“The Heaven Questions”
In the beginning of old,
all is yet formless, no up or down,
Light is still dim,
dark is a blur; the only image is a whir.
When bright gets brighter,
and dark gets darker, the yin couples with the yang,
Then is the round pattern manifold.
What an achievement that was!
Around turn the cords on the pivot of Heaven.
Eight Pillars are the buttresses;
Spread out are the nine fields of Heaven
with their many angles and edges.
The heavens mesh with the twelve Earth Branches,
the sun and moon bond, and the stars line up.
One leaves from Bright Valley and rests at Shroud Shore
on its journey from bright to dark,
While the Orb of Night flourishes after death
and harbors a rabbit in its gut.
Nu Qu got nine sons without a husband.
Old Qiang is there, and the benevolent nimbus.
Dark as it closes, bright when it opens,
before the Horn rises the Great Light is hidden.
— from “The Heaven Questions” by Ch’u Yuan (trans. Stephen Field)
Ch’u Yuan (329–299 BC) was a Chinese poet who contributed a number of works to the famous Chinese anthology Ch’u Tz’u, (also known as “Songs of the South” or “Songs of Chu”). A courtier of King Huai of Chu (328–288 BC), Ch’u was exiled due to the maneuvering from jealous rivals for the king’s favors. In exile he collected legends and folk odes and from these produced one of the first substantial bodies of poetry in Chinese literary history. Perhaps his most famous poetic work, his “Heavenly Questions” are a series of 170 queries put into verse about the nature of the universe.