Dissent in Early Modern China: Ju-lin Wai-Shih and Ch'ing Social Criticism
China's Intellectuals: Advise and Dissent
In the year 278 BC an aristocrat and poet named Qu Yuan took his own life by throwing himself into the waters of the Milo River. Qu Yuan had once been the powerful adviser to the ruler of the Chu kingdom, specializing in legal affairs and diplomacy, but the monarch was tricked into hating Qu Yuan and rejected his advice. Driven into exile in southern Chu (south of the Yangtze, in the general area now known as Hunan province), Qu led a wandering life as a poet and visionary, remaining loyal in memory to the ruler who had ousted him. When his ruler was killed and the Chu capital destroyed by northern enemies, Qu committed suicide.
Over the centuries that followed this despairing act, Qu’s death took on a symbolic force: Qu Yuan came to stand not just for a type of political behavior, but for a force within nature, for myths of water and fertility, for the transplanting of the young rice shoots in the flooded paddy-fields; his image was inextricably associated with the swift “dragon boats” that river dwellers raced against each other at the summer solstice, and with the wild orchid—tender, fragrant, fiery—that bloomed in the humid south.
Of the historical Qu Yuan we know very little but it has been Laurence Schneider’s marvelous idea to take the Qu Yuan story and see how the layers of myth enfolded him, how later Chinese historians, literary critics, and politicians interpreted him, and how all this accumulated lore illuminates the vexed questions of loyalty and dissent across time.
Schneider finds that the record—as we might expect—has been a mixed and ambiguous one, for Qu Yuan was one of those figures who show “how we can profitably characterize a culture by its chief dilemmas.” In the strong, centralized Chinese state that emerged only fifty years after Qu’s death his political stance was the basis for arguments concerning the role of the individual will in politics, and the various acts that a “loyal” subject who objected to a ruler’s behavior might be justified in taking. His poetry, which had always contained something “flamboyantly self-righteous and self-pitying,” in Schneider’s phrase, was searched for insights into the human predicament of self-enforced isolation. And in the slow accretion of the subsequent myths, elements of time, geographical space, and “madness” each played their part: the “madness” of Qu Yuan, to Schneider, being at once the “tactical madness” of the man who seeks release from official responsibility and the “mad ardor” of the philosopher-poet seeking inspiration from the visions that fill his own mind.
With Qu Yuan as his focus, Schneider is able to give us a guided tour of the attitudes of the literati, not just of “orthodox” scholar bureaucrats, but of those who themselves lived on the edge of danger and innovation. Across the centuries, Chinese scholars argued the merits of Qu’s suicide as gesture: should one serve at risk of death rather than resign? Was the recluse the mirror-image of the activist-bureaucrat,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.