June 30, 2020

An Incorruptible Person in Trying Times

Leonard Chan

A foreign country interferes with another country’s government by corrupting officials in that government and then uses those officials to convince the head of state to remove the one honest person that stands in their way of dominating that country.

In 278 BCE, about 45 years after the death of Alexander the Great, that exiled government official in the kingdom of Chu China, killed himself by jumping into the Miluo River. Nearly 2300 years later, many Asians around the world still celebrate his life with a festival, the Duanwu or Dragon Boat Festival.

Like most information from that time period, we have scant records of what really happened, if the dates and places are accurate, or if the accounts have been mythologized. Here are some of the stories pertaining to this man. 

Qu Yuan was born in approximately 340 BCE. He was of royal lineage and would go on to become a major official/advisor in the kingdom of Chu. Qu was also a great poet. It is because of his writings and his belief in justice that he is remembered to this day.

During this period, known as the Warring States period, the country that we know today as China was sub-divided and eventually coalesced into seven major warring lands. These states had been at war for approximately 135 years before Qu Yuan's birth and would last for another 119 years after. Throughout this period, the states would form temporary alliances and carry on political intrigue as they battled for control of China.

Some versions of the story say that the state of Qin directly bribed officials in the Chu kingdom. These corrupted rivals of Qu Yuan convinced the king of Chu to banish Qu.

In exile, Qu Yuan wandered the countryside and wrote a good portion of what would become the Chu Ci anthology, one of the major classic works of literature in early Chinese history.

It is debated as to which parts of the Chu Ci were actually written by Qu Yuan, but most scholars agree that he wrote the most famous poem, Li Sao (The Lament), from this collection. In this poem, he chronicles in metaphorical language his time at court, life in banishment, and his deep despair. 

Through his writings, Qu Yuan became known for his righteousness and for his love of country even though it had badly mistreated him and was in decline. Qu Yuan still advocated and hoped for better.

In 278 BCE the Chu capital city of Ying was captured by the Qin. Upon learning of this sad news, Qu committed suicide as his last act of protest.

The legend has it that villagers near the site where Qu drowned himself, so loved him that they raced their boats out into the water to try to save him. When their efforts proved futile, they banged drums, splashed the waters with their paddles, and threw wrapped packets of rice into the waters as offering to the fish so that they would not eat Qu Yuan.

It has become traditional to race boats decorated as dragons and eat rice wrapped in leaves, called zongzi (and many other names, including how my family calls them, doong tee), on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese calendar (a day in June for the standard Western calendar) to commemorate Qu Yuan’s last sacrifice. The Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated in Chinese communities around the world and has equivalent and related festivals that take place on the same date in Korea and Vietnam.

To this day, my family remembers the day as doong tee day, but I’ll now also remember this day for the poet Qu Yuan’s efforts to make his world better through his life and writings.

Here are some links for further reading.

Wikipedia’s article on Qu Yuan  

New World Encyclopedia’s article  

Sasha’s Chinese Language Blog on The Poems of Qu Yuan 

Qu Yuan, the father of Chinese poetry by Alex Colville  

Wikipedia’s article on the Dragon Boat Festival 

Chinese version of Li Sao  

Translate version of Li Sao by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang 

Recipe for zongzi