On this day in 278 BCE, Chinese poet and government minister Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo River in an act of ritual suicide to protest the corruption plaguing China during his time. His act is commemorated today in the modern Chinese Dragon Boat Festival.
Born during the Warring States Period into an aristocratic family in the Chu State in modern-day Zigui County in Hubei Province, Yuan descended from a branch of the Chu royal clan and so had an instant entrée into the court. He served as chief assistant to King Huai of Chu. Under Huai, Yuan represented the court’s progressive ideals and carried out a series of political reforms. He set up a strict legal system and extended political and economic opportunities to Chu’s commoners, to the chagrin of the kingdom’s decadent aristocracy.
Perhaps most importantly, however, Yuan helped forge an alliance with other Chinese kingdoms against the hegemonic Qin state, which threatened to dominate all the other states. As such, the ruler of Qin viewed the Chu state as his primary adversary and schemed to undermine King Huai’s administration, starting with his trusted advisor, Yuan. The Qin ruler sent his representative to bribe a brother and concubine of King Huai, both of whom were jealous of Yuan’s authority. The two then spread lies about Yuan to the King, who exiled his chief assistant.
Dejected and depressed, Yuan wandered the Chinese countryside, dreaming up poems about his country and its people. During this time, he rearranged ancient Chinese folk odes and expressed his fervent love for his country, thereby producing some of the greatest poetry in Chinese literature.
In 278 BCE, news reached Yuan that the Qin army had captured Chu’s capital. Deeply disturbed by the news, Yuan wrote a long poem of lamentation, “Lament for the Young.” He then waded into the Miluo River holding a large rock to drown himself in an act of ritualistic suicide as a form of protest against the corruption of the Qin.
Upon hearing of his suicide, the people of Chu rushed to the river with boats to try to capture their revered chief, but failed to find his body. To prevent his body from being eaten by fish, they beat the water with their paddles and dropped rice dumplings wrapped in silk into the river. Today the fifth day of the fifth lunar month—the anniversary of Yuan’s death—is celebrated with boat races in the Dragon Boat Festival, in honour of China’s great patriotic poet.
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Caption: The anniversary of Yuan’s death is commemorated with dragon boat races that now occur throughout the world.