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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 The king was angry and thus acted withdrawn toward Yuan from then on.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 Tang.

    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 drowned.

    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 2 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.

2 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 too young.