Philosophy · Religion

Heavenly Questions

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When Li Shangyin saw copies of the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible and the Talmud in a local bookstore in Shenzhen’s Book City, he turned to me in astonishment:
“The authors of these books must have known Qu Yuan!” (pronounced CHU you AN)
“Qu Who?” I said, thinking he had sneezed.
“The greatest poet from the Warring States Period. His poems questioned the nature of the universe and the profound injustice of it all.”
“But these books pose answers, not questions,” I protested mildly, eager to affirm my intellectual independence.
“Yes,” Shangyin nodded gravely, stroking his stubbled chin, “ But it all starts with  questions!”
A few days later Li Shangyin handed me a notebook filled with verses and his marginalia.
“Here. This is Qu Yuan’s Tian Wen. Read this and you shall understand.”
Then he gave a great bellow of laughter.
“He who only asks questions is the wisest among us!”, he shouted, “He who knows he knows nothing at all must be the wisest!”

From his notes and my own research I learned the Tian Wen (Heavenly Questions) is a compendium of 186 verses, and includes over 180 questions regarding the nature of creation, destiny and Chinese history and mythology. It was written by the Chu Kingdom minister and poet Qu Yuan (340-278BC). It is a part of his Chu Ci collection of poems. In despair over the decline of his kingdom and his political exile from the court, Qu Yuan wrapped a stone to his chest and threw himself into the Miluo River. The Dragon Boat Festival memorializes his patriotism to this day.

Please note:

  • I see no need for extensive footnotes, and have indicated sources where possible
  • I have changed the order of some of the phrases within a question
  • This is not a literal translation, but my intent is to share the essential meaning of each verse
  • There are several interpretations possible for certain questions, but I have not bothered to go into details
  • I also mention the names of historical and mythical figures, to clarify the narrative.

 

