The Nine Songs are lyrical, shamanistic incantations dedicated to nine classes of deities worshipped by the Chu people of south China during the first millennium B.C. The original text consists of eleven songs, ten of which are transcribed and illustrated here. The illustrations are preceded by a portrait of the poet Qu Yuan (343–277 B.C.), which is accompanied by an essay entitled "The Fisherman," recounting the poet's state of mind toward the end of his life.
Zhao Mengfu's paintings for the Nine Songs in the baimiao, or "white-drawing" style, are based on compositions by Li Gonglin (ca. 1041–1106) and were a primary source for later fourteenth-century paintings of this theme by Zhang Wu (active 1333–65) and others. Because the calligraphy in the album does not compare with the best of Zhao Mengfu's writing, it is probable that these leaves represent close, reliable copies of Zhao's important work, executed during the fourteenth century. One leaf, "The Lord of Clouds," is a later replacement (no earlier than the seventeenth century).
Inscription: Artist’s inscriptions and signature
Leaf B (8 columns in standard script)
Portrait of Qu Yuan
When Qu Yuan was banished, he wandered, sometimes along the river’s banks, sometimes along with the marsh’s edge, singing as he went. His expression was dejected and his features emaciated. A fisherman caught sight of him. ‘Are not you the Lord of the Three Wards?’ said the fisherman. ‘What has brought you to this pass?’ ‘Because all the world is muddy and I alone am clear,’ said Qu Yuan, ‘and because all men are drunk and I alone am sober, I have been sent into exile.’ ‘The Wise Man is not chained to material circumstances,’ said the fisherman, ‘but can move as the world moves. If all the world is muddy, why not help them to stir up the mud and beat up the waves? And if all men are drunk, why not sup their dregs and swill their lees? Why get yourself exiled because of your deep thoughts and your fine aspirations?’ Qu Yuan replied, ‘I have heard it said: “He who has just washed his hair should brush his hat; and he who has just bathed should shake his clothes.” How can I submit my spotless purity to the dirt of others? I would rather cast myself into the waters of the river and be buried in the bowels of fishes than hide my shining light in the dark and dust of the world.’ The fisherman, with a faint smile, struck his paddle in the water and made off. And as he went he sang: ‘When the Cang-lang’s waters are clear, I can wash my hat-strings in them; When the Cang-lang’s waters are muddy, I can wash my feet in them.’ With that he was gone, and did not speak again.
On a lucky day with an auspicious name Reverently we come to delight the Lord on High. We grasp the long sword’s haft of jade, And our girdle pendants clash and chime. From the god’s jewelled mat with treasures laden Take up the fragrant flower-offerings, The meats cooked in melilotus, served on orchid mats, And libations of cinnamon wine and pepper sauces! Flourish the drumsticks, beat the drums! The singing begins softly to a slow, solemn measure: Then, as pipes and zithers join in, the sound grows shriller. Now the priestesses come, splendid in their gorgeous apparel, And the hall is filled with a penetrating fragrance. The five notes mingle in a rich harmony; And the god is merry and takes his pleasure.
To the right is ‘The Great Unity, God of the Eastern Sky’
We have bathed in orchid water and washed our hair with perfumes, And dressed ourselves like flowers in embroidered clothing. The god has halted, swaying, above us, Shining with a persistent radiance. He is going to rest in the House of Life. His brightness is like that of the sun and moon. In his dragon chariot, dressed in imperial splendour, Now he flies off to wander round the sky.
The god had just descended in bright majesty, When off in a whirl he soared again, far into the clouds. He looks down on Ji-zhou and the lands beyond it; There is no place in the world that he does not pass over. Thinking of that lord makes me sigh And afflicts my heart with a grievous longing.
The goddess comes not, she holds back shyly. Who keeps her delaying within the island, Lady of the lovely eyes and the winning smile? Skimming the water in my cassia boat, I bid the Yuan and Xiang still their waves And the Great River make its stream flow softly. I look for the goddess, but she does not come yet. Of whom does she think as she plays her reed-pipes?
North I go, drawn by my flying dragon, Steering my course to the Dong-ting lake: My sail is of fig-leaves, melilotus my rigging, An iris my flag-pole, my banner of orchids. Gazing at the distant Cen-yang mooring, I waft my magic across the Great River.
