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Vanilla beauty and the immortal Phoenix: exploring the poetry of Chu in China

December 20, 2017
Along with Daoism, the ancient Chu culture has continued to the present day in China, although the Kingdom of Chu (c. 1115-223 BCE) was conquered by Qin, who founded the Qin Dynasty (c. 221-207 BCE), whose reign marked the beginning of two thousand years of feudalism in China. Chu originally began in what is Hubei province today, south of the Qin Mountains in central China. One of the greatest achievements of Chu is the anthology Songs of Chu, still relevant today.
To give a broader picture, Chinese ancient literature comes down to us from two sources, the Book of Songs compiled in the 5th century BCE and the Songs of Chu (or Songs of the South) compiled in the 1st century BCE. As a state, Chu had existed much earlier and exhibited an abundance of folk songs; even the Book of Songs opened with verses from the land of Chu. As an ethnic group, Chu mixed with indigenous people such as Tujia, Miao (Hmong), and so on, and merged into  the Han during the Han Dynasty. The majority of the Songs of Chu were written by Qu Yuan (also spelled as Ch’u Yuan), the first great poet from Chu as well as the whole of China. The best way to introduce him to Western readers is by quoting a poem Ezra Pound imitated and modernized a hundred years ago:


I will get me to the wood
Where the gods walk garlanded in wisteria,
By the silver-blue flood move others with ivory cars.
There come forth many maidens
                to gather grapes for the leopards, my friend.
For there are leopards drawing the cars.
I will walk in the glade,
I will come out of the new thicket
                and accost the procession of maidens.
                                           —Ezra Pound 庞德

Vanilla beauty: the imagery of exile and nature poetry

Qu Yuan (Ch’u Yuan 屈原 c. 340-278 BCE), a minister of the Chu Kingdom, was exiled by the King of Chu. ‘Sorrow at Departure’, his signature poem of 373 lines, describes his journey of exile, passing through woods and forests and encountering deities. He wrote about eighteen plants in this poem (there are over 40 plants in his other poems such as ‘Nine Songs’): vanilla, clover, thyme, bluegrass, angelica, capers, cinnamon, magnolia, chrysanthemum, hibiscus, gladiolus, and wisteria that the goddesses wore around their heads. Sometimes he put the fragrant herbs on himself, a way of claiming purity against the corruption in the royal court.

Herbs wither, flowers fade—
beauty comes late old aged.
                    —from ‘Sorrow at Departure’ by Qu Yuan 屈原

The references to beauty vary throughout this poem, sometimes referring to virtues, sometimes to a beautiful goddess in the forest, sometimes to the poet or even the king. Beauty was a man with integrity and virtues, a nobleman, an ideal king.

I put on mint leaves as my shirt,
lotus flowers my skirt.
Nobody ever knows me—
my true interior nobility.
                    —from ‘Sorrow at Departure’ by Qu YuAN 屈原

He gathered flowers and herbs as he wandered on earth and heaven. He lamented on being misunderstood and exiled by the king, and on the decline of Chu. From his time on, fragrant herbs and beauty have become symbols of virtues and moralities, which are glued together as one compound word ‘Vanilla-beauty’ (vanilla representing all fragrant herbs and flowers). Vanilla-beauty poetry has since become a tradition in Chinese, its scope expanded over the two thousand years. This image for beauty has continued to the modern time.


A beauty indeed.
Might as well be skinnier.
                         —Wen Yiduo 闻一多 (1899-1946)


Deep night is a lamp on trees,
a stream running down a high mountain,
an ocean outside your body.
The starry sky is a forest of birds,
flowers, fish.
It’s a heavenly dream.
The ocean—a mirror of things tonight.
Thinking is beauty,
a home,     
the sun, the moon,
the day and month,
a light,
a fire—
the shadow on the wall,
the sound of a winter night.                        
                     —Fei Ming 废名 (1901-1967)

Why did Fei Ming write “thinking is beauty”? “I think, therefore I am”? Daoist thinking is physical and material. Zhuangzi said “I dream, therefore I am”. All things are mirrors of images in the mind. Is he dreaming he’s a bird or is he a bird dreaming he’s a man? Is he a beauty dreaming of a fish or is he a fish dreaming that he’s a beauty? Sound tricky? Daoism blends well with Nature poetry. The moral reference of ‘Vanilla-Beauty’ implies more of a poetic ambition now rather than a political one as in Qu Yuan's time. The political reference has become more subtle, for example, Li Shangying’s gloomy tone becomes more comprehensible when reading Qu Yuan’s political poem ‘Sorrow at Departure’.