  1. 曰遂古之初,谁传道之? yuē suì gǔ zhī chū,shuí chuán dào zhī?
    When remote antiquity began, who was the first storyteller to arise?
  1. 上下未形,何由考之?shàng xià wèi xíng,hé yóu kǎo zhī?
    Before above and below took shape, from where did they come?
  1. 冥昭瞢闇,谁能极之?míng zhāo méng;měng àn,shuí néng jí zhī?
    When light and dark merged into the chaos,  who could divine its size?
  1. 冯翼惟像,何以识之?féng;píng yì wéi xiàng, hé yǐ shí zhī?
    Faced by this misty presence, to distinguish or understand it, how could one?
  1. 明明闇闇,惟时何为?míng míng àn àn,wéi shí hé wèi;wéi?
    Why is there brightest bright and darkest dark?
  1. 阴阳三合,何本何化?yīn yáng sān hé;gé,hé běn hé huà;huā?
    As Ying and Yang[1] merged with the universe, what changed and what remained the same?
  1. 圜则九重,孰营度之?huán zé jiǔ zhòng;chóng,shú yíng dù zhī?
    Of the nine poles formed around heaven[2], their measure was whose to mark?
  1. 惟兹何功,孰初作之?wéi zī hé gōng,shú chū zuò zhī?
    What an awesome project it is –  of the creator, what was its name?
  1. 斡维焉系,天极焉加?wò wéi yān xì;jì, tiān jí yān jiā?
    Where are the stationary poles, and the axes of the celestial system?
  1. 八柱何当,东南何亏? bā zhù hé dāng;dàng, dōng nán hé kuī?
    The eight pillars[3] propped up the heavens against what foundation? Why are they askew in the southeast?
  1. 九天之际,安放安属?jiǔ tiān zhī jì, ān fàng ān shǔ?
    As for the furthest boundaries of the heavens, how can one reach them?
  1. 隅隈多有,谁知其数?yú wēi duō yǒu,shuí zhī qí shǔ;shù;shuò?
    So many places cross each other, who can number them best?
  1. 天何所沓?十二焉分?tiān hé suǒ tà? shí èr yān fēn?
    How many ripples run across the heavens, and are there really twelve signs of the zodiac? [4]
  1. 日月安属?列星安陈? rì yuè ān shǔ?liè xīng ān chén?
    How is the moon linked to the sun, and how are the stars arrayed?
  1. 出自汤谷,次于蒙氾。chū zì tāng gǔ, cì yú méng;mēng;měng fàn。
    Sunlight emerges from the boiling gorges, and dips below curtains of water as the day turns black.
  1. 自明及晦,所行几里? zì míng jí huì,suǒ háng jǐ lǐ?
    Were I to walk from morning’s glow to night’s blackness, how many miles would be gained?
  1. 夜光何德,死则又育?yè guāng hé dé,sǐ zé yòu yù?
    What virtue does moonlight hold, that it can daily rise from death?
  1. 厥利维何,而顾兔在腹?jué lì wéi hé,ér gù tù zài fù?
    What lurks in the moon’s dark places – perhaps a rabbit roams? [5]
  1. 女歧无合,夫焉取九子?nǚ qí wú hé;gé,fū yān qǔ jiǔ zǐ?
    How did the goddess Qi have nine sons, each a virgin birth?
  1. 伯强何处?惠气安在? bǎi qiáng;qiǎng hé chǔ?huì qì ān zài?
    Where do heaven’s propitious vapors blow, and where is the divine lord’s home?
  1. 何阖而晦?何开而明?hé hé ér huì?hé kāi ér míng?
    Why is it bright when heaven’s gates open, and why dark when they close?
  1. 角宿未旦,曜灵安藏?jiǎo sù wèi dàn,yào líng ān zàng;cáng?
    Before the eastern regions receive the sunlight, where does it hide?
  1. 不任汩鸿,师何以尚之?bù rèn gǔ hóng,shī hé yǐ shàng zhī?
    Gun[6] could not tame the floods, so why was he the one that everyone chose?
  1. 佥曰“何忧”,何不课而行之?qiān yuē“hé yōu;yǒu”, hé bù kè ér xíng;háng;xìng zhī?
    They all  let him try, saying: let’s put our worries aside?
  1. 鸱龟曳衔,鲧何听焉?chī guī yè xián,gǔn hé tīng yān?
    So what heavenly gifts did he learn, as owls and turtles helped him beak to tail?[7]
  1. 顺欲成功,帝何刑焉?shùn yù chéng gōng,dì hé xíng yān?
    Why did the Emperor punish him, after he did a marvelous job taming the river’s rage?[8]
  1. 永遏在羽山,夫何三年不施?yǒng è zài yǔ shān,fū hé sān nián bù shī?
    And why was he to be locked up until his death on Yu Mountain, for three years his jail?
  1. 伯禹愎鲧,夫何以变化?bǎi yǔ bì gǔn,fū hé yǐ  biàn huà?
    After Yu the Great emerged from Gun’s belly, how would control of the flood waters change? [9]
  1. 纂就前绪,遂成考。zuǎn jiù qián xù,suì chéng kǎo。
    One inherits unfinished tasks, and finally brings one’s father glory and fame.
  1. 何续初继业,而厥谋不同?hé xù chū jì yè,ér jué móu bù tóng?
    In order to continue his predecessor’s work, how similar was his strategy?
  1. 洪泉极深,何以窴之? hóng quán jí shēn, hé yǐ tián zhī?
    The flood seemed bottomless, how could it be tamed?
  1. 地方九则,何以坟之? dì fāng jiǔ zé, hé yǐ fén zhī?
    How did he distinguish what was fertile or fallow by dividing the soil into nine degrees?
  1. 河海应龙?何尽何历?hé hǎi yīng;yìng lóng?hé jìn;jǐn hé lì?
    Were even a dragon to carve out a boundary with its tail, would the oceans and rivers drain smooth?
  1. 鲧何所营?禹何所成?gǔn hé suǒ yíng?yǔ hé suǒ chéng?
    What gave Lord Gun his wild ideas? What made his son Yu succeed?
  1. 康回冯怒,坠何故以东南倾?kāng huí féng;píng nù,zhuì hé gù yǐ  dōng nán qīng?
    When the water gods together raged, why did the earth in the south east greatly move?
  1. 九州安错?川谷何洿?jiǔ zhōu ān cuò?chuān gǔ hé wū?
    How turbulent were the nine lands? [10] How could one dredge the streams in valleys and ravines?
  1. 东流不溢,孰知其故?dōng liú bù yì,shú zhī qí gù?
    Waters streaming eastwards never overflowed into the sea – why?
  1. 东西南北,其修孰多?dōng xī nán běi,qí xiū shú duō?
    Between north and south, east and west: how far does the earth extend?
  1. 南北顺堕,其衍几何?nán běi shùn duò,qí yǎn jǐ hé?
    To the south and north the land is long and narrow, their length and breadth how far apart lie?
  1. 昆仑县圃,其尻安在?kūn yuè xiàn pǔ,qí kāo ān zài?
