Who Needs Qu Yuan?

The Double Fifth or Duan Wu festival, which falls on this very day, is celebrated as a commemoration of the poet Qu Yuan who was said to have drowned himself after his hopes for the Chu nation were dashed by ineffective rulers. The custom of eating rice dumplings and dragon boat racing is associated with efforts by villagers to retrieve his body. His suicide is conventionally celebrated as a self-sacrificial act stemming from patriotism, instead of cowardice triggered by thwarted political ambitions. While this version of events is taught as an unquestionable fact in schools, further research suggests a more nuanced version of the truth.

Was there really a person named Qu Yuan? An extensive biography of Qu Yuan is to be sought in Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, though his existence is cast into doubt by several modern scholars such as Hu Shi. Even Qu Yuan’s exact role in court is highly disputed. While mainstream, politically-correct biographies of Qu Yuan portray him as a prominent and highly respected nobleman, by some accounts he is no more than a court jester or liberated slave. [1] Whoever the real Qu Yuan was and whether he existed is a matter of dispute. Even so, he strikes an impressive figure in the imaginings of later writers, first as a sympathetic figure and disgraced scholar, now as a patriotic revolutionary whose love for equality extended to the common people.

The story of Qu Yuan is told as such. Once a trusted advisor and favourite at court, Qu Yuan was banished from court after falling victim to baseless slander and political intrigue. Things went steeply downhill after his exile; first, the king of Chu became a political prisoner of Qin and died in captivity. He was succeeded by his son, who also refused to pay heed to Qu Yuan’s advice. In despair, Qu Yuan plunged to his death.

A Political Allegory
We owe much of our knowledge of Qu Yuan to Sima Qian. Sima Qian experienced his own share of tribulations as a court official to the Emperor Wu of Han. His father was the court historian, a position which Sima Qian was to take up later in life. As a young man, Sima Qian travelled extensively, his travels encompassing historical landmarks including the Miluo River where Qu Yuan had committed suicide. He returned to take up a succession of positions at court. One of his most important projects is the compilation of the histories, a massive project his father earnestly bade him take up. This project would later be known to the world as the Records of the Grand Historian, in which our earliest written record of Qu Yuan is to be found.

Sima Qian enjoyed a fairly successful career until the Li Ling affair erupted. His decision to defend Li Ling, general of a failed expedition, was not well-received by the emperor. Sima Qian evaded his death sentence by opting for castration—a humiliation he endured for the sake of the Records. His thoughts were expressed most eloquently in a letter to his friend, aptly named, “Letter to Ren An”. In this letter, he explains his reasons for choosing life over death despite suffering from humiliation and injustice—then thought of as unbecoming of a gentleman scholar[2]. In his own poignant words, he writes,

“Even slaves and servant maids are able to summon the resolve (to commit suicide). Why not I? I live in shame, in the filth of captivity, for I fear my personal thoughts will never be spoken, my death unremarkable, and my writings never be known to the world.” [3]

Sima Qian references historical figures extensively. Prominent men, he argued, were sentenced to harsh punishments, of which they had no control over. Yet it was those who rose above their situation who was remembered by later generations. Qu Yuan appears in the list of eminent persons. He is to be accorded his own entry in the completed historical volume. Sima Qian drew heavily on comparisons between himself and Qu Yuan, twice in the autobiographical preface, and in his epilogue to the combined biography of Qu Yuan and Jia Yi, he writes,

“When I first read Li Sao, the ‘Heavenly Questions’, the ‘Summons of the Soul’, I grieved for the noble spirit revealed in them. Later, when I visited Changsha and saw the spot where Qu Yuan drowned himself, I wept to think what manner of man he was.” [4]

It is even speculated that Sima Qian deliberately ‘edited’ facts to fit what was otherwise a hocus-pocus of sources into a narrative framework which was a thinly veiled disguise of his personal grievances. [5] He was certainly not the first nor the last to do so. Jia Yi, whose biography was combined with that of Qu Yuan’s in the Annals, wrote “A Eulogy to Qu Yuan” on his banishment to Changsha. He sympathised heavily with Qu Yuan while questioning his suicide,

“Why cherish this country, when you could have served another?”

