Archive for June 16th, 2010

You understand the present only after it is past. – Han Suyin

The Chinese are a people who, because they refused God, taught and learned ethics from their history upon which they were written since Confucius. – Anonymous


Understanding neither the Chinese nor able to read their language, the West and its minions, Anglophile Malaysians (Christians and Chinese), saw in the duanwu jie 端午節 primarily from one of two standpoints. Today, hence, the duanwu is either a “dragon boat festival” (in Lim Guan Eng’s Penang for example) or zongzi, dumpling festival, and sometimes as both.

The duanwu 端午 (literally, extremities in the middle) is held each year on the fifth day of the fifth month in the lunar calendar – the mid-summer solstice, Jun 16 in 2010 Gregorian. It is unique among the dozen-odd, yearly Chinese festivals for reasons as follow:

  • (a) it is grounded on an actual historical precedent;
  • (b) it is politically charged and steeped in ethics rare in Western ideological discourse; and,
  • (c) it has literature and poetry narrating the background events that led to the death of Qu Yuan 屈原 (c. 340–278 BC), who committed suicide by drowning in a river near present-day Yueyang, Hunan province.

Even Kongzi (Confucius), who lived about 250 years earlier, receives no such honour today. The duanwu is also among the three cultural festivals restored to post-communist China and given statutory holidays; the others are qingming and mid-Autumn. (The duanwu is also publicly observed in Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.)

Honouring Qu Yuan in Hubei, his birthplace.

Qu Yuan, with a ministerial rank, had served King Huai of Chu 楚怀王. This is recorded in the shiqi by the Han historian Sima Qian. The Chu was one of the seven states in multi-state China at the time (others are Qin, Qi, Zhao, Han, Wei and Yan). Among these states, alliances emerged, fell apart and Qin alone prevailed eventually. It was with the Qin that the Chu state initially fought, later aligned with it in a move that Qu Yuan objected to, against both the wishes of the King and of his other court advisers and ministers. This is also to say he was alone among popular sentiment, but the pressure must have been very great on him: where was his allegiance if not the interest of the Chu state, defeated before in battles and King Huai captured by the Qin? An alliance with the Qin was the only survival option left, was it not?

Some years after he was expelled from the court then exiled, subsequently reduced to wandering along the river Miluo, the Qin state violently seized the Chu capital. On hearing of the news Qu Yuan threw himself into the river. This suicide by drowning is queer because his foretelling against Qin betrayal would have been vindicated. The paddling of boats to his rescue and throwing of dumplings after him might be part of the folklore, but in Qu Yuan is a historical event which, after traversing 2,200 years, still informs of a political ethic today. What is it?

Like the classical Chinese philosophers and the literati class after them, and like other state officials spread over three millennia, Qu Yuan’s contribution to Chinese society, the world in general, is informed by his own hand. This is contained in an anthology put together during the Han era, after his death. The collection is known as the Poems of Chu or 楚辞 chuchi. Sima Qian listed five poems. Latter historians added many more. But in all cases, the center piece of the chuci is Qu Yuan’s representative work, the lisao 离骚, 373 lines and 2,490 character-words long. The title is sometimes rendered as “The Lament”, sometimes “Encountering Sorrow” but the nuanced translation “Sorrow at Parting” is still the best.

Here is a Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang translation. The epilogue segment 亂曰:已矣哉





Since in that kingdom all my virtue spurn,

Why should I for the royal city yearn?

Wide though the world, no wisdom can be found.

I’ll seek the stream where once the sage was drowned.

In the rhapsodic verses of the lisao (reading is made difficult by its form and allegories) was the voice of a man who once had the ears of a king, and who foresaw an ally’s treachery, a doomed fate, and yet he could do nothing. In a collapsing social and political order of the Warring States era, lasting 47 years (475-221 BC), nobody has a unity of purpose. What then is the highest price to be paid by any life towards a country’s survival? The answer is nearly as varied as they are people answering the question. But for Qu Yuan all the power left from self v. society, as represented by the king, and power left from remnants of his life was just this: death. Latter Confucian officials (Mengzi, or Mencius, foremost among them) witnessed the same futility in trying to turn around a failing government and suggested they retreat quietly and wait. Timing was all that remained.

The period Qu Yuan lived is not remarkably different from the current state of affairs in Malaysia: a society falling apart; no home nor street safe; betrayals every other week (think of PKR and Anwar Ibrahim); make-pretend prophets rising up to claim imminent “change” (Umno, DAP); evangelical people proclaiming god and miracles (PAS, Kit Siang, Hannah Yeoh). Many interpretations of Sorrow at Parting reflect an identical situation so that in a society disintegrating, every political self stands alone by necessity. On duanwu jie, what’s to be done?

Qu Yuan, as depicted in his final days.

Chinese, Indians and Malays have in combination 8,000 years of historical precedent upon which to construct a common society. Surely, there must be some things worthy of extraction, ideas and rules of government far better than 1,000 John Stuart Mills lined up coast to American coast. But all that had been discarded in favour of a political apparatus and social institutions that now overlay a truncated, degenerate ideology from the West, an ideology informed by its imperial colonialism and its religious ethics and preached by its domestic followers.

Hindraf is right to pursue an indigenous path; to seek its own way to political salvation. No culture and no people are free unless their history is also freed of the present shackles. That freedom must now be restored, with which the task must begin with freedom from the West and freedom from their:

  • god and money,
  • capitalism and communism,
  • fascism, liberalism and its substitute religions,
  • NYT, Der Spiegel and their copycat editor minions,
  • US dollars and Treasury bills,
  • Pat Robertson preachers and its local, evangelical minions,
  • Hollywood and its Wall Street,
  • fees and commissions, and
  • legalism, laws and its statutes.

In Sorrow at Parting, Qu Yuan held a valid point: the world tells us it is full of wisdom, but yet none is to be found. Back then to the past, the roots and their masters: “I’ll seek the stream where once the sage was drowned.

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