It has to be said, really, that considered as poetry, the Songs of the South is exceptionally boring. An anthology of poems from the Warring States period, usually attributed to the poet Qu Yuan, or ‘school of’, it takes its tone from the first poem, Li Sao, the only poem in the collection that modern scholars can confidently attribute to Qu Yuan.
In the Li Sao, the poet bemoans the fact that his loyalty, integrity, knowledge and generally exceptional character has not been recognised by his employer, the Prince of the State. The poet leaves his home (banished or not, it doesn’t matter, he cannot return) and goes on a journey which ends, usually, with the resolve to drown himself. Qu Yuan did in fact drown himself for this reason, and his death is celebrated to this day in the Qing Ming festival, or Dragon Boat festival, held all over South China on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month. Thus is born the figure of the lofty Confucian scholar, stubbornly resisting the necessity to taint his soul with the common things of the world, and choosing a lonely, watery martyrdom instead of compromise and socialisation.
The Li Sao spawned a whole genre of Sao poems, all based on the same theme, of the unregarded Confucian scholar (usually but not always Qu Yuan himself) choosing death over compromise. The problem is that the other Sao poets included in the anthology don’t have Qu Yuan’s imagination. Common tropes include flower imagery, the analogy of Prince and servant to lover and beloved, the use of a clearly delineated set of similes, the spirit journeys and real journeys, all are exactly the same. None of the other poets in the anthology are doing anything creative with the elements of the genre: it seems to be enough just to provide a checklist of elements for the reader to recognise. Jade and pebbles are mixed together (jade being the Confucian scholar the man of virtue, pebbles being the common riff raff of the court, his enemies), warlike steeds stabled with nags (ditto), orchids grown alongside millet (ditto) etc etc. One longs to shake the poet and tell him to get over himself.
The problem is not one of translation: David Hawkes miraculously manages to catch differences in tone and style in his translations – his introduction and notes are fascinating and indispensable for students of early Chinese history. But, as he puts it:
The conventions of …the symbolism of plant and flower and the parallels drawn from ancient history and mythology – seem in these poems to have become an end in themselves. The result is a long, almost unrelieved litany of complaint which progresses by mere accumulation and ends only when poet, reader and metaphor are all three exhausted.
An old man here once told me an old Chinese legend about a man on a journey who comes to a mountain he cannot traverse. Unwilling to give up his journey, he decides to remove the mountain stone by stone out of his way, and he spends his life doing so. The story was held up to me as an example of perseverance, patience, dedication to an ideal and the refusal to give up or stray from a path, the classic Confucian virtues, in short. My old man was sure I would regard it as a model to follow, but I was thinking only of the stupidity inherent in the enterprise. Surely it would be more sensible to walk around the mountain than to try to remove it? I get the same feeling from the Sao poems. There’s a point where commitment and dedication become mere boneheaded stubbornness and inflexibility; and the obverse of stubbornness is not flexibility but inertia. The Chu Ci provides fruitful ground for speculations as to the historical origin of the inertia found in the Confucian/Chinese character.
Enough! There are no true men in the state: no one understands me.
Why should I cleave to the city of my birth?
Since none is worthy to work with me in making good government,
I shall go and join Peng Xian (Taoist immortal) in the place where he abides.
There’s something, dare I say it, pubescent in this. It reminds me of an adolescent who is bitter at the world for not recognising his genius, a sense of teenage entitlement. To kill yourself because the world doesn’t recognise your genius, in our culture this is a sign of great immaturity, illness even. (Sylvia Plath anyone?)
The Chu Ci does however, contain seeds of dissent, a hint of an ironic Taoist corrective to the Confucian ideal. The Li Sao itself contains a beautiful description of a spirit journey made by a shaman, and the poem is interesting also for the use it makes of ancient Taoist tales and legends, some of which are now lost and which have only survived here in this anthology. In a poem called Yu Fu, Qu Yuan (Confucian ideal) encounters a fisherman (Taoist recluse). Qu Yuan is bellyaching in his usual manner: “How can I submit my spotless purity to the dirt of others? I would rather cast myself into the waters of the river… than hide my shining light in the dark and dust of the world”. The fisherman can put up with this no longer, smiles faintly, and sings as he paddles away:
When the Cang-Lang’s waters are clear
I can wash my hat-strings in them.
When the Cang-Lang’s waters are muddy
I can wash my feet in them.
The Taoist ideals of adaptability and non-interference in the flow of nature are contrasted beautifully with the Confucian ideals of steadfastness and loyalty.