The world’s ways change; everything is altered;
I alone am pure and will not submit.
Bo Yi starved himself on Shou-yang Mountain;
Shu Qi’s name endures in ever-growing glory.
These lines are from ‘Drowning in the River’ 沈江, the second of the poems known as the ‘Seven Remonstrances’ 七諫 in The Songs of the South 楚辭, a collection of poems from the fourth-century BCE long associated with the name Qu Yuan 屈原, China’s ‘Archpoet’. As David Hawkes, translator and scholar of The Songs points out:
The anonymous author of these poems assumes the persona of Qu Yuan as a poetic convention enabling him to rail with impunity against the injustice of his employer and the iniquity of the times.
As for the fourth-century BCE poet Qu Yuan himself, Hawkes sums up his story in the following way:
… he was an honest minister of King Huai of Chu; he was banished from court because of some scandal or intrigue; he wrote the Li sao [離騷 ‘On Encountering Trouble’] to protest against the injustice of his dismissal; and, having written the Li sao, he committed suicide by throwing himself into the Mi-luo, a tributary of the River Xiang.
The Confucian cult of Qu Yuan is another matter. In it a whole class — that of the office-holding man of letters — found a heroic symbol of itself, one that would serve to shore up a bureaucrat’s flagging self-esteem in times of rejection, unemployment and adversity. To speak out for what one believed to be the right policy, even if one was alone in believing it and when the cost of doing so was demotion, disgrace or even death — that was the scholar-official’ so idea of honour. It was, in a way, a curiously literary one, because it meant that he looked no longer towards his contemporaries but towards a literate posterity to judge him. Qu Yuan first gave expression to this heroic ideal and we see it again and again being developed in the later poems of this anthology [in ‘Seven Remonstrances’, for example — Ed.]. The following lines may not have been written by the great Master himself, but they echo what he more than once stated in the Li sao:
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.
Below we offer the opening lines of the first of the ‘Seven Remonstrances’, ‘When First Exiled’ 初放, to provide some context to the lines given above. The full text of ‘Drowning in the River’ is appended below.
When First Exiled
I was born in the city,
But now live in the wilds.
My speech was faltering,
And I had no strong supporters.
My knowledge was shallow, my talents small,
And my experience scant.
I spoke of what was fit,
And so was hated by courtiers.
The king would not see what was of lasting profit,
And in the end I was banished to the wilds.
When I look back and think of what is now past,
I see there is nothing that I could have changed.
The crowd all banded together,
And the kind was gradually deluded by them.
The wily flatterer was ever before him;
The wise where forced to guard their silence.
Now that Yao and Shun are dead,
Who cares to be loyal and true?
The full text of ‘Drowning in the River’ (with the lines about Boyi and Shuqi highlighted) reads:
David Hawkes, The Songs of the South, An Anthology of Ancient Chinese Poems by Qu Yuan and Other Poets, translated, annotated and introduced by David Hawkes, Penguin Books, 1985.
 From ‘Drowning in the River’, Hawkes, The Songs of the South, p.248. The Chinese original has been added.
 Hawkes, The Songs of the South, p.27.
 Hawkes, The Songs of the South, p.246.
 Hawkes, The Songs of the South, p.52.
 Hawkes, The Songs of the South, p.66, and for the poem, see ‘Embracing Sand’ 懷沙, pp.169-172. The Chinese original has been added.
 Hawkes, The Songs of the South, pp.248-250.
 The Songs of the South, pp.246-247. The Chinese original has been added.