The myth behind the Dragon Boat Festival began with a poet’s death. His work lives on

Its origins in Chinese mythology are darker: it commemorates the suicide in 278BC of Qu Yuan (屈原), a well-loved poet and statesman of the Chu kingdom, during the Zhou dynasty’s Warring States period.

Participants take part in a dragon boat race in Aberdeen, Hong Kong, in 2023. Photo: Sam Tsang

A champion of political loyalty and truth, Qu Yuan advocated resistance to the hegemonic Qin state – which led to jealous, corrupt rivals’ accusations of treason, and his subsequent banishment.

When Chu’s capital was eventually taken by Qin, Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo River – on the fifth day of the fifth month. Locals rowed out to try to save him, and threw rice into the river to prevent fish from consuming the corpse – suggested as precursors to dragon boat racing and zongzi.

During Qu Yuan’s exile, he penned what is regarded as the most innovative and influential work in the history of Chinese poetry, Li Sao (離騷).

Qu Yuan was a Chinese poet who advocated resistance to the hegemonic Qin state during the Warring States Period (475BC-221BC). Photo: Getty Images

An extended political allegory, it is hailed for being the first in several aspects, including extensive dialogue with multiple characters as a poetic device, and complex imagery involving landscape and flora:

“The three kings of old were most pure and perfect:

Then indeed fragrant flowers had their proper place.

They brought together pepper and cinnamon;

All the most prized blossoms were woven in their garlands.”

It also exploits puns and double meanings, including with its title.

Dragon Boat Regatta on Jinming Lake, a painting by Wang Zhenpeng in the 14th century. Photo: Getty Images

Traditionally rendered as “Encountering Sorrow”, Li Sao is suggested to have four readings: leaving or encountering trouble, or, with the character sao interchangeable with a homophonous character meaning “stench”, also encountering or leaving the stench.

Great poetry persists when sentiments have relevance across time and space. The despair conveyed through the first-person persona in the four-line conclusion surely resonates worldwide today:

“Enough! There are no true men in the state: no one understands me

Why should I cleave to the city of my birth?

Since none is worthy to work with me in making good government,

I shall go and join Peng Xian in the place where he abides.”


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