Battle for China: the ballad of Qu Yuan

The clash between Chinese officials and radicals over whether an ancient poet was a patriot or dissenter is about more than literary heritage.

Shirley Dent

Topics Culture

Reading the state-run, English-language China Daily during a recent visit to China, it was difficult to avoid the impression that tradition has never been more current there.

A comment piece by Han Haoyue reflected on the revived Dragon Boat, or Duanwu, festival. This traditional event was recognised for the first time in 2008 as an official holiday in the People’s Republic of China. ‘There is a touching story behind the festival too’, Han Haoyue informs us: ‘Qu Yuan, a poet in the Warring States Period more than 2,000 years ago, drowned himself on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month of 278 BC in the Milo River in despair over his country’s future. Hearing of his death, people who loved Qu raced in boats to recover his body from the river and threw zongzi [glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves] into it to feed the fish to keep them away from Qu’s body.’ Every year on Duanwu, even before it was officially recognised this year, people eat zongzi and have river boat races.

Both Han Haoyue’s article and the leader on the same page talked about the lost ‘folk customs’ around the Duanwu festival – customs acknowledged by the Chinese State Council in 2006 as being part of the national cultural heritage. The leader ended with an appeal to the present generation: ‘Making the festival a public holiday will hopefully rescue or at least remind modern Chinese of our long history and great traditions.’

Such appeals to the past are not confined to newspaper opinion pieces. Elsewhere, there is much to suggest that China is intent on digging deep into its ancient past, celebrating the longevity of the Chinese nation and making links with other great and ancient civilisations. Lambros Liavas, artistic director of the Greek National Opera and designer of the flame-lighting ceremony for the Beijing Olympics, is quoted enthusiastically by China Daily as saying: ‘Traditional Greek music and Chinese music have much in common, for example they are all five-tone scales.’ Add to this the launch of the official Cultural Heritage website in mid-June and it seems clear that history, tradition and cultural legacy are big in China at the moment (1).

It would be a mistake, however, to see this recovery of China’s ancient culture as simply a shaking-off of the last shackles of the Cultural Revolution and a returning of forgotten art, literature and music to the Chinese people. The ancient cultural glories of China are not being neutrally revived. Cultural heritage is being used – by both the state and dissenting voices in China – as a bridge to the past and a view to the future.

In this sense, the sheer antiquity and longevity of Chinese culture is celebrated as part of a continuum that heralds a bright future for the Chinese nation and civilisation. But this is a broken equation. What is missing is the present. Ancient culture and 2,000-year-old poets are distant enough from the modern political era to bypass any explicit contestation in or about the political present. The result is that political contestation in China today can take on strange and subdued forms, as a recent dispute around the third-century BCE poet Qu Yuan illustrates.

Qu Yuan has been officially recognised as a ‘patriotic poet’. Lines from his ‘Ode to an Orange Tree’ are quoted on the official Three Gorges Dam website. The poem cited for its indication of Qu Yuan’s ‘loyalty and integrity’, as well as for illustrating the poet’s ideal of the state as ‘independent, unselfish and unyielding’. It is apparent in such statements that contemporary appreciation of classic Chinese poetry is not just a matter of aesthetics. There is a political subtext here.

A group of Chinese scholars took the opportunity provided by the revived Duanwu festival to write an open letter that suggested replacing the omnipresent image of Chairman Mao on one of the yuan bills with that of Qu Yuan (2). The scholars’ argument is not really about ‘reviving culture through the pocketbook’, as one website dubbed the campaign. They are using the cultural past to dispute the political present. Their complaint is that the official ‘patriotic’ valorisation of Qu Yuan has devalued and dimmed the poet’s dissenting voice: ‘His desire for freedom, and his refusal to submit to tyranny, has been obscured and diluted.’ (3)

This may appear a rather arcane literary argument. But this is really not about whether or not Qu Yuan was a patriot or a dissenter – he was quite possibly both. No, the campaign to replace Mao with Qu is a sideways pot-shot at a one-party state and the attempts of that state to use a revered poet – Qu Yuan is often referred to as the ‘Chinese Shakespeare’ – to shore up its own authority.

China’s renewed interest in its ancient past seems initially to be an example of what Frank Furedi described in Mythical Past, Elusive Future as ‘attempts to recast or modernise the past in order to make it a useable source of authority’. Yet China’s attempt differs from this in an important way. Whereas Furedi argued that the demand for history in the West was ultimately about the West’s own alienation from its future, China is anything but alienated from its future. China’s recasting of the past is not about fear of the future, but about China’s manifest destiny.

Official linking of the cultural past and the economic future in China today often aims to provide an authoritative narrative of such national destiny, evident in the preface to an officially sanctioned account of Shanghai’s historical Xuhui district: ‘As the illustrious component part of the metropolitan Shanghai, Xuhui traces the glorious history of its modernisation and foretells the bright future of its development… Xuhui owes her brightness not only to her economic prosperity and achievements in construction today but also to her aged culture.’ Yet there is a more fundamental argument about historical thinking in Mythical Past, Elusive Future that holds agonisingly true for China today.

China may not suffer from a ‘sense of terminus’ that ‘at once indicates not only the absence of a sense of change but also an outlook that fears change’. But the way it thinks about and makes history is severely limited by any sense of people acting in the present to make and shape that history. The problem is not with a future there-for-the-taking but with the absence of human agency in the present – of Chinese people taking control of their own destinies in the here and now. The revival and celebration of the ancient past is a symptom of the suspension of the political present.

Undoubtedly there is a new mythologising – state-sanctioned and otherwise – of China’s cultural heritage afoot. But the problem is not that China has an elusive future. The problem is that its political present is elusive and that cultural legacy is being used to elastoplast over real political dissent and contestation. On either side, having a discussion about a 2,000-year-old poet is no substitute for a political vision that speaks to the Chinese people in the here and now.

Yet just as the genius of Qu Yuan uniquely came to fruition at a certain time and place in Chinese history, new political, indeed, popular visions will surely break through in the dynamism of twenty-first century China. My guide during my recent trip to Beijing, when asked about China’s future, captured the sense of approaching change: ‘China will have democracy – it won’t look like your democracy, like European or American democracy. But we will have democracy and it will be our democracy.’ The present, it seems, can only be avoided for so long.

Shirley Dent is communications director for the Institute of Ideas. She will be chairing the debate China’s new cultural revolution at the Battle for China in London on 12 July.

Previously on spiked

Shirley Dent argued that polemics are killing poetry. Bill Durodié reflected on contemporary Chinese art. Chris Dalby asked who is teaching China’s next generation. Jan Bowman defended artistic independence. Or read more at spiked issues Arts and Entertainment and China.

(1) See the China Cultural Heritage website here.

(2) Chinese may put money on ancient poet, The Times, 7 June 2008

(3) Reviving traditional culture through the pocketbook, Danwei, 4 June 2008

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Topics Culture


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