Ch’ü Yuan [屈原] was born around 340 B.C. to a noble family of the Chu people in the Yangze River (Chang Jiang) valley. He was a gifted scholar attaining a high position at court. A champion of political loyalty and truth, eager to maintain the Chu state’s sovereignty, he advocated a policy of alliance with the other kingdoms of the period against the state of Qin, which threatened to dominate them all. According to legend, the Chu king fell under the influence of corrupt, jealous ministers who slandered Ch’ü Yuan, and banished him. He spent much of his time in exile traveling the countryside, collecting legends and rearranging folk odes. He produced some of the greatest poetry in Chinese literature, expressing his fervent love for his state and his deep concern for its future. Anxiety brought him to an increasingly troubled state of health. During periods of depression, he would often take walks near a certain well, where he would look upon his reflection in the water and see himself, thin and gaunt. In the legend, this well became known as the “Face Reflection Well.” Today on a hillside in Xiangluping in Hubei province, there is a well considered to be the original from the time of Qu Yuan.
In 278 B.C.E., King Chu was captured, and the capital, Ying, was taken soon afterwards by General Bai Qi of the state of Qin. Upon receiving this news, Ch’ü Yuan is said to have written the lengthy poem of lamentation called “Lament for Ying”.
Ch’ü Yuan was already an old man of over sixty, and the fall of the Ch’u capital [the city of Ying] was the final blow to his patriotic fevour. Deeply depressed by events he waded into the Mi-lo 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 legend says that villagers carried their dumplings and boats to the middle of the river and desperately tried to save him, but were unsuccessful. In order to keep fish and evil spirits away from his body, they beat drums and splashed the water with their paddles. They threw rice into the water as a food offering to Ch’ü Yuan and to distract the fish away from his body. However, late one night, the spirit of Ch’ü Yuan appeared before his friends and told them that he had died because of a river dragon. He asked his friends to wrap their rice into three-cornered silk packages to ward off the dragon. These packages became a traditional food known as zongzi, although the lumps of rice are now wrapped in reed or bamboo leaves instead of silk. The act of racing to search for his body in boats gradually became the cultural tradition of dragon boat races, which are held on the anniversary of his death every year on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar.
People now traditionally throw bamboo leaves filled with cooked rice into the water. Therefore the fish could eat the rice rather than the hero poet. This explains the custom of eating tzungtzu and rice dumplings.