Qu Yuan, the Poet in the People’s Hearts (Part 2)


Part 1

Many days has passed since the fateful day in the imperial court of the King of Chu, when the formerly most trusted minister and counselor to the Supreme King of Chu was disgracefully banished from the service of the King. It was indeed the worst moment of Qu Yuan’s life, when he lost everything, especially the trust and faith of the King that he treasured the most, in a single day. No doubt, the former minister in the King’s court was wrongly accused and slandered by his fellow ministers and the King’s subordinates, who disliked him for his ceaseless fights against injustice and corruption in the Chu government. What was worse was that the King himself refused to listen to Qu Yuan’s appeal and defense, but instead decided to punish him for misconducts that he had never committed.

Nevertheless, what could he do? Out of total reverence and allegiance to the King of Chu, the thought of defying the King’s words had never crossed his mind; neither would he ever allow such a thought to even enter his mind. However, he could never forget the sight of all those ministers in the King’s court who put on sinister smiles on their faces upon listening to the King pronouncing his judgment on Qu Yuan. Those sinister smiles spelt everything – the betrayal that he faced from his fellow ministers, the corrupt ways that they used in order to coerce all the King’s subordinates and servants to bear false witness against him, the joy at seeing the King’s most trusted minister put to shame before everyone else – all because of their envy for his great success and their deep hatred towards his acts of putting an end to their corrupt practices in the government. But the thing that disturbed Qu Yuan the most was the fact that the mind of the King of Chu was so easily poisoned by the false accusations hurled incessantly at him – something that he never expected, owing to his clean record in service and undivided loyalty to the King and state of Chu.

As Qu Yuan was mulling deeply over his past ordeal in the compound of his village home, he did not realize that the sun was already about to conceal itself beyond the boundaries of the distant mountain ranges. Just as he was about to get up and leave the place, his son came running to him, gasping with difficulty for air. When he could catch his voice once again, he opened his mouth and lifted his hand with full effort.

“My dear father, I’m very sorry to be the one to break this terrible news to you,” his son started. “Please, father, forgive me for being the one to break this news to you. I can’t even bring myself to tell you this, but I felt that it is better if you learn the truth about our current situation.”

“What is it that you wish to tell me?” asked Qu Yuan in astonishment and anxiety.

“The forces of the Supreme King of Chu had been totally exhausted in order to defend the state capital from the forces of the King of Qin. His Majesty The King of Chu and the state’s army forces have fought valiantly to defend the capital by all means. Unfortunately…” Qu Yuan’s son paused for a while to regain his breath.

“Unfortunately what?” asked Qu Yuan with impatience, dreading to hear what would he hear next.

His son took a deep breath, mustered all his courage, and continued, “Under the command of General Bai Qi (白起) of the state of Qin, the Qin imperial forces succeeded in capturing our state capital. The state of Chu, along with the King, his forces and people, are now subjected to the power of the King of Qin.”


The patriotic poet of Chu, Qu Yuan

The last few words that Qu Yuan heard pierced his heart like a double-edged sword. Being the patriotic statesman that he was, the news that his beloved state of Chu had been crushed under the power of the neighbouring state of Qin was far too much for him to bear. Immediately, on that very spot, he felt as if all life had vanished from him. It was too much for him to bear. Without even a word, Qu Yuan fled into his room and shut the door behind him, leaving his son alone, stunned at his overwhelming response.

* * *

Many a times Qu Yuan’s son had tried knocking at the door of the former statesman’s room. No answer, however, came from within the room, and, out of respect for his father, he did not want to open the door without permission. The latter had attempted to knock at the door many times to get the former statesman to come out and have his dinner, but for each knock on the door, absolute silence ensued.

Finally, it was almost midnight when the son was fed up with his father’s absolute refusal to come out. He could hold it no longer and, mustering all his courage, he advanced towards the door of Qu Yuan’s room and knocked at it one last time. Upon receiving silence as an answer, he swung open the door of the room and went inside without a word. To his surprise, no one was in the room!

Everything in the room had been well arranged, and nothing whatsoever was disturbed or shifted from its original positions, save for a few pieces of wood lying messily on the table, along with a calligraphy brush and some ink. He looked around, and saw that the window at the corner of the room was opened widely. Sensing that something was amiss, he stepped forward slowly towards the table. His eyes strayed towards the lines of poems that were written upon the pieces of wood. Picking up those pieces, he sat down and slowly read the lines of poems one by one, trying to find out what his father was up to.

