Duanwujie, the Dragonboat Festival, is also sometimes called the “Double-Five,” because it occurs on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month of every year. Thie year, it fell on June 4 of the solar calendar – yesterday. Since I had to make up a class for the fifth-grade students yesterday, and since I hate their textbook with a passion, and since the main English teacher for that class, Melinda, is generally tolerant of my tendency to deviate from the book whenever possible, I decided to spend the period talking about Duanwujie. It soon became clear that I knew more than most of the students about the holiday.
“What day is today?” I asked.
“Yes, very good; it’s Wednesday! Now, what holiday is today?”
“Duanw– Dragonboat Day!”
“Awesome! It’s the Dragonboat Festival today. Now, what do we do on this holiday?”
“We eat…zongzi za shuo??”
“Just say zongzi.* Anyway, yeah – we eat zongzi. And what else?”
“We go to the river.”
This continued for a bit – they were generally very good at describing the ways they observed the holiday, although some English translations (e.g., “a braid of five differently-coloured threads”) did escape them.
Then I asked why Duanwujie existed – what or who was it for?
Awkward silence for a moment.
Linda* raised her hand.
“There was a man and he threw himself into the river.”
“OK, um, that’s kind of short, but yes; there was a man and he threw himself into a river. Which man? Which river? When?”
“His name was Qu Yuan.”
“Right; his name was Qu Yuan. Who was he? What did he do? What, you know, what job did he have”
Again, silence for a few moments. A boy raised his hand.
“He does –”
“He didn’t have a job. He just loved China.”
“That’s cool,” I said. “Did he get paid to do that?”
Laughter all around. I turned to the board and began to write a word, with an accompanying Chinese translation: “adviser — guwen.”
“I think that was his job, right? Adviser?”
“And whom did he advise?”
(More silence. I decided just to ask leading questions and see where they got me.)
“The king of Chu, right? The king of the State of Chu?”
“So, Qu Yuan lived during Zhanguo, right? During the Warring States period. So remember how somebody just said that he loved China?”
“Well, he couldn’t have loved China – because China didn’t exist yet! It was just a lot of small countries, like Chu, Qin, Song, Zhou, Yue, and so on, right?”
I got a yes, but it was an unsure one. I’ve found many different types of ‘yes’ in my time here, but basically they break down into two major categories: “yes” and “I have no idea, but saying so will make me look stupid.” This was most definitely the latter type, so I translated into Chinese for myself. They still weren’t sure, and, beginning to worry that I might be wrong, I looked to Melinda for assurance. She nodded. I realised that the problem was probably not bad history on their parts – it was that they had never really thought about China not existing, and – given the deluge of songs they hear with titles like “China – the Only Motherland for Me!” and “I Love Springtime in My Motherland” – the idea of any Chinese person not loving China had just never crossed their minds.
“Anyway, Qu Yuan loved the state – guodu – of Chu, because China hadn’t been united yet. If China had existed, I’m sure he would have loved it just fine. So – he loved Chu, and he was the adviser to the king of Chu, but something happened, right? What happened?”
“The king got angry!”
“Right – why?”
“Because someone…feibang…says something bad?”
“Yeah, good – someone said something bad about him. Someone slandered him. And after the king got angry, he liufang‘d Qu Yuan, right? That’s called ‘exile.’ And then what happened?”
Linda: “He threw himself into the river!”
“Why are you so interested in suicide – zisha – today, Linda? You’re OK, right? –No, anyway, he did something before killing himself. He wrote something, right?”
A small boy raised his hand. I didn’t know his name to call on; he’d never raised his hand before.
“Great! Very, very, very good – he wrote the Lisao. And then, Linda?”
“He threw himself in the river!”
The Lisao – “On Encountering Trouble,” as David Hawkes translates it – is the first and most famous poem in the anthology of the Chuci, “The Songs of the South.” It’s the only poem in there whose authorship is unanimously agreed to belong to Qu Yuan.
Despite its fame and stirring imagery, I’ve never been able to like Lisao much; it reminds me too much of wacko Daoist-shamanist texts. I much prefer the poem Huaisha, “Embracing Sand.” Traditionally, the story goes that Qu wrote Huaisha right before snuffing it, but there’s not much reason to believe that. Still, I’ll accept that story, if only as an excuse for quoting (in part) (David Hawkes’ translation of) Sima Qian’s biography of Qu Yuan:
[In his banishment,] Qu Yuan came to the banks of the Jiang where he wandered by the water’s edge, his hair hanging down his back in disaray, singing as he went, a dispirited expression on his emaciated features. A fisherman caught sight of him.
“Aren’t you the Lord of the Three Wards?” said the fisherman. “What has brought you to this pass?”
“Because all the world is muddy, and I alone am clear,” said Qu Yuan, “and because all men are drunk, and I alone am sober, I have been sent into exile.”
“The wise man is not chained to material circumstances,” said the fisherman. “but can move as the world moves. If the world is muddy, why not help them to stir up the mud and beat up the waves? And if all men are drunk, why not sup their dregs and swill their lees? Why get yourself exiled because of your deep thoughts and your fine aspirations?”
Qu Yuan replied: “I have heard it said ‘He who has just washed his hair should brush his hat, and he who has just bathed should shake his clothes. How can you expect anyone to submit his spotless purity to the dirt of others? I would rather cast myself into the ever-flowing waters and be buried in the bowels of fishes than hide my shining light in a murky world…”
Then he composed the poem called ‘Embracing Sand’ (Huai sha). The words are as follows:
In the teeming late summer
When flowers and trees burgeon,
My heart with endless sorrow laden,
Forth I went to the southern land…
White is changed to black
The high cast down and the low made high.
The phoenix languishes in a cage
While hens and ducks can gambol free…
The mighty waters of the Yuan and Xiang with surging swell go rolling on their way;
The road is long, through places dark and drear, a way far and forlorn.
The nature I cherish in my bosom, the feelings I embrace, there are none to judge.
For when Bo Le* is dead and gone, how can the wonder-horse go coursing?
The lives of all men on the earth have each their ordained lot.
Let my heart be calm, and my mind at ease; why should I be afraid?
Yet still, in mounting sorrow and anguish, long I lament and sigh.
For the world is muddy-witted; none can know me; the heart of man cannot be told.
I know that death cannot be avoided, therefore I will not grudge its coming.
To noble men, I here plainly declare that I will be numbered with such as you.
And it strikes me as fitting that this year, on June 4th, people honoured at least one patriot unappreciated, slandered, and (directly or otherwise) killed by his country. Just a few more thousand to go.*