Qu Yuan’s Advice on Being ‘Honest and Incorruptible’
Qu Yuan’s Advice on Being ‘Honest and Incorruptible’

A portrayal of Qu Yuan. (Painting by Zhang Cuiying)

Qu Yuan (339–278 B.C.) was a righteous official of Chu State during the Warring States period (403–221 B.C.) of China.

Qu was dedicated to serving the Chu State loyally. Because of his talents and integrity, other officials in the court tried hard to supplant him. Through Zheng Xiu, a favorite concubine of the King of Chu, they slandered Qu in front of the king, causing him to be exiled. 

The masterpiece “Divination” (author unknown), which appears in the Songs of Chu, recorded Qu Yuan’s thoughts about these predicaments.

After being exiled, Qu had not seen the King of Chu for three years. He was distraught with anxiety, so he sought advice from the diviner Zheng Zhanyin. “I have questions in my mind, I hope you can help me find answers,” Qu said. Zhanyin put milfoil sticks in place, wiped the dust off the tortoise shell, and said to Qu, “I am ready to hear your instructions.”

Qu said, “Should I be diligent, honest, and loyal or should I flatter, please, and socialize so that I can avoid being in dire straits? Would I rather work hard in the field weeding and farming, than bow to those in power for fame and fortune? Would I rather speak frankly to endanger myself than drift along with the currents to protect my own interests? Should I transcend the muddy world, take a higher path, and keep true to myself or should I put on a smiley face to flatter and please that woman (the king’s favorite concubine Zheng)?”

“Would I rather be honest and incorruptible to keep my integrity than read others’ minds, play up to those in power, and change my stance whenever the circumstances change? Would I rather try to match the best than stay comfortably with the worst? Should I fly high with swans or fight chickens and ducks on the ground for food?”

“Of all these, what is good, what is bad? What should I abandon and what should I follow? This world is muddy. Those who flatter and conspire have power and fame; those who are virtuous and kind are nobody and unknown. Alas, what can I say? Who knows my integrity and loyalty?”

Hearing this, Zhanyin put down the milfoil sticks and apologized to Qu Yuan, “There are questions that even divination cannot answer. Just follow your heart. My tortoise shell and milfoil sticks are not helpful for you,” he said.

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