Qu Yuan Sleeps with the Fishes
Today China celebrates the Duanwu Festival (端午节), commonly known in English as the “Dragon Boat Festival.” Although there are various theories about its origins, according to the most popular explanation, it commemorates a defining turning point in the history of one of the Nine Nations of China, the central region I call the Crossroads.
In ancient times, the Crossroads — today’s provinces of Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, and Anhui — was known as the kingdom of Chu (楚). Situated along the middle Yangtze River, it was the first frontier zone claimed by Chinese settlers as they started pushing beyond the boundaries of their original home in the Yellow Land in the 2nd millenium BC. At that time, Chu was covered in virgin forests teeming with tigers and other wild animals. Qu Yuan, a state official of Chu, describe the region in a poem:
The dark forest so endless,
The habitation of apes and monkeys,
The mountains so high that the sun is hidden,
Wet with rain mists, the valleys so dark and dim.
Surrounded by these strange and exotic surroundings, the people of Chu seem to have adopted some native shaman beliefs and rituals, and became famous for their exuberant songs and dances. As far as most Chinese were concerned, Chu was the edge — or perhaps a little beyond the edge — of civilization. Confucius himself condemned the music of Chu as “lewd” and barbaric, in contrast to the more sober and conservative rituals of the Yellow Land.
In the short profile I wrote for The Atlantic, I mentioned that the central strategic position of the Crossroads never translated into political power. “Instead,” I wrote, “it has always been a zone of competition among its stronger neighbors, a place for their rival armies to march and fight.” For centuries that has been true, but it wasn’t a preordained outcome. Back in the 4th Century BC, when China was divided into a jumble of “warring states,” Chu’s command of the Yangtze, one of China’s great arteries of transport and communications, made it a prime contender in the competition to unite all of China under a single ruler. Its main rival was the state of Qin, centered around present-day Xi’an on the arid western edge of the Yellow Land. When contemporaries weighed the odds, most considered Chu the stronger of the two.
Qu Yuan (屈原), who composed the poem I quoted earlier, was a minister to the King of Chu around 300 BC, just as this struggle was reaching its climax. Devoted and honest, he strongly urged the king to form an alliance with other rival states to “contain” Qin, which he saw as the greatest threat. According to the story, corrupt and jealous rivals poisoned the king’s mind against Qu and he was exiled from court. He spent the rest of his life compiling his native land’s songs and poems into one of China’s greatest ancient classics, Songs of Chu, which included one of his own poems in which he bitterly laments his undeserved fate:
How well I know that loyalty brings disaster;
Yet I will persist; I cannot give it up.
I do not care, on my own account, about my exile,
But it grieves me to find the King so inconstant.
In later centuries, Qu Yuan became the model of the virtuous official in a corrupt world, punished for speaking honestly to men who had no wish to hear honest words:
Enough! There are no true men in the state: no one to understand me.
Why should I cleave to the place of my birth?
Since none is worthy of my service in making goverment good,
I will go and join Peng the Immortal in the place where he abides.
In 278 BC, when he received news that a Qin army had crushed Chu and captured its capital, Qu Yuan made good his promise to join Peng the Immortal. Carrying a heavy stone, he waded into a nearby Miluo River and threw himself in — whether in despair or solemn protest, we do not know. According to legend, his suicide became the origin of the Duanwu Festival. The dragon boat races that take place all over China, as well as in Chinese communities across Southeast Asia, supposedly reenact the local villagers who took to their boats in a desperate (and futile) attempt to rescue him. The zongzi (粽子) — packets of reed or bamboo leaves filled with glutinous rice — that people traditionally eat on the holiday are supposed to represent the rice those villagers sprinkled on the water where Qu disappeared, so that the fish would not eat his body (or, alternatively, gave as symbolic offerings for him to eat).
It took fifty more years for Qin to finally conquer Chu in 225 BC, but after the defeat that convinced Qu Yuan to end it all, Chu’s ultimate demise was pretty much a foregone conclusion (for those who watched the Jet Li film Hero, the assassins in the movie were natives of Chu seeking revenge against the Qin Emperor for the conquest of their homeland). Chu did make one final bid to recover its lost power after the Qin Dynasty collapsed in 206 BC, but was defeated by a former Qin vassal, the ruler of Han (another bit of trivia: the two sides in Chinese chess are traditionally called Han and Chu, after the rivals in that conflict, which you can see being reenacted every day in every park in China).
With his victory over Chu, the ruler of Han established the long-lived Han Dynasty, which went on to give its name to the Han Chinese ethnic group, which accounts for 92% of China’s population. The Yellow Land had prevailed, and remained — with the much later exception of the Metropolis — the capital of China up to the present day. Although Chu — the Crossroads — remained central to China’s story, never again did it make a viable bid to rule China on its own terms.
Or as Don Corleone might say: Qu Yuan sleeps with the fishes.