    As for Mount Kunlun’s fairyland[11], from what base did it ascend?
  1. 增城九重,其高几里?zēng chéng jiǔ zhòng;chóng,qí gāo jǐ;jī lǐ?
    The nine terraced walls extend upwards to what empyrean heights?
  1. 四方之门,其谁从焉?sì fāng zhī mén,qí shuí cóng;zòng;cōng yān?
    Who can enter the four directions of  Kunlun’s gates?
  1. 西北辟启,何气通焉?xī běi pì;bì qǐ,hé qì tōng yān?
    What celestial fragrance escapes when its northeast gates open?
  1. 日安不到?烛龙何照?rì ān bù dào?zhú lóng hé zhào?
    Where does the sunlight ends? Is it the Torch Dragon’s to illuminate?
  1. 羲和之未扬,若华何光?xī hé zhī wèi yáng,ruò huā;huá hé guāng?
    Before she begins her route, how is it that the Ruo flowers glow for the Sun Goddess Xi?[12]
  1. 何所冬暖?何所夏寒?hé suǒ dōng nuǎn?hé suǒ xià hán?
    Where are winter days warm, or summer days cool?
  1. 焉有石林?何兽能言?yān yǒu shí lín?hé shòu néng yán?
    Where do wild animals talk, and rocks blossom into trees?
  1. 焉有虬龙、负熊以游?yān yǒu qiú lóng、fù xióng yǐ yóu?
    Where are the dragons with bears on their backs, playing the fool?
  1. 雄虺九首,鯈忽焉在?xióng huǐ;huī jiǔ shǒu,tiáo hū yān zài?
    Whence comes the mighty snake with nine bobbing heads?[13]
  1. 何所不死?长人何守?hé suǒ bù sǐ?cháng;zhǎng rén hé shǒu?
    Where can I find the lands of giants[14], and the magic potions that long life bestows?
  1. 靡蓱九衢,枲华安居?mǐ;mí píng jiǔ qú,xǐ huā;huá ān jū?
    Where does the hemp grow tall as trees, as the nine branched duckweed spreads?
  1. 灵蛇吞象,厥大何如?líng shé tūn xiàng,jué dà hé rú?
    How big is the great snake that can swallow an elephant from trunk to toe?[15]
  1. 黑水、玄趾,三危安在?hēi shuǐ、xuán zhǐ,sān wēi ān zài?
    Where are Black Water, Black Toe Mountain and the Peak of Three Perils? [16]
  1. 延年不死,寿何所止?yán nián bù sǐ,shòu hé suǒ zhǐ?
    How long can death be avoided there, or a long life have a longer run?
  1. 鲮鱼何所?鬿堆焉处?líng yú hé suǒ?qí duī yān chù;chǔ?
    Where is the strange shaped mud carp born, and the king whose head is white with feathers?[17]
  1. 羿焉彃日?乌焉解羽? yì yān bì rì?wū yān jiě yǔ?
    Where did Hou Yi  shoot down nine Yi[18]? Or the crow disintegrate in the sun?
  1. 禹之力献功,降省下土四方。yǔ zhī lì xiàn gōng,jiàng shěng;xǐng xià tǔ sì fāng。
    Yu the Great[19] worked hard to succeed, and would soon inspect all his domains.
  1. 焉得彼嵞山女,而通之於台桑?yān dé;děi;de bǐ tú shān nǚ,ér tōng zhī yū;yú;wū tái sāng?
    How did he unite at Tai Sang with the Lady of Mount Tu?[20]
  1. 闵妃匹合,厥身是继。mǐn fēi pī;pǐ hé;gé,jué shēn shì jì。
    One marries one’s love and begets a son of his name.
  1. 胡为嗜不同味,而快朝饱?hú wèi;wéi shì bù tóng wèi,ér kuài cháo;zhāo bǎo?
    How did he proposition and she have her fill in just a day, as their passion and lust grew?
  1. 启代益作后,卒然离蠥。qǐ dài yì zuò hòu,zú rán lí;róu niè。
    Qi ascended the throne and suffering returned in the end. [21]
  1. 何启惟忧,而能拘是达?hé qǐ wéi yōu;yǒu,ér néng jū shì dá?
    How did he overcome such a string of troubles, be imprisoned and yet escape?
  1. 皆归射鞠,而无害厥躬。jiē guī shè jū,ér wú hài jué gōng
    Yi’s soldiers put their arrows back inside, and Qi was saved by bows that would not bend.
  1. 何后益作革,而禹播降?hé hòu yì zuò gé,ér yǔ bō jiàng?
    Was it to be the last good work of his era, that Yu left blessings and prosperity in his wake?
  1. 启棘宾商,《九辨》、《九歌》。qǐ jí bīn shāng,《jiǔ biàn》、《jiǔ gē》。
    To be invited to heaven to sing the ‘nine debates’ and ‘nine songs’ was the dream of Xia’s King Qi.[22]
  1. 何勤子屠母,而死分竟地?hé qín zǐ tú mǔ,ér sǐ fēn jìng dì;de?
    Why did the filial son so hurt his mother, making her break apart? [23]
  1. 帝降夷羿,革孽夏民。dì jiàng yí yì,gé niè xià mín。
    To dispel the hardship of the people of Qi, Yao dispatched the great Archer Yi.[24]
  1. 胡射夫河伯,而妻彼雒嫔?hú shè fū hé bó,ér qī bǐ luò pín?
    How did the arrow strike the God of the Yellow River, dispatching Lady Luo as well as the upstart?[25]
  1. 冯珧利决,封豨是射。féng;píng yáo lì jué,fēng xī shì shè。
    Supporting his treasured bow and mounting his thumb ring, he slew a mighty wild boar.
  1. 何献蒸肉之膏,而后帝不若?hé xiàn zhēng ròu zhī gāo, ér hòu dì bù ruò?
    When he offered the cooked fat as a sacrifice, why wasn’t God satisfied?
  1. 浞娶纯狐,眩妻爰谋。zhuó qǔ chún hú,xuàn qī yuán móu。
    Han Zhou wanted to marry the pure Fox clan woman, and with her conspired to destroy her Hou Yi’s power.[26]
  1. 何羿之射革,而交吞揆之?hé yì zhī shè gé,ér jiāo tūn kuí zhī?
    How could her husband Hou Yi let his wife and Han Zhou murder him, for his arrows could even pierce a leather hide?
  1. 阻穷西征,岩何越焉?zǔ qióng xī zhēng,yán hé yuè yān?
    Stranded, how did Gun cross the mountain’s layers of rock to the west?
  1. 化为黄熊,巫何活焉?huà wéi huáng xióng,wū hé huó yān?
    How did the shaman bring him back to life, and how did Gun become a yellow bear?
  1. 咸播秬黍,莆雚是营。xián;xiān bō jù shǔ,pú guàn shì yíng。
    He taught men how to sow black millet, and against the riverbank the reeds pressed.
  1. 何由并投,而鲧疾修盈?hé yóu bìng tóu,ér gǔn jí xiū yíng?
    How could disaster follow on all sides, and from  Gun’s side a baby appear?
  2. 白蜺婴茀,胡为此堂 bái ní yīng fú,hú wèi cǐ táng
    Dressed like a clear rainbow draped over the water, how did a woman so ordinary seem so grand?
  1. 安得夫良药,不能固臧?ān dé;děi;de fū liáng yào, bù néng gù zāng?
    Where was the elixir of immortality, and why couldn’t it be kept in a preserved state?
