Yuan Qu, the Father of Chinese Poetry
Chinese History by Qian Si-ma (145 B.C.-?)
Yuan Qu, also named Ping, had the same surname as King Huai of the State of
Chu 1. He was an official in the king's court. He was knowledgeable and had a good
memory. He was good at governing a country and was a master of diplomatic
language. When he was in court, he discussed state affairs with King Huai and
helped the king issue edicts. When he went out, he would welcome important
guests from other countries and communicate with them properly. The king trusted
him very much. Mr. Shang-guan had a position at the same level as Yuan in the
king's court. He was jealous of Yuan's talent and wanted to compete with him for
the king's trust. One time, King Huai asked Yuan to draft a certain edict.
Before Yuan finished writing his draft, Mr. Shang-guan saw it and tried to grab
it. Yuan did not let him. Consequently, Mr. Shang-guan told the king, "Everyone
is aware that Your Majesty asks Yuan to draft edicts. Every time an edict is
issued, Yuan will boast, 'Only I can write the edict.'" The king was angry and
thus acted withdrawn toward Yuan from then on.
Yuan complained that the king failed to tell who was lying. It only took a
few lies to influence the king's judgment. The evil deed prevented justice. The
honest were no longer trusted by the king. Therefore, Yuan wrote a long poem,
Encountering Sorrows, to complain about his bad luck. Indeed, when one
encounters severe hardship, he will subconsciously think about his roots: Heaven
where people were created or parents who are the roots of a family. For example,
when one is exhausted and feels hopeless, he will cry to God. Or when one is
sick and hurt, he will cry to his parents. Yuan was virtuous, honest, loyal and
worked very hard for the king, but a few lies deprived him of the king's trust.
His situation could be considered unfortunate. Loyal as he was, he was still
distrusted by the king. Honest as he was, he was still slandered by Mr. Shang-guan.
How was it possible that he had no complaints? Encountering Sorrows,
written by Yuan, was inspired by his feelings about unfairness. Let us compare
it with two classic poetry books: Customs and Grace. Customs
praised the beauty of women without being pornographic. There were a lot of
complaints in Grace, but all of them were expressed properly. The poem
Encountering Sorrows could be said to have possessed the merits of these two
books. The time period covered by this poem was from the ancient King Ku to King
Huan of the State of Qi. Yuan inserted the stories of King Tang and King Wu in
between. He ridiculed worldly events to reveal the great value of morals. He
showed us how a good system worked and how a corrupt system failed. His poem was
concise. His verses held overtones. His goal was to maintain a clean reputation.
His deeds were noble. Although his poem was like an essay, its content was
great. The metaphors in his poem were simple, but they contained deep meanings.
Because his goal was to maintain a clean reputation, all the physical objects in
his poem were fragrant. To keep his deeds noble, he never followed the crowd.
Even when he was involved in a corrupt situation, he shed his shell like a
cicada to remain clean. Thus he flew above the dust and was never tainted by the
corruption. In view of his determination, it is appropriate to compare its
splendor with that of the sun and the moon.
Yuan was finally expelled from the king's court. Later, the State of Qin
wanted to attack the State of Qi, but Qi and Chu had an alliance. The king of
Qin worried about the alliance, so he asked his prime minister Yi Zhang to
pretend to leave Qin and come to work for Chu. Zhang brought with him a lot of
gifts and money to bribe Chu's officials in order to persuade King Huai of Chu.
He told King Huai, "Qin hates Qi very much, but Qi and Chu have an alliance. If
Chu can sever its diplomatic relations with Qi, Qin will give Your Majesty 600
square miles of land." King Huai was greedy. He believed Zhang's promise, so he
severed diplomatic relations with Qi. Later, when he sent an envoy to Qin to
accept the promised land, Zhang pretended that he had not made such an offer. He
told the envoy, "I only promised King Huai six square miles instead of 600
square miles." The envoy left angrily. After returning to Chu, he told King Huai
what happened in Chyn. King Huai was so furious that he hastily sent a large
army to attack Qin. Qin fought back. Its troops defeated Chu's army at Dan-zhe
City, killing 80,000 of Chu's soldiers and capturing Chu's army commander, Gai
Qu. Thus, Qin occupied Chu's Han-zhong Region. Then King Huai sent all his
soldiers to invade inland Qin. The armies of the two countries battled at
Lan-tian City. When the State of Wei heard the news, it raided Chu from behind.
To avoid fighting two wars at the same time, Chu withdrew from Qin. The State of
Qi was angry that Chu severed diplomatic relations with them, so it would not
offer any military assistance. Chu was in danger. The next year, Qin sought
peace with Chu by proposing to return Han-zhong Region. The King of Chu said, "I
am not interested in obtaining my previous land. If I could arrest Zhang, I
would be satisfied." When Zhang heard this, he told the King of Qin, "If one
Zhang is more important than Han-zhong Region in King Huai's eyes, I would like
to go to Chu." After Zhang arrived in Chu, he bribed Mr. Shang-guan, an
important official, and prepared a cunning argument for the king's favorite
concubine Xiu Zheng, so that she could tell King Huai and gain his own release.
