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Ch'ü Yüan and the Festival of the Dragon Boats.

Many, perhaps forty years ago, I was walking in the interior of Canton province, not far from its great East river which flows on to join the streams from the north and west at Whampou. All at once my steps were arrested by a loud shouting from the river, and I hurried to the bank to see what was going on. There, as I stood above the water, I saw two boats, long and slender, each built to represent a dragon, the head of which rose high and formed the prow. A man sat upon it with a flag in each hand, which he waved to direct the movements of the crew, and with his face turned towards the helmsman who stood near the stern. Midway in the boats were two men beating with all their might, the one a gong, the other a drum. The crew in each boat could not have been fewer than thirty men, each grasping a short stout paddle, and all, with quivering eagerness and loud cries, racing towards a certain point.

At the conclusion of the race, the rowers exerting all their strength and skill, and the excited crowds on the banks running at the top of their speed, and shouting out the expression of their various sympathies. What were those man in the two dragon boats doing? They were racing, and having a good time, but they were, they would have told you, commemorating the death of the author of the Lî Sâo, and looking for the body of the patriot Ch'ü Yüan, who had drowned himself in the Mî-lo (汨罗), a river of the province of Hû-nan, more than 2300 years ago.

Ch'ü Yüan's name Ping (平), and afterwards, probably at his capping, he received the designation of Yüan. There is no name better known in China than his. His death—or suicide, rather—is commemorated every year on the fifth day of the fifth month, falling generally early in the month of June, and the commemoration is called " The Festival of the Dragon Boats."

Ch'ü Yüan's was a member of the ruling House of Ch'û, which had long been one of the most powerful of the feudal States under the dynasty of Châu. Its original centre was in the present province of Hûpêi, but in the course of centuries it had extended its territory east, north, and south, so that its ruler was now more powerful than the real King, the lord-paramount of all the States. Other States had pursued a similar course, and at the time of which we are speaking there were seven principal States, the rulers of each of which had usurped the title of king. There was a condition of chronic warfare among them, but the only match for Ch'û was Ch'in in the north and west. It became more and more evident as time went on that the final struggle for supremacy must be between these two.

Ch'ü Yüan was belonged to one of the three princely families of the ruling House of Ch'û , and the chiefs of which used as their surnames the names of the several appanages with which their different ancestors had been invested. Those were Châo (昭), Ch'ü (屈), and Ching (景). Ch'ü P'ing had held a position of the prince-president of the Imperial Clan-court (三闾大夫) at the court of Ch'û. It is his duty to regulate all affairs relating to the kindred of the three ruling houses, and to preserve their family roll or genealogical record.

Chü Yüan was also an attendant of king Hwâi on the left, a minister possessed of extensive information and with a strong memory, skilful in the maintenance of order, and admirable in the composition of governmental notifications and orders. In council he deliberated with, and advised, the king on the business of the State; out of council he was employed in the reception of visitors and guests, and in communicating with the princes (who came to court). The king employed him very much. But the great officer of the highest grade, of the same rank as Yüan, had long striven for the favour which he enjoyed, and was his enemy at heart, wishing to deprive him of his influence and power.

On one occasion, when king Hwâi had appointed Ch'ü P'ing to draw up a governmental proclamation, and he had made a draft of it, but had not finally written it out, this great officer wished to carry it off, but Ch'ü refused to give it to him. The other then slandered him to the king, saying, "All are aware that your Majesty employs Ch'ü P'ing to prepare your notifications. Whenever a notice comes out, P'ing boasts of his service, and says, 'If it were not for me, they could do nothing.'" This made the king angry. He treated Ch'ü with coldness, and kept him at a distance. On his part Ch'ü was indignant that the king listened to such a charge against him without discrimination; that slanderers and flutterers were able to obscure the king's intelligence; that the justice of his words perverted by their injurious and contemptible misrepresentations, while his right and correctness were not acknowledged. He therefore became sorrowful, brooded moodily over his case, and composed the Lî Sâo, which may be considered as equivalent to 'Beset with Sorrow.'

