The grand festival "Duan Wu Jie", better known in the West as "Dragon Boat Festival", is officially celebrated in China every year on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar. The reason for the date of the observance of this festival can be traced back to a number of popular Chinese myths, each of which is believed to have given rise to this splendid occasion.
But the story of Qu Yuan is generally believed to be the most important factor for the origin of the festival. The myth of Qu Yuan has been deeply rooted in Chinese culture and is a significant part of this festival.
Qu Yuan (340 - 278 BC), a.k.a. Ch'u Yuen or Wut Yuen, is said to be China's first known poet and a minister of the State of Chu (situated in present-day Hunan and Hubei provinces) during the Warring States Period (475 - 221 BC). During this time the area today known as central China was divided into seven main states or kingdoms battling among themselves for supremacy with unprecedented heights of military intrigue. Those were the last days of reign of the Zhou Dynasty, which is regarded as China's classical age during which Kongzi (Confucius) lived.
The chief poet in the state of Chu, Qu was a member of the ruling house, a stateman and diplomat. In his youth, he had a brilliant official career and was made a court minister. At one time he was even Chu envoy to Chi (in Shantung), a great neighboring state. A wise and articulate man, Qu Yuan was loved by the common people. But Qu Yuan's meteoric success aroused the envy of his fellow ministers, who slandered and intrigued against him which resulted in Qu's losing the king's favor and his dismissal from office. He was eventually exiled from the country but called back again when the monarch's anger died down. And thus he was treated again and again. Now and again was Qu expelled, and recalled to court after banishment, only to be again rebuffed and disgraced.
The banishments, however, could not break up the spirit of Qu Yuan. He used each period of his exile in a positive manner, traveling extensively, teaching and writing about his ideas.
But the nation of Chu was soon to see dangerous times. While the Zhou dynasty had ruled for several centuries, several other states, originally feudal domains, tried to carve out their own kingdoms. During this time the area today known as central China was divided into seven main states or kingdoms battling among themselves for supremacy with unprecedented heights of military intrigue. The state of Chu was perpetually at loggerheads with its neighbor state Chin, the most powerful military state in that period. To have some sort of negotiation, the Emperor of Chu once agreed to attend a conference with the king of Chin (in Shensi).
Qu Yuan, who served as Minister of Law and Ordinance under the reign of the Zhou Emperor, saw a dirty trick in this call for conference. He was highly esteemed for his wise counsel that brought peace and prosperity to the state. He had been to Chin and knew well the nature of the King of that state. Hence, he advised the Emperor against going to the conference. But the Emperor paid no heed to the words of Qu. Away he went to Chin.
Qu's worst fears soon proved to be true. The Emperor of Chu was imprisoned by the Chin army and there he met an ignoble death in prison. His son ascended the throne and took charge of the country as the new king. But instead of avenging his father's death, he made a humiliating peace with his enemy.
This, however, did not deter Chin's aggressive designs against Chu. It soon became clear that the need of the hour was a strong administration and internal unity. But under the new King, that was to be least expected. The state of Chu had never been plagued by so much corruption. In the midst of turmoil during the period of Warring States, Qu Yuan saw the gradual decline of his nation. He was upright, loyal and did much to fight against the rampant corruption that plagued the court. He was a champion of political loyalty and integrity, and eager to maintain the autonomy and hegemony of Chu.
Following Huai's son's peace attempt, Chin leaders gave him a peace treaty to sign, which they had no intention of honoring. Suspicious of their motives, Qu Yuan advised the king not to sign the treaty. Qu warned the king of the threat that the northern Ching posed toward the southern state of Chu. He also submitted to the King his suggestions of political reforms to protect the country. Unfortunately, political intrigue led the monarch to banish Qu Yuan. Qu's fearless campaign against the moral perversion had been a cause of jealousy and fear in the corrupt officials of the court, who pressured the Emperor to have him removed from service. They impressed upon the King that Qu was trying to gain greater political power in the government. The collective endeavor of the corrupt ministers succeeded in befooling the monarch. He felt threatened by Qu Yuan's stature and believing the words of his corrupt ministers, not only did he sign the treaty, but also refused to implement any of Quan's suggestions. He banished the poet to a remote region in Hunan province.
Thus, Qu Yuan was banished yet again. It was to be the last period of exile in his life. In his absence, the ministry of Chu was left in the hands of corrupt statesmen. Banished to the countryside, Qu helplessly watched the gradual downfall of his motherland and grieved that he could no longer save his country from the misfortune into which it had fallen. Depressed, he began to pen beautiful, patriotic poetry that spoke of the sorrow of his heart. It was during this time that he composed works such as "Jiu Zhang"/"Jiu Ge" (Nine Songs), and Wen tian that are now held as masterpieces. To historians and students of ancient Chinese culture, these are invaluable studies. Legend has it, that it was also at this period when he supposedly produced some of the greatest early poetry in Chinese literature expressing his fervent love for his state and his deepest concern for its future. The collection of odes is known as the Chuci or "Songs of the South (Chu)". His most well known verses are the rhapsodic Li Sao or "Lament" (an allegorical poem stating his political aspirations), the fantastic Tien Wen or "Heavenly Questions" and Huai Sha (pointing to his eventual suicide), all of which gained Qu Yuan great renown.
In 278 B. C., General Bai Qi led a vast Chin army to occupy Chu. In the absence of an effective resistance, the conquering army plundered and ruined the capital of Chu with ease. They destroyed the Imperial palace. The state of Chin would eventually emerge the victor and unify all of China under one rule for the first time in history. Qu Yuan, in exile, learnt about the total downfall of his nation. Already an old man of over sixty at the time, the fall of the Chu capital was the last blow to all patriotic hopes of Qu Yuan. It is said that he never could come out of this disaster. His last poem reads:
Many a heavy sigh I have in my despair,
Grieving that I was born in such an unlucky time.
I yoked a team of jade dragons to a phoenix chariot,
And waited for the wind to come,
to sour up on my journey
The defeat crushed the core of his optimism and not long after this incident, on the fifth day of the fifth month in 279 B.C, out of despair, Qu Yuan is said to have grabbed a large rock and jumped into the Milou River(in the Hunan Province of today). Fishermen present nearby rushed out on the water in their fishing boats to the middle of the river and tried desperately to save Qu Yuan. The local villagers, upon hearing of Qu's action and knowing him to be a good man, gathered onto their boats and rushed to the river in a united attempt to rescue the patriot poet. Hundreds of people raced to the spot to search for his body. But it was all to no avail. It was too late. Qu Yuan was dead and drowned. But the people could not afford to bear the thought of having to forego even the last glimpse of their hero. They beat drums frantically aboard and splashed the water with their paddles in order to keep the fish and evil spirits from his body. They also threw overboard rice dumplings (known better now as "Zong Zi") wrapped in leaves, eggs and other food to divert the fish from eating the body of the much loved patriot. Many of them carved a dragon-shaped head on their boat's prow and beat gongs to please the "River Dragon" into returning Qu Yuan. This is the reason behind the name "Dragon Boat Festival". The long, narrow paddle boats used in the search operation came to be called henceforth as "Dragon Boats".
It is said that the annual boat races held on the Double Fifth Day commemorate the search of Qu Yuan by the Chinese people on the day of his death. The search for Qu Yuan stands as an exemplary act of solidarity and cooperation of the Chinese men folk for a united cause. And it has been carried down to the present with annual Dragon Boat Festivals in China and also the world over on every Double Fifth Day (fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar). Today, Qu Yuan is commonly believed to be the father of Chinese poetry and has become a national culture hero in China.