It turned out that the king fell into the trap, accepted Xiu Zheng's advice and
let Zhang go back to Qin. At this moment, Yuan was still without the kingís
favor and worked as Chu's ambassador to Qi. He quickly returned and advised King
Huai, "You should have killed Chang." The king regretted releasing Zhang, but it
was too late to bring Zhang back. Later all the countries in China united to
attack Chu; they defeated Chu completely and killed Chu's army commander, Mei
At this time, the king of Qin married Chuís princess and wanted to meet King
Huai. King Huai wanted to meet him as well, but Yuan tried to stop him. He said,
"Qin is like a tiger or a wolf. You should not believe their words. It is better
not to go." King Huai's youngest son, Zi-lan, urged the king to go, saying, "How
can you disappoint Qin?" King Huai finally went to Qin. After he entered Gate W,
Qin's ambush blocked his return. They detained King Huai and asked to be given a
section of land. King Huai was angry. He refused their request and escaped to
the State of Zhao. Zhao would not accept him. He then returned to Qin. Finally,
he died in Qin and was carried back to be buried. His eldest son, Qing-xiang,
succeeded the throne and appointed his brother Zi-lan as Advisor.
The people in Chu all blamed Zi-lan for urging King Huai to go to Qin where
he was detained and later died. Yuan was disappointed that the king followed
Zi-lanís advice. Although he worked as Chu's ambassador to Qi, he missed his
country and cared about King Huai. He never forgot Chu. He hoped that the king
would repent for treating him unfairly and that the situation would change. His
attempt to help King Huai make Chu strong was repeatedly shown in
Encountering Sorrows. However, he was forced to stay in Qi and could not go
back. This showed that King Huai never learned from his mistakes. Whether a king
is wise or not, he looks for loyal people to help him and chooses talented
people to assist him. However, it happened too frequently that a king lost his
country. Over generations it was very rare for even one country to be governed
by a great king. This was because most kings failed to recognize loyal and
talented people. King Huai could not tell who was loyal to him, so he was
deceived by Mr. Shang-guan from inside of government and was fooled by Zhang
from outside. Because he acted withdrawn toward Yuan and trusted Mr. Shang-guan
and his son Zi-lan, his soldiers were defeated and the territory was decreased.
He lost six cities, died in Qin, and as a result was laughed at by the whole
world. This was because he failed to choose the right people to work for him.
The Bible of Change says, "I am upset that people do not drink the filtered
water from a well. The water should be used just like talented people should be
appointed by a king. If the talented people are appointed, it will show that the
king is wise, and he will also benefit from it." Yuan annotated this entry by
saying, "If a king fails to recognize talented people, how can he benefit from
his actions?" After Adviser Zi-lan heard this, he was furious. Finally, he
ordered Mr. Shang-guan to tell King Qing-xiang some lies about Yuan. King
Qing-xiang was angry and sent Yuan into exile.
Yuan went to a riverside. He sighed while he was walking. His hair was
disheveled. His face was full of sorrow. His body looked like a withering plant.
A fisherman saw him and asked, "Are you not Official Yuan? What happened to you
to make you look so awful?Ē Yuan replied, ďThe whole world is corrupt; only I am
clean. Everyone is drunk; only I am sober. This is the reason why I was
banished." The fisherman said, "A wise man will not stick to any principles. He
will adjust himself to his surroundings. Now that the whole world is corrupt,
why don't you follow the flow and ride its waves? Now that everyone is drunk,
why donít you taste their dregs and sip their light wine as well? Why do you
stick to your moral standards and let yourself be banished?" Yuan said, "I
heard: 'After one washes his head, he will flick his hat; after one takes a
bath, he will shake his clothes.' Who wants his clean body to be soiled by dust?
I would rather go with the constant flow and be buried in a fish's belly than
let my clean reputation be tainted by corruption." Then, he wrote the poem,
Embracing Sand, tied a big stone to himself, jumped into the Mi-lo River and
After Yuan died, there were scholars, Yu Song, Le Tang, and Cuo Jing, in Chu
who loved literature and were renowned for their poetry. They followed Yuan in
using mild words and never dared to give the king any straightforward advice.
With time Chu became weaker. In less than twenty years, it was finally destroyed
by Qin. A hundred plus years after Yuan sank into the Mi-lo River, Mr. Jia
in the Han dynasty, the tutor of the King of Chang-sha, passed by the Mi-lo River.
He wrote an essay and threw it into the river to commemorate Yuan.
The Official Historian says, "When I read Yuan's poems, Encountering
Sorrows, Asking Heaven, Conjuring Souls, Lamenting for
Chu's Capital, I felt sorry for his unappreciated dedication. When I went to
Chang-sha City and saw the river where Yuan had drowned himself, I could not but
cry for his great personality. After I read Mr. Jia's essay to commemorate Yuan,
I blamed Yuan for allowing his life to be wasted. Had he wanted to leave Chu and
search for employment in other countries, any country would have been glad to
have utilized his talent. In Mr. Jia's Ode to Sparrows, he considered
life and death the same and did not think that gaining or losing a position
would affect his personal worth. Does this philosophy explain the ill fate of
these two scholars? That is a hard question to answer."
1 In fact, Yuan Qu was a member of the royal clan of the State of Chu.
Mr. Yi Jia was another example of a scholar who was talented and dedicated
to his country, but his country failed to utilize his talents. Although the king
recommended Jia, the elder officials in power opposed using him because he was