The Dragon Boat Festival (Duan Wu Festival, 端午节) is considered one of the oldest traditional folk festivals in China, alongside the Spring Festival, Qingming Festival, and Mid-Autumn Festival.
According to records, the Dragon Boat Festival originated from the worship of celestial phenomena and evolved from ancient dragon rituals. The Dragon Boat Festival is an auspicious day associated with this imagery of a soaring dragon; thus, both dragons and dragon boat culture have always been an integral part of its historical legacy. The term "Duan Wu" itself first appeared in Fengtu Ji during the Jin Dynasty.
However, nowadays when most people mention the Dragon Boat Festival, they often associate it with Qu Yuan's legend. Legend has it that on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, Qu Yuan tragically sacrificed himself by plunging into Miluo River out of loyalty to his country. Upon hearing this news, local villagers rushed to their boats to rescue him. Worried about their speed not being fast enough, they vigorously rowed while also fearing that fish would devour Qu Yuan's body, hence throwing rice dumplings into the river.
Later on, people designated the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar as Duanwu festival (Dragon Boat festival) to commemorate Qu Yuan's sacrifice. The customs of racing dragon boats and eating zongzi gradually emerged over time. These related legends undoubtedly represent people's reverence and admiration for Qu Yuan but are inevitably tinged with romanticism. So what was Qu Yuan truly like? Today we will discuss his historical figure by combining information from film and television works.
Qu Yuan in film and television works
The portrayal of Qu Yuan in film and television is relatively limited compared to many other famous figures in Chinese history. There are two reasons for this: first, the character is well-known to everyone, making it challenging for actors to interpret; second, the complex historical background of the character poses difficulties for screenwriters. Nevertheless, there have been seven notable portrayals of Qu Yuan that have left a lasting impression on audiences. These portrayals cover his youth, middle age, and old age, encompassing different stages of his life.
First Portrayal: Classic Version
The 1975 film "Qu Yuan" was the first cinematic work that focused on Qu Yuan as its main character. Directed and acted by Hong Kong actor Bao Fang himself, it tells the story of how Qu Yuan lost his official position under the conspiracy of Zhang Yi, the prime minister of Qin State's Southern Court. Witnessing corruption and incompetence within the court but unable to change it, he ultimately embarked on a journey towards Hanbei after the death of his maid Chan Juan.
In this film, Bao Fang portrayed Qu Yuan's unwavering integrity and patriotic fervor with great depth and became an iconic image of Qu Yuan in the hearts of older generations. Speaking about Mr. Bao Fang will undoubtedly evoke memories from one particular role among viewers. He played Monk in TVB's 1997 adaptation of Jin Yong's novel "Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils," showcasing remarkable martial arts skills.
Second Portrayal: Romantic Version
The 1986 television drama "Qu Yuan" depicts Qu Yuan's story after being ostracized due to advising King Huai against harmful actions before leaving the capital city in exile; it highlights significant aspects when he was middle-aged and frustrated.
In this version, popular actors familiar to those born between 1960s-1980s, such as Zheng Shaoqiu, portrayed Qu Yuan. Given that Zheng Shaoqiu has played many charismatic and dashing male lead roles in other productions like Emperor Qianlong and Chu Liuxiang, the romantic aspect of Qu Yuan's story is emphasized.
Third Portrayal: Melancholic Version
The 1999 television drama "Qu Yuan" revolves around the relationship between Qu Yuan and King Huai of Qin State, portraying the story set in the final period of Chu State. Qu Yuan is portrayed by Jiang Kai, who has delivered remarkable performances in productions such as "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," "Colors of the Blind," "Eternal Love," and "The Rebel Princess."
Jiang Kai's portrayal of Qu Yuan exudes a composed temperament that aligns well with the historical image of Qu Yuan. The character experiences great ups and downs throughout the series, creating an overall atmosphere of melancholy that amplifies the sense of sadness within a known outcome.
Fourth Portrayal: Controversial Version
Actor Yang Zhigang once played Qu Yuan in the TV series "The Qin Empire." Although his role was not extensive, it sparked discussions among viewers. Some praised his performance for capturing Qu Yuan's stubborn arrogance and old-fashioned demeanor rarely seen before, while others felt that his portrayal resembled more like a powerful official than a romantic scholar. Regardless, it was evident that Yang Zhigang aimed to portray a vulnerable yet resilient, lofty yet intense version of Qu Yuan.
Fifth Portrayal: Elegant Version
Prior to the premiere of "Legend of Mi Yue," there were high expectations for Zu Feng's portrayal as Qu Yan. On one hand, his refined demeanor bore some resemblance to the poet-like image associated with Qu Yan; on another hand, Zu Feng is known for his excellent acting skills with numerous notable works under his belt. However, after its official release, reviews were generally mediocre despite public anticipation.
Many criticized the elaborate styling and overly organized personality depicted in this version diverged significantly from traditional depictions of Qu Yan, lacking fervent emotions. Perhaps this rendition intended to present an internally turbulent but restrained side to Qu Yan's character, inviting viewers to delve deeper into its subtleties.
