Duan Wu and the Lament for Ying

Happy Duan Wu Festival day! Also known as the Dragon Boat Festival this Chinese holiday commemorates the death of Qu Yuan (340-278 BC), a poet from the kingdom of Chu (楚) during the Warring States Period.

May Dragon Boat Festival Print, Taipei National Palace Museum

It is celebrated each year on the fifth day of the fifth month (in the Chinese lunar calendar).

Perhaps the most interesting moral of the Duan Wu story is that the lack of accountability and integrity in leadership can lead a great state into total disaster.

Some might say the moral of the story has to do with loyalty, but that just begs the question of loyalty to what or who?

Once upon a time there was a minister named Qu Yuan from Chu who was known and respected for his family nobility and his great political loyalty to the kingdom through truth. Some might even say he was something of a whistleblower.

He was very determined to maintain Chu’s sovereignty and he advocated for an alliance with other kingdoms to ward off the threat from the powerful state of Qin. The king, however, banished the truth-talking Qu Yuan at the behest of other corrupt and jealous ministers (you might say they called themselves the “patriots” to use today’s political parlance).

Qu Yuan then returned to his home town where he traveled the countryside and collected stories. This effort became a source of some of the most well regarded poetry in Chinese literature, known as Chu Chi, as Qu Yuan expressed love and devotion to his state and concern for its future.

Perhaps the best known poem is “Lament for Ying” when Qu Yuan expresses his sadness over the capture of Chu’s capital city, Ying, by General Bai Qi from the state of Qin.

Soon after he wrote his lament, Qu Yuan went to the river Miluo to kill himself in protest of the corruption in government that led to the decline and fall of the state of Chu. People gathered to try and save the poet, but to no avail.

To this day there are celebrations and recognition in China to remember a man who put the “public concern” above his own welfare and who stood for integrity and against the corrupt leaders who sacrificed the future of their country for a false sense of pride and/or to line their own pockets.

Sound familiar?

As a famous US President once said (repeating the phrase of a French dressmaker), there is nothing new to this world, just history we have not yet read:

Il n’y a de nouveau que ce qui est oublié.

山鬼 屈原 The Mountain Spirit
若有人兮山之阿 There seems to be someone deep in the mountain,
被薜荔兮带女萝 Clad in creeping vine and girded with ivy,
既含睇兮又宜笑 With a charming look and a becoming smile.
子慕予兮善窈宨 “Do you admire me for my lovely form?”
乘赤豹兮从文狸 She rides a red leopard — striped lynxes following her
辛夷车兮结桂旗 Her chariot of magnolia arrayed with banners of cassia,
被石兰兮带杜衡 Her cloak made of orchids and her girdle of azalea,
折芳馨兮遗所思 Calling sweet flowers for those dear in her heart.
余处幽篁兮终不见天 I live isolated in a bamboo grove, the sky unseen;
路险难兮独后来 The road hither is steep and dangerous.
表独立兮山之上 Alone I stand on the mountain top
云容容兮而在下 While the clouds gather beneath me.
杳冥冥兮羌昼晦 All gloomy and dark is the day;
东风飘兮神灵雨 The east wind blows and god sends rain down.
留灵修兮憺忘归 Waiting for the divine one, I forget to go home.
岁即晏兮孰华予 “It is late in the year. Who will now reward me?”
采三秀兮于山間 I pluck the larkspur on the mountain side,
石磊磊兮葛蔓蔓 The rocks are craggy; and the vines tangled.
怨公子兮怅忘归 Complaining of the young lord, I forget to go home.
君思我兮不得闲 “You, my lord, are thinking of me; but you have no time.”
山中人兮芳杜若 The woman in the mountain, fragrant with sweet herb,
饮石泉兮阴松柏 Drinks from the rocky spring, shaded by pines and firs.
君思我兮然疑作 “You, my lord, are thinking of me, but then you hesitate.”
雷填填兮雨冥冥 The thunder rumbles and the rain darkens;
猨啾啾兮又夜鸣 The gibbons mourn, howling all the night;
风飒飒兮木萧萧­ The wind whistles and the trees are bare.
思公子兮徒离忧 “I am thinking of the young lord; I sorrow in vain.”

PDF With Simplified Chinese and references

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