: New Directions, 1986.
A Work about Qu Yuan
Hu, Patricia Pin-ching. “Poet of Man’s Ingratitude.”
In Random Talks on Classical Chinese Poetry. Hong
Kong: Join Sun Publishing Co., 1990.