After Ch'ü P'ing was dismissed from office, Ch'in proposed to attack Ch'i, the ruler of which in consequence paid court to Ch'û, and arranged for a matrimonial alliance with it. This alliance alarmed and troubled king Hûi of Ch'in, whose principal adviser and minister, indeed, was Chang Î, an able man, but one of the political intriguers of the time whom Mencius, who was their contemporary, go strongly condemned. To break off the good understanding between Ch'û and Ch'i, the king employed the services of this adventurer. Supplied with abundant means for bribery and gifts, Chang pretended to fly from Ch'in and seek refuge in Ch'û. There, having succeeded in opening a communication with king Hwâi, he told him that he had come to Ch'û with secret message from the king of Ch'in if he would break off his friendship with Ch'i, Ch'in would cede to him 600 li of the territory of Shang-yü. King Hwâi, in his greed, believed Chang Î, broke off his friendship with Ch'i, and sent a commissioner to Ch'in to receive the promised territory. But Chang Î, who had managed in the meantime to return to Ch'in, now threw off the mask, and said to the commissioner, "What I agreed about with your king was six li; I heard nothing about six hundred!" King Hwâi's messenger went back to Ch'û in a rage, and reported to the king how they had been imposed on. The king was equally indignant, and raised a large army, which he sent against Ch'in. Ch'in on its part despatched a force to meet it. A great battle was fought, in which the army of Ch'û was defeated, with the loss of 80,000 men and the capture of its commander, Ch'ü K'âi (屈匄).

This defeat was followed by the loss of the territory of Han-chung, which is still the name of one of the departments of Shen-hsi. On this king Hwâi called out all the military strength of his kingdom and led it deep into Ch'in, with whose forces another battle was fought at Lan-t'ien (Indigo Fields). At this juncture the State of Wei (魏), one of the divisions into which Tsin had been broken up, took advantage of the difficulties of Ch'û with Ch'in, and sent a force against it, which penetrated as far as the city of Făng, and the army of Ch'û was necessarily recalled to combat this new enemy. Its straits also were all the greater because Ch'i, with which king Hwâi had broken of all friendly relations, refused to lend it any assistance.

In the next year, however, Ch'in offered to give to it the territory of Han-chung, and to conclude a treaty of peace; but king Hwâi said, "I do not wish to get territory. I wish to get Chang Î, and with nothing else will I be satisfied." When Chang Î heard this, he said to his sovereign, "Since I am counted in my single person equal to the territory of Han-chung, allow me to go to Ch'û." To Ch'û accordingly he went, provided abundantly with the same resources as before; and there, by large bribes to the high minister and director of affairs, Chin Shang (靳尚), and wheedling speeches to Chăng Hsiû (郑袖), the king's favourite lady, it came about that he was allowed to return again to Ch'in.

Ch'ü P'ing, though in disgrace at court, had been sent on a mission to Ch'i. Returning to Ch'û just at this time, he remonstrated with the king, saying, " Why did you not put Chang Î to Death?" The king regretted he had not done so, and sent a party in pursuit to apprehend and bring him back, but they failed to overtake him.

After this, several of the other States or kingdoms united in an attack on Ch'ü, and inflicted on it a great defeat, killing also its general, T'ang-méi (唐昧). Amidst all the contentions and fightings of the States, negotiations of a different kind went on. The young king of Ch'in obtained the hand of a princess of Ch'û, and invited king Hwâi to visit him in Ch'in. Hwâi himself wished to accept the invitation, but Ch'ü P'ing protested vehemently against such a step. "Ch'in," said he, “may be compared to a tiger or wolf, and is not to be trusted. Your Majesty had better not go." Tsze-lan, the king's youngest son, however, advised his father to go, saying "Why should you disappoint the good will of Ch'in?" and in the end king Hwâi undertook the journey. When he had gone through the Pass of Wû, leading into Ch'in, an ambuscade, which had been set for the purpose, prevented his retreating by it. He was detained a prisoner in Ch'in, and urged continually to cede portions of his territory. To this demand he would not listen, and in B. C. 297, irritated by it, he fled to Châo, the capital of which was in the present department of P'ing-yang in Shan-hsi. They were afraid to receive him there. He was taken back to Ch'in, and died in it, as has been already mentioned, in B.C. 296.