  1. 天式从横,阳离爰死。tiān shì cóng;zòng;cōng héng;hèng,yáng lí;róu yuán sǐ。
    The ways of heaven are set up and across, the Yang of life must in the end disperse like sand.
  1. 大鸟何鸣,夫焉丧厥体?dà niǎo hé míng,fū yān sàng;sāng jué tǐ?
    The great three legged crows of the sun were so strong, how could they just disintegrate?
  1. 蓱号起雨,何以兴之?píng hào qǐ yǔ, hé yǐ xìng;xīng zhī?
    When the Rain God waved his screen and unleashed  the rain, how did such powerful drops fall at all?
  1. 撰体胁鹿,何以膺之?zhuàn tǐ xié lù, hé yǐ yīng zhī?
    How did the deer respond, it’s demeanor so meek and gentle as a lotus?
  1. 鼇戴山抃,何以安之?áo dài shān biàn, hé yǐ ān zhī?
    How did great turtle Ao carry the sacred mountains on its back, such that they did not fall?[27]
  1. 释舟陵行,何之迁之?shì zhōu líng xíng;háng;xìng,hé zhī qiān zhī?
    Abandoning the boats to walk on land, how did the great dragon stride so like a colossus?
  1. 惟浇在户,何求于嫂?wéi jiāo zài hù,hé qiú yú sǎo?
    Thinking of when Han Jiao[28] was in her home, what did he want of Nuqi, his sister in law?
  1. 何少康逐犬,而颠陨厥首?hé shǎo;shào kāng zhú quǎn,ér diān yǔn jué shǒu?
    How did Shaokang drive forward his hounds, and eliminate the rebel?
  1. 女歧缝裳,而馆同爰止。nǚ qí féng cháng,ér guǎn tóng;tòng yuán zhǐ。
    Lady Yi sewed his garments, and kept Han Jiao company behind her chamber door.
  1. 何颠易厥首,而亲以逢殆?hé diān yì jué shǒu,ér qīn;qìng yǐ féng dài?
    How did Shaokang behead Han Jiao, in spite of his power so terrible?
  1. 汤谋易旅,何以厚之?tāng móu yì lǚ, hé yǐ hòu zhī?
    As Shaokang strategized and marshaled his troops, how did he respect everyone’s views?
  1. 覆舟斟寻,何道取之?fù zhōu zhēn xún,hé dào qǔ zhī?
    He sent a punitive force that capsized the enemies boats, and how did it prevail?
  1. 桀伐蒙山,何所得焉?jié fá méng;mēng;měng shān,hé suǒ dé yān?
    King Jie of Xia sent a force to Mengtiao, and what did they use? [29]
  1. 妺嬉何肆,汤何殛焉? mò xī hé sì,tāng hé jí yān?
    How did the King’s wife delight in excess and waste? How did Tang of Shang kill Jie, for Jie indeed failed?
  1. 舜闵在家,父何以鱞? shùn mǐn zài jiā,fù  hé yǐ guān?
    Shun was a good and filial son, so when he was abandoned, what did his father intend?
  1. 尧不姚告,二女何亲?  yáo bù yáo gào,èr nǚ hé qīn;qìng?
    Why did Yao have his two daughters marry Shun, and not reveal to Shun his blindness?
  1. 厥萌在初,何所意焉?jué méng zài chū,hé suǒ yì yān?
    At first the state was strong, then decay followed – who could predict such an end?
  1. 璜台十成,谁所极焉?huáng tái shí chéng,shuí suǒ jí yān?
    When a jade terrace ten stories high was built, who did something so outrageous?[30]
  1. 登立为帝,孰道尚之?dēng lì wèi;wéi dì,shú dào shàng zhī?
    Inheriting the Mandate of Heaven, Nuwa ascended and was crowned Empress, what gave her the right to accept the people’s veneration?
  1. 女娲有体,孰制匠之?nǚ wā yǒu tǐ,shú zhì jiàng zhī
    The Creator Goddess had a special physique, and who created this human faced serpent of a fantastic race?
  1. 舜服厥弟,终然为害。shùn fú jué dì,zhōng rán wéi hài。
    Shun loved and cherished his young brother, so why, in return, did the lad offer thoughts of execration?[31]
  1. 何肆犬豕,而厥身不危败?hé sì quǎn shǐ,ér jué shēn bù wēi bài?
    Why be rapacious as a dog or pig, when you are not threatened, or losing face?
  1. 吴获迄古,南岳是止。wú huò qì gǔ,nán yuè shì zhǐ。
    The kingdom of Wu had attained a long life, and the common people resided in lands south of the River.
  1. 孰期去斯,得两男子?shú qī qù sī,dé;děi;de liǎng nán zǐ?
    Who can think of the prime reasons, set aside for a moment  the wise men?
  1. 缘鹄饰玉,后帝是飨。yuán hú shì yù,hòu dì shì xiǎng。
    Swan dressed and served on ornamented jade plates, with brass ding spoons, pleased the emperor.
  1. 何承谋夏桀,终以灭丧?hé chéng móu xià jié,zhōng yǐ miè sàng;sāng?
    When Shang attacked and wiped out Jie of Xia, how did he use Yi Yin’s stratagems?[32]
  1. 帝乃降观,下逢伊挚。dì nǎi jiàng guān,xià féng yī zhì。
    As Shang Tang was about to inspect his whole country, he came upon loyal Yi Yin by chance.
  1. 何条放致罚,而黎服大说?hé tiáo fàng zhì fá,ér lí fú dà shuō;shuì?
    When King Jie was punished at Ming Tiao, why joy light the common man’s face?
  1. 简狄在台喾何宜?jiǎn dí zài tái kù hé yí?
    How did Di Ku meet and take a liking to Jian Di, When she lived above Jasper Terrace?[33]
  1. 玄鸟致贻女何喜,该秉季德,厥父是臧。xuán niǎo zhì yí nǚ hé xǐ,gāi bǐng jì dé,jué fù shì zāng。
    Jian Di was delighted to receive the lofty dark bird’s betrothal gifts. Wang Hai received his good heart from Wang Ji, and obtained his father’s praise.[34]
  1. 胡终弊于有扈,牧夫牛羊?hú zhōng bì yú yǒu hù, mù fū niú yáng?
    Why did he so easily run into misfortune in the end, when he sent away his draft cows and sheep?
  1. 干协时舞,何以怀之?gān;gàn;hàn xié shí wǔ, hé yǐ huái zhī?
    When Wang Hai grasped his shield and started into his war dance, why did her heart start to pound?
  1. 平胁曼肤,何以肥之?píng xié màn fū, hé yǐ féi zhī?
    Her body was plump and buxom, and what else do men seek?
  1. 有扈牧竖,云何而逢?yǒu hù mù shù,yún hé ér féng?
    The people of You tended their pastures, and how were the two lovers found?
  1. 击床先出,其命何从?jī chuáng xiān chū,qí mìng hé cóng;zòng;cōng?
    How did Wang Hai manage to survive, leaving his bed before the assassin’s attack?
  1. 恒秉季德,焉得夫朴牛?héng bǐng jì dé,yān dé;děi;de fū pǔ;pú niú?
