Qu Yuan: The Poet Behind the Dragon Boat Festival

Written by Ruru Zhou Updated Mar. 1, 2024

Quyuan was a great poet during the Warring States Period over 2,000 years ago. He drowned himself when he heard his state was conquered by the Qin state. The Dragon Boat Festival is said to be celebrated to commemorate Quyuan.


Easy Facts to Know Quyuan

Qu Yuan Ancestral Hall

A Brief Story of Quyuan

During the Warring States, there were 7 states: Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao, Wei, and Qin. These states fight with each other year after year,  seeking to expand their territories and ultimately reunify China.  Quyuan lived in the Chu state (a relatively strong state among the 7). 

Qu Yuan was highly respected by the Chu King, and he assisted the king govern the state. The Qin state grew stronger after carrying out a series of reinforcements.  It began to invade the other 6 states. Quyuan suggested the king ally with the state of Qi to resist the Qi, but the king rejected his proposal. 

Years later, the State of Qin invited King Huai of Chu to negotiate peace in Qin. Qu Yuan recognized this as a plot by the Qin ruler and risked his life to advise the king against going to Qin. The King became angry and exiled him to a remote area. 

King Huai later was imprisoned by the Qin and died there. The Chu State soon was conquered by the Qin forces. 

While in exile, Qu Yuan found out about the fall of the Chu State. This left him in despair, and he took his own life by jumping into the Miluo River.

Influence of Quyuan

Dragon boat race

Quyuan is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in Chinese history.  He is celebrated as a remarkable poet in China, and his tragic story has contributed to the popularity of the Dragon Boat Festival. As a great poet, Qu Yuan was known for introducing innovative elements to Chinese poetry.

Influence on the Dragon Boat Festival

Qu Yuan's tragic death inspired the annual Dragon Boat Festival in China. Each year.  People held dragon boat races and ate Zongzi to commemorate him. His story has become an integral part of the beloved Dragon Boat Festival. 

Innovation in Chinese Poetry

Qu Yuan's works, like the renowned "Li Sao" ("Encountering Sorrow"), set a new standard for poetry with their elaborate and emotional verses,

His extensive collection of works, such as the "Songs of the South" (Chu Ci), has had a profound influence on subsequent generations of Chinese poets and served as a foundation for Chinese literature.

Quyuan and Dragon Boat Festival

dragon boat racing

In Chinese history, the Dragon Boat Festival is said to commemorate.  The belief has been around for more than 1,500 years.

It is said that after Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo River, local people rushed to rescue him by rowing boats; they went all the way to Dongting Lake but failed to find Quyuan's body.

At that time, it was raining, and the boats gathered near a pavilion on the shore. When the people learned that the search was for the wise and noble Qu Yuan, they braved the rain and rowed back into the vast Dongting Lake. To express their grief, people began rowing boats on rivers, which eventually developed into dragon boat racing.

To prevent fish from consuming Qu Yuan's body, the locals tossed rice balls into the river, a practice that evolved into the custom of eating zongzi (rice dumplings).

From that time on, every year on the anniversary of Qu Yuan's tragic death, people from the Chu State would hold dragon boat races and cast rice dumplings into the river to honor the beloved patriotic poet. This tradition has carried on and has become the custom known as the Dragon Boat Festival.

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