Chu Ci

Chu Ci

Chu Ci (traditional Chinese: 楚辭; simplified Chinese: 楚辞; pinyin: chǔ cí; Wade-Giles: Ch'u Tz'u), also known as Songs of the South or Songs of Chu, is an anthology of Chinese verse traditionally attributed to Qu Yuan and Song Yu from the Warring States Period, though about half of the poems seem to have been composed several centuries later, during the Han Dynasty.[1] The traditional version of the Chu Ci contains 17 works, and was produced by Wang Yi (Chinese: 王逸), a 2nd century AD librarian who served under Emperor Shun of Han.[1] The Chu Ci and the more well-known Shi Jing together constitute the classics of pre-Qin dynasty Chinese verse. [2]



Chu Ci was named after a form of poetry that originated in the State of Chu, the southernmost area settled by Chinese prior to the Qin Dynasty. Chu was known for its unique blend of culture from the Chinese heartland with other cultures from that of the south. A Chinese form of shamanism was prominent in Chu, and a large number of the Chu Ci describe "spirit journeys",[3] with extensive references to fragrant plants and various spirits.

The collection of poems by Qu Yuan and Song Yu included in Chu Ci, as well as works by other Chu poets, were already popular during the Western Han Dynasty. The Book of Han noted 106 Chu poets with 1,318 compositions. Many established Han poets also imitated the style of chu ci and produced their fair share of notable poems. However, it was only during the reign of Emperor Cheng when Liu Xiang arranged and compiled the poems of Qu Yuan and Song Yu, as well as those of Han poets including Wang Bao (王褒), Jia Yi (賈誼), Yan Ji (嚴忌) and Liu Xiang himself, into Chu Ci as it is known today.

Qu Yuan

Although Chu Ci is an anthology of poems by many poets, Qu Yuan was doubtless its central figure. A minister in the court of King Huai of Chu, Qu Yuan advocated forming an alliance with the other states against the dominance of Qin. However, his advice was not taken and he was ostracized by other officials in court. Seeing the corruption of his colleagues and the inability of his king, Qu Yuan then exiled himself and finally committed suicide in the Miluo River when Qin defeated Chu in 278 BC. It is in remembrance of the circumstances of his death that the annual Dragon boat races are held.

During his days of exile, Qu Yuan is thought to have written Li Sao, his magnum opus and the centerpiece of Chu Ci. The authorship, as in many a case of ancient literature, can be neither confirmed nor denied. Written in 373 verses containing 2490 characters, Li Sao is the earliest Chinese long poem and is acclaimed as the literary representative of Qu Yuan's high moral conduct and patriotism.

Jiu Ge ("Nine Songs"), also attributed to Qu Yuan, is the first example of what could be called shamanic literature in China. (See Arthur Waley, The Nine Songs: A Study of Shamanism in Ancient China.)

Poetic form and style

The poems of the Chuci anthology tend toward the six-character line, with the addition of the xi syllable, which was placed in various postions in the line, except as initial word/character.[4] The Chinese character 兮, pronounced in modern Mandarin is an exclamatory particle much used as a characteristic poetic device in the Chuci poems. The Chu ci abandoned the classic four-character verses used in poems of Shi Jing and adopted verses with varying lengths. This gave it more rhythm and latitude in expression. Furthermore, chu ci should be recited using pronunciations of the dialect of Chu, unlike poems of Shi Jing, which were sung using dialects north of the Yellow River.


  1. 離騷 Lí sāo "On Encountering Trouble"
  2. 九歌 Jiǔ gē "Nine Songs"
  3. 天問 Tiān wèn "Heavenly Questions"
  4. 九章 Jiǔ zhāng "Nine Pieces"
  5. 遠遊 Yuǎn yóu "Far-off Journey"
  6. 卜居 Bǔ jū "Divination"
  7. 漁父 Yú fù "The Fisherman"
  8. 九辯 Jiǔ biàn "Nine Changes"
  9. 招魂 Zhāo hún "Summons of the Soul"
  10. 大招 Dà zhāo "The Great Summons"
  11. 惜誓 Xī shì "Sorrow for Troth Betrayed"
  12. 招隱 Zhāo yǐn "Summons for a Recluse"
  13. 七諫 Qī jiàn "Seven Remonstrances"
  14. 哀時命 Āi shí mìng "Alas That My Lot Was Not Cast"
  15. 九懷 Jiǔ huái "Nine Regrets"
  16. 九歎 Jiǔ tàn "Nine Laments"
  17. 九思 Jiǔ sī "Nine Longings"


Scholars have debated the authenticity of several of Qu Yuan's works since the Western Han dynasty. Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian mentions five of Qu Yuan's works:

  • Li Sao ("Encountering Sorrow")
  • Tian Wen
  • Zhao Hun ("Summoning of the Soul")
  • Ai Ying ("Lament for Ying")
  • Huai Sha

According to Wang Yi of the Eastern Han dynasty, a total of 25 works can be attributed to Qu Yuan:

Wang Yi chose to attribute Zhao Hun to another contemporary of Qu Yuan, Song Yu; most modern scholars, however, consider Zhao Hun to be Qu Yuan's original work, whereas Yuan You, Pu Ju, and Yu Fu are believed to have been composed by others.

Translation into English

In addition to the translations by David Hawkes cited above, translations into English include:

  • Hawkes, David (translator). Chapter 5 in J. Minford & J. S. M. Lau (Eds.) (2000). Classical Chinese Literature: An Anthology of Translations, Vol. I: From Antiquity to the Tang Dynasty. New York: Columbia University Press, ISBN 0-231-09676-3.
  • Sun Dayu (translator). (2007). Selected Poems of Chu Yuan (Chinese-English edition). Shanghai: Foreign Language Education Press, ISBN 9787544604598.
  • Waters, Geoffrey R. Three Elegies of Ch'u: an Introduction to the Traditional Interpretation of the Ch'u Tz'u. University of Wisconsin Press, 1985. ISBN 9780299100308.
  • Gladys Yang and Xianyi Yang, Chu Ci Xuan Selected Elegies of the State of Chu. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2001. ISBN 7119028901).
  • Fusheng Wu, “Sao Poetry,” pp. 36-58, in Zong-Qi Cai, ed., How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008 ISBN 9780231139403. Background on the poems and their form; side by side columns of Chinese characters, pinyin pronunciation, and English translations for “The Lord of the Xiang River" (attrib. Qu Yuan), “The Lady of the Xiang River” (attrib. Qu Yuan), and “On Encountering Trouble” (Qu Yuan). [1]

See also


  1. ^ a b Hawkes, David. Ch'u Tz'u: Songs of the South, an Ancient Chinese Anthology. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959), 28.
  2. ^ “Sao Poetry,” Fusheng Wu pp. 36-58. In Zong-Qi Cai, ed., How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. ISBN 9780231139403).
  3. ^ Hawkes (1959), 19.
  4. ^ Yip, 54


  • Li Zhenghua (1999). Chu Ci. Shan Xi Gu Ji Chu Ban She. ISBN 7-80598-315-1. 
  • Trans. David Hawkes (1985). The Songs of the South: An Anthology of Ancient Chinese Poems by Qu Yuan and Other Poets. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-044375-4. 
  • Yip, Wai-lim (1997). Chinese Poetry: An Anthology of Major Modes and Genres . (Durham and London: Duke University Press). ISBN 0-8223-1946-2


External links

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