    Wang Ji’s duties passed to Wang Heng, but were the stalls filled with oxen?
  1. 何往营班禄,不但还来?hé wǎng;wàng yíng bān lù, bù dàn hái;huán lái?
    Why did he seek an official’s’ easy salary, and not feel safe to come back?
  1. 昏微遵迹,有狄不宁。hūn wēi zūn jī,yǒu dí bù nìng。
    Hang Wei followed his father’s footsteps, and Yi State was thrust into war again.
  1. 何繁鸟萃棘,负子肆情?hé fán niǎo cuì jí,fù zǐ sì qíng?
    Why do lovebirds cluster in the trees? Why commit adultery on beds of grass?
  1. 眩弟并淫,危害厥兄。xuàn dì bìng yín, wēi hài jué xiōng。
    A befuddled young brother grew willful and corrupt, and harmed the older kin.
  1. 何变化以作诈,而後嗣逢长?hé biàn huà yǐ zuò zhà,ér hòu sì féng cháng;zhǎng?
    When such a man was good at deceit, how could  a prosperous generation come to pass?
  1. 成汤东巡,有莘爰极。chéng tāng dōng xún,yǒu shēn yuán jí。
    The Shang expedition reached the eastern lands, to the limits of Shen.
  1. 何乞彼小臣,而吉妃是得?hé qǐ bǐ xiǎo chén,ér jí fēi shì dé;děi;de?
    Why did he seek out a loyal aide, and also attain the favor of a virtuous concubine?
  1. 水滨之木,得彼小子。shuǐ bīn zhī mù,dé;děi;de bǐ xiǎo zi
    Official  Yi Yin, born by the river’s mulberry tree, became like a son.
  1. 夫何恶之,媵有莘之妇?fū hé è;wù;ě zhī,yìng yǒu shēn zhī fù?
    Why did he develop evil thoughts, and offer to his bride this slave?
  1. 汤出重泉,夫何罪尤?tāng chū zhòng;chóng quán,fū hé zuì yóu?
    When Shang emerged from his prison and rose up, what was the King’s sin?
  1. 不胜心伐帝,夫谁使挑之?bù shèng xīn fá dì,fū shuí shǐ tiāo zhī?
    He bore humiliation and shame to fell King Jie, and was he who instigated this state of affairs so gravely wrong?
  1. 会晁争盟,何践吾期?huì;kuài cháo zhēng méng,hé jiàn wú qī?
    The nobles and dukes converged in an alliance, and how did they stick together through thick and thin?
  1. 苍鸟群飞,孰使萃之?cāng niǎo qún fēi,shú shǐ cuì zhī?
    When mighty goshawks group and fly high, what prevents them splitting into two?
  1. 列击纣躬,叔旦不嘉。liè jī zhòu gōng,shū dàn bù jiā。
    On arranging for troops to attack king Zhou of Shang, the Duke of Zhou disagreed.
  1. 何亲揆发,何周之命以咨嗟?hé qīn;qìng kuí fā;fà,hé zhōu zhī mìng yǐ zī jiē;juē?
    Did he breath a sigh of relief when the Zhou Dynasty  was established, personally having conspired with King Wu?
  1. 授殷天下,其位安施?shòu yīn;yān tiān xià,qí wèi ān shī?
    Why was the Mandate of Heaven conferred upon the Shang, and how did King Shangyao establish his dynasty?
  1. 反成乃亡,其罪伊何?fǎn chéng nǎi wáng,qí zuì yī hé?
    What was his failing on the road to success and his violation of the norm?
  1. 争遣伐器,何以行之?zhēng qiǎn fá qì, hé yǐ xíng;háng;xìng zhī?
    How did King Wu make the dukes and nobles vie with each other to go to battle?
  1. 并驱击翼,何以将之?bìng qū jī yì, hé yǐ jiāng;jiàng zhī?
    How did he lead the troops so that they attacked each enemy flank in good form?
  1. 昭后成游,南土爰底。zhāo hòu chéng yóu,nán tǔ yuán dǐ。
    King Zhao succeeded in recruiting troops for expeditions even in the lands of his southern vassals.
  1. 厥利惟何,逢彼白雉?jué lì wéi hé,féng bǐ bái zhì?
    Whatever he risked his life for in the end… could it be he just wanted a glimpse of the white pheasant?
  1. 穆王巧挴,夫何周流?mù wáng qiǎo měi, fū hé zhōu liú?
    King Mu drove his horses and skillfully urged on his forces, and why did he want Zhou to go West?
  1. 环理天下,夫何索求?huán lǐ tiān xià,fū hé  suǒ qiú?
    His tracks circled the lands under heaven, so why was his quest so hell bent?
  1. 妖夫曳炫,何号于市?yāo fū yè xuàn,hé hào yú shì?
    When the sorcerers displayed their wares, how was the sound of crying revealed to the populace?
  1. 周幽谁诛?焉得夫褒姒?zhōu yōu shuí zhū?yān dé;děi;de fū bāo sì?
    Who did King You punish, with the result that he met the beauty Baosi?
  1. 天命反侧,何罚何佑?tiān mìng fǎn cè,hé fá hé yòu?
    Under a Mandate so capricious, why are some rewarded, and others laid low?
  1. 齐桓九会,卒然身杀。qí huán jiǔ huì;kuài,zú rán shēn shā。
    Huan of Ji State convened an alliance nine times, and then died tragically.
  1. 彼王纣之躬,孰使乱惑?bǐ wáng zhòu zhī gōng,shú shǐ luàn huò?
    As for the reckless and crazy Shang King Zhou, what made him so?
  1. 何恶辅弼,谗谄是服?hé è;wù;ě fǔ bì,chán chǎn shì fú?
    How could he hate the assistance of wise counsel, and favor small minded, fawning toadies?
  1. 比干何逆,而抑沉之?bǐ gàn hé nì,ér yì chén zhī?
    What rebellious thoughts had the Sage Bigan, that the King tore out his heart to have a gaze?[35]
  1. 雷开何顺,而赐封之?léi kāi hé shùn,ér cì fēng zhī?
    Why was Leikai granted fiefdoms for his servility and flattery?
  1. 何圣人之一德,卒其异方:hé shèng rén  zhī yī dé,zú qí yì fāng:
    Why do good people reach their ends in such perverse ways?
  1. 梅伯受醢,箕子详狂?méi bǎi shòu hǎi,jī zǐ xiáng kuáng?
    Mei Bo was tortured and sliced into bits, Jizi faked madness and withdrew from worldly things.[36]
  1. 稷维元子,帝何竺之? jì wéi yuán zǐ,dì hé zhú zhī?
    Why did King Ku reject Hou Ji, although he was his wife’s eldest son?
  1. 投之於冰上,鸟何燠之?tóu zhī yū;yú;wū bīng shàng,niǎo hé yù zhī?
    When he was tossed into the icy water, why did the birds cover him with their warm wings?
  1. 何冯弓挟矢,殊能将之? hé féng;píng gōng jiā shǐ,shū néng jiāng;jiàng zhī?
    Although he was brought up to master the bow and arrow, why was he so good at governing and cultivation?
  1. 既惊帝切激,何逢长之? jì jīng dì qiè jī,hé féng cháng;zhǎng zhī?
