Qu Yuan and the Limits of Divination

June 6, 2011

Qu Yuan’s poems are preserved in the Songs of Chu (Chu Ci). It has also been translated under the title, Songs of the South. It is an anthology of poems in the Chu style. The collection begins with the “Trouble Parting” (“Li Sao”), Qu Yuan’s most famous poem.

The Chu songs differ from the Book of Odes, abandoning the regular four-character verses that fill that canon and allowing verses of varying lengths. What’s more, its pronunciations are based on the Chu dialect. The Book of Odes in its structure, sentiments, and pronunciation was northern. The Songs of Chu were distinctly southern in their open emotion, ecstatic visions, vigorous actions (racing over the waters), and love of extravagant imagery (“evergreens, lychee, cypresses, and orchids”).

“Divination” from Songs of Chu

The reason I bring this up in a blog about the I Ching is that one of the poems deals specifically with the limitations of divination.

In this part-prose, part-poetry piece, Qu Yuan consults with Great Diviner Zhan Yin. The diviner prepares his instruments of divination—turtle shells and yarrow stalks—and asks for the question. Qu Yuan gives many. Here are a few of them

Is it better to be sincere, genuine, honest, simple and loyal—or should I forget my past and work toward a future without poverty?

Is it better to condemn injustice as if plowing up grass and weeds—or should I travel in search of a great patron and fame?

Is it better to be correct in speech without hiding—even if it’s at risk to my own life—or should I follow the manners of the vulgar and wealthy just to secure a life?

Is it better to reach for lofty ideals and safeguard the truth—or should I serve the king’s consort, flattering, chattering, and grinning with the other scholars?

When Qu Yuan had blurted out all his questions, Zhan Yin stopped and excused himself, saying:

Sir, a foot does not count what is short, and an inch does not count what is long. Things can be counted, but without base. Knowledge can count without revealing. Numbers can count without reaching an end.  Divination can count without clearing things up. “An effective ruler relies on the heart, a dynamic ruler relies on the mind.” You really cannot use the turtle shells and yarrow stalks to resolve these matters.

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