The Chu Kingdom defeated the Lu Kingdom (home of Confucius) in 256 BCE. Qin defeated all the other six kingdoms including the biggest one, Chu, and unified China in 221 BCE. But Qin was soon defeated by Chu, which again lost to Liu Bang who founded Han Dynasty (202 BCE to 220 CE). The name Han for Chinese came from the Han Dynasty and Han River in the land of Chu. As Chu culture became part of Han, Qu Yuan’s poetry spread to other regions in China. We can trace the influence over time inside the land of Chu and across China: the pastoral poetry of Tao Yuanming; the poetry of landscape of Meng Haoran from Hubei (the land of Chu); the lyrical voice and surreal imagery of of Li Bai, who traveled to the land of Chu and got married there, was influenced by Chu poetry and spread the Chu style of poetry as he traveled further; the deep sorrowful voice of Du Fu (whose family was originally from Chu), and Nature poetry and pastoral poetry in contemporary China.


I want to raise all these beauties with anyone.
I want to move here, taking the highland
as homeland. I want to live here, here, never cynical
about the world. I’ll let tears run down my face
all day long like the mountain streams
of unknown sources, just to show
I really want to be
an old father, here, unkempt.
                    —Zhang Zhihao 张执浩 (1965-)

The wildflowers are beautiful daughters that Zhang would like to have and raise with any woman. A parody perhaps. I see the shadow of Qu Yuan weeping all day long while writing the long poem ‘Sorrow at Departure’. Qu Yuan sang for the king, goddesses and maidens; Zhang admires the beauty of the wildflowers alone and loves them to the extent that he wants to take them all as his daughters. Here I also see the image of Shen Nong (神农), a legendary figure, God of Farming and Herbal Medicine, who taught humans how to plant grains; who tasted thousands of herbs until he died of poisoning. In Chu mythology, Shen Nong ruled over the Shennongjia Forest in what is today the modern Hubei province. Perhaps Qu Yuan had Shen Nong in mind when he wrote about those herbs, implying he was the God of Chu, the divine Shen Nong, trying to save Chu. But Chu was eventually defeated by Qin since the King of Chu wouldn’t take his advice against an alliance with Qin. Qu Yuan jumped into the river to show his patriotism to Chu. For generations, Chu people as well as all Chinese people have been praising Qu Yuan’s ‘Vanilla-Beauty’ poetry but here Zhang’s poem is a happy one. We see an old man with long hair, unkempt, wandering among the wildflowers and herbs all day long, singing and weeping, in love with nature. Zhang zooms in, cutting out the tragic ending of Qu Yuan’s exile and death.
The well-known 1911 Revolution took place in the land of Chu, whose leaders overthrew the Qing Dynasty and founded the Republic of China in 1912. Literary reform started in 1917 with free verse replacing metrical forms. Wen Yiduo and Fei Ming mentioned above, from the land of Chu, were among the early modernist poets in China influenced by Western literature like others, but without abandoning the ancient tradition of Qu Yuan. Nature poetry (or pastoral poetry) has prevailed. In contemporary China, there are also anti-pastoral poems, for instance:

If you wander on a country road
outside Beijing, you will often see flocks of sheep.
They scatter in the fields like unmelted snow,
or flowers in bloom swelling.
Or crowded together, crossing the highway,
commanded and shouted at
as they roll down the ditch where weeds overgrown.
   —from ‘A Pastoral Poem’ by Wang Jiaxin 王家新 (1957-)

Weeds grow unchecked, sheep herded roughly. Nature is not as beautiful as it should be. Even the ‘unmelted snow’ seems like pollution.


He starts at the lush oak tree,
making small circles on the lawn to a larger
circle. I listen to the gardener mowing, sniff
the grass, the freshness of the cutting,
I breathe in, and enter another garden
of my imagination where the grass is swallowing
the white marble carvings on the bench—
waves of grass, like death caressing me
with human fingers.

I wake up, and see an abandoned mower.
It’s cold. Things around me are submitting to something colder.
The oak tree bursting out, the gardener
at rest, eternally. Snow starts to fall 
from my pen—it will not fill the garden
but fills my throat. This white death, the reincarnation of seasons
of a larger death, I love the
choking white snow, the thrill of loss. I recall
the last green breath of grass…
                              —Wang Jiaxin 王家新

Wang Jiaxin learned from Qu Yuan to mix reality and fantasy, a juxtaposition, a montage of different scenes even in one stanza, moving in and out freely as Qu Yuan moved from the court to the forest and to heaven: the corrupt officers were jealous of him while the goddess rejected him. Wang Jiaxin is originally from Hubei but has been living in Beijing since 1985, while Zhang Zhihao has always lived in Hubei. But those who were once a Chu, will forever carry the Qu Yuan spirit. Qu Yuan’s influence, however, has never been limited to his homeland. Pastoral poetry has been an important component and major feature of all Chinese poetry. The Kingdom of Chu used to occupy the entire president-day Hubei province and part of Henan, Anhui, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shandong, Shanxi, Chongqing, Guizhou, Hunan, and Jiangxi; and at one time the entire area of what are today the Hubei and Hunan provinces. Zhang Zao (张枣 1962–2010), originally from Hunan, was identified as a Chu poet in obituaries by other Chinese poets.