The same view was echoed by Sima Qian, who wondered why didn’t Qu Yuan seek some opportunity or other in neighbouring countries, given his skill set which, in modern terms, would make him extremely employable. [6]

What is clear is how Qu Yuan served as a reference, a mirror of sorts which disappointed Chinese intellectuals could gaze into and see themselves reflected. His blamelessness and his integrity form an allusion through which disfavoured intellectuals could safely voice their disenchantment, protest their innocence, and criticise the government. However, this did not stop them from criticising Qu Yuan’s decision to take his life or question his manner of handling things. [7]

In fact, Qu Yuan’s form of ‘patriotism’ is a product of his times, a combination of the unique sociopolitical situation of the Chu nation which sought to distinguish itself from its Northern Chinese brethren , and his social status as a gentleman scholar, or ‘shi’ (士), a circumstance which demanded his full loyalty be directed towards a ‘zhi ji’ (知己, or ‘a person who appreciated his worth’. [8] It is no accident nor literary whim that Qu Yuan chose to cast himself as a female persona in his poems, for the relationship between a gentleman scholar and his lord was akin to the relationship between a husband and wife. This sentiment is echoed by Sima Qian in his letter to Ren An, in which he writes, “A gentleman will do his utmost for one who appreciates him, just as a woman adorns herself for one who takes delights in her.” [9]

The People’s Poet
Interpretations of Qu Yuan shifted over generations in accordance with the zeitgeist of the times. While the Han attempted to interpret him through the lens of Confucianist ideals, the Tang complained about his mode of verse (and, in a very Confucian way, linked it with the deterioration of propriety)[10], and the Song were inclined to base their interpretations against a historical framework. [11]

In recent times, Qu Yuan was given a new identity by Maoist scholars and writers as a ‘people’s poet’ whose sphere of concern extends to the common people. One of the most notable examples is that of Guo Moruo’s play “Qu Yuan” in which Qu Yuan speaks in the vernacular, addresses his student and servant girl as social equals, and espouses concepts familiar to a revolutionary, Maoist audience but would have been utterly alien to his contemporaries. His reference to an abstract idea of a unified ‘China’, his populist-oriented views on literature, and his overarching concern for the common folk occur multiple times in the play, in which his personal loyalty to the King of Chu is downplayed. By doing so Guo Moruo draws heavily upon elements from antiquity, albeit fashioning them into a populist rallying cry for social change. [12]

This view is succinctly expressed in an opening line from a book aimed at high-school students, which reads, ‘Qu Yuan is the first great patriotic poet in the history of our country’s literature’. It is not difficult to isolate populist leanings from the body of works associated with Qu Yuan. In “Li Sao”, the line “哀民生之多艰” is a popular candidate for humanistic reworkings, though the very word “民” (min: people, populace) is laced with arguably derogatory meanings, more closely representing the English word “commoner” than “people” in general. [13]

The essay “Fisherman” is also another notable example; Qu Yuan’s conversation with a fisherman implies a fairly equal relationship between members of two disparate social classes. This sentiment makes it difficult to challenge long-established facts such as the authorship of the “Nine Songs” or other works related to Qu Yuan. Even the existence of Qu Yuan himself, though disputed by Hu Shi, is accepted unquestionably by Guo Moruo and consequently, firmly rooted in the collective consciousness of the people.

It is hardly surprising then, that Qu Yuan’s link with the Double Fifth (or ‘Duan Wu’ ) festival became solidly established as a fact, despite evidence pointing to the contrary. In fact, the festival precedes Qu Yuan as a form of animist worship, though the original significance of the rites has been lost in the mists of time. In this retelling, existing customs of dragon boat races and rice dumplings are explained in relation to Qu Yuan’s suicide and the futile attempts by commoners to retrieve his body. A new dimension is added to the two-way relationship between Qu Yuan and his lord, in which the mass mobilisation of the people reflects their collective grief.

