端午节 (Duānwǔjié) 'Dragon Boat Festival'
In honour of the Dragon Boat Festival, celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month (May 30th 2017), here is a short excerpt from one of Qu Yuan’s most famous poems, translated by Hugh Grigg.
離騷 (Lí Sāo) 'The Sorrow of Parting'
朝 發 軔 於 蒼 梧 兮， Zhāo fā rèn yú cāngwú xī, Taking off the brake, departing from Cangwu at dawn,
夕 餘 至 乎 縣 圃； xī yú zhì hū xuán pǔ; and before night falls, arriving at the Hanging Gardens;
欲 少 留 此 靈 瑣 兮， yù shǎo liú cǐ líng sǒu xī, I wish to stay at this gathering place of the spirits,
日 忽 忽 其 將 暮； rì hūhū qí jiāng mù; yet the sun is about to set;
吾 令 羲 和 弭 節 兮， wú lìng Xīhé mǐ jié xī, I order Xihe to slow to a trot;
望 崦 嵫 而 匆 迫； wàng yān zī ér cōng pò; gazing at Mt Yan and Mt Zi, yet not anxious to approach them;
路 漫 漫 其 脩 遠 兮， lù mànmàn qí xiū yuǎn xī, the road is boundless - cultivation so distant;
吾 將 上 下 而 求 索。 wú jiāng shàngxià ér qiúsuǒ. I shall explore it from beginning to end.
What has Dragon Boat racing got to do with Qu Yuan?
Well, the story goes that Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BC), poet and political advisor to King Huai of Chu, recommended that Chu ally itself with the enemy state Qi to defeat the mutual enemy state of Qin. However, in exile from Chu for allegations brought against him by corrupted ministers influencing the King, Qu Yuan hears that his beloved homeland has been defeated by Qin after King Huai did not take his advice. Upon hearing this news, he drowned himself in the Miluo river in an act of political martyrdom and in protest against political corruption.
After his drowning the locals are said to have rushed into the water in long boats, beating drums to scare evil spirits away and throwing rice wrapped in leaves into the water to prevent the fish from eating him. Another version is that they threw rice to feed Qu Yuan's spirit but it kept getting intercepted by catfish the size of dragons. So, a few years after his death, Qu Yuan appeared and told them to wrap the rice in leaves. Either way, at the Dragon Boat Festival people race long boats, eat 糭子 zòngzi (rice dumplings wrapped in leaves), and remember Qu Yuan for his poetry and patriotism.
In recent years people have begun to suggest another reason for his committing suicide based on alternative readings of his poetry. Usually, his prose is understood as patriotic, but some scholars suggest that it can also be understood as an expression of his love for King Huai, who exiled him before ignoring his advice. This has led to some of the Chinese LGBTQ+ community, as well as a number of scholars, interpreting Qu Yuan’s suicide as that of a jilted lover, rather than an exasperated patriot.
Regardless of the reason for which he committed suicide, he was a much-loved figure and this yearly celebration of his life, death, and poetry has left a great legacy in sport and cuisine. Over the last 30 years or so, the sport of Dragon Boat Racing has become popular around the world and the International Dragon Boat Federation support competitions and leagues everywhere. The zòngzi have also gained popularity as a regular snack food, sometimes plain, sometimes stuffed with sweet or savoury fillings.