An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Chuci 楚辭 "Poetry of Chu" or "Poetry of the South"

July 3, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

The literary type of Chuci 楚辭 "Poetry of Chu" or "Poetry of the South" is a sort of poem that found its origin in the works of Qu Yuan 屈原 (d. 278 BCE), a high minister in the state of Chu 楚. After his death, many persons from that region imitated his style of writing. The formal style and the themes of this poems was so different from the poems of the states in the Yellow River plain that it was always treated as a separate type of literature. The most famous poem is Qu Yuan's Lisao 離騷 "Sorrow after departing". The style of the Chuci and commentaries to these poems have been included as a separate sub-category in the collectanea Siku quanshu 四庫全書. It includes only 6 writings of and on this type of poetry.

A great part of the poems is ascribed to the statesman Qu Yuan. The collection Chuci was compiled by the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) scholar Liu Xiang 劉向 and commented by Wang Yi 王逸. The collection comprises poems of Qu Yuan and Song Yu 宋玉, both ministers at the court of the king of Chu, and the Han period scholars Jia Yi 賈誼, Huainan Xiaoshan 淮南小山, Dongfang Shuo 東方朔, Zhuang Ji 莊忌, Wang Bao 王褒, Liu Xiang and Wang Yi. All of them came from the same region in modern central China which had a cultural tradition distinct from the states in the Yellow River plain.

Qu Yuan was a high minister of King Huai of Chu 楚懷王 (r. 328-299) to whom he suggested reforms in government and an alliance with the state of Qi 齊 in order to encounter the growing power of the state of Qin 秦. Qu Yuan was slendered by another minister called Jin Shang 靳尚 and thereupon dismissed. When King Qingxiang 楚頃襄王 (r. 298-263) was taken prisoner by Qin, Qu Yuan wrote his famous poem Li Sao 離騷 "Sorrow after department" which can be interpreted as a kind of autobiography. The disappointed Qu Yuan drowned himself in the River Miluo 汨羅江. People later started offering rice balls to his soul, and during the mid-autumn moon festival (zhongqiujie 中秋節), rice balls enveloped in bamboo leaves (zongzi 粽子) are still a popular meal in southern China.

Other poems that are ascribed to Qu Yuan are the Nine Songs (Jiuge 九歌), the Nine Elegies (Jiuzhang 九章), "Asking Heaven" (Wentian 問天) and some more. The particular style of the Chuci poetry differs from the northern poetry styles both in verse (the verse divider xi 兮, a particle expressing sighing) and in content. The northern literature is much more plain of feelings, while the poems in the southern state of Chu are full of sentiment and even mystical visions. Qu Yuan, for example, is guided on his horse chart to a heaven far from the human world. His evokings of the Goddess of the River Xiang 湘君 is an example of shamanism common in the southern religion. Southern poetry later became very popular among Daoists that also saw man as a mere small being in cosm and nature.

The Chuci collection was enlarged by some other poems that were partially also written by "southerners", partially imitations of Qu Yuan's style, like the Han period poet Wang Bao from the region of Sichuan, and Liu Xiang, son of Liu Jiao 劉交 (posthumous title Prince Yuan of Chu 楚元王), or Jia Yi and Dongfang Shuo, both writers known for their inclination to Daoism.

In the bibliography Yiwen zhi 藝文志, part of the official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書, the poems of Qu Yuan are listed as fu 賦 "rhapsodies" in 25 chapters. The bibliography treatise Jingjizhi 經籍志 in the Suishu 隋書 already lists ten books about the Chuci, of which the greatest part is lost today.