The association of a native festival with an ideological hero is nothing new. Wu Zixu of the Wu Nation, who met a grisly death at the hands of the king Fu Cha, preceded Qu Yuan both historically and in cultural consciousness as the celebrated figure of the festival. [14] Even Wen Yiduo, writer and advocate of Qu Yuan’s ‘people’s poet’ persona, is ready to admit that the Double Fifth festival probably has nothing much to do with Qu Yuan, though he is quick to add that it was a good lie to keep, for it is a lesson in living and dying nobly. [15]


To this day Qu Yuan remains vivid in the minds of the Chinese. Every festival is an occasion for remembrance, as the younger generation is taught Qu Yuan’s patriotism. To whom or what this patriotism is directed to is seldom questioned. In Chinese diasporic communities, this paradox is particularly prevalent, given that the object of their (or should I say our?) patriotism is not the same as their Chinese counterparts, just as Qu Yuan’s loyalty to the nation of Chu is not directly equivalent to an all-encompassing loyalty to China as entailed by our modern geopolitical understanding. The memory of Qu Yuan is one of familiarity mixed with a sense of distance and vagueness, like a whiff of incense from a time and land long lost to us.

This sentiment is encapsulated in a poem:

Dragon boats, we only know to fold paper vessels.
Rice dumplings, no more than a tasty meal
Qu Yuan is an illustration,
Tousled beard, head lifted,
He stands by the river.
We study our teacher’s expression.
No holidays for us. Everything is as usual.


History churns, to the south it dashes.
Where it breaks into bubbles
In the Chinese textbooks of ASEAN nations
Fragmented bits and pieces.

” [16]

Note: I realise the title I have chosen requires a stronger assertion than the ones I am able to give in this article. After some deliberation I have decided to keep it. For one, it is more clickbait catchy. Also, I see it as an invitation to my readers to draw conclusions for themselves.

[1] This view is held by scholars such as Sun Qidian and Wen Yiduo.

[2]: In Sima Qian’s time it was considered noble for gentleman scholars to “resolve matters for themselves”, i.e. commit suicide, when accused of a crime. To opt for castration over voluntary death was considered a disgrace which excluded Sima Qian as a member of the scholarly class.

[3] Translations mine.

[4] Translated by David Hawkes.

[5] Hawkes, David. 2011. The Songs Of The South: An Ancient Chinese Anthology Of Poems By Qu Yuan And Other Poets. 2nd ed. The Penguin Group, 74-76.

[6] As mentioned before, the Chu nation’s unique situation prevents Qu Yuan from abandoning his cultural identity and affiliation with his lord and country and adopt Confucius’ mode of travelling around and seeking out someone who would hire him.

[7] Cheng, Sihe. 2004. Qu yuan kun jing yu zhong guo shi ren de jing shen nan ti [Qu Yuan’s predicament and the spiritual problem of Chinese intellectuals]

[8] Guo, Gang. 2015. Qu yuan de ai guo qing huai [Qu Yuan’s patriotic sentiments]. ke cheng jiao yu yan jiu (zhong) 屈原的爱国情怀

[9] Translated by Stephen Durrant

[10] Cheng, Sihe. 2004. Qu yuan kun jing yu zhong guo shi ren de jing shen nan ti [Qu Yuan’s predicament and the spiritual problem of Chinese intellectuals] 屈原困境与中国士人的精神难题

[11] Zikpi, Monica E M. “Revolution and Continuity in Guo Moruo’s Representations of Qu Yuan.” Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR) 36 (2014): 175-200. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43490204.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Hawkes, David. p.91-93

[14] Martin Svensson, as cited in Zikpi, 2014.

[15] Wen, Yiduo. Duan wu jie de li shi jiao yu [Historical lessons of the Double Fifth festival] 端午节的历史教育

[16] Wen, Renping. 2015. Qu yuan zai ya xi an [Qu Yuan in ASEAN] 屈原在亚细安.