Qu Yuan, who lived in the State of Chu (楚) during the Warring States Period, was the first great patriotic poet in China's history.
Qu Yuan was an erudite scholar who had a good knowledge of the political situation of his time, and was a distinguished diplomat. King Huai of Chu (楚怀王) had a deep trust in him and appointed him to the highest office in the country. Qu Yuan had the ear of the King and was authorized to issue orders and receive envoys from other states. Those were the days when the seven states of Qin, Chu, Qi, Zhao, Han, Wei and Yan were striving against each other for hegemony. And since Qin, Chu and Qi were the three stronger states, every one of them wanted to unify China in its own name. Such being the situation, there had emerged at the court of Chu two factions: one standing for an alliance with the State of Qi(齐国)to resist Qin(秦国), the other, out of fear, for maintaining friendly relations with Qin. Qu Yuan's determined stand for political reform, for building up the economy and a strong army, and for an alliance with Qi to resist Qin, won the approval and support of King Huai. For this reason, he had incurred the jealousy and hatred of the pro-Qin faction, who were not only opposed to Qu Yuan's policies but said many evil things about him before the king. Swayed by their preposterous tales, the king relegated Qu Yuan to a minor position.
The State of Qin took advantage of this to destroy the alliance of Qi and Chu by a ruse. When King Huai of Chu realized that he had been deceived, he sent his troops to attack Qin. But they were repeatedly defeated, and the State of Chu was seriously weakened. Thus, King Huai of Chu was compelled to reinstate Qu Yuan, who was sent to Qi to reestablish friendly relations between the two countries. Qu Yuan's proposals, however ,were once again opposed and pooh-poohed by the pro-Qin faction, and the muddle-headed king exiled him to a place north of the Han River. As a result of ignoring Qu Yuan's admonitions, King Huai was tricked into visiting the State of Qin where he was forcibly detained for over a year and finally died.
When King Huai's son King Qinxiang succeeded to the throne. Qu Yuan was allowed lo return to the court. But since the pro-Qin faction was in control of the country's affairs, Qu Yuan was still in disfavor and eventually was again exiled by King Qinxiang to an area in present-day Hunan Province.
Qu Yuan wrote many excellent poems in his life, a large number of which were composed in his exile when he was especially concerned about the fate of his country and people, hoping that he would be able to do more for Chu. His patriotic feelings and desire were crystallized in his poems, the most famous of which was a long one, The Lament (Li Sao). In this poem, which is imbued with romanticism, Qu Yuan relates many moving fairy tales, gives expression to his lofty ideal and his determination to fight for its realization, and denounces the treacherous traitors of his country. The style of Qu Yuan's poems is different from that of The Book of Songs. It is called “poetic prose of Chu”, or “the Sao style” in the history of Chinese literature.
In the year 278 BC, when he was 62 and staying at the side of River Miluo, Qu Yuan heard that Qin troops had finally conquered Chu’s capital. Overwhelmed with grief and despair, he plunged himself into the river, clasping in his arms a large stone. That day happened to be the fifth of the fifth month in the Chinese lunar calendar.
The people of Chu had a great esteem and love for Qu Yuan. On hearing the news of his suicide, people in the vicinity came hurriedly in boats, and armed with long bamboo poles, attempted to retrieve his body, but to their great distress, without avail. Filled with a deep sense of loss and worried that his body might be eaten up by fish and shrimps, they sailed up and down the river, throwing into the water pyramid-shaped glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in reed or bamboo leaves to divert possible attackers from the body. Since then, on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month every year, each household in China would make glutinous rice dumplings and eat them to commemorate the great poet Qu Yuan. This is the traditional Chinese festival known as “the Dragon-Boat Festival.”
On that day, the Chinese people also have the custom of holding dragon-boat races. Tradition has it that the dragon-boat race symbolizes the eagerness of all to salvage Qu Yuan's body.
It was believed that ordinary boats would be no use since the river abounded with monsters. So later people made boats that had the shape of a dragon, and by beating drums and gongs, tried to scare away monsters who would think that the Dragon King of the Sea was coming. In this way，it would be easier for them to retrieve Qu Yuan's body.
More than 2,000 years have passed since Qu Yuan's death, yet he has left mankind some rich cultural gifts. His poems have been translated into many different languages and published all over the world. In 1953, on the 2230 anniversary of Qu Yuan's death, the World Peace Congress decided to honor him as one of the four famous world cultural figures of the year. Qu Yuan will live forever in the memory of the people of the world.