I waft my magic, but it does not reach her. The lady is sad, and sighs for me; And my tears run down over cheek and chin: I am choked with longing for my lady.
My cassia oars and orchid sweep Chip all in vain at ice and snow. I am gathering wild figs in the water! I am looking for lotuses in the tree-tops! The wooing is useless if hearts are divided; The love that is not deep is quickly broken.
The stream runs fast through the stony shallows, And my flying dragon wings swiftly above it. The pain is more lasting if loving is faithless: She broke her tryst; she told me she had not time.
In the morning I race by the bank of the river; At evening I halt at this north island. The birds are roosting on the roof-top; The water laps at the foot of the hall. I throw my thumb-ring into the river. I leave my girdle-gem in the bay of the Li. Pollia I‘ve plucked in the scent-laden islet To give to the lady in the depths below. Time once gone cannot be recovered: I wish I could play here a little longer.
The Child of God, descending the northern bank, Turns on me her eyes that are dark with longing. Gently the wind of autumn whispers; On the waves of the Dong-ting lake the leaves are falling.
Over the white sedge I gaze out wildly; For a tryst is made to meet my love this evening. But why should the birds gather in the duckweed? And what ate the nets doing in the tree-tops?
The Yuan has its angelicas, the Li has its orchids: And I think of my lady, but dare not tell it, As with trembling heart I gaze on the distance Over the swiftly moving waters.
What are the deer doing in the courtyard? Or the water-dragons outside the waters? In the morning I drive my steeds by the river; In the evening I cross to the western shore. I can hear my beloved calling to me: I will ride aloft and race beside her. I will build her a horse within the water Roofed all over with lotus leaves; With walls of iris, of purple shells the chamber; Perfumed pepper shall make the hall. With beams of cassia, orchid rafters, Lily-tree lintel, a bower of peonies, With woven fig-leaves for the hangings And melilotus to make a screen; Weights of white jade to hold the mats with, Stone-orchids strewn to make the floor sweet: A room of lotus thatched with the white flag Shall all be bound up with stalks of asarum.
A thousand sweet flowers shall fill the courtyard, And rarest perfumes shall fill the gates. In host from their home on Doubting Mountain Like clouds in number the spirits come thronging.
I’ll throw my thumb-ring into the river, Leave my girdle-gem in the bay of the Li. Sweet pollia I’ve plucked in the little islet To send to my far-away Beloved. Oh, rarely, rarely the time is given! I wish I could play here a little longer.
The autumn orchid and the deer-parsley Grow in a carpet below the hall; The leaves of green and the pure white flowers Assail me with their wafted fragrance.
The autumn orchids bloom luxuriant, With leaves of green and purple stems. All the hall is filled with lovely women, But his eyes swiftly sought me out from the rest.
Without a word he came in to me, without a word he left me: He rode off on the whirlwind with cloud-banners flying. No sorrow is greater than the parting of the living; No happiness is greater than making new friendships.
Wearing a lotus coat with melilotus girdle, Quickly he came and as quickly departed. At night he will lodge in the High God’s precincts. ‘Whom are you waiting for at the cloud’s edge?’
I will wash my hair with you in the Pool of Heaven; You shall dry your hair on the Bank of Sunlight. I watch for the Fair One, but he does not come. Wildly I shout my song into the wind.
With peacock canopy and kingfisher banner, He mounts the ninefold heaven and grasps the Broom Star; He brandishes his long sword, protecting young and old: ‘You only, Fragrant One, are worthy to be judge over men.’
With a faint flush I start to come out of the east, Shining down on my threshold, Fu-sang. As I urge my horses slowly forwards, The night sky brightens, and day has come.
I ride a dragon car and chariot on the thunder, With cloud-banners fluttering upon the wind. I heave a long sigh as I start the ascent, Reluctant to leave, and looking back longingly; For the beauty and the music are so enchanting, The beholder, delighted, forgets that he must go.
Tighten the zither’s strings and smite them in unison! Strike the bells until the bell-stand rocks! Let the flutes sound! Blow the pan-pipes! See the priestesses, how skilled and lovely, Whirling and dipping like birds in flight, Unfolding the words in time to the dancing, Pitch and beat all in perfect accord! The spirits, descending, darken the sun.
