The main legend concerns the two poignant saga of a Chinese court official named qu yuan also phoneticised Ch’u Yuen. Qu Yuan is popularly regarded as a minister in one of the Warring State governments, the southern state of Chu (present day Hunan and Hubei provinces), a champion of political loyalty and integrity, and eager to maintain the Chu state’s autonomy and hegemony. Formerly, it was believed that the Chu monarch fell under the influence of other corrupt, jealous ministers who slandered Qu Yuan as ‘a sting in flesh’, and therefore the fooled king banished Qu, his most loyal counsellor.
In the year 278 B.C., upon learning of the upcoming devastation of his state from invasion by a neighbouring Warring State (Qin in particular), Qu is said to have waded into the Miluo river which drains into Dongting Hu (lake) in today’s Hunan Province—near the provincial capital city of Changsha and south of the city of Yueyang on Donting Hu, site of the first IDBF World Dragon Boat Championship in 1996—holding a great rock in order to commit ritual suicide as a form of protest against the corruption of the era.
The common people, upon learning of his suicide, rushed out on the water in their fishing boats to the middle of the river and tried desperately to save Qu Yuan. They beat drums and splashed the water with their paddles in order to keep the fish and evil spirits from his body. Later on, they scattered rice into the water to prevent him from suffering hunger. Another belief is that the people scattered rice to feed the fish, in order to prevent them from devouring the poet’s body.
However, late one night, the spirit of Qu Yuan appeared before his friends (that is, he resurrected from the dead) 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 or sticky rice wrapped in leaves, although they are wrapped in leaves instead of silk. In commemoration of Qu Yuan, it is said, people hold dragon boat races annually on the day of his death.
Today, dragon boat festivals continue to be celebrated around the world with dragon boat racing. These events are still culturally associated with the traditional Chinese Duen Ng Festival in Hong Kong (Cantonese Chinese dialect) or Duan Wu festival in south central mainland China (Mandarin Chinese dialect).