Poems of the Chuci Anthology
1 離騷 Lisao On encountering sorrow
2 九歌 Jiuge The Nine Songs
東皇太一 Donghuang taiyi The Great One, Lord of the Eastern World
雲中君 Yunzhong jun The Lord Within the Clouds
湘君 Xiang jun The Princess of the Xiang
湘夫人 Xiang furen The Lady of the Xiang
大司命 Dasi ming The Great Master of Fate
少司命 Shaosi ming The Lesser Master of Fate
東君 Dongjun The Lord of the East
河伯 He bo The God of the Yellow River
山鬼 Shangui The Mountain Goddess
國殤 Guoshang The spirits of the fallen
禮魂 Shenhun The ritual cycle
3 天問 Tianwen Heavenly questions
4 九章 Jiuzhang The Nine Declarations
惜誦 Xisong Grieving I make my plaint
涉江 Shejiang Crossing the river
哀郢 Ai Ying A lament for Ying (capital of Chu)
抽思 Chousi The outpouring of sad thoughts
懷沙 Huaisha Embracing the sand
思美人 Si meiren Thinking of a fair one
惜往日 Xi wang ri Alas for the days gone by!
橘頌 Jusong Inpraise of the orange-tree
悲回風 Beihui feng Grieving at the eddying wind
5 遠遊 Yuanyou The far-off journey
6 卜居 Buju Divination
7 漁父 Yufu The fisherman
8 九辯 Jiubian The Nine Arguments (by Song Yu 宋玉 [ancient Chu])
9 招魂 Zhaohun The summons of the soul
10 大招 Dazhao The great summons
11 惜誓 Xishi Sorrow for troth betrayed (by Jia Yi 賈誼 [Former Han])
12 招隱 Zhaoyin Summons for a gentleman who became a recluse (淮南小山 Huainan xiaoshan [Former Han])
13 七諫 Qijian The Seven Remonstrances (by Dongfang Shuo 東方朔 [Former Han])
初放 Chufang When first exiled
沈江 Chenjiang Drowning in the river
怨世 Yuanshi Disgust at the world
怨思 Yuansi Embittered thoughts
自悲 Zibei Grieved by my miseries
哀命 Aiming Mourning my lot
謬諫 Miujian Reckless remonstrance
14 哀時命 Aishi ming Alas that my lot was not cast! (by Zhuang Ji 莊忌)
15 九懷 Jiuhuai The Nine Regrets (by Wang Bao 王褒 [Former Han])
匡機 Kuangji Freedom from worldly contrivings
通路 Tonglu A road to beyond
危俊 Weijun Dangerous heights
昭世 Zhaoshi A light on the world
尊嘉 Zunjia Honouring the good
蓄英 Chuying Storing blossoms
思忠 Sizhong Thoughts on loyalty bent
陶壅 Taoyong Raising barriers
株昭 Zhuzhao Quenching the light
16 九歎 Jiutan The Nine Laments (by Liu Xiang 劉向 [Former Han])
逢紛 Fengfen Encountering troubles
離世 Lishi Leaving the world
怨思 Yuansi Embittered thoughts
遠逝 Yuanshi Going far away
惜賢 Xixian Lament for the worthy
憂苦 Youku Saddened by sufferings
愍命 Minming Grieved by this fate
思古 Sigu Sighing for olden times
遠遊 Yuanyou The far-off journey
17 九思 Jiusi The Nine Longings (by Wang Yi 王逸 [Later Han])
逢尤 Fengyou Meeting with reproach
怨上 Yuanshang Resentment against the ruler
疾世 Jishi Impatience with the world
憫上 Minshang Pity for the ruler
遭厄 Cao'e Running into danger
悼亂 Daoluan Grieving over disorder
傷時 Shangshi Distressed by these times
哀歲 Aisui Lament for the year
守志 Shouzhi Maintaining resolution
Hartmann, Charles (1986). "Ch‘u-tz‘u 楚辭", in William H. Nienhauser, ed. The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature (Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press), 347-349.
Hawkes, David (1993). "Ch‘u tz‘u", in Michael Loewe, ed. Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide (Berkeley: Society for the Study of Early China/Institute of East Asian Studies), 48-55.
Huang Weihu 黃偉虎 (1992). "Chuci 楚辭", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 110-111.

Hawkes, David (1959). Ch'u Tz'u: The Songs of the South (Boston: Beacon).
Waley, Arthur (1955). The Nine Songs: A Study of Shamanism in Ancient China (London: Allen and Unwin).