His body was sent back in its coffin, and buried in Ch'û, where his eldest son, known as king Ch'ing-hsiang had already taken his place and made his younger brother, Tsze-Ian, one of his chief counsellors. But the people could not forgive this prince, who had advised his father to go to Ch'in. Ch'ü Yüan also retained his feeling against him. From the time when he first fell into disgrace, Ch'ü had all along kept his attachment to king Hwâi, and was ever wishing him to reform, hoping that if the sovereign came to himself, his ministers would also change their ways. But King Hwâi, not recognising the service of his loyal minister, was led astray in his harem by the lady Hsiû of Chăng, and was imposed on by Chang Î in his court. Through his treating Ch'ü Yüan coldly, and giving his confidence to the high Officer, Chin Shang, and to Tsze-lan, who became chief minister, the prowess of his soldiers decayed, and his kingdom was dismembered, six provinces were lost, and he himself died, a captive in Ch'in and an object of derision to all within the four seas.

When the chief minister heard of Ch'ü's dissatisfaction, he was enraged, and made the grant officer Chin Shang complain of his conduct, to king Ch'ing-hsiang, who also was angry, and finally gave orders that Ch'ü should be banished to the wild region of the south. When he came to the Mî-lo stream, he moved all about it, groaning and sobbing, with his hair dishevelled, and his whole appearance worn and withered. A fisherman saw him in this condition. and asked him, saying, 'Are you not, sir, the great officer in charge of the three branches of our Royal House? What has brought you here, and to such distress?' Ch'ü Yüan replied, 'The whole world is foul, and I alone am clean. All others are intoxicated, and I alone am sober. Thus it is that I have been banished.' The fisherman said. 'The true sage is not ice-bound by anything, but is able to change with the changing world. If the whole world be in a state of confusion and defilement, why not follow its stream, and toss its waves about? If all others be drunk, why not drink the dregs of their spirit, and eat of the grains that are left behind? Why must you keep your jasper in your breast and hold your lustrous stone in your hand, and cause yourself to be sent into banishment?" Ch'ü Yüan replied, 'I have heard that when one has newly washed his head he must fillip the dust from his cap (before he replaces it), and when he has newly bathed, he must shake his clothes (before he puts them on again). How can one whose person is clean and pure allow himself to be defiled by the filth around him?" I would rather throw myself into this great stream and be buried in the belly of a fish. And how can I allow the whiteness of my purity to be hidden beneath the darkness and opposition of the world?"

He then made his piece called 'The Stone clasped to the Breast.' Having done this, he took a large stone in his arms, threw himself with it into the Mi-lo, and was drowned.

Before Ch'ü Yüan committed his act of suicide, he wrote his poem called “The Stone clasped to the Breast": --

"How vast is the stream in this first month of summer!
How luxuriant the grass and the trees!
With wounded heart and constant grief,
I press along to the regions of the south.

"My eyes are dazed by the landscape so strange,
So still, retired, and silent.
My wrongs are knotted into a constant sorrow;
It pains me and exhausts my strength.
I lay my hand on my breast and search my mind;
I bow my will, and repress my fears.

"(My enemies) change white into black,
And turn the upside down;
The phoenix is kept in a cage,
While the fowls and ducks fly and dance.

"Like dogs they bark at me in troops,
They bark at me as something strange;
To slander eminence like mine
Is indeed the way of vulgar men.

"If I take the road, and retrace my way to the north,
All the day to the evening will be gloom.
I indulge my sorrow, and find pleasure in my grief,
To last till the great event come.

“How grandly the Yüan and Hsiang,
Flow on in their separate courses!
Long is their course and hidden,
Distant is the way and difficult.

"All men receive the appointment of Heaven,
And each man has his definite lot.
With determined mind and enlarged will,
What have I to fear?
"I know that death is not to be declined;
I wish not to love my life.
Clearly I announce this to all superior men,
And show them the example of what they ought to do."

So died Ch'ü Yüan, the nobleman and poet of Ch'ü. and Such was Ch'ü Yüan's dying advice, enforced by his daring deed.

(By James Legge, 1895)


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