In my cloud-coat and my skirt of the rainbow, Grasping my bow I soar high up in the sky. I aim my long arrow and shoot the Wolf of Heaven; I seize the Dipper to ladle cinnamon wine. Then holding my reins, I plunge down to my setting, On my gloomy night journey back to the east.
I wander with you by the Nine Mouths of the river When the storm wind rises and lashes up the waves. I ride a water chariot with a canopy of lotus; Two dragons draw it, between two water-serpents.
I climb the Kun-lun mountain and look over the four quarters, And my heart leaps up in me, beating wildly. Though the day will soon end, I forget to go in my pleasure: Longingly I look back to that distant shore. Of fish-scales his palace is, with a dragon-scale hall; Purple cowrie gate-towers; rooms of pearl. And what does the god do, down there in the water?
Riding a white turtle, he chases the spotted fishes. Let me play with you among the river’s islets, While the swollen waters come rushing on their way!
Eastward you journey, with hands stately folded, Bearing your fair bride to the southern harbour. The waves come racing up to meet me, And shoals of fishes are my bridal train.
There seems to be someone in the fold of the mountain In a coat of fig-leaves with a rabbit-floss girdle, With eyes that hold laughter and a smile of pearly brightness: ‘Lady, your allurements show that you desire me.’
Driving tawny leopards, leading the striped lynxes; A car of lily-magnolia with banner of woven cassia; Her cloak of stone-orchids, her belt of asarum: She gathers sweet scents to give to one she loves. ‘I am in the dense bamboo grove, which never sees the sunlight, So steep and hard the way was, therefore I am late.’ Solitary she stands, upon the mountain’s summit: The clouds’ dense masses begin below her.
From a place of gloomy shadow, dark even in the daytime, When the east wind blows up, the goddess sends down her showers. Dallying with the Fair One, I forget about returning. What flowers can I deck myself with, so late in the year?
I shall pluck the thrice-flowering herb among the mountains, Where the arrowroot spreads creeping over the piled-up boulders. Sorrowing for my lady, I forget that I must go. My lady thinks of me, but she has no time to come.
The lady of the mountains is fragrant with pollia; She drinks from the rocky spring and shelters beneath the pine trees. My lady thinks of me, but she holds back, uncertain.
The thunder rumbles; rain darkens the sky: The monkeys chatter; apes scream in the night: The wind soughs sadly and the trees rustle. I think of my lady and stand alone in sadness.
Grasping our great shields and wearing our hide armour, Wheel-hub to wheel-hub locked, we battle hand to hand.
Our banners darken the sky; the enemy teem like clouds: Through the hail of arrows the warriors press forward.
They dash on our lines; they trample our ranks down. They left horse has fallen, the right one is wounded.
The wheels are embedded, the foursome entangled: Seize the jade drumstick and beat the sounding drum! The time is against us: the gods are angry. Now all lie dead, left on the field of battle.
They went out never more to return: Far, far away they lie, on the level plain, Their long swards at their belts, clasping their Qin bows, Head from body sundered: but their hearts could not be vanquished.
Both truly brave and also truly noble; Strong to the last, they could not be dishonoured. Their bodies may have died, but their souls are living: Heroes among the shades their valiant souls will be.
 Translations of “The Fisherman” on Leaf B and The Nine Songs on Leaf C-L from David Hawkes, trans. and annotated, The Songs of the South: An Ancient Chinese Anthology of Poems by Qu Yuan and Other Poets (Penguin Books, 1985), pp. 206-207, 95-122.
Cleveland Museum of Art. "Chinese Art Under the Mongols," October 1, 1968–November 4, 1968.
New York. Asia House Gallery. "Chinese Art Under the Mongols," January 9, 1969–February 2, 1969.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Song and Yuan Paintings: Exhibition of Newly Acquired Chinese Paintings," November 1, 1973–January 20, 1974.
London. British Museum. "Song and Yuan Paintings," November 7, 1975–January 4, 1976.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Artist as Collector: Masterpieces of Chinese Painting from the C.C.Wang Family Collection," September 2, 1999–January 9, 2000.
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