Qu Yuan (340 BC - 278 BC) was a Chinese patriotic poet from south Chu during the Warring States Period (475 BC-221 BC). His works are mostly found in an anthology of poetry known as Chu Ci. His death is commemorated on Duan Wu, commonly known as the Dragon Boat Festival.
Qu Yuan, born in the Xiling Gorge area of what is today western Hubei Province, was a minister of the State of Chu situated in present-day Hunan and Hubei Provinces, during the Warring States Period. He was descended from nobility and was a champion of political loyalty and truth eager to maintain the Chu state's power. Qu Yuan advocated a policy of alliance with the other kingdoms of the period against the hegemonic state of Qin, which threatened to dominate them all. Legend has it that the Chu king fell under the influence of other corrupt, jealous ministers who slandered Qu Yuan and banished most of his loyal counselors. It is said that Qu Yuan returned first to his family's home town. In his exile, he spent much of his time collecting legends and rearranging folk tales while travelling around the countryside, producing some of the greatest poetry in Chinese literature and expressing fervent love for his state and his deepest concerns for its future.
According to legend, his anxiety brought him to an increasingly troubled state of health; during his depression, he would often take walks near a certain well, during which he would look upon his reflection in the water and his own person, thin and gaunt. According to legend, this well became known as "Face Reflection Well." Today on a hillside in Xiangluping in Hubei Province's Zigui, there is a well which is considered to be the original well from the time of Qu Yuan.
In 278 BC, learning of the capture of his country's capital, Ying, by General Bai Qi of the state of Qin, Qu Yuan is said to have written the lengthy poem of lamentation called "Lament for Ying" and later to have waded into the Miluo river in today's Hunan Province holding a great rock in order to commit ritual suicide as a form of protest against the corruption of the era.
The villagers, learning of his suicide, rushed out in their fishing boats to the middle of the river and tried desperately to save him. They beat drums and splashed water with their paddles in order to keep the fish and evil spirits from his body, and later on, they scattered rice into the water to prevent him from suffering hunger and also to feed the fish in the river so that they would not devour his body. However, late one night, the spirit of Qu Yuan appeared before his friends and told them that the rice meant for him was being intercepted by a huge river dragon. He asked his friends to wrap their rice into three-cornered silk packages to ward off the dragon. This has been a traditional food ever since known as zongzi, although the lumps of rice are wrapped in bamboo leaves instead of silk. The act of searching for his body in the boats gradually turned into the traditional dragon boat race, which is held every year on the day of his suicide.
People today still eat rice dumplings and participate in dragon boat races to commemorate him on the Duan Wu Festival, the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar.
Qu Yuan is generally recognized as the first great Chinese poet. He initiated the style of Sao, which is named after his work Li Sao, in which he abandoned the classic four-character verses used in poems of Shi Jing and adopted verses with varying lengths, which gives more rhythm and latitude in expression. Qu Yuan is also regarded as one of the most prominent figures of Romanticism in Chinese literature, and his masterpieces influenced some of the greatest Romantic poets in the Tang Dynasty such as Li Bai and Du Fu.
Other than his literary influence, Qu Yuan is also held as the earliest patriotic poet in Chinese history. His political idealism and unbendable patriotism have served as the model for Chinese intellectuals until today.
Scholars have debated the authenticity of several of Qu Yuan's works since the Western Han dynasty (202BC--9AD). The most authoritative historical record, Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian (Shi Ji) mentions five of Qu Yuan's works:
Li Sao, Tian Wen, Zhao Hun, Ai Ying ("Lament for Ying") and Huai Sha.