Summoning of the Soul of Qu Yuan

The coming weekend (20th of June) will bring 2015’s Duan Wu Festival, the ultimate Chinese celebration of summer that is more commonly known around the world as Dragon Boat Festival ( However, the origins of the festival, and the poet whose life it celebrates, are rarely focused on.

To this day, a common custom of the festival, is the throwing of Zong Zi into rivers, to feed the fishes so they wouldn’t nibble on the body of great poet and statesman Qu Yuan (屈原), who threw himself into the Po Luo River.

Qu Yuan lived in the time of seven Warring States.  These “Magnificent Seven”, jostled for power, with the strongest kingdoms being Qin, Qi and Qu Yuan’s homeland of Chu.

In the face of increasing threat from Qin, the most aggressive of these states, Qu Yuan advised the King of Chu to ally with Qi against Qin, but his rivals in court had begun to spread rumours against the statesman, and the King, believing the slander, grew to mistrust Qu and banished him to the remotest of regions.  His maltreatment extended past his exile, both at the hands of his former friend the King, and  his successor. Qu eventually was driven to suicide in the Po Luo River. Not long after his death, the nation of Chu was eliminated by Qin, and absorbed, before the eventual defeat of Qi. Had Qu Yuan’s advice been heeded, the entire history of a unified China could have been very different.

Qu Yuan is most famous for his lyrical poem Li Sao (离骚), “The Lament”, which was penned during his transport into exile. The statesman’s elevated political and personal ideals, his firmly held worldview, passionately expressed with the beauty of mythology and Chu verse. Qu set the model for the unsullied, patriotic and tragic poetic persona for Chinese poets in the ages to come. The verse style of Chu, defined by Qu, is considered to be one of the foundations of not only Chinese classic poetry, but also Chinese aesthetics.

Zhao Hun (招魂), “The Great Summons” is a wonderful example of Qu’s style, and an insight into ancient Chinese shamanism, beliefs of life after death, cosmology, as well as mythology, food culture, and Chu ideals of beauty.

The vacant earth;

The white sun shineth;

Spring wind provoketh

To burst and burgeon

Each sprout and flower.

In those dark caves where Winter lurketh

Hide not, my Soul!

O Soul come back again! O, do not stray!

O Soul come back again and go not east or west, or north or south!

For to the East a mighty water drowneth Earth’s other shore;

Tossed on its waves and heaving with its tides

The hornless Dragon of the Ocean rideth:

Clouds gather low and fogs enfold the sea

And gleaming ice drifts past.

O Soul go not to the East,

To the silent Valley of Sunrise!

O Soul go not to the South

Where mile on mile the earth is burnt away

And poisonous serpents slither through the flames;

Where on precipitous paths or in deep woods

Tigers and leopards prowl,

And water-scorpions wait;

Where the king-python rears his giant head.

O Soul, go not to the South

Where the three-footed tortoise spits disease!

O Soul go not to the West

Where level wastes of sand stretch on and on;

And demons rage, swine-headed, hairy-skinned,

With bulging eyes;

Who in wild laughter gnash projecting fangs.

O Soul go not to the West

Where many perils wait!

O Soul go not to the North,

To the Lame Dragon’s frozen peaks;

Where trees and grasses dare not grow;

Where a river runs too wide to cross

And too deep to plumb,

And the sky is white with snow

And the cold cuts and kills.

O Soul seek not to fill

The treacherous voids of the north!

O Soul come back to idleness and peace.

In quietude enjoy

The lands of Ching and Ch’u.

There work your will and follow your desire

Till sorrow is forgot,

And carelessness shall bring you length of days.

O Soul come back to joys beyond all telling!

Where thirty cubits high at harvest-time

The corn is stacked;

Where pies are cooked of millet and bearded-maize.

Guests watch the steaming bowls

And sniff the pungency of peppered herbs.

The cunning cook adds slices of bird-flesh,

Pigeon and yellow-heron and black-crane.

They taste the badger-stew.

O Soul come back to feed on foods you love!

Next are brought

Fresh turtle, and sweet chicken cooked in cheese

Pressed by the men of Ch’u.

And pickled suckling-pig

And flesh of whelps floating in liver-sauce

With salad of minced radishes in brine;

All served with that hot spice of southernwood

The land of Wu supplies.

O Soul come back to choose the meats you love!

Roasted daw, steamed widgeon and grilled quail—

On every fowl they fare.

Boiled perch and sparrow broth,—in each preserved

The separate flavour that is most its own.

O Soul come back to where such dainties wait!

