The Smell of Inner Beauty in Ancient China


Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BC) is often called “the first Chinese poet,” because the primary work attributed to him, Li sao (“Sublimating Sorrow”), is the first in the tradition to evoke a distinctive persona engaged in self-reflection and personal narrative. To explain why this story of frustrated political ambition became arguably the first instance of Chinese autobiography or life writing, this paper uses the notion of “biological handicap,” proposed by Amotz Zahavi. As a peacock’s cumbersome tail feathers reduce its individual chances of survival but communicate valuable information to potential mates, the Li Sao’s poetic persona uses images its audience understood as external marks of invisible, spiritual potency, like long eyebrows and fragrant adornments, to evoke unfulfilled political potential, resulting in an early model of literary interiority.

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