It was a few minutes later when he finally came to the concluding lines of the last poem. Nevertheless, those last lines sent an extreme chill down his spine. He sprang up in total fear, his face as pale as a corpse. The last few lines went like this:

“Many a heavy sigh I have in my despair,
Grieving that I was born in such an unlucky time,
I yoked a team of jade dragons to a phoenix chariot,
And waited for the wind to come to soar up on my journey.”


曾歔欷余鬱邑兮
哀朕時之不當
駟玉虯以乘鷖兮
溘埃風余上征

What could this mean? The young man hastily ran towards the widely opened window and looked around outside with wild, searching eyes filled with terror. He looked around and turned his head to the ground just below the window. He could vaguely make out the outline of some footprints on the soft soil below the window.

Without wasting any time, he rushed into the house and came back shortly after with a small lamp in his hand. With the aid of the lamp in his hand, he could undoubtedly confirm that there were footprints on the soft soil leading away from the house and, upon closer scrutiny, the size of those footprints revealed that it belonged to the young man’s father, who was walking barefooted out of the house. The young man tried to regain his composure as much as he could, grabbing the lamp in his hand as tightly as possible so that it would not slip from his trembling hands. He climbed out of the window, landed his feet softly on the soil outside, and shone the ground beneath his feet with the feeble light that the lamp emitted.

Slowly, he followed the trail of footsteps to wherever it would lead him to. Occasionally, the footprints would disappear as the trail of footprints passed through hard and dry ground, and the young man did experience some difficulties in retracing the trail of footprints. On such occasions, it took him a little while before he could retrace the trail of footprints, which showed itself again some distance away from the original spot where it first disappeared, as they crossed softer and damper ground again. It seemed like forever before the trail of footprints really came to an end, and he was lucky not to have moved ahead a little more, otherwise he would have fallen off into what was ahead…

He stooped down, examined what was ahead, and saw that it was a deep river. Looking ahead, he could roughly make out that the river was considerably wide and large. He got up slowly, his face utterly stricken with terror. His hand became stiff and he unconsciously dropped the lamp in his hand. His mind froze with fear as he tried to digest the reality of what had just happened by the riverside that night…

* * *
The Miluo River in China (汨罗江)

By the time the sun was up, the whole village, along with many other neighbouring villages, was stirring with excitement over what had just happened the night before. The news that Qu Yuan, the celebrated statesman and poet amongst the people of Chu, had committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River (汨罗江) spread like wildfire amongst all the villages of Chu. From one village to another, the news of Qu Yuan’s death caused much hullabaloo and excitement. It was also known that utter grief over the defeat of Chu in the hands of Qin, along with his banishment from the Chu imperial court, had driven him to take the decision to take his own life. No doubt, the common people of Chu felt very upset and sorry for the gifted poet and former minister, who had won their hearts and earned their admiration from his tireless battles against injustice, as well as his great concern for the welfare of the common people.

In the few succeeding days, numerous people gathered by the Miluo River, bringing their own dragon-shaped boats packed with lots of rice dumplings. Out of great pity for Qu Yuan, the poet who won the hearts of the people, they had kept themselves busy at home in preparing as many rice dumplings as their hands would permit them to do so. They took out their boats and packed them fully with the rice dumplings that they have made.

A Chinese dragon boat

All along the Miluo River, the people got into their rice-dumpling-packed boats and rowed their boats to the middle of the deep river. They took their drums along with them and beat them as loud as possible. Some of them even used their paddles to beat the water surface and splash water all around the river. All these they did in order to keep the fish away from Qu Yuan’s body. Once all these were done, they took out all their rice dumplings and tossed them all around the river waters. They did this in order to feed the fishes in the river in the hope that the fishes would not eat Qu Yuan’s body and would leave his body undisturbed.

Finally, after a few days of doing all these, a plan came up amongst the people of Chu to retrieve Qu Yuan’s dead body. Subsequently, many people got into their dragon-shaped boats and paddled all along the Miluo River in search of the body of their beloved statesman and poet. Day and night they did so, rowing up and down the entire river in their dragon boats in search of the body, but to no avail……

* * *

* This story is adapted from the common Chinese folklore pertaining to the origins of the Dragon Boat Festival / Rice Dumpling Festival celebrated by the Chinese.

Rice dumplings

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