Sixth and Seventh Portrayals
The drama "Song of Phoenix" tells the story of Qu Yan, born into a prestigious family, who falls in love with Mo Chou Nu, girl from the common folk. They become entangled in palace intrigues, power struggles, and national conflicts against tyrants and the privileged class. The overall style of the series is refreshing, portraying Qu Yan as a young handsome man.
Qu Yan is portrayed by two actors in this drama: Ma Ke plays the adult version while Yi Yangqianxi (Jackson Yee) plays the teenage version. It's worth mentioning that prior to this role, Jackson Yee had no formal acting training; however, his performance turned out to be vividly natural on screen. Combined with his delicate appearance, it brought a breath of fresh air to audiences.
Qu Yuan in History
Let's delve deeper into the historical figure of Qu Yuan after reviewing his portrayals in film and television. Qu Yuan was born around 340 BC and passed away in 278 BC. His family name was Mi, with the surname Qu, given name Ping and the courtesy name Yuan.
He was an outstanding statesman and the first great patriotic poet whose name has been recorded in Chinese literary history. During the time of pre-Qin China, men were referred to by their family names rather than surnames, hence he was called Qu Yuan instead of Mi Yuan. After the Wei and Jin dynasties, surnames merged into one entity, eliminating this distinction.
The family name Mi originated from Zhurong Shi within Huangdi's lineage system, with their ethnic group migrating to Chu territory during the Shang Dynasty. When King Cheng of Zhou ascended to the throne during the Zhou Dynasty, Xiong Yi from the Mi clan received a fiefdom from him and officially established Chu State as a vassal state. They resided in Danyang Zigui within Chu State which is present-day Zigui County in Yichang City, Hubei Province - Qu Yuan's birthplace. After Xiong Yi's passing, Xiong Tong succeeded him on the throne. Qu Yuan descended from Qu Xia, son of Xiong Tong; thus he truly belonged to nobility.
At any time throughout history, nobles enjoyed top-tier educational resources and Qu Yuan was no exception. Coupled with his keen intellectuality and young age marked by extensive knowledge and lofty aspirations. Consequently when he matured into adulthood successfully entered court service as an official while initially gaining significant trust from King Huai of Chu State. He held positions and overseeing both domestic affairs and diplomacy.
However, no one's life can always be smooth sailing. Later on, Qu Yuan, due to being marginalized and slandered by the aristocracy, was successively exiled to the northern region of Han and the Yunxiang River Valley. After the capital city of Chu, Yingdu, was conquered by the Qin army, Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo River as a sacrifice for his country. The above is an account of Qu Yuan's life. Let us now discuss his two identities in detail.
Firstly, let us talk about his identity as a statesman: In order to achieve the great cause of revitalizing Chu state, Qu Yuan actively assisted King Huai in implementing reforms domestically and advocated resolute alliance with Qi state against Qin externally. As a result of these efforts, Chu state experienced a period of both wealth and military strength.
His reform measures can be summarized as follows: Firstly, rewarding farming and warfare to give common people hope whether they engage in agriculture or participate in military campaigns; secondly, selecting talented individuals and honoring them while widely recruiting talents from all over; thirdly breaking down barriers between rulers and subjects so that communication between the king and common people could thrive; fourthly prohibiting cliques formed by nobles or old hereditary families through legal means; fifthly establishing clear rewards and punishments to constrain soldiers' actions according to strict laws; sixthly gradually improving negative practices within Chu state. These points have been meticulously studied by renowned experts on Chu history such as Tang Bingzheng.
Next let us discuss his identity as a poet: Qu Yuan is considered as the founder of Chinese romantic literature and representative writer of "Chu Ci", which marked a transition from classical elegance to romantic originality in Chinese poetry. Works like "Li Sao," "Jiu Ge," "Jiu Zhang," "Tian Wen," etc., are shining pearls throughout Chinese literary history and have had a profound influence on subsequent poetry.
These works are rich in imagination and their expressions are splendid. "Li Sao" extensively incorporates mythology, bringing together the elements of sun, moon, wind, and clouds into poetic verses which make the language dazzling.
Qu Yuan is also skilled at using various metaphors to express his thoughts. For example, he uses flowers and herbs as metaphors for noble conduct, while foul substances and weeds represent deceitful or treacherous individuals; wearing scented herbs symbolizes the poet's moral cultivation.
This creative technique creates a vivid contrast between loyalty and betrayal, beauty and ugliness, good and evil in reality. It produces concise yet infinite artistic effects where words seem to be exhausted while meaning remains boundless. Many literary figures that followed later learned from this approach. Moreover, Qu Yuan's spirit of seeking truth has been revered by future benevolent individuals with lofty aspirations.
In 1953, on the occasion of the 2,230th anniversary of Qu Yuan's passing away, the World Peace Council passed a resolution recognizing Qu Yuan as one of the world's four great cultural figures alongside Poland's Copernicus, France's François Rabelais, and Cuba's José Martí. This signifies that Qu Yuan’s influence has been acknowledged globally.