What’s to Fear? Qu Yuan & the Tian Wen

“Thunder and lightning at twilight—
Return! Why worry?
If we do not even maintain our prestige,
what can we expect from the Lord of the Sky?

If I hide in a cave,
what then will I have to say?”

Chuci, Tian Wen, transl. Sukhu


As Sukhu discusses in his text this passage has been interpreted differently (surprise!) by various scholars, with a measure of consensus that Qu Yuan refers here to an actual historical event in Chu. While that may be so, what stands out to me is that this passage immediately recalls one of the Huainanzi’s keystone themes—how to move through life with a proper mentality. The “mentality of Yu” recognizes how insubstantial the world is and “how to circulate comprehensively and prepare exhaustively, so that [one] cannot be roused by things or startled by oddities.” Chapters 3, 4, and 5 of the Huainanzi are dedicated specifically to explicating how to “equalize death and life [so as not to have] a mentality that is fearful.”

In chapter 7.9 we find the story of Yu & the Boat, and I couldn’t pick a better narrative to illustrate the goal of yinyang thinking. Here we find Yu crossing a river with five other people (the elements) when suddenly a dragon appears. Limited by their pedestrian emotional responses they lose their shit, while Yu just laughs—“how could this disturb my harmony” he asks, recalling to himself that he knows his natural propensity and therefore his mandate, he’s done the work and knows what he can accomplish, and he knows how to adapt to the times. Yet with all his success he knows that virtue itself is no guarantee that bad things can’t happen. And, most importantly, he knows he will die yet continue on. As a result, Yu’s color does not change and he stares down the dragon, who then flees.

Going back to this passage from the Tian Wen, I read the same lesson here: instances of natural phenomena frighten the common person who has not investigated Nature’s cycles of alternation and transformation. The point is not only about education, but also a message to the superior person/sage/minister: circumstances happen. The actions of society, and indeed the climate, can threaten to overwhelm or even kill you; however, retreating into a cave is not the answer. We are here to serve, and therefore withdrawing from society to pursue a hermitic life prevents you from adapting to the times and fulfilling your destiny/mandate (which is knowing your natural propensity). This passage also gives statement to the role of personal responsibility, care of the mechanics of ganying-resonance, in its assertion that we ourselves must model proper behavior—lest what should we expect from divinity on high?

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