    His birth already a surprise to the Lord on High, why did he and his descendants thrive and prosper?
  1. 伯昌号衰,秉鞭作牧。bǎi chāng hào shuāi;cuī,bǐng biān zuò mù。
    The Duke of the West, Bo Chang, rose as the world collapsed, and seized his destiny.
  1. 何令彻彼岐社,命有殷国? hé lìng chè bǐ qí shè,mìng yǒu yīn;yān guó?
    Why did King Wu command and organize the people of Zhou, and accept the Mandate of Heaven that Yin State would offer?
  1. 迁藏就岐,何能依?  qiān zàng;cáng jiù qí,hé néng yī?
    When he moved the imperial treasures to Qishan, how did this help build popular support?
  1. 殷有惑妇,何所讥? yīn;yān yǒu huò fù,hé suǒ jī?
    As the King of Yin received concubine Daji and became dazed and confused, what suggestions could have been made?[37]
  1. 受赐兹醢,西伯上告。 shòu cì zī hǎi,xī bǎi shàng gào。
    King Yao ordered his son ripped to shreds, and Sage Jichang criticized Heaven’s Mandate. [38]
  1. 何亲就上帝罚,殷之命以不救?hé qīn;qìng jiù shàng dì fá,yīn;yān zhī mìng yǐ bù jiù?
    Why did King Zhou receive heaven’s punishment, but Yin of Shang not be rescued from his fate?
  1. 师望在肆,昌何识? shī wàng zài sì,chāng hé shí?
    What led King Wen to a butcher shop where he recognized Sage Lu in an act of fate?
  1. 鼓刀扬声,后何喜? gǔ dāo  yáng shēng,hòu hé xǐ?
    Why was King Wen so drawn to the sound of knives when they clink and rattle?[39]
  1. 武发杀殷,何所悒? wǔ fā;fà shā yīn;yān,hé suǒ yì?
    Why was King Wu so intent on war, having killed Yao and destroyed the Shang?
  1. 载尸集战,何所急? zài shī jí zhàn,hé suǒ jí?
    Why was he so full of worry, having carried the banners of King Wen in the thick of battle?
  1. 伯林雉经,维其何故? bǎi lín zhì jīng,wéi qí hé gù?
    Why did Zhou choose to kill himself by hanging and burning?
  1. 何感天抑坠,夫谁畏惧? hé gǎn tiān yì zhuì,fū shuí wèi jù?
    How did King Wu startle heaven and rattle the earth, so that the chests of the deities were filled with dread?
  1. 皇天集命,惟何戒之? huáng tiān jí mìng,wéi hé jiè zhī?
    When God passed on the Mandate of Heaven to the leader of Yin, why didn’t he again make his demands quite clear?
  1. 受礼天下,又使至代之?shòu lǐ tiān xià,yòu shǐ zhì dài zhī?
    Why did King Yao relinquish the Mandate of Heaven to others, although it had been his to defend?
  1. 初汤臣挚,後兹承辅。  chū tāng chén zhì,hòu zī chéng fǔ。
    Yin Yi was first regarded as just a minor official, afterwards he assisted the king as prime minister, almost his peer..
  1. 何卒官汤,尊食宗绪?  hé zú guān tāng,zūn shí;sì zōng xù?
    How did he become revered in the temples, even attain a glory like King Tang’s?
  1. 勋阖、梦生,少离散亡。  xūn hé、mèng shēng,shǎo;shào lí sǎn wáng。
    An accomplished and ambitious grandson of King Shoumeng , He Lu experienced the pain of separation as a child.
  1. 何壮武历,能流厥严?  hé zhuàng wǔ lì,néng liú jué yán?
    Why were his talents used in for other things, after he climbed up the military ranks?
  1. 彭铿斟雉,帝何飨?  péng;bāng kēng zhēn zhì,dì hé xiǎng?
    When he tried the pheasant soup of Sage Peng Zu, why was King Zhou Wen so beguiled?[40]
  1. 受寿永多,夫何久长?  shòu shòu yǒng duō,fū hé jiǔ cháng?
    Of what could such a Sage complain, when he could live so long?
  1. 中央共牧,后何怒?  zhōng yāng gòng mù,hòu hé nù?
    The earth and the heavens together govern the people, so why does so much anger then appear?
  1. 蜂蛾微命,力何固? fēng é wēi mìng,lì hé gù?
    Why makes humble and tiny bees and moths so resolved and strong?
  1. 惊女采薇,鹿何祐? jīng nǚ cǎi wēi,lù hé yòu?
    Surprised to see them living on so little, why did the maid let Boyi be suckled by a white deer? [41]
  1. 北至回水,萃何喜? běi zhì  huí shuǐ,cuì hé xǐ?
    Traveling back to the waterlands north, were they happy together, though starving and in poor health?
  1. 兄有噬犬,弟何欲? xiōng yǒu shì quǎn,dì hé yù?
    Why did the younger brother want the older brother’s magnificent hound?
  1. 易之以百两,卒无禄? yì zhī yǐ bǎi liǎng,zú wú lù?
    To exchange one hundred carts for one rabid dog – in the end didn’t it lead to loss of rice and wealth?
  1. 薄暮雷电,归何忧?  bó mù léi diàn,guī hé yōu;yǒu?
    When one is homesick, how can one not worry when lightning flashes and thunder sounds?
  1. 厥严不奉,帝何求? jué yán bù fèng,dì hé qiú?
    When the greatness of one’s country is no longer, what can God ask of Chu?
  1. 伏匿穴处,爰何云? fú nì xué chù;chǔ,yuán hé yún?
    What fate remains for one who lies prostrate, hides in a cave, or slinks away?
  1. 荆勋作师,夫何长? jīng xūn zuò shī,fū hé cháng;zhǎng?
    Looking to the example of past great Kings of Chu, how long can our country continue to be strong and true?
  1. 悟过改更,我又何言?  wù guò gǎi gèng;gēng,wǒ yòu hé yán?
    Having realized one’s faults and corrected my errors, what more can I say?
  1. 吴光争国,久余是胜。  wú guāng zhēng guó,jiǔ yú shì shèng;shēng。
    King Wu of He Lu has fought with Chu, and we have lost the war by far!
  1. 何环穿自闾社丘陵,爰出子文?  hé huán chuān zì lǘ shè qiū líng,yuán chū zǐ wén?
    How did a tiger surround us on all sides, penetrate the village shrines and the hills, and lovingly guide the baby Ziwen’s star? [42]
  1. 吾告堵敖以不长。 wú gào dǔ ào;áo yǐ bù cháng;zhǎng。
    I have been prevented from telling the honest truth, but Chu is about to fall and will not last long.
  1. 何试上自予,忠名弥彰?hé shì shàng zì yǔ,zhōng míng mí zhāng?
    How can one admonish the king, and make him welcome an adviser’s sense of right and wrong?

