The death of Chinese poet Qu Yuan shaped today’s Dragon Boat Festival.

This festival is a rich cultural holiday in China dating back well over 2,000 years.

It’s one of my favorite holidays to share with those who are unfamiliar with it because of the story behind it. That is the story of an ancient gentleman who went by the name of Qu Yuan.

I’ll start with the legend of Qu Yuan before talking about the current-day Dragon Boat Festival celebrations.

Who was Qu Yuan?

He was a Chinese poet and philosopher who is said to have been born around 340 BC.

His works ponder many existential questions and encourage deep thought about the meaning of life. He is well-known still today in Chinese culture and is said to be the first great poet known by name.

Once we delve deeper into his interesting life story and insightful pieces of literature, I’m sure you’ll see why he is held in such high regard.

Where did Qu Yuan come from?

Qu Yuan was born into one of the ruling houses of Chu Kingdom.

In modern geography, this area would include Hubei and Hunan province, as well as parts of Chongqing, Guizhou, Henan, Anhui, Jiangxi, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Shanghai provinces.

So, basically the kingdom covered a huge area (you can explore China’s provinces here).

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Historians think that the poet was born in the region of Hubei province along the Yangtze River. Lepingli Village in Zigui County is given the honor of claiming to be the birthplace of Qu Yuan.

Nowadays, the nearest notable cities are Wuhan which is around 400 km (250 miles) away, and Changsha about 460 km (285 miles) away.

His early life and career

Qu Yuan’s family were high ranking within their community. They were effectively aristocrats.

We can assume that his childhood and teenage years were comfortable. It’s unlikely that he faced poverty or any continued hardships.

As he entered adulthood, Qu Yuan’s interest in politics and reform grew. Sometime in his twenties, he was appointed as an adviser to the king of the time, King Huai.

The king liked Qu Yuan a lot; he respected his opinions and insights. Eventually, Qu Yuan was King Huai’s favorite counsel.

So what went wrong?

At the peak of his success is where Qu Yuan’s tale takes a turn south, quite literally actually.

I should mention that this period is historically referred to as the Warring States. Around this time, the Kingdom of Qin was increasing its size and power, posing a serious threat to Chu.

The story goes that Qu Yuan proposed that Chu form an alliance with Qi, a small neighboring state, in a bid to overpower Qin and defend themselves. It seemed like a reasonable suggestion, one that King Huai was quite keen to follow.

Qu Yuan on a Chinese stamp

Qu Yuan commemorated on a Chinese stamp. Image by Joinmepic on Shutterstock.

However, nobles and officials in Chu feared that working alongside Qi would cause them to lose certain powers and privileges. Perhaps they were scared that somehow the small state would take them down from the inside.

As we’ve seen many times in history, scaremongering causes panic. And so, rumors and allegations relating to Qu Yuan began to fly.

Though not much has been recorded about the nature of these false accusations, it apparently did not take long for King Huai to believe the majority of his counsel.

Qu Yuan was consequently sent into exile south of the Yangtze River.

A second chance for Qu Yuan

Without his most trusted confidant and wise adviser by his side, King Huai was convinced by the Qin that they could coincide peacefully with Chu.

Of course, this was a lie and the king was promptly imprisoned by the Qin for many years until he died.

King Huai’s son then took the throne of Chu. Many scholars say that he was even more foolish and naive than his late father, yet Qu Yuan tried once again to advise the leader of Chu Kingdom.

His pleas, of course, fell on deaf ears. Qu Yuan was sent into exile once more, this time even further away.

Glory in death

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Chu Kingdom was ultimately defeated, or outsmarted, by Qin. At this point, Qu Yuan saw no point in living any longer.

Around the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, he chose to end his own life by drowning himself in the Miluo River, current day Hunan province near Changsha.

News of his death spread among locals and so did the realization that he had been right all along.

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In their sadness, villagers set out to find Qu Yuan. Their efforts were futile and in the end they sought to preserve his body rather than recover it.

To scare away evil spirits, drums were beaten while the water was smashed with paddles. Lumps of rice were thrown to the fish in a bid to tempt them away from Qu Yuan’s body.

And, it’s even said that doctors poured realgar wine into the river to poison any monsters lurking below the surface.

Qu Yuan poems

I can imagine that being exiled from your community leaves you with a lot of free time, and Qu Yuan made the most of his. It seems like he truly did try to make the most of a bad situation.

Qu Yuan wrote a lot of poems. These poems questioned his own existence as well as that of the entire universe, they showed a passionate love for his country and they set a new precedent for Chinese literature.

Among his most famous works are:

  • Tian Wen in which he poses 172 questions to heaven and the gods
  • Jiu Ge which is a collection of nine songs
  • Li Sao, the longest poem in ancient Chinese literature, in which he laments about the fate of his beloved Chu Kingdom.

