Dear Qu Yuan,
I am writing Letters to Dead Poets travelling through the alphabet from A-Z where each letter is a stop along the road.
In so many ways, we have formed something of an arranged marriage.
You see, I didn’t know any poets starting with Q and found you through a random Google search. So, instead of going through more traditional avenues to meet, we met online. Naturally, this is quite a different experience but does it make it any less valid? I don’t know. After all, is it destiny or chance which has brought me here, travelling back in time to Ancient China 340 – 278 B.C.?
That’s why I’m here. I need to find out.
Lacking a time machine, I’ve boarded my kayak and I’m travelling back in time along your epic poem: LI SAO (The Lament). I understand that you probably wrote Li Sao while living in exile South of the Yangtse River. There is some debate about what LI SAO means. It’s been interpreted as: “encountering sorrow”, “sorrow after departure”, “sorrow in estrangement” while others claim it was the name of a certain type of music.
In any case, your poem is bringing us together, carrying me across the boundaries of time and place.
There is a quote from modern literature, which I hold very dear:
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
So, although we live so many, many worlds apart, why couldn’t we swap our skins and get a feel for what it is to see through each other’s eyes, walk in each other’s shoes and wear each other’s skins? Trade places and breathe in each other’s air? Sing each other’s song?
I know it sounds crazy, impossible and even ridiculous. Indeed, I can picture us now in a change room, trying each other on in front of the mirror and just how weird it would feel. It wouldn’t surprise me, if I am a lot taller than you and that you’d look something like the saggy baggy elephant lost inside all those folds of skin. On the other hand, your skin would be stretched as tight as a drum and would inevitably rip as soon as I tried to sit down. That would be particularly hard to explain. Yet, perhaps the biggest hurdle of all is how we’d adjust to life in our different worlds. Fast forwarding and reversing over 2000 years, would have to be the ultimate head spin!
So, here we are. I’m in my kayak and you are the river.
What are the words you speak? Even though our meeting has been designed, arranged or even forced, can we find some common ground or will this “marriage” immediately end in “divorce”?
I don’t know.
Indeed, I’m very conscious that we’ll barely have a chance to meet before I’m forced to leave. My time is brief and LI SAO (The Lament) has 373 lines and about 2400 characters. Unfortunately, I can’t simply stop and contemplate the wax and waning of the moon. I must move on. So, I can really only dip my toe in what really is a vast expanse.
Yet, even on this very fleeting encounter, I immediately found common ground, even though we’re man and woman living over 2000 years apart in different lands:
Excerpts from LI SAO (The Lament)
In swift succession spring and autumn passed;
The fallen flowers lay scattered on the ground,
The dusk might fall before my dream was found.
I marvel at the folly of the king,
So heedless of his people’s suffering.
They envied me my mothlike eyebrows fine,
And so my name his damsels did malign.
In sadness plunged and sunk in deepest gloom,
Alone I drove on to my dreary doom.
In exile rather would I meet my end,
Than to the baseness of their ways descend.
Remote the eagle spurns the common range,
Nor deigns since time began its way to change;
A circle fits not with a square design;
Their different ways could not be merged with mine
“A circle fits not with a square design.”…That line really spoke to me. Bound us together as one. Indeed, we have a modern phrase: “you can’t fit a square thing in a round hole”. This is most definitely me. While I can’t be entirely sure this phrase wasn’t in effect “added” via the translation but no doubt at least the meaning was there.
While our experiences of exile have been different, I know what it is to be a circle. So many of us do in our own way, which I guess makes us a community of circles. While we might not stack up as efficiently as the squares, is efficiency more important than creativity and imagination? That ability to think outside the square to create and innovate?
You probably know my answer.
Besides, while we circles might not stack, we definitely roll. Move. Grow. We’re not all stacked up on one top of the other filed in alphabetical order.
It’s quite difficult to budge a square.
It’s been really interesting to see how much two random strangers can have in common, even when there is seemingly so much difference between us. That there is a common thread of what it means to be human extending from the distant past and heading off into the future. That is a beautiful thing.
Alas, as much as I’ve relished our journey together, the train whistle’s blowing and it’s time for me to leave.
Perhaps, you would like to visit me and raft along my poetry some time. We could even go for a walk along the beach and contemplate the waves. It would be wonderful to pause with you when we could simply stop.
Warm regards my friend,
LI SAO (The Lament) translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang