The Songs of Chu

Columbia University Press sent me a copy of Gopal Suku’s new translation of Qu Yuan’s The Songs of Chu. I am not qualified to speak about it as a scholarly translation, but in any case I was mostly interested in it as a possible book for a class.

I don’t usually assign much poetry to my students, since they tend to be more resistant to that than to other forms of reading. I usually have them read bits of Book of Songs in the sophomore-level History of East Asia1 and I have had them read some Sima Xiangru in the upper-division Early China class, but that is about it. I have used some of Qu Yuan in class, and I did assign the Hawkes translation once in Early China. (I like to rotate texts a lot.)

The reasons you might want to use this are pretty clear. “The central theme in the Chuci is the hardship encountered by a moral person born in a corrupt age, specifically one who serves a benighted king.” (p.xv). Qu Yuan was so popular for so long because he was a figure from the Age of Philosophers who’s story fit in with the concerns of the later literati elite. Plus since the poems are from Chu you can bring in issues of central vs. regional cultures, there is lots of stuff on cosmology and religion, stuff on slander and court politics, and the text fits in with a lot of stuff on how the Han re-worked and “rationalized” a lot of classical culture and texts. Also, you can encourage your students to join your school’s Dragon Boat team.

The problem, of course, is that a lot of these themes not as obvious in the text as you might hope. The Hawkes translation, like this one has a long introduction explaining a lot of the context and relevance. This edition is better than Hawkes for a few reasons. Most obviously, a lot of work has been done, and a lot of texts found, in the years since Hawkes did his translation, and thus in this edition the context is a lot clearer. You can dig a lot deeper into teaching Li Sao with Gopal Suku that you could with Hawkes. Of course both editions suffer from the problem that they have lots of long endnotes, and you have to read them to understand the text.  -I- like this, since it gives you a way to actually understand a fairly allusive set of poems and you learn a ton of stuff from it. On the other hand, it is also a lot of unfamiliar work for students. In this respect the Sukhu edition is better than Hawkes, in that it explains far more of the people and events touched on in the test. Hawkes seemed to have assumed you either already knew who Shensheng of Jin was or could guess well enough from the context to go on with the poem. Sukhu gives you a note with the whole story. One thing I would like to see done differently is to post the notes to the CUP web page as a single file. This would cost nothing, make reading and understanding the text (with your phone or an additional screen) a lot easier.

How is it as a translation?

Here is the first bit of Yuan You (Wandering Far Away) from Sukhu

Grieving at a dead end in a degenerate time,
I wished to be weightless, to ascend and wander far away,
But with no such power among my feeble gifts,
What would I ride to float in the sky?
I was sinking into a bog, overwhelmed by filth,
In stifling sadness-who was there to turn to?
Wide-eyed, sleepless nights I lay alone,
Till morning light fell on my cowering soul.

Here is the same from Hawkes

Grieved by the parlous state of this world’s ways,
I wanted to float up and away from it.
But my powers were too weak to give me support:
What could I ride on to bear me upwards?
Fallen on a time of foulness and impurity,
Alone with my misery, I had no one to confide in.
In the night-time I lay, wide-eyed, without sleeping;
My unquiet soul was active until the daylight.

Here is the Chinese, from C-text
遠遊:
悲時俗之近阨兮,願輕舉而遠遊。
質菲薄而無因兮,焉托乘而上浮?
遭沈濁而污穢兮,獨鬱結其誰語!
夜耿耿而不寐兮,魂營營而至曙

Translating archaic poetry is far above my scholarly abilities, but the new version reads better for me even if it is less literal. “My unquiet soul was active until the daylight.” may be closer to 魂營營而至曙, but it does not sound as good as “Till morning light fell on my cowering soul.” I think students would react a lot better to the new version. Of course this bit also emphasizes one of the problems with Chuci as a teaching book. For me the whinging of a middle-aged man who thinks the world is shit and he has wasted his time trying to make things better is a UNIVERSAL THEME worthy of Joseph Campbell.  Students don’t react as well to this, but as early texts tend to not have a lot of student-friendly themes I suppose I can deal with that.

So it this a good book to assign? I would say yes. The main reason is that it is a good translation and I think some of it will stick with students who read and think about it, which for me is a huge part of why I assign things. It is an ideal source for illustrating the self-image of the Confucian scholar-official, a fine source on the nature and complexity of early texts, and an excellent source on early Chinese cosmology and the relationship between society, the state and the cosmos.

That said, I am not sure I will assign it. A lot of the issues it does well with are a bit more than I want to get into in my Early China class. It would be hard to displace the Essential Huainanzi for a lot of the important political issues. It is a much easier book to recommend to a student than the Hawkes, however, and I could see some of the individual poems working well in class.


  1. I have assigned the whole thing a few times  

1 Comment

  1. If I taught more chronologically constrained classes, I might consider it.
    I love Chinese poetry as a teaching text, though, and I’m still assigning Burton Watson’s anthology to my Early China students this semester.
    I compare it to country music, or at least country music as I remember it: with a lot of different modes and moods, addressing everything from politics to family to work to pets, nostalgic but also funny, often mordantly so.

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