Today, these are collected in an anthology known as Chuci, the Verses of Chu.

Qu Yuan books

If you want to dig deeper into China’s Father of Poetry, check out the following books:

  • The Songs of the South: An Anthology of Ancient Chinese Poems by Qu Yuan and Other Poets is a Penguin Classic available at Book Depository or eBooks.com
  • The Songs of Chu: An Anthology of Ancient Chinese Poetry by Qu Yuan and Others is available at Book Depository and Books-A-Million
  • The Songs of Chu (Chinese Edition) – for those who can read Mandarin – is at Book Depository.

Modern celebrations for Dragon Boat Festival

Nowadays, Qu Yuan is immortalized in many ways, not just through his poems.

Dragon Boat Festival is a fun, family-oriented celebration with underlying themes of patriotism and sacrifice.

Crowds watch local dragon boat races before heading home to feast and enjoy each other’s company.

When is Dragon Boat Festival celebrated?

It’s celebrated every summer, between late May and early June depending on the lunar calendar.

The pivotal day of Dragon Boat Festival is the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. To find out the exact day the holiday is held each year, you can check that here.

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Workers can expect to be given three days off as a public holiday, but may have to work on the weekend before or after to make up time.

So, essentially they get one day off work.

How do you say ‘Dragon Boat Festival’ in Chinese?

It’s Duānwǔ Jié or 端午节in Chinese characters.

Traditional Dragon Boat Festival food

‘Zongzi’ is a traditional Chinese dish eaten around this time of year. It’s meant to resemble the lumps of rice thrown to the fish in the Milou River after Qu Yuan’s death.

Shaped like a cone or triangle, zongzi are made with sticky rice stuffed with a filling such as pork, nuts or red bean paste, to name only a few options.

You might have guessed it already, but the fillings vary by region.

Inside a zongzi

Inside a zongzi. Image by Romix Image on Shutterstock.

The rice and filling are then usually wrapped in a banana leaf and tied up to keep their shape. Sometimes different types of leaf may be used in this final stage.

You need to steam or boil zongzi for a few hours before you eat them. Around Dragon Boat Festival, you will generally find many street vendors selling this snack ready to eat.

I like to equate the dish to Mexico’s tamale. Different ingredients make up the filling, but the overall structure and concept is pretty much the same.

Dragon boat racing

A dragon boat is a long, thin, wooden boat shaped and decorated to look like a dragon.

It’s typically about 25 m (82 ft) long, depending on the size of the team, and is paddled from both sides.

Each team usually consists of 22 members, but it can be more. Twenty of them paddle, one steers from the back of the boat and one calls directions and keeps the team in synch from the front of the boat.

dragon boat racing China

A competitive dragon boat race in Foshan, southern China. Image by Windmoon on Shutterstock.

Traditionally, the caller would have been a drummer, helping the rowers keep time and pace with each other.

Boats can race for short or long distances, with some races going up to 1 kilometre (0.6 miles).

Protection from disease

Summer – when Dragon Boat Festival takes place – is a time when the Chinese believe diseases are most prevalent.

So, the celebration is also an opportunity to protect you and your family from illness.

Realgar wine

This type of traditional Chinese wine is often consumed during Dragon Boat Festival.

Just like in the tale of Qu Yuan, the wine is thought to drive away bad things, such as disease. It can also be lightly poured around your house for added protection from insects, snakes and bad spirits.

The wine can be store-bought, but if made from scratch, it consists of homemade yellow wine and realgar, which is an arsenic sulfide mineral.

Yikes! I can see why the monsters don’t like it.

Fragrant herbs

Plants such as mugwort and calamus are placed around homes.

Mugwort, generally considered by most to be an invasive weed, is said to have a very nice smell while also driving away pesky, disease-carrying mosquitos and flies.

Calamus, an aquatic plant used in medicine to help with stomach ailments, is said to have similar repellant properties to mugwort.

The legend of Qu Yuan lives on

The story of Qu Yuan and the origins of Dragon Boat festival date back thousands of years, being passed down through generations.

There are other origin stories linked to this festival, such as those of Wu Zixu and Cao E, and these variations tend to have some relation to regional location.

Generally speaking though, Qu Yuan’s tale is the most well-known and, in all honesty, it’s also my favorite.

No other day on the Chinese calendar celebrates history, patriotism and creativity quite like it.

I hope you learned a thing or two about Qu Yuan and how he shaped Dragon Boat Festival. You may also like the article I wrote summarizing all the Chinese holidays. It’s great if you’re pressed for time!

Main image credit: PenWin on Shutterstock.