The Legend of the Dragon Boat Race


Once upon a time, there was a great poet. Qu Yuan’s had a gift to see wonder and passion in all things and to capture such truth in pictures created by words. So great was this gift, that Qu Yuan became highly respected throughout the Chu empire, and the king himself asked him to stay by his side.

The king and Qu Yuan would often sit in the garden and listen quietly to the stillness of the water in the great pond. The king would offer a word to capture the moment, and Qu Yuan would consider it briefly, then speak the correct word. It became a great game, and the king and Qu Yuan became great friends.

One day, the king was more troubled than usual. He couldn’t even hear the stillness of the pond. “War,” the king finally spoke. Qu Yuan looked at his friend. “Peace,” he corrected him. But the king was worried about the growing conflict warring states. Any moment of war was too long, and it was now long past a mere moment. That day, Qu Yuan spoke about the wonder and passion and truth in the capital city of Ying and of the people of the Chu empire. The king was moved, and declared that Qu Yuan should be his Left Minister.

However, other ministers of the court resented Qu Yuan. They couldn’t understand his words that spoke of wonder and passion, or were angry and jealous of his favor with the king, which might really be the same thing. Their power over words were not of truth but slander and malice. They spun many stories of prose for their king, who finally erupted in rage. Qu Yuan was exiled, far to the south.

Qu Yuan’s words could not be stopped. He found himself on spiritual journeys, in conversation with spirits and ancestors, and with more and more truth in poem form. The townspeople marveled how a man could be a bulwark against such foes as Apathy, Disinterest, and Acquiescence, but it was clear: the more Qu Yuan put his spirit into his words, the more his body wasted away. Every day, Qu Yuan would go to the Face Reflection Well and peer inside, lost in the now-gaunt image of himself. He saw the truth of himself, too; the grip that his ideals had on him. He could never understand how the great but humble state of Chu could ever yield to the threat of the Qin.

And so it was that, when the city of Ying was finally swallowed in the relentless rising tide of Qin, there was only one more poem left inside the thin frame of Qu Yuan.

His brush left the paper. Qu Yuan’s eyes took in the mighty Miluo River. His hands struggled to lift the mighty rock. His feet stumbled towards the shore.

The townspeople waved a cheery hello until the strangeness of Qu Yuan’s stumblings made them pause. The fisherman’s boy was the first to call to rally the boats, but Qu Yuan had already submerged himself to his waist. The longboats were truly racing now, the fisherman’s boy leaning nearly prostrate from the prow, slapping the sides to keep the rowers in time. But it was too late.

Qu Yuan’s head had gone missing below the surface. Only a few bubbles remained on the surface, trailing toward the middle of the river.

The fisherman’s boy reached the end of the bubbles first, and people from the shore cried out a cheer as he grabbed at something in the water. He held high a bit of cloth used to bind Qu Yuan’s headpiece to his hair, but that was all. The cries turned to crying. And soon, the evening turned to dark.

Deep into the evening, the fisherman, his boy, and several friends of Qu Yuan sat in various longboats in a vague circle around the very spot. They were tired, but they continued to idly toss in bits of rice into the water. They must keep the fish distracted! What an improper ending for such a dignified man, to be eaten by fish! Day by day, however, and one by one, the longboats and friends had to disappear.

The fisherman’s boy threw the last bit of his rice into the water, then sighed. He had to go back, too. The sun kept rising, the wind kept blowing, and the stomach continued demanding to be fed; no matter that it was now a Chu sun and not a Qin sun, nor if it were now Qin winds and Qin stomachs.

But the townspeople knew the power of words. They would remember Qu Yuan’s walk into the river as a proud legend of a man sacrificing himself for the unrequited love of a city that died. And every year, on the fifth day of the fifth month, they would race the longboats and eat triangles of rice and hope and search once again for the wonder and passion and truth in the world around them.

— by Danny Wall
For further reading: Qu Yuan Wikipedia Biography