The four strong liquors are warming at the fire

So that they grate not on the drinker’s throat.

How fragrant rise their fumes, how cool their taste!

Such drink is not for louts or serving-men!

And wise distillers from the land of Wu

Blend unfermented spirit with white yeast

And brew the li of Ch’u.

O Soul come back and let your yearnings cease!

Reed-organs from the lands of T’ai and Ch’in

And Wei and Chēng

Gladden the feasters, and old songs are sung:

The “Rider’s Song” that once

Fu-hsi, the ancient monarch, made;

And the harp-songs of Ch’u.

Then after prelude from the flutes of Chao

The ballad-singer’s voice rises alone.

O Soul come back to the hollow mulberry-tree![1]

Eight and eight the dancers sway,

Weaving their steps to the poet’s voice

Who speaks his odes and rhapsodies;

They tap their bells and beat their chimes

Rigidly, lest harp and flute

Should mar the measure.

Then rival singers of the Four Domains

Compete in melody, till not a tune

Is left unsung that human voice could sing.

O Soul come back and listen to their songs!

Then women enter whose red lips and dazzling teeth

Seduce the eye;

But meek and virtuous, trained in every art;

Fit sharers of play-time,

So soft their flesh and delicate their bones.

O Soul come back and let them ease your woe!

Then enter other ladies with laughing lips

And sidelong glances under moth-eye brows;

Whose cheeks are fresh and red;

Ladies both great of heart and long of limb,

Whose beauty by sobriety is matched.

Well-padded cheeks and ears with curving rim,

High-arching eyebrows, as with compass drawn,

Great hearts and loving gestures—all are there;

Small waists and necks as slender as the clasp

Of courtiers’ brooches.

O Soul come back to those whose tenderness

Drives angry thoughts away!

Last enter those

Whose every action is contrived to please;

Black-painted eyebrows and white-powdered cheeks.

They reek with scent; with their long sleeves they brush

The faces of the feasters whom they pass,

Or pluck the coats of those who will not stay.

O Soul come back to pleasures of the night!

A summer-house with spacious rooms

And a high hall with beams stained red;

A little closet in the southern wing

Reached by a private stair.

And round the house a covered way should run

Where horses might be trained.

And sometimes riding, sometimes going afoot

You shall explore, O Soul, the parks of spring;

Your jewelled axles gleaming in the sun

And yoke inlaid with gold;

Or amid orchises and sandal-trees

Shall walk in the dark woods.

O Soul come back and live for these delights!

Peacocks shall fill your gardens; you shall rear

The roc and phœnix, and red jungle-fowl,

Whose cry at dawn assembles river storks

To join the play of cranes and ibises;

Where the wild-swan all day

Pursues the glint of idle king-fishers.

O Soul come back to watch the birds in flight!

He who has found such manifold delights

Shall feel his cheeks aglow

And the blood-spirit dancing through his limbs.

Stay with me, Soul, and share

The span of days that happiness will bring;

See sons and grandsons serving at the Court

Ennobled and enriched.

O Soul come back and bring prosperity

To house and stock!

The roads that lead to Ch’u

Shall teem with travellers as thick as clouds,

A thousand miles away.

For the Five Orders of Nobility

Shall summon sages to assist the King

And with godlike discrimination choose

The wise in council; by their aid to probe

The hidden discontents of humble men

And help the lonely poor.

O Soul come back and end what we began!

Fields, villages and lanes

Shall throng with happy men;

Good rule protect the people and make known

The King’s benevolence to all the land;

Stern discipline prepare

Their natures for the soft caress of Art.

O Soul come back to where the good are praised!

Like the sun shining over the four seas

Shall be the reputation of our King;

His deeds, matched only in Heaven, shall repair

The wrongs endured by every tribe of men,—

Northward to Yu and southward to Annam

To the Sheep’s Gut Mountain and the Eastern Seas.

O Soul come back to where the wise are sought!

Behold the glorious virtues of our King

Triumphant, terrible;

Behold with solemn faces in the Hall

The Three Grand Ministers walk up and down,—

None chosen for the post save landed-lords

Or, in default, Knights of the Nine Degrees.

At the first ray of dawn already is hung

The shooting-target, where with bow in hand

And arrows under arm,

Each archer does obeisance to each,

Willing to yield his rights of precedence.

O Soul come back to where men honour still

The name of the Three Kings.[2]

[1] The harp.

[2] Yü, T’ang and Wēn, the three just rulers of antiquity.

English translation by Arthur Waley

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