Sima Qian: Qu Yuan and the Fisherman
By Brendan O'Kane, published
It's Duanwu Jie 端午节, the Dragon-Boat Festival. If we were in Hong Kong or Taiwan, we'd get a day off. No such luck here, so I'm blogging on my lunch break in honor of the holiday instead.
The Dragon-Boat Festival commemorates the death of 屈原 Qu Yuan, China's first poet. Qu was a minister in the pre-Chinese state of 楚 Chu during the 战国 Warring States period, and after arguing for more reasonable policies he was slandered by jealous court insiders and exiled by the king of Chu, to whom he was intensely loyal. Heartbroken, his faith in mankind shaken, Qu dashed off a few more poems and then walked into the Miluo River holding a stone. The dragon boats from which Duanwu Jie gets its English name are supposedly rushing to retrieve his body before it could be eaten by the fish, though in reality it's a separate tradition that just happened to get associated with Qu later on.
Qu is the first poet whose name is known, and there are a few works (particularly 离骚 'On Encountering Trouble' ) that are attributable to him with a fair degree of certainty. Others are traditionally attributed to him but clearly the work of later poets, like the poem 怀沙, 'Embracing Sands,' which Qu supposedly wrote immediately before chucking himself into the river. The great Han-dynasty historian 司马迁 Sima Qian recounts the events leading up to Qu's suicide as follows:
Qu Yuan wandered in his banishment, murmuring poems as he walked along the bank of the Miluo River, disheveled and emaciated. A fisherman saw him and asked: Aren't you His Excellency the minister? What has laid you so low? Qu Yuan replied: For all the world is muddy and I alone am clean; for all men are drunk and I alone am sober -- it is for this that I was exiled. The fisherman said, A sage does not stay apart and aloof, but adapts to his environment. If all the world is muddy, why not beat up the mud and stir up waves? If all men are drunk, why not lap at their lees and drink their dregs? Why get yourself exiled because of your deep thoughts and noble aspirations? Qu Yuan replied, I have heard that who has rinsed his hair then brushes his cap; who has washed his body then shakes his clothes. One does not sully his own cleanliness with filthiness. I would rather jump into the river, bury myself in the bellies of the fishes, Than suffer my own purity to be covered by the dirt of the vulgar world. Hearing this, the fisherman smiled and began row away, singing as he went: When the river water runs clear and fleet It's fit to rinse hat-tassels in. When the river water's full of murk, 'Twill still suffice to wash my feet. And he went on his way without saying anything more.
Happy Dragon-Boat Festival.
(Click the title to see the original Chinese text)