Wai-limYip: From 'The Nine Songs,' an ancient ritualistic drama (by Qu Yuan [Ch’u Yuan])

Portrait of Qu Yuan by Chen Hongshou
Portrait of Qu Yuan by Chen Hongshou

[The Nine Songs by Qu Yuan (332–296 B.C.), excerpts from which appeared in the earlier editions of Technicians of the Sacred in Arthur Waley’s well-known & text-only translation, was in its origins a clear example of poetry as an act of “total performance.” Writes Wai-lim Yip as translator: “Recent scholarship, particularly the work of the poet-scholar Wen Yiduo, sees Qu Yuan’s The Nine Songs as a collection of songs of folk and oral nature used in ancient shamanistic ritualistic dramas performed near Dongting Lake in Hu’nan Province. The songs as they appear in the Chu Ci or The Songs of the South (consisting of one single, ambiguous voice and in the form of poems) are believed to have been greatly worked over by Qu Yuan. Wen Yiduo, himself a famous modern Chinese poet of the 1920s, in addition to his many essays tracing the poem to relevant origins, reconstructs The Nine Songs into a performable structure. The present translation is a slightly modified version based on his reconstruction.” 


 What follows is how the excerpt will appear in the expanded edition of Technicians of the Sacred now in progress. (J.R.)]




(Upon the Kongsang Mountain, a stretch of dark clouds. Half-visible among the clouds, a huge black gate of the North Palace. At the bend of the mountain is parked a jade-chariot driven by four dark horses. Some beautiful girls are playing. Suddenly, a trumpet is heard, and the Arbiter is seen walking toward the gate.)


          Arbiter:  May the gates of Heaven be opened wide!

                         I ride upon a dark cloud

                         And command the whirlwind to be my herald.

                         May the chill rain lay the dust to rest!


(The Arbiter sees the beautiful girls, descends quickly and runs after them. Surprised, the girls try to escape. The Arbiter succeeds in catching one of them.)


          Girl :        The Lord circles and circles in the sky and suddenly descends.

                           Would that I follow you to the Kongsang Mountain!

                            Variegated and manifold are the peoples in the nine provinces

                            Whose lives and deaths are in your hands.


(The Arbiter and Girl  begin to dance. The other girls now come back to cheer them on.)


          Girl :          Skyward flight, how smooth and serene!

                             He rides upon the pure air, commanding yin and yang.

                             Quickly, solemnly, I hasten to follow you, my Lord,

                             To accompany you all the way to the Nine Mountains.

                             Cloud-robes flutter and flutter.

                             Jade-pendants quiver and quiver.


          Arbiter:  One yin and one yang, one yang and one yin.

                         None knows the extent of my power.


          All in chorus: One yin and one yang, one yang and one yin.

                                  None knows the extent of my power.


(The girls are all exhausted and fall asleep on the ground. The Arbiter is left alone, as if in deep contemplation.  Picking a flower from the bush and quietly putting it into the Girl’s palm.)


          Arbiter: I pick this rarest cassia flower

                        For the one who lives away from home.

(The Arbiter sighs.)                  

                        Old age has now crept in, closing upon me.

                        Not to come closer ends in drifting apart.


(The Arbiter quietly goes. Girl wakes up, finds the flower in her palm, looks for the Arbiter and catches sight of the Arbiter leaving up in the clouds, to her great dismay.)


          Girl:        He rides upon the rumbling dragon-chariot

                            Soaring, soaring into the high heavens.

                            Twisting the cassia-branch, I wait.

                            Longing, O Longing cuts deep into my heart!


          Chorus:    Sorrow, sorrow cuts heart; to it, what can we do?

                            How one wish the now is forever.

                            Man’s course is fated.

                            Unions and separations, who can master them?




(Sunset. In a garden full of semi-tropical flowers. Several girls are playing in the garden. The Lesser Arbiter of Fate arrives.)


          Arbiter:  Autumn orchids and deer parsleys

                          Grow in rows and rows under the hall.

                          Green leaves, white flowers

                          Such fragrance! to attack my senses.


          Girl :       It is nature’s law that man finds his woman.

                          No need to be so down, so sad.


          Arbiter:  Green leaves, white flowers

                          Such fragrance! to attack my senses.


          Girl :       Autumn orchids are green upon green.

                          Green leaves, in sprays, emerge from purple stems.

                          A full hall of beautiful girls;

                          Why me, why his eyes are all glued at me, ever so suddenly?

                          Ever so suddenly?


(For some unknown reasons, the Arbiter, apparently agitated, leaves in a hurry.)


          Girl :       Coming: no words. Leaving: no words.

                          He rode away upon the winds, carrying flags of cloud.

                          Grief, not to grieve? O this life-separation!

                          Joy, not to enjoy? O friends that we newly made!


          Chorus:   Joy, not to enjoy? O friends that we newly made!

                          Grief, not to grieve? O this life-separation!


          Girl :       Lotus-garment, basil-belt;

                          So sudden, he came, so sudden, he went.

                          In the evening, he rests in the precincts of God.

                          Lord, whom are you waiting for by the clouds’ edge?


          Arbiter (from afar):

                          I would bathe with you in the Pool of Heaven

                          And dry your hair in the Bank of Sunlight.

                          I look for the Beautiful One who has not come.

                          Loudly into the winds, I sing my song.


          Chorus:  Peacock canopy and kingfisher banners,

                          He mounts the Nine Heavens, stroking the comet,

                          Stroking his long sword  to protect the young and the old.

                          O You alone, the most fit to judge over men.




(The River God emerges from the water riding on the back of a white turtle. Fishes of all imaginable kinds swim around him. The River God sings in response to some girls dressed in white in front of the riverside temple.)


          God:   With you I will roam the nine rivers.

                      A riot of winds arises and cuts across the waves.

                      We will ride the lotus-canopied water-chariot

                      Drawn by two dragons flanked by hornless serpents.


          Girl:     I climb up the Kunlun Mountains and look in all directions.

                       My spirit flies high as I face the infinite space.

                       Dusk is here; absorbed, I forget to return.

                       I only look back upon the distant shore.

                       A fish-scale house, a hall of dragons,

                       A purple-shell gateway and a palace of pearl,

                       O God, why do you dwell in the waters?   


          God (ignoring her question):

                       Riding a white turtle, chasing spotted fishes,

                       I will roam with you among the small islets

                       As swollen waters come tumbling down.

                       With crossed hands, I will go with you to the East,

                       To escort my beautiful one to the Southern Shore.



   God & Girl:  Wave after wave comes to welcome


                        Shoal on shoal the fishes take us all the way.