The best-known origin story of dragon boat racing is a folk legend about a Chinese statesman and poet by the name of Qu Yuan (c. 340-278 BC). Qu lived during a time in China’s history characterized by a collection of warring states rather than a unified kingdom.
A descendant of the royal house in the ancient state of Chu, Qu served as a government minister and, as a champion of political loyalty, was eager to preserve Chu autonomy in the shadow of the increasingly hegemonic Qin state. When the Chu king fell under the influence of other, corrupt ministers and decided to ally with Qin, Qu publicly criticized the alliance; for this, he was charged with treason and banished. During his exile, Qu travelled the countryside, collecting legends and writing poetry (producing some of the greatest poetry in Chinese literature, for which he is also remembered), expressing fervent love for his state and concern for its future. In the year 278 BC, Qu’s fears were realized when Qin conquered the Chu capital of Ying. Upon learning of this, Qu is said to have waded into the Miluo River holding a great rock in order to commit ritual suicide as a form of protest against the corruption of the day.
Folklore has it that the local people, who greatly admired Qu, rushed out on the water in their fishing boats and tried desperately to save him; they beat drums and splashed the water with their paddles in order to keep the fish and evil spirits from his body. Today, people still participate in dragon boat races during the Duanwu Festival to commemorate Qu Yuan.