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The Fisherman

After Qu Yuan was banished, he wandered, sometimes along the river's banks, sometimes along the marsh's edge, Singing as he went. His expression was dejected and his Features emaciated. A fisherman caught sight of him.

'Are not you the Lord of 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 all men are drunk and I alone am sober, I have been into exile.' 'The Wise Man is not chained to material circumstances,' said the fisherman, 'but can move as the world move. 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 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 who has just bathed should shake his clothes." How can I submit my spotless purity to the dirt of others? I would rather cast myself into waters of the river and be buried in the bowels of fishes, than hide my shining light in the dark and dust of the world.'

The fisherman, with a faint smile, struck his in the water and made off. And as he went he sang:

'When the Cang-lang's waters are clear,

I can wash my hat-strings in them;

When the Cang-lang's waters are muddy,

I can wash my feet in them.'

With that he was gone, and did not speak again.

Notes
Lord the Three Wards: 三闾大夫 the traditional explanation of this title is that Qu Yuan was, inter alia, a sort of registrar or archivist with certain ritual or priestly functions of the three noble clans who were collateral branches of the royal house of Chu: the Zhaos, the Jings and the Qus. The 'three wards' were the districts in Ying, the Chu capital, where the members of these clans had their residences — and also, presumably, their family shrines.

When the Cang-lang's waters are clear: an identical version of this song appears in the Book Of Mencius as 'the song Sung by the child'. Tasselled hat-strings were a badge of official rank. The meaning Of the song is that you should seek employment in times and retire gracefully when times are troubled.

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