The Duanwu Festival, Qu Yuan, And His Verses

The Duanwu Festival, Qu Yuan, And His Verses

For thousands of years, the tradition of the Duanwu Festival has been passed down from one generation to the next. But where did it come from and why do people eat Zongzi and race dragon boats?


The Duanwu Festival(端午节), also known as the Dragon Boat Festival or the Tuen Ng Festival, is a traditional holiday originating in China, occurring near the summer solstice. It is also known as Zhongxiao Festival(忠孝节), commemorating patriotism (), and filial piety, or a show of respect to one’s parents (). The festival now occurs on the 5th day of the 5th month of the traditional Chinese Calender, which is the source of the festival’s alternative name, the Double Fifth Festival.

端午1

The story best known in modern China holds that the festival commemorates the death of the poet and minister Qu Yuan(屈原) (c. 340–278 BC) of the ancient state of Chu during the Warring States period of the Zhou Dynasty. A cadet member of the Chu royal house, Qu served in high offices. However, when the king decided to ally with the increasingly powerful state of Qin, Qu was banished for opposing the alliance and even accused of treason. During his exile, Qu Yuan wrote a great deal of poetry. Twenty-eight years later, Qin captured Ying, the Chu capital. In despair, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River.屈原

It is said that the local people, who admired him, raced out in their boats to save him or at least retrieve his body. This is said to have been the origin of dragon boat races (赛龙舟)赛龙舟

When his body could not be found, they dropped balls of sticky rice into the river so that the fish would eat them instead of Qu Yuan’s body. This is said to be the origin of zongzi (粽子).粽子

Qu Yuan is regarded as the first author of verse in China to have his name associated to his work, since prior to that time, poetic works were not attributed to any specific authors. He is considered to have initiated the so-called sao (骚) style of verse, which is named after his work Li Sao (离骚), in which he abandoned the classic four-character verses used in poems of Shi Jin (诗经) and adopted verses with varying lengths. This resulted in poems with more rhythm and latitude in expression. Qu Yuan is also regarded as one of the most prominent figures of Romanticism in Chinese classical literature, and his masterpieces influenced some of the greatest Romanticist poets in Tang Dynasty such as Li Bai (李白). During the Han Dynasty, Qu Yuan became established as a heroic example of how a scholar and official who was denied public recognition suitable to their worth should behave.

Here is the excerpt translated in English of Li Sa. In this excerpt, as the emperor of Chu and his henchmen were being disagreeable and slanderous, Qu Yuan felt lonely in a foul world. In the end, he stuck to his ideals and principles.


 I wiped my tears and heaved long sighs, I lamented over the hazard of life’s journey.

In spite of the fact that I paid attention to self – cultivation and have been strict with myself.  In the morning I was insulted, and in the evening I was dismissed from office.

They abused me for wearing orchids, and cursed me for plucking orchids, which I have longed for.

I’ll not regret even if I die several times.

I blame the emperor of Chu for being so muddleheaded. He failed to understand other people’s sentiments all along.

Those women were jealous of my graceful figure, slandering that I was licentious.

Those vulgar people were by nature opportunistic. They violated rules and distorted policies. They defied moral standards and stuck to distortions.

They defied moral standards and stuck to distortions.Their principle was to curry favor with their superiors.

I feel depressed, worried and disappointed. Now I am lonely and poor.

I would rather die and depart. I hate to flatter people.

Eagles would not live with sparrows.This is the way since ancient times.

Squares and rounds cannot live in peace. I would rather make concessions and control my emotions.

I would endure their blame and abuse.

I only wish I could keep myself clean and die an honest death. This kind of act was praised by ancient sages.


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