The Chu ci (Verses of Chu) is the first collection of romantic poetry in China. The principal authors, Qu Yuan and Song Yu, were citizens of Chu during the Warring States period (475–221 BCE). Strongly infused with Chu characteristics in both language and content, the poems have had a profound influence on Chinese literature.
The anthology consists of works of poets expressing personal ambitions and dissatisfaction with society. Their feelings about a harsh social reality and their profound experience produced poems that are rare masterpieces. Qu Yuan (353–277 BCE), whose personal name was Ping, was from an aristocratic family of the royal Chu clan. He gained fame for his talent at a tender age. Learned and knowledgeable, he was well-versed in the ways of political order and disorder. His life coincided with the great social changes and upheavals during the late Warring States period. Faced with the increasingly powerful state of Qin, all the other states began to fear subjugation. As a minister of the Chu state, Qu Yuan had been keenly aware of the crisis facing his motherland. He knew that Chu had to reform her administration and policies, break up domination of the court by old, entrenched aristocrats, and form an alliance with the Qi in order to confront Qin and regain lost territory. However, the king of Chu surrounded himself with sycophants and alienated virtuous and loyal officials. This frustrated the patriotic Qu Yuan. Later, the king heeded the slander against Qu Yuan from traitorous courtiers, and twice banished him. During his exiles, Qu Yuan wrote the first two poems of the “Jiu zhang” (Nine declarations): “Xi song” (Grieving I make my plaint) and “She jiang (Crossing the river). However, Qu Yuan remained unswerving in loyalty and hopes, despite all the hardship and torment to which he had been subjected. In 278 BCE, the Chu was conquered by Qin. Qu Yuan decided to lay down his life. Amidst overwhelming anger and despair, he wrote his last poem—“Huai sha” (Embracing the sand) which is one of the “Jiu zhang.” In the summer of 277 BCE, he drowned himself in the Miluo River (in current northeast Xiangyin county, Hunan province). For thousands of years, people have admired and appreciated his works not only for their literary value, but, more importantly, for his loyalty, tenacity, and his profound and sincere love for his state.
The poems in Verses of Chu employ many metaphors, offering the reader symbolic meanings and creating an ever-changing and all-inspiring fantasy. The methods of expressing emotion are quite rich, and include plain narration, exhortation, direct statement, or conveying ideas and feelings and through the description of things. Not only do they have deep and broad emotional implications, but they also exhibit a rich and vivid individual character. Furthermore, they skillfully utilize a host of rhetorical devices such as metaphor, personification, hyperbole, and repetition. Together they create a unique structure of feelings that has a highly symbolic character. The majestic form, momentum, and innovative style work together to make Verses of Chu into one of the most important anthologies in the history of Chinese literature.
Before the Verses of Chu, most poems in China were based on a four-syllable line. Most of the pieces in the Verses of Chu are written in varying line lengths, and this broke the hold that the four-syllable line had on poets. Its greatest contribution to poetic prosody for future generations was the creation and use of a three-syllable metrical unit which was a departure from Chinese poetry’s sole reliance on the two-syllable metrical unit and brought about the transition from four-syllable lines to five- and seven-syllable lines.
The Verses of Chu is a rare gem in ancient Chinese literature, and an exemplar in the history of world literature. It began the genre of romantic poetry in ancient Chinese literature. The subsequent elaborate narrative prose of fu (rhapsody) in the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), the ornate parallel prose and elegant poems of the Tang dynasty (618–907) all descended from it. The guiding compositional concept of expressing one’s aspirations and frustration became an enduring tradition in Chinese history, from the Shi ji (Records of the grand historian) to the Laocan youji (Travels of Lao Can).