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November 7, 2010

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屈原 (Qu Yuan) (circa 340-278 BC) A great patriotic poet

NEARLY 2,000 years after his death, Qu Yuan remains a household name in China. He is widely regarded as the father of Chinese poetry and a symbol of patriotism.

Qu is also at the center of legends surrounding the Dragon Boat Festival.

Qu was born into a noble family in the State of Chu during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). He championed political loyalty and advocated alliance between the State of Chu and other states to fight against the hegemonic State of Qin.

He was appointed a court minister, however, the king was surrounded by corrupt and venal counselors who were jealous of Qu's rise. They slandered Qu and intrigued against him, calling him a traitor. Gradually, Qu fell out of favor and eventually was banished.

Although he was occasionally recalled to serve short stints, each time he was again rebuffed and disgraced.

After his final banishment, Qu first returned to his hometown in what is today's western Hubei Province in central China. In exile, he traveled around the countryside and wrote verse to express his deep love of his home state and his concerns about its future.

He created a new style of verse called sao and he wrote lines of varying lengths, unlike the classic four-character verses. For instance, "Li Sao" ("The Lament"), one of Qu's most remarkable works, contains 372 lines and around 2,400 characters.

The long lyrical poem reflects the poet's disillusionment and agony. But in making use of a wide range of metaphors derived from the local culture, the poem also expresses Qu's unrequited love for his country and his sadness for its inevitable decline.

One day, while walking along a river, Qu met a fisherman, who asked him: "Aren't you Master of the Three Gates (a title Qu once held)? Why are you now in such a plight?"

Qu answered: "All the crowd is dirty, but I alone am clean. All the crowd is drunk, but I alone am sober. That's why I have been banished."

The fisherman said: "Why don't you swim with the tide, so you don't have to suffer by yourself?"

Qu said: "People say that after you wash your hair you should brush your hat; and after you take a bath, you should dust your coat. I'd rather jump into the river and bury myself in the belly of the fish, instead of sullying my clean body in the filthy mud."

In 278 BC, when Qu learned that the capital was captured by the invading Qin forces, he grabbed a heavy rock and threw himself into the Miluo River.

When villagers learned the news, they rushed to the site in small boats in an unsuccessful attempt to save the poet. So they threw bamboo tubes filled with rice into the river to distract fish and other creatures from the body of the poet. It was the fifth day of the fifth month of that lunar year.

Since then, every year on that day, Chinese people participate in dragon boat races and eat zongzi, now a traditional food made of rice wrapped in reed leaves, to commemorate the great patriotic poet.

Starting in 2008, that day on the Chinese lunar calendar, now known as the Dragon Boat Festival, has been designated as a state holiday.


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