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The Shaman and the Heresiarch

A New Interpretation of the Li sao

Gopal Sukhu

Publication Year: 2012

The first book-length study in English of the Chinese classic, the Li sao (Encountering Sorrow). Includes translations of Li sao and the Nine Songs. The Li sao (also known as Encountering Sorrow), attributed to the poet-statesman Qu Yuan (4th–3rd century BCE), is one of cornerstones of the Chinese poetic tradition. It has long been studied as China’s first extended allegory in poetic form, yet most scholars agree that there is very little in the two-thousand-year-old tradition of commentary on it that convincingly explains its supernatural flights, its complex floral imagery, or the gender ambiguity of its primary poetic persona. The Shaman and the Heresiarch is the first book-length study of the Li sao in English, offering new translations of both the Li sao and the Nine Songs. The book traces the shortcomings of the earliest extant commentary on those texts, that of Wang Yi, back to the quasi-divinatory methods of the highly politicized tradition of Chinese classical hermeneutics in general, and the political machinations of a Han dynasty empress dowager in particular. It also offers an entirely new interpretation of the Li sao, one based not on Qu Yuan hagiography but on what late Warring States period artifacts and texts, including recently unearthed texts, teach us about the cultural context that produced the poem. In that light we see in the Li sao not only a reflection of the era of the great classical Chinese philosophers, but also the breakdown of the political-religious order of the ancient state of Chu.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Cover Page

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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiii

Now that I have been a teacher of Asian literature for well over a decade, I look back in gratitude, and sometimes wonder, to those who taught me. My first teacher, one of the very best, was Mrs. Yuan Ming-ch’iu, who had the good fortune to teach me when I was still a decent student. At Yale University, for various personal reasons, I became...

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pp. 1-38

There is a word in Chinese that sums up all that we know about the origins of ancient Chinese poetry—feng sao 風騷. Read literally it means “wind sorrow.” It in fact refers to the main sections of the two most ancient anthologies of Chinese poetry: the Shi jing 詩經, or the Book of Songs, and the Chu ci 楚辭 or the Songs of Chu1...

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Chapter One: Wang Yi and Han Dynasty Classical Commentary

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pp. 39-54

David Hawkes in his The Songs of the South wrote, “The Later Han was an age of great scholars and exegetes, but Wang Yi was emphatically not of their number.” Hawkes was not alone in his judgment.1 The philosopher Zhu Xi began challenging Wang Yi’s work as early as the Song dynasty. By the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Chinese words for “strained”, “...

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Chapter Two: Wang Yi and the Woman Who Commissioned the Chu ci zhangju

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pp. 55-70

The official history of the Later Han dynasty (Hou Han shu 後漢書) records precious few details about the life and career of Wang Yi.1 He was from Yicheng 宜城 in Nanjun 南郡 (or South Commandery, modern Jiangling in Hubei), site of one of the old Chu capitals and the reputed home of the Chu poet Song Yu 宋玉. Sometime during the Yuanchu...

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Chapter Three: The Intergendered Shaman of the Li sao

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pp. 71-86

What does the removal of the roadblock posed by Wang Yi’s interpretation of the word jiang allow us to see in the Li sao? Does it reveal a “logical pattern of events,” what many modern scholars tell us the poem lacks?1 And are those events amenable to allegorical interpretation? Once we recognize that the beginning of...

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Chapter Four: The Realm of Shaman Peng-Floral Imagery in the Li sao

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pp. 87-116

Despite its extensive use in the poem, no one has ever convincingly explained the floral imagery of the Li sao. Traditional commentators, in the train of Wang Yi, reasonably assume that the fragrant plants stand for virtue, and the malodorous ones...

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Chapter Five: The Philosophy of the Li sao, Part 1

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pp. 117-130

It is a great irony that the man who first pointed out one of the most important keys to understanding the Li sao should have never used it himself. In fact, he began a two-thousand-year tradition of ignoring that key. I am speaking of course of Wang Yi, who in his Chu ci commentary...

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Chapter Six: The Philosophy of the Li sao, Part 2

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pp. 131-144

The philosophers disagreed as to the exact nature of the sage kings’ statecraft and self-cultivation. Yet most of them used the term Dao, the Way, to describe both. And all agreed that this Dao was somehow connected to Heaven, understood either as a governing benevolent force or impersonal natural order. The Way appears in the Li sao as well—in road and travel...

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Chapter Seven: Shaman Xian’s Domain: The First and Second Journeys

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pp. 145-164

One of the greatest roadblocks to a coherent reading of the Li sao is the “first journey” (lines 181‒256), where Zhengze Ling Jun while presenting her case in the masculine voice of the spirit Zhengze in front of the tomb of Shun 舜 (Chonghua 重華), suddenly finds him/...

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Chapter Eight: Conclusion

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pp. 165-182

I once presented a paper to the Columbia Seminar on Traditional China to get some feedback on some of the ideas developed in this book, especially the idea that the fourth line of the poem gives the date of the descent of a spirit rather than the birth of Qu Yuan. Afterward a member of the seminar, a scholar from China, asked...

Appendix 1: A Translation of the Li sao

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pp. 183-194

Appendix 2: The Nine Songs

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pp. 195-210


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pp. 211-236

Selected Bibliography of Works in Chinese and Japanese

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pp. 237-240

Selected Bibliography of Works in Western Languages

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pp. 241-254


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pp. 255-265

Back Cover

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p. 280-280

E-ISBN-13: 9781438442846
Print-ISBN-13: 9781438442822

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2012