I’ll join a man in the past
to continue his dream, a cloud
shared by raindrops. A palace appears
like a spring night, wine-flavored fish leaping

I wander in my ancestral home, stumbling,
a wild sunflower as my skirt
swaying in the wind as if lust from another life.
The witch in my village can’t tell which way
I’m going or my whereabouts.
         —from ‘King of Chu Dreaming about Rain’ by Zhang Zao

Shamanism is another feature in Chu as well as in Qu Yuan’s poetry, believing in gods and supernatural powers, talking to a spirit or fortune teller or a witch, associating with stars and constellations. The oldest book of astrology was produced in the land of Chu, as was Daoism (Taoism).


In my balcony, there’s a bird-dropping     
on the iron rails.
I will not clean it off
out of respect for flying creatures.
I will not clean it
I will even take it
for a flower
on rust.
                       —Yu Xiaozhong 余笑忠 (1965-)

To practice Daoism, one has to fast, to lose weight, to be a vegetarian. Daoism is more about action than believing in something mentally but it’s also a mental action. One meditates to clean his body.

I want to slim down like a crane from the Himalayas,
clear all my internal organs, clean all my bones,
hold breath—
to climb the snow-capped mountains
over and over.
             —from ‘Murmur in the Storm’ by Yu Xiaozhong 余笑忠

Daoism, shamanism and polytheism are good combinations for pastoral/nature poetry, all elements blended. Nature is not only what you see but also what you think and imagine, not only an image of things but also a mental status.

I fly far without wings
or illusions.
I immerse my body in sunlight, wholly,
motionless, like a stone shaped
in ancient time.
My soul rests in my brain—
I see it drag in the shadow like the long tail
of the thieving magpie that visits me, magically calm.
                     —from ‘An Image’ by Chen Jun 陈均 (1974-)

It’s an afternoon for water birds, white in the breeze
A pond of reeds wave nervously
A magpie perches on a poplar
An orange stays orange on the tree
It’s an afternoon for a woman. She stands on the roof
watching the smallest light drift

                            —from ‘A Woman on the Roof’ by Yu Xiuhua 于秀华 (1976-)

Moving from the external world to the interior is an ancient technique Qu Yuan developed and his descendants use frequently.

A bird with nine heads and the legacy of Qu Yuan

A nickname for people of Hubei province (the original land of Chu) is “Bird with nine heads 九头鸟”, a divine bird from the Kingdom of Chu, which is pejorative nowadays and means ‘tricky’, but originated in the ancient Book of Mountains and Seas (山海经), found in Chu in the 4th century BCE, a book about geography and mythologies. The bird is also called Phoenix’, and it picks fragrant herbs to put around its body, burning itself, dies to be reborn from itself—this is exactly the image of Qu Yuan to us today. An undying phoenix with vanilla around its body, Vanilla-Beauty, Qu Yuan—all three are metaphors for each other. It’s very rare for a regional figure to become a national myth but Qu Yuan did it. His poetry has been the treasure of Chinese literature since his time, 300 BCE, to the present day. Surrealism has been a feature of avant garde poetry against mainstream realism. Dramatic monologue as seen in his sequence of poems ‘Nine Songs’ was used by Li Bai in many of his poems modeled after Chu poetry, the best known of which is ‘River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter’, famously translated by Ezra Pound. The tradition was spread country-wide by Li Bai, internationally by Li Bai’s translators as early as the 18th century, and into the modern time by Pound. As the grandfather of surrealism and dramatic monologue, a pioneer in using mythologies and folk songs in poetry, and the model and source of inspirations for modernists such as Wen Yiduo and contemporary poets, Qu Yuan has had a long lasting influence. It’s precisely due to all of these that he is still relevant today.

Qu Yuan might well have wished to be an eternal phoenix when he wrapped herbs around his robe and across his shoulders while walking in the woods in exile, because eternity, the next life and reclusion are some of the themes of Chu Daoism. The character for Chu 楚 is woods + foot. 