Notes:

[1] According to the Gulian Annals, a Han Dynasty commentary, “The Yin was never born, The Yang was never born, the Heavens were never born, but their tripartite union was born.”

[2] Heaven was round and had nine poles, or degrees. Interestingly, there are other references in Chinese and Indian mythology that refer to nine truths and nine levels. The nine truths are impermanence; suffering; voidness (or unreality of things); no permanent ego, or soul; love of existence or possessions, resulting in suffering; the opposite (or fear of being without them), also resulting in suffering; the cutting off of suffering and its cause; nirvāṇa with remainder still to be worked out; complete nirvāṇa.

[3] Classical Chinese architecture refers to traditional four rafter and eight pillar building structures.

[4] The Chinese developed their own identification of constellations, and associated them with the 12 times in the year the sun and the moon’s different phases interlock. According to this view, and recorded in the Han Shu (Books of Han) the the names of each are 星纪、玄枵(xiāo)、娵訾(jūzī)、降娄、大梁、实沈、鹑首、鹑火、鹑尾、寿星、大火、析木. In the late Ming Dynasty these Chinese names eventually became associated with the Babylonian system, namely: Aries Báiyáng [白羊], Taurus Jìnniú [金牛], Gemini Shuāngzǐ [双子], Cancer Jùxiè [巨蟹], Leo Shīzǐ [狮子], Virgo Shìnǚ [室女], Libra Tiānchèng [天秤], Scorpio Tiānxiē [天蝎], Sagittarius Rénmǎ [人马], Capricorn Mójié [摩羯], Aquarius Bǎopíng [宝瓶], Pisces Shuāngyú [双鱼].  For ease of reference I use the Western term zodiac. Qu Yuan casts doubt on the number 12, and it was questioned by his contemporaries. The twelve cycles of the year of the Chinese zodiac  also correspond with twelve two-hour cycles during the day, starting from midnight  (or beginning of the annual cycle) with the mouse, followed in turn by the ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, cock, dog and pig. The animal names are generally not used in astrological writings.

[5] Refers to the mythological rabbit that lived on the moon. Even the poet Li Bai (《上云乐》诗:”阳乌未出谷,顾兔半藏身。”) chimed in: “The dusky crow remains in the gully, the rabbit half hides in the shade.”

[6] Gǔn, Count of Chóng (Chinese: 崇伯鯀) was a figure in Chinese mythology, sometimes noted as the father of Yu the Great, the founder of the Xia dynasty. Gun was appointed to the task of controlling the Great Flood by Emperor Yao on the advice of the Four Mountains. Gun used dykes to try to stop the flooding but the dykes collapsed, killing many people. (Wikipedia)

[7] The mention of the tortoise is unclear to this day, as are many of Qu Yuan’s mythological references. According to some commentators, the tortoise can refer to 1) the mythic creature on which the world rests, 2) an inscription on a stone device used in controlling the floods, 3) the creature that delivers the sun from West to East during the night, etc. The owl may be the markings on the tortoise shell.

[8] The Emperor Yao ordered Gun to control the terrible floods of the Yellow River. In order to help create dykes to contain the water, Gun stole a treasured self-renewing soil from the Yellow Emperor (to whom he was related). Nine years later, the dykes collapsed and, for Gun’s theft, he was jailed on Yu Mountain (located south east of Linshu county in Shandong)  until his death three years later.

[9] Gun’s son Yu was said to emerge from the belly of his father’s miraculously preserved body . He continued his father’s work, and, single-mindedly devoting himself to the task, succeeded after thirteen years. His innovative system comprised canals that spread the runoff to the sea. For his great accomplishment, he was hereafter named Yu the Great.

[10] The Emperor-god Yu was said to divide China or the world into nine areas. As with much of Chinese history, there are different views on exactly what these lands were, and speculation that the legend of ‘nine lands’ was in part created by future dynasties to justify their own territorial  annexations  and sovereignty.

[11] The land of the immortals, said to be situated on Mount Kunlun.  Kunlun also referred to a country whose inhabitants had black-skin and curly hair

[12] The Sun Goddess Xi He presided over the Sun and the passage of time. The Ruo tree flowered in celestial gardens.

[13] A poisonous snake with nine human heads and the body of a snake, bringing death and famine in its wake, often associated with tornados and floods.

[14] The Chang were a mythical race of men over five zhang tall (over fifteen meters). During the Warring States period, a huge bone was found in the palace of the Wu Kingdom. Confucius said it was the remains of a giant who had been late to the mythic Emperor Yu’s feast. He  was executed for his crime.

[15] A snake with the head of a man with the body of a red snake, said to be so large it could eat an elephant and spit out the bones after three years. This creature is also an auspicious symbol during early childbirth, and refers to a Tang dynasty hair style.

[16] Black water was associated with the dark and profound aspects of the five elements: water, gold, earth, fire and wood. The lake and two mountains referred to were mythical lands of immortality and long life.

[17] A great man-eating chicken with huge wings, a white head ,two hind feet with tiger claws, and two front feet of a rat.

[18] Houyi (Chinese: 后羿; pinyin: Hòu Yì; Wade–Giles: Hou-i) was a mythological Chinese archer. He was also known as Shen Yi and simply as Yi (羿). He is sometimes portrayed as a god of archery descended from heaven to aid mankind. His wife, Chang’e, was a lunar deity. (Wikipedia). According to Myths and Legends of China, by E. T. C. Werner  Hou Yi…”I led his troops to the banks of the Hsi Ho, West River, at Lin Shan. Here he discovered that on three neighboring peaks nine extraordinary birds were blowing out fire and thus forming nine new suns in the sky. Shên I shot nine arrows in succession, pierced the birds, and immediately the nine false suns resolved themselves into red clouds and melted away. Shên I and his soldiers found the nine arrows stuck in nine red stones at the top of the mountain.”

[19] Yu the Great (c. 2200 – 2101 BC)[1] was a legendary ruler in ancient China famed for his introduction of flood control, inaugurating dynastic rule in China by founding the Xia Dynasty, and for his upright moral character (Wikipedia)

[20] The location Mount Tu is variously claimed to be Xinjiang province, or Anhui or Chongqing.

[21] The son of Yu the Great, reported founder of the Xia Dynasty (c. 2070-1600BC). Qi’s succession to the throne is unclear, but it is rumored that the troops of his contender, Minister Yi,  defected to his side.

[22] This set of verses seems to represent some shamanistic dramatic practices of the Yangzi River valley area (as well as a northern tradition or traditions) involving the invocation of divine beings and seeking their blessings by means of a process of courtship(Wikipedia)

[23] The Lady of Mount Tu saw her husband Yu after he turned into a bear, and she turned into stone out of shock. He called out for his son and the stone in her side cracked apart, a baby emerging.

