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Gold inscriptions on bronze in the shape of bamboo, issued by King Huai of Chu to the subkingdom of E, in 323 BCE. Chu Ci was named after a form of poetry that originated in the State of Chu, which was located in what is now central China, but was then in the southern fringe of the Chinese cultural area. Although Chu Ci is an anthology of poems by many poets, Qu Yuan was its central figure, both as author of the seminally important Li sao section and in the persona of protagonist. There are various other authors which are also thought to have written various sections of the Chu Ci, as well as some sections which may derive from some traditional source. The name “Qu Yuan” does not occur in any text prior to the Han dynasty. During his days of exile, Qu Yuan is thought to have written Li Sao, his magnum opus and the first and centrally important piece of Chu Ci.
The authorship, as in many a case of ancient literature, can be neither confirmed nor denied. Written in 373 verses containing 2490 characters, Li Sao is the earliest Chinese long poem and is acclaimed as the literary representative of Qu Yuan’s high moral conduct and patriotism. See Arthur Waley, The Nine Songs: A Study of Shamanism in Ancient China. The traditional view of the Chu ci, which went largely unchallenged until the 20th century, was that Qu Yuan wrote about half of the pieces in the Chu ci, with the other half being ascribed to other poets associated with him or writing in his style.
Another important aspect of Chu Ci studies is the editorial history. One regard is the order in which the various titles appear. Wang Yi’s selections of certain specific verses to anthologize in the modern Chu Ci has remained standard since its publication, towards the end of the Han Dynasty. One of the important aspects of the Chu Ci is the body of commentary in this regard. Much of the initial surviving annotation of the standard editions of the Chuci was provided by Wang Yi, the Han Dynasty royal librarian. The Chu Ci consists of seventeen main sections, in standard versions, with some accompanying commentary standard. Qu Yuan with his relationship with the person of King Huai, ruler of Chu.
The poems and pieces of the Chu Ci anthology vary, in formal poetic style. Within the individual songs or poems of the “Nine Pieces”, lines generally consist of various numbers of syllables, separated by the nonce word. This, as opposed to the four-character verse of the Shi Jing, adds a different rhythmic latitude of expression. Some verses tend towards the sao style, based on imitation of the “Li sao”. 5th – 3rd century BCE, Kingdom of Chu, Southern China.