The Dragon Boat Festival

The Dragon Boat Festival commemorates the  passing of the greatest poet in ancient China, Qu Yuan. Photo: AP

WASHINGTON, June 10, 2013 — June 12th of this year coincides with the Fifth of May in the Lunar Calendar, which is the day that Chinese and many other people around the world celebrate The Dragon Boat Festival, one of the oldest traditional festivals in the Chinese culture. It commemorates the passing of the greatest poet in ancient China­­, Qu Yuan (340-278 B.C.).

Qu Yuan was the first man in Chinese history to be identified with a famous poem. His artistic influence reached many later poets, to include Li Bai, the most renowned of all Chinese poets. Literary historians considered Qu Yuan as the Founder of classical Chinese poetry. However, the poet was best known to the Chinese as an ardent patriot who gave his life for his country, and the Dragon Boat Festival is his legacy.

A distant cousin of King Huai of the Chu kingdom, Qu Yuan served as the senior minister and confidant of the ruler. He was loyal, intelligent and forthright. He helped build the kingdom into a powerful nation and pushed for formation of alliances with neighboring states to counter the imminent threat posed by the powerful Ch’in kingdom; however, his forthrightness and influential position incurred the jealousy of his colleagues within the Chu Court at Ying, and the enmity of the Ch’in government at Xian-Yang.

Qu Yuan successfully negotiated an alliance with five other kingdoms of the land, which aroused grave concern at Xian-Yang. King Tso Hsiang of the Ch’in kingdom decided that Qu Yuan held the key to weakening the Chu kingdom and its alliance with the other kingdoms. The King of Ch’in sent his Prime Minister Zhang Yi to Ying to diminish Qu Yuan’s effectiveness.

Zhang Yi first visited Queen Zheng Xiu and presented a pair of valuable jade pieces to her to curry her assistance in ousting Qu Yuan from the King’s favor. Next, while Qu Yuan was absent from the Chu Court, Zhang Yi offered six hundred lis (about one hundred miles) of land to King Huai as inducement for an alliance between the two nations.

The King gleefully discussed the Ch’in offer to his wife, to which the Queen commented, “I am very happy that the Ch’in would cede so much land for an alliance with us. However, you should be aware that Qu Yuan had demanded a pair of fine jade from Zhang Yi, but was rebuffed by Zhang Yi, the Ch’in envoy. So, Qu Yuan would probably argue against the peace proposal from the Ch’in.”


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The next day, as expected, Qu Yuan vehemently protested against a coalition with the Ch’in. His adamant objection prompted the King to fire his cousin and banished him from the royal court. With Qu Yuan out of the way, the anti-Ch’in alliance fell apart. Adding insult to injury, when King Huai tried to collect the six hundred lis of land promised in the agreement, he was told by Zhang Yi that it was a misunderstanding. He said the Ch’in promised only six lis of land not six hundred lis. The King realized he had been duped and decided to take the promised territory by force. In the ensuing conflict, the Chu army loss eighty thousand men killed, seventy odd officers captured by the Ch’in army, and in addition lost eight cities.

King Huai realized his mistake and recalled Qu Yuan to repair the old anti-Ch’in alliance. When news of the resurrected alliance reached Xian-Yang, the Ch’in kingdom quickly offered a peace conference to be held at Wu-Guan. To secure King Huai’s agreement to the conference, the Ch’in Court offered to return half of the captured territories plus a beautiful courtesan as a gift to the King. The avaricious King Huai could not resist the bait and contemplated attending the meeting.

Qu Yuan was at the Chi kingdom negotiating a military coalition when he heard of the proposal for the summit meeting. He rushed backed to the Chu Court and pointed out that Wu-Guan, the site of the parley lied outside of the Chu territory, thus was a plot; but his petition fell on deaf ears. Prince Tze Lan, the youngest son of the King, had married a Ch’in Princess thus had a personal interest in maintaining a friendly relationship with his wife’s homeland. He successfully argued for the King to attend the parley at Wu-Guan.

As predicted by Qu Yuan, General Bai Chi of the Ch’in army held King Huai captive at Wu-Guan then took him to Xian-Yang as hostage for negotiations. King Huai refused to negotiate his own release thus spent three years in captivity in the Ch’in kingdom until his demise in 296 BC.

King Huai’s eldest son ascended to the throne as King and appointed his youngest brother Prince Tze Lan as senior advisor. Qu Yuan angrily criticized Prince Tze Lan because he had been instrumental in sending King Huai into the trap at Wu-Guan. In retaliation, Prince Tze Lan accused Qu Yuan of having personal ambitions for the throne. The new King considered Qu Yuan as a holdover from the previous regime and, as a royal kinsman, a potential threat. Besides, the King did not wish to undermine the position of his new senior advisor; it would be a sign of weakness that the new King could ill afford. Ultimately, for a second time, Qu Yuan left the Chu royal court in disgrace.

In 278 B.C., the Ch’in army invaded and sacked the Capital of the Chu Kingdom. News of the military disaster drove Qu Yuan into a fit of frustration and despair. In a moment of depression, Qu Yuan threw himself into the Mi-Luo river.

The people loved and respected Qu Yuan for his patriotism and integrity. They immediately marshaled the boats for a rescue attempt. Alas, all efforts to save the courtier failed, people could not even recover his body. In desperation, people wrapped food in bamboo leaves and threw them into the Mi-Lou river to feed the fish, so that they would not touch Qu Yuan’s body. They beat drums and gongs to scare evil spirits away from the body of the martyred poet.

Thereafter, the people reenacted the rescue effort annually on the Fifth May of each year to pay homage and commemorate the patriotic poet/courtier. In time, the practice of salvage boats searching for Qu Yuan’s body evolved into dragon boat races, while the bamboo leaf wrapped dumpling, known as zongzi, became a ritual diet for that day; eventually, the ritual Fifth of May boat race grew into the renowned Dragon Boat Festival.

Today, a statue of Qu Yuan stood at his home town of Ei-Zhang City, Hu Bei Province, China to commemorate the patriot poet.


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Tang Long

William Tang is a research analyst. Born in Taiwan, he is fluent in three dialects of Chinese and Spanish, plus survival level German and Japanese. He is a graduate of the Officers Advance Course at the General Political Warfare College, Taipei, Taiwan.

He lectures on Chinese history and culture and has two books in publication: “Tales of the Dragon – The Book of Lore,” an anthology of Chinese legends, fables, and historical anecdotes; and “Pets Only,” which recounts a pets operated eating establishment in northern Virginia. He lives with Shadow (Lab), Taz (Boxer) and Foxy Lady (Japanese Shiba Inu) in Fredericksburg, VA. He writes under the penname of TANG Long.

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