Walking in the woods in the summer, I see
trees flourishing in a complicated way—
positive, thriving, their interior     
grows like human ambitions and swelling desires.
I think of the word mu, simple and quiet,
born to be silent, born in the deep fall,
its first appearance stunning. Shocking.
mu of four seasons slows down to acquire a image.
Look at its shape with branches and a trunk, created
in more than a few days, or a few weeks.
A simple beauty. A holistic miracle. A concrete abstract.
lives in the woods, in the nature, in the human heart,
immortal in a mortal world.
becomes paper, and paper’s full of the words .
How does in words meet in the woods? How?
                        —Huang Bin 黄斌 (1968-)

Migration is also a major theme. Qu Yuan was exiled twice in his life, five years in northern Chu and eighteen years in southern Chu. Contemporary poets relocate for family reasons or work assignment. Li Heng is from Hubei, and currently lives in Guangzhou, southern China, working as a journalist. 


There are eleven shapes of autumn
moving in the wind from south to north
exchanging forty names. Palm trees,
sycamore trees, and poplar trees
speak at the same time of the same cloudy, dark
sky. Clouds hang, and fall like water falls.
They want to return somewhere. The river?
All of a sudden, the sky starts to circle
like a bamboo sieve sifting grains from the sunshine
above. The pedestrians walk slowly,
forever hungry, forever looking upward.
                        —Li Heng 黎衡 (1986-)

This use of the word “hungry” reminds me of the Daoist ‘slim’ in Yu Xiaozhong’s poem above, but also of poverty in the South. Migrant workers look up in the sky for the God of Fortune, the God of Happiness, God of Love, God of everything.

Why is it important to go deep into central China to dig out Chu poetry? Well, Chu poetry is the longest-lasting continuous tradition in Chinese poetry. It’s a miracle that Qu Yuan is still being regarded as the greatest poet in China. But his hometown Hubei is the least known compared to the capital Beijing and coastal cities. Hubei is in the deep belly of China, but a vital connecting point culturally and economically, a region with continued poetic traditions. For example, the most notable poetry circle in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was the Three Yuan Brothers (公安派) from this region, who can be seen as the pioneers of the free verse of the 20th century. However, as contemporary influences, Chu poets were absent in the northern Misty poetry of the 1970s, and scarcely present in the Third Generation of southern poetry in the 1980s and 1990s, but became more prominent in the 21st century, even though still marginalized, hardly translated or even looked at by Sinologists. The only exception might be Lu Yuan who was exiled to Chongqing during World War II and spent later years in Beijing as a prominent translator and editor. As a poet, he won the Golden Wreath Award of the Struga International Poetry Festival in 1998 but still remains largely unknown.


The moth dies by the candle
that’s dying out in the wind.

You have green light,
glowing in the fog, a cold light,
undying in the rainy night.
How should I really sing for you—

you’re your own lighthouse
for your own path.
                       —Lu Yuan 绿原 (1922-2009)

It’s through the promotion of such regional poetry in recent years by Li Shaojun, Tan Kexiu, and others, that poets in Hubei, Hunan, Zhejiang, Anhui, Guangdong and other places have emerged, gaining nationwide recognition in China. Poetry from Hubei belongs to the Poetry of South (that is, Yangtze River cultures as opposed to northern Yellow River cultures) but carries a different tone, on a very subtle level, from the other southern provinces. It is not as soft as work from Zhejiang and Anhui but more gentle than that of Hunan and Guangdong; not as radical as work from Hunan and Sichuan, not as lingering as that of Zhejiang and Jiangsu, more passionate and surreal (actually peaceful and passionate at the same time, that is to say, warm instead of hot; down to earth and surreal simultaneously). Of course each poet has an individual voice, and general features are not merely due to geography, which does play an important role: Hubei is the Province of a Thousand Lakes, and there is the mysterious Shennongjia Forest, but this poetry is also influenced by a rich tradition in literature, philosophy, primitive religions, folklore and mythology. 

What made a poem a Chu poem in ancient times was the use of interjections such as Xi (兮) (like Oh! but pronounced as ‘she) which appeared typically in Chu folk songs and poems. What makes a poet a Chu poet nowadays is usually blood relation and self-identity. The phrase ‘bird of nine heads’ refers to the people of Hubei exclusively. This mythological reference to the undying Phoenix separates the people of Hubei from those in the surrounding provinces. However, the heritage of Daoism, the anthology of Songs of Chu including Qu Yuan’s poetry, the oldest Book of Mountains and Seas, and so on, do not automatically make Hubei poets better. It’s the constant innovation in form and experiments with syntax by all the poets mentioned above and the distinctively unique mid-southern warm tone that make Chu poetry continuously shine.

November, 2017

For more historical and geographical information about Hubei and additional poets from this region, please refer to Poets from the Yangtze River 

© Ming Di
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