Qu Yuan

June 6, 2011

While there are a number of explanations for the origins of the Dragon Boat Festival, most people associate the festival with Qu Yuan (340–278 BCE) of the feudal state of Chu (roughly the south-central and eastern part of China today).

Qu is one of China’s earliest and most revered poets, visionaries, and patriots. He was a descendant of the Chu royal house and an official in the court. The country of Chu was one of seven feudal states that formed after a previous larger and centralized government had decayed completely.

Qin was a neighboring states. It conducted a succession of military campaigns against Chu, until General Bai Qi (d. 257 BCE), a man known more for his brutality than his strategy, conquered the Chu capital of Ying. Qin would eventually conquer all the other feudal states, uniting all their territories under a single rule. The Qin ruler who did this was none other than Qin Shihuang, known as the First Emperor, and the man whose Terra-cotta Army in Xian became a world famous archaeological discovery in our own time.  The name we use today, “China,” is derived from the word Qin.

When the capital of Ying fell, Qu Yuan hefted a large stone in his arms and drowned himself in the Miluo River on the fifth moon, fifth day. The dragon boats re-enact the urgent attempts of the people to rescue the heroic poet. According to legend, the people beat the water with their paddles to frighten away the water dragons, and they threw lumps of rice into the river so the fish would not eat Qu Yuan’s body. This gave rise to the practice of making zongzi.

This is all connected to the next entry regarding divination.

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