[24] Hou Yi removed Qi’s successor, Tai Kang, who preferred music and hunting to ruling the country. Hou Yi, according to Wikipedia ”… was said to have become a tyrant after his wife Chang’e stole his elixir of immortality and ascended to the moon. Separately, he appeared as a historical figure in records such as the Bamboo Annals, where he conquered the Xia capital Zhenxun during the early years of the reign of King Taikang.”

[25] Hou Yi “…then led his soldiers to Kao-liang, where the river had risen and formed an immense torrent. He shot an arrow into the water, which thereupon withdrew to its source. In the flood he saw a man clothed in white, riding a white horse and accompanied by a dozen attendants. He quickly discharged an arrow, striking him in the left eye, and the horseman at once took to flight. He was accompanied by a young woman named Cheng E, the younger sister of Ho Po, the Spirit of the Waters. Hou Yi shot an arrow into her hair. She turned and thanked him for sparing her life, adding: “I will agree to be your wife.” After these events had been duly reported to the Emperor Yao, the wedding took place.” (https://chineseaesop.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/the-legend-of-change-and-houyi.html)

[26] Han Zhuo was originally from the state of Hai. He was a relative or “minor functionary” of Boming (), lord of Han, but was dismissed. He joined Houyi‘s court and ingratiated himself to its ladies. Liberal in his gifts and unwilling to do the daily drudgework of rule, Houyi entrusted him with greater and greater responsibility while he focused on his archery. Ultimately, Han Zhuo became Houyi’s “chancellor” and performed most of the duties of government. He is said to have usurped Houyi during the 8th year of the reign of Taikang’s nephew King Xiang at the instigation of Houyi’s wife… Houyi’s wife Sable Fox then became Han Zhuo’s consort and bore him two sons, Ao (, Ào) or Jiao (, Jiāo) and Yi (). (Wikipedia)

[27] Ao was a great mythic turtle with a dragon’s head and a unicorn’s tail. The goddess Nuwa repaired the four pillars holding up Heaven with her five colored clay and the turtle’s leg(s).

[28] Han Jiao (Ao) refers to the successor of Han Zhou, known as the ‘Arrogant King’ and credited with his shipbuilding innovations.  He was a strongman also considered on of the Water Immortals.

[29] King Jie was the last and notoriously corrupt and cruel emperor of the Xia Dynasty. He was defeated by the forces of Tang of Shang at Mengtiao, who then established the Shang Dynasty.

[30] Di Ku is known as one of the Five Emperors of Chinsa, and fathered Yao. Ku’s son Xie, born miraculously to Jiandi after she swallowed the egg of a black bird, became the pre-dynastic founder of the ruling family of the Shang dynasty. Ku’s son Houji, born miraculously to Jiang Yuan after she stepped in the footprint of a god, became the pre-dynastic founder of the lineage of the Zhou dynasty. (Wikipedia)

[31] Shun lived with his father, stepmother and half brother. His father ignored him, and the other two tried to kill. B ut he famously turned the other cheek, forgiving them after they failed. Shun is often paired with Yao as two benevolent demi-god emperors.

[32] Yi Yun was a commoner who helped Tang of Shang overthrow the Xia Dynasty. He was a wise and valued counselor for emperors that followed.

[33] Jian Di was the mother of Xie, founder of the Shang dynasty, and consort of the god-king Di Ku.  A dark swallow reputedly dropped two eggs when she was bathing, and she became pregnant with Xie when she ate one of them. She was said to live in a tower where she was proficient at playing musical instruments and is credited with founding the Northern school of music.

[34] “There is a place called the Kingdom of Yinmin, where the royal surname is Gou and the primary food is millet. There is a person there named Wang Hai who holds in each hand a bird, each of whose heads he is in the process of eating. Wang Hai is the ruler of the Yin (or Shang) dynasty. At one time he entrusted his draft cattle to the ruler of the Youyi people and the River Earl. The ruler of Youyi ends up killing Wang Hai because Wang Hai had had improper relations with the ruler’s wife.”  (Songs of Chu: An Ancient Anthology of Works by Qu Yuan and Others, Columbia University Press).  Other legends say Wang Hai was killed by his older brother Wang Heng, and Wang Heng then killed the ruler of You Yi and his invading army.

[35]  Bi Gan was a son of King Wen Ding, and an uncle of the last Shang king, Zhou (aka Di Xin). He is immortalized as a Taoist deity. Though he is commonly known as Bi Gan, his actual surname is “Zi” (子). Notorious for his corruptness, Di Xin was annoyed by Bi Gan’s advice to rectify his ways. He ordered Bi Gan’s execution through extraction of the heart 比干剖心, under the eerie pretext of curiosity “whether the Sage’s heart has seven openings”.  (Wikipedia). An informative chart of all the Chinese Kings at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_tree_of_ancient_Chinese_emperors#Xia_dynasty.

[36] Qu Yuan is probably referring to King Zhou (纣) of Shang who killed his advisor Mei Bo for criticizing him by literally barbecuing him.  Lei Kei and Ji Zi were also advisors. King Zhou Wen was a different King who toppled Zhou of Shang and established the Zhou Dynasty.

[37] King Wen, last of the Shang Dynasty, was infatuated with the legendary beauty Da Ji. She was said to never laugh and, when she did, it was a practical joke at the expense of the Zhou nobles.

[38] Qu Yuan is probably referring to King Zhou,  who killed the Crown Prince and served him for lunch.

[39] King Wen of Zhou, a founder of the Zhou dynasty,  admired his advisor Jiang Ziya (also known as Lu Wang) . Hearing his advisor clink his knives, Jiang Ziya explained, “Below us is a slaughterhouse for cows; above is a place Kingdoms end.” (Wikipedia)  Jiang Ziya is regarded as one of the greatest strategists in both Chinese history and the world, and is honored as the first famous general and progenitor of strategic studies.

[40] A legendary Shang Dynasty sage who lived between 100 and 800 years old, and cooked excellent soup.  A god of procreation and longevity.

[41] In protest against invasions by the Zhou Kingdom, the Boyi brothers of Shang exiled themselves to the mountains  where they starved themselves rather than eat the ferns of Zhou. A lady appeared and bid a white deer suckle them for a time.

[42] A Chu Kingdom legend about an abandoned baby who was raised by a tigress, and became an advisor to the King.

 

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