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The bird imagery of ‘Li Sao’

MA XIAOFEI | 2021-08-26 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The lacquered tiger-seated phoenix-framed drum unearthed from Hubei Province was an important type of musical instrument popular in the Chu State during the Warring States Period. PHOTO: JINGZHOU MUSEUM

The famous writer Lu Xun (1881–1936) praised “Li Sao” as a masterpiece unparalleled in the history of Chinese literature. One of the reasons for the significant achievement of “Li Sao” is that its writer, Qu Yuan (c. 339–278 BCE), expressed his emotions and attitudes symbolically through various metaphorical imagery, among which the best known is the “beauty” and the “fragrant herbs” [both symbolize moral integrity]. 

Other imagery in “Li Sao” also has special value. According to Wang Yi, an Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220) scholar known for his commentaries on “Li Sao,” the good birds and fragrant herbs match the loyal and the faithful, while the evil birds and the stinky herbs represent the crafty and the hideous; the divinity (ling xiu) and the beauty allude to the king, while the “nymph” (fu fei) and the “beauteous princess of the west” (yi nyu) suggest honest court officials; the dragons and phoenixes symbolize people of virtue, while the “gathering whirlwinds” (piao feng) and the “lowering clouds” (yun ni) are metaphors for unworthy men.
Bird imagery
“Li Sao” was written when Qu Yuan was greatly frustrated. Though being hopeful to assist King Huai of Chu in his efforts, Qu Yuan was calumniated and supplanted by his rival courtiers, and was consequently estranged from the king. He was banished to the north of the Han River. Qu Yuan’s displacement and emotional suffering caused by political frustration led to the birth of “Li Sao.” Though fettered by the bounds of reality, his imagination flourished. It may explain why Qu Yuan created such light, carefree bird imagery in “Li Sao.”
The verses involving bird imagery in “Li Sao” are as follows:
The zhi birds can be found in the verse: “Remote the eagle [a translation of zhi] spurns the common range,/ Nor deigns since time began its way to change.”
The verses mentioning phoenixes include: “Swift jade-green dragons, birds with plumage gold [a translation of yi],/ I harnessed to the whirlwind, and behold;” “Before, the royal blue bird [a translation of luan huang] cleared the way;/ The lord of thunder urged me to delay;” “I bade the phoenix [a translation of feng niao] scan the heaven wide;/ But vainly day and night its course it tried;” “With nuptial gifts the phoenix [a translation of feng huang] swiftly went;/ I feared the prince had won her ere I sent;” “On phoenix [a translation of feng huang] wings the dragon pennons lay;/ With plumage bright they flew to lead the way.”
The zhen birds appear in “The falcon [a translation of zhen] then I bade entreat the maid,/ But he, demurring, would my course dissuade,” and the jiu birds are mentioned in “The turtle-dove [a translation of jiu] cooed soft and off did fly,/ But I mistrusted his frivolity” (All translated by Yang Xianyi & Gladys Yang).
These birds mainly fall under two categories: the good and the evil. Qu Yuan viewed the zhi birds and phoenixes as the good, and the zhen and jiu birds the evil.
Wang Yi interpreted the zhi bird as a bird of tough, forceful, and independent character. It represents the people of integrity, who stick to their principles and refuse to compromise. The zhi birds are raptors that are good at fighting. Most predators and raptors are solitary creatures, so they are often viewed as brave, uncomplaining, and unyielding mavericks. The imagery of the zhi birds in “Li Sao” reflects Qu Yuan’s determination of not compromising with evil forces and his strong opposition to coexisting with villains. Moreover, the bravery of the zhi birds represents Qu Yuan’s indomitable spirit and his courage to fight against evil.  
The “yi,” “luan huang,” “feng bird,” and “feng huang” appearing in the article are attributed to the genus of phoenix by most commentators. As for the yi birds, Wang mentioned a record in The Classic of Mountains and Seas [an ancient Chinese compilation of mythic geography and beasts] in his comments: “Within the North Sea there is Mount Snake. The Snake River flows out of it and runs to the east before it empties itself into the sea. There are birds of five colors called yi bird” (trans. Zhao Zheng). Wang noted that the yi was another name for feng huang, thereby falling under the category of phoenix. 
Phoenix is the top-class bird in Chinese legends. In “Li Sao,” the magnificent adventures of Qu Yuan’s three flights are accompanied by these birds—they appear as a guide on his first flight, as an envoy on his second flight, and as a companion behind him on the third flight. Phoenixes following Qu Yuan is an example of “Birds of a feather flock together.” They are not only a symbol of loyal court officials, but also a representative of Qu Yuan’s noble character.
Zhen is a name given to legendary poisonous birds by the Shuowen Jiezi [a Han Dynasty Chinese dictionary]. Wang noted that the zhen’s feathers are poisonous. According to his commentaries on The Classic of Mountains and Seas, Jin scholar Guo Pu (276–324) believed that this bird has a purple abdomen and green-tipped feathers with a long neck and a scarlet beak, and acquires its poisonous attributes from devouring poisonous viper heads. Since the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE) and the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE), zhen have been closely connected with “poison,” which endows this legendary bird with a negative connotation when it is personified. Therefore, Qu Yuan used zhen as a metaphor of the jealous and wicked people around the Chu king in reality. Instead of introducing the talented to the court, these people slandered and framed them.
Jiu birds [most commonly a dove or pigeon] are considered short of wit and unable to fly high, but they often make a loud whistling. When these birds are personified, these characteristics make them a representative of glib, smooth-talking, frivolous, and untrustworthy people.
Romanticism of Chu culture
The above bird imagery is imbued with deep romanticism and symbolic meaning. Qu Yuan endowed personality traits, such as good, evil, beauty, and ugliness, onto birds. The uniqueness of the bird imagery in “Li Sao” originated from the romantic Chu culture, and is the result of Qu Yuan’s combination of romanticism with individual emotions.
The magnificent landscape and rich natural resources of the Chu state let the imagination of its people run riot, thus creating the tradition of Wu worship, or the belief in shaman or witchcraft. Therefore, during the pre-Qin period, when the Central Plain [in north China] began to be influenced by the spirit of rationalism and gradually moved past witchcraft worship, the Chu State “still maintained and developed its splendid early traditions, because it preserved the primitive kinship social structure more [than north China did at that time]” (see The Path of Beauty by Li Zehou). Therefore, the Chu established a romantic cultural atmosphere, full of bizarre imagination and passion.
A characteristic of the romantic gene of the Chu culture is the worship of the phoenix. The Chu people favored the bird-worm seal script [a type of ancient Chinese seal script, characters written in this style feature bird-shaped parts, or winding strokes which produce a worm-like character]. Among the Chu cultural relics, a common Chu motif is the phoenix. There are many records of the Chu people’s phoenix worship.  
The creation of the bird imagery in “Li Sao” was based on Chu culture, and was inspired by the romantic personality of the Chu people. Therefore, strictly speaking, the bird imagery is not Qu Yuan’s innovation, but his inheritance from Chu’s folk traditions.
Ma Xiaofei is from the Faculty of Arts at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.