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The Songs of the South: An Anthology of Ancient Chinese Poems by Qu Yuan and Other Poets (Penguin Classics) Paperback – January 1, 1985
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About the Author
David Hawkes (1923-2009) was a professor of Chinese at Oxford from 1959 to 1971. From 1973 to 1983, he was a research fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and subsequently became an emeritus fellow.
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The first poetry anthology in the language that has survived is the Book of Odes (Shih jing). The second oldest is the one we have here: the Ch'u T'zu (in the old Wade-Giles transcription. In today's pidgin, it is Chu Ci), usually translated as 'Songs of the South' or 'Elegies of Chu'.
The Kingdom of Chu was one of the 7 great states that carved up the Chinese territory in the period of the Warring States (475-221 b.C.). Situated next to the rivers Yangtze and Huai, Chu had a peculiarly distinct culture that differentiated it from the other, 'northern' Chinese kingdoms of the Yellow and Wei river valleys. One of the main differences was the importance of Shamanism in its religious practices: Shamans frequently practiced 'astral voyages' and summonings of souls for the locals. In fact, these oral, recitative practices were probably part of a quite impressive public performance and recitation, with gestures and mimics that remotely remind us modern Voodoo and Santería practices.
From the last years of the 4th to the middle of the 3rd century before our area is the lifespan of the Chu noble, courtier, public servant and poet Ch'ü Yüan (pidgin, Qu Yuan). After a small spell of political power, he was ousted from the court because of slanderers and for criticizing the king's erroneous foreign policy (which would lead, a few years later, to its destruction by the rival kingdom of Qin). In exile, Qu Yuan writes the 'Li Sao' ('Encountering Sorrow') before he drowns himself into the river Mi-Luo.
Li Sao is a fascinating poem, which inspires itself in the local shamanic oral practices to recreate Qu Yuan's experiences after exile. The Li Sao starts with the poet describing his origin, genealogy and purity; his many virtues are represented through an exotic flower imagery. He censures the king for listening to the flatterers who have forced his exile, and continues with an erudite catalogue of previous good and bad kings and good and bad ministers; finally, the poet wanders all over the south of China and ends in a 'flight of fancy' that takes him to the skies in a chariot pulled by dragons and accompanied by gods and constellations, in search for a 'fair one' (a bride, or rather, in the allegorical context of the poem, a new and wise king which to serve).
This poem would stem forth a whole literary tradition and poetic genre which would flourish in the following centuries, and which is contained in the Chu Ci anthology. Most of these poems share certain metrical forms and a common subject matter (they are in the persona of a slandered, good minister, usually Qu Yuan; they have an elegiac, 'lamenting' tone; they include supernatural voyages and vegetable and animal imagery...). The anthology as we now it passed through at least three processes of compilation and expansion, processes headed by the poets Liu An (King of Huainan), Liu Xiang and Wang Yi. The form which we have today is the result of the last compiler's effort; an effort that finished some 500 years after the Li Sao had been written.
Aside from Li Sao, other important pieces in the collection are Tian Wen ('Heavenly Questions'), a shamanic encyclopedia of sorts of Chinese mythology, the Jiu Ge ('Nine Songs'), invocations of gods and goddesses by the shamans including a travelling-and-courtship format, the Jiu Zhang ('Nine Pieces'), that include the lament for the fall of the Chu capital, or Zhao hun ('Summons of the Soul'), in which the shaman/poetic persona summons the soul of the king to return to his body and his life of pleasures, away from the dangers of the world.
The present translation (the only whole one in the market) was the wonderful work of professor David Hawkes. Although some of its poems frequently appear in other anthologies (and the great sinologist Arthur Waley also studied and translated the 'Nine Songs'); Hawkes' work and efforts are unmatched. His edition is carefully annotated and, compared with other translations, shows great aesthetic and poetic insight aside from the superb academic work and the clarity and beauty of the translations themselves.
I only had good words for this magnificent work. Nevertheless, on the negative side, we could mention the shabbiness of the edition (a Penguin paperback), as it would be great to have in the market a hardback edition in quality paper to store this great masterpiece and nice piece of scholarship.
Large portions of the "Songs of the South" in fact clearly belong to the Han dynasty, several centuries later. These sections are imitations and extensions of a group of poems supposed to be the work of a certain Qu Yuan (Ch'u Yuan), a minister of the state of Ch'u (Pinyin Qu) in "southern" (now more like central) China, around 300 B.C. These "original" poems are themselves supposed to be imitations of traditional religious songs of the region, written by the minister while in exile from the royal court, and intended as criticism of the king's policies, and treatment of the author. The shamans (men and women) who courted the gods are seen as the minister seeking the king. Their supposed author himself became the subject of a sentimental legend of a noble official who drowned himself rather than witness the destruction of his ruler and country, and was later still connected with the Dragon Boat Festival, which was said to re-enact the search for his body. The exotic and troubling imagery of spirit lovers was thus adjusted to the self-image of the scholar-bureaucrats of Imperial China.
Although this political reading still has its defenders (see Geoffrey R. Waters' "Three Elegies of Ch'u" for an elaborate example), Hawkes spent decades studying this original core as more or less direct reflections of Chinese religion, myth, and legend before they were subjected to Confucian systematization. From this point of view (shared by, among others, Arthur Waley, who also translated a number of these poems), the appropriation of their imagery for Taoist-sounding visionary poems and prose extravaganzas in the rest of the anthology makes perfect sense. A political application of the relations between a shaman (male or female) and a sought-after deity is, of course, not ruled out. The "Nine Songs" (actually there are more; eleven) are extremely moving, whatever interpretation is adopted.
Another of the early poems, "Tian wen," or "Heavenly Questions," appears to be a collection of riddles about early gods, kings, and heroes, and is a somewhat opaque source of evidence for early Chinese narratives. Hawkes supplies it with fascinating notes, and cautiously favors the theory that it originally referred to a set of paintings, or perhaps a pictorial map. (Less inclusive examples of both have been turning up in Han Dynasty tombs, so this theory has some physical evidence to support it.)
Of the various translations of this material I have seen, I prefer Hawkes' revised version, but with the Penguin edition currently out of print (although often available used), alternatives may be easier for the curious to find. [Note: this review was originally written in 2005; as of August 2015, the Penguin edition is currently back in print, and apparently has been for quite a while.]
Selections from the *original* (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1959; Beacon Press Paperback, Boston 1962) version of Hawkes' translations have been anthologized, notably in Cyril Birch's "Anthology of Chinese Literature: From Early Times to the Fourteenth Century" (1965), which seems to stay in print.
Among translations by others, Arthur Waley's "The Nine Songs: A Study of Shamanism in Ancient China" (1955) is reprinted from time to time, and his translations from other parts of the collection are scattered through his volumes of Chinese poetry. More conveniently, entirely new translations of all eleven of the "Nine Songs," the beautiful and difficult "Li Sao," and several other pieces from the collection, along with later imitations and variously affiliated compositions, are included in Stephen Owen's "An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911" (1996) -- see mainly "The *Chu-ci*: 'Lyrics of Chu'," pages 155-175, and "The *Chu-ci* Tradition," pages 176-203," with "Calling Back the Soul," pages 204-214.
(Reposted from my "anonymous" review of September 10, 2003)
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Peccato l'assenza del testo originale (almeno una versione, scelta dall'autore), da ricercarsi altrove.