1. A Sea of Orchids
Some two millennia and three centuries ago, on the grassy plains of the Kingdom of Chu, a field of orchids and melilotus blossomed in full glory.
A solitary figure approaches. His attire is rather peculiar, consisting of an upper garment woven from water chestnut and lotus leaves, and a lower garment was sewn from lotus petals.
He picks up a hoe and begins to till the land. Carefully, he places seedlings of sweet lichens and cart-halting flowers on the ridges, and fills the spaces with asarums and angelica.
He rubs the soil from his fingers and says, smiling, “When the time is right, I will return for a fine harvest!”
“But what if they languish in obscurity?”
“There’s nothing to be sorry for, even if that happens.”
His face darkens as a thought crosses his mind,
“That said, I shall grieve should they be choked by weeds and wither away”
This scene is more literary than it is historical. It shouldn’t take much imagination to see Qu Yuan’s actual meaning. The plants he cultivates are not plants, really, but students.
It Is his greatest wish that this students may serve the king of Chu when they have completed their training.
And he’d rather see their talents waste away in obscurity, than to have them discard their conscience and join the ranks of the immoral.
2. A Flowery Imagery
No ideas are born in a vacuum.
Similarly, Qu Yuan’s allegorical use of plants is rooted in the climate and culture of the Chu nation.
Flowers and herbs were used extensively in the shamanistic rituals of Chu. The deities in Qu Yuan’s “The Nine Songs” were depicted with colourful personalities and wore beautiful flowers to match. They were greeted by Shamans purified by flower-water baths, and treated to orchid-infused offerings laid out on melilotus petals.
The “Songs of Chu” also reflects the Chu practice of self-adornment with flowers and fragrance sachets. Qu Yuan’s adds to this realism an allegorical touch, in which this practice is a manifestation of his ideals and personal qualities.
Prehistoric tribes associated flowers and plants with love and fertility. Qu Yuan’s poems attributes the plants with new associations.
In his telling, the pepper (prickly ash) is a slanderous and prideful creature; while the fraudulent dogwood finds its way into a sachet and passes itself off as a herb. The plants were more than mere metaphorical devices; personified such, they were able to participate in, and even drive the narrative.
At the same time, Qu Yuan used romantic love as an allegory to describe the complex relationship between himself, his king as a peer. Here, flowers are exchanged as gifts between lovers, re-evoking the prehistoric association of plants with romantic love.
3. An Everlasting Fragrance
This is but a brief look into the complex imagery of plants in Qu Yuan’s writings. It was but the beginning of a long tradition in Chinese poetry. 
From then on, poets and writers no longer saw plants as merely plants. They were personified, attributed with human qualities, and were used directly as symbols to express certain ideals.
For example, the Song dynasty thinker Zhou Dunyu’s famous piece “On the Love of the Lotus” praises the lotus for being unsullied by the mud it rises from. His gushing praise of the lotus, and his apathy for the peony, is simply an expression of his lofty ideals and his unwillingness to go with the flow.
Similar themes are common in Chinese literature. By understanding Qu Yuan, we gain a new insight into the works of later poets. We can better understand the message they were trying to put across by writing about wilted flowers and lonely women.
Qu Yuan’s flowers may have wilted. However, his “Li Sao”, as well as his personal qualities, have influenced later writers greatly and is an unsurmountable achievement in the course of Chinese literature.
Modern society encourages us to speak our thoughts directly. We no longer use flowers as a metaphor for ideas too personal, or too subversive to express in words.
Until Valentine’s Day comes around, and lovers exchange roses as declarations of love. Only then we realise—that perhaps nothing much has changed, in the gulf of time that separates Qu Yuan and ourselves.
: In the original poem, Qu Yuan’s cultivation of orchids and melilotus comes before his wearing of lotus and water chestnut leaves. Strictly speaking, these events should belong to different time frames, but I have chosen to merge them in this artwork.
The names of these flowers are taken from David Hawke’s “The Songs of the South, An Ancient Chinese Anthology of Poems By Qu Yuan And Other Poets”. However, it is worthwhile to note that the name ‘orchid’ may not be a good translation of ‘lan’, which may refer to either Eupatorium fortunei, Lycopus asper or any other herb common to the Chu region in Qu Yuan’s time. Similarly, it is unclear what plant the ‘cart-halting flower’ is in modern terms.
: Of course, as a literary work, this can be interpreted differently. In an article about the role of time in “Li Sao”, Chen ShiXiang interprets these lines as a cultivation of personal morality. At this point, Qu Yuan is still subject to the laws of time, and can only ‘wait’ for its harvest. However, the view that these lines refer to the cultivation of young talents appear to be more widespread.
: The metaphorical use of plants in poetry is not Qu Yuan’s invention. The “Classic of Poetry”, which predates the “Songs of Chu”, employs this literary technique. However, there are subtle differences between the metaphorical techniques in the “Classic of Poetry” and “Songs of Chu”. Details can